Tarot cards never mean exactly the same thing twice. Although there is a more or less agreed-upon set of meanings for the cards, a card's interpretation is modified by its position, the question asked, the surrounding cards, even the deck used, and whatever is in the reader's mind.
[A version of this post was first published on SynTAROTis.]
Surrounding cards can shift the meaning of a card. To see what I mean, look at how I interpret this spread, using the Bohemian Gothic Tarot from Magic Realist Press.
This reading has no particular question or focus, other than “tell me what I need to know about my circumstances.”
The spread positions and cards I drew for them are:
- Around me (Two of Pentacles, reversed)
- Below me (The Moon, reversed)
- Above me (Eight of Wands)
- Behind me (Seven of Wands)
- Before me (The Devil, reversed)
It looks like this (I turned the reversed cards upright so you can see them clearly):
At first glance, the number of reversals in this spread (three of the five cards), suggests difficulties, delays, or blockages, creating a feeling of frustration. This interpretation is reinforced by other cards in the spread that suggest frustration and hard work. The Two of Pentacles is about juggling many things; the Seven of Wands is an active defence against something, taking a stand; the Eight of Wands points to swiftly moving events or “too many irons in the fire.” Even the Devil suggests a struggle against being restricted, bound, and hampered.
In all, the cards seem to suggest that a difficult time lies ahead.
Reversals can also point to breakthroughs, however, so I keep both possibilities in mind.
The Two of Pentacles is a card of balancing or juggling, keeping many things up in the air. Upright, the card suggests the balance is maintained. The card has an element of festivity or fun, even in the Bohemian Gothic deck, with the young lady striking a jaunty, self-confident pose next to her “penny-farthing” bicycle.
However, this is not the safest of bicycle designs: the penny-farthing was known for pitching its rider headfirst over the handlebars.
The card has a carnival (and slightly sinister) feel to it, reinforced by the sign in the background: “Dr Caligari’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” Dr Caligari was the protagonist in a 1920s horror film “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,” while the “cabinet of curiosities” refers to a room filled with wonders. These “cabinets,” popular in Renaissance Europe, displayed fascinating objects from nature, art, and religion.
Reversed, the book meanings of the Two of Pentacles include juggling too many things at once—the wheels are coming off; an imbalance or a shift in the balance; a need to take a break; a loss of confidence; or a simulated enjoyment, a false sense of festivity.
Which of these meanings should apply? Is the festive feeling overshadowed by the more sinister elements, or is the “danger” the exhilarating fear of carnivals and horror movies?
I leave this card for now and move on to the second card.
"Below me" refers to the unconscious, the foundation or root of the situation.
The Moon is about dreams, illusions, imagination and intuition. In reversal, the upright meanings are either strengthened or diminished, I'm not sure which.
I am also reminded that carnivals and horror movies (the Two of Pentacles) can depend on illusion, imagination and self-deception for effect.
Again I'm wondering: is the danger real, or is it the thrill of a horror movie?
“Above me” is a blessing or the best of the situation.
The Eight of Wands shows gargoyles flinging themselves at a statue. The landscape is threatening, and the statue seems to be on the verge of being overcome.
But I also notice that as decorative elements, the gargoyles have not actually moved, suggesting that the fear might be unfounded.
The statue has not moved either: even in its terror it stays on its pedestal.
The tableau indicates fear, but in reality the danger might not be as great as it seems. Could this card point to illusory danger? This is not a traditional view of the Eight of Wands, but it seems to be right for this reading.
The Eight of Wands now influence the reading of the first two cards. The girl of the Two of Pentacles reversed fell off her bike, but although it hurts, she will be okay. Read in the context of the Eight of Wands, the Moon whispers of danger, but more specifically of self-deception and nightmares; in other words, the Eight of Wands now suggests the Moon reversed has lost some of its terror.
The “Behind me” position refers to the recent past, to something that is waning but is still influencing the current situation. The Seven of Wands is the “defence” card. It can be interpreted as taking a courageous stance, fighting against the odds, or being on the defensive.
However, the defender is well protected and does not seem to need much force to fend off the attack.
So again, the danger is not as great as it seems. It is there, but it can be managed.
The sense of having broken through restrictions is reinforced by the card in the “Before me” position: the Devil reversed.
The Devil card is associated with bondage, which can be that of sin, obsession, or addiction. Reversed, the card can point to either breaking free from the chains that bind, or to an intensification of those bonds. In the light of the story so far, I interpret this reversed card as “breaking free.”
An overview of the reading
The spread tells the story of a difficult situation that is not as bad as it seems. The danger does exist, but things are not as bad as I feared.
The key to interpreting the cards is in the Eight of Wands. This card influences all cards in the spread.
Finally, the spread suggests I have the qualities needed to get through this period: the skill of the Two of Pentacles, the creative imagination of the Moon, the courage and determination of the Seven of Wands, the swift but secure actions of the Eight of Wands, and the sense of fun and mischief that is the best of the Devil.
There is even a suggestion that, despite difficulties, some fun lies ahead.