Time: Quality Vs. Quantity

That might sound like a very, very boring title. But in fact I think within it is a discussion rich with possibilities, as it regards the magic of tarot and other divinatory practices like astrology.

The inspiration for this post comes from a book I’ve yet to find in English, which was originally published in German and which I read in Italian (!!) and is called Il Destino Come Scelta by Thorwald Dethlefsen (originally published in 1986 under the German title “Schicksal Als Chance”). Dethlefsen is a German psychiatrist and psychoanalyst whose work is grounded in hypnosis, past-life regression therapy and esoteric psychology.

Dethlefsen has written extensively about the law of polarity, fundamentally that everything has an opposite pole to counterbalance it. One of the ideas from this book that has stuck with me since the first time I read it, and made a profound impact, is his assertion (in the context of astrology) that time also necessarily follows the law of polarity. This isn’t original to Dethlefsen, of course, as the concept is probably as old as time itself, but his discussion of the concept was the first time I’d ran across it. Time, while usually measured as a quantitative phenomenon (how much), also has a qualitative function (the nature of the moment itself, rather than the quantity).

In astrology, this is seen in the phenomenon of the birth chart, drawn up as a mandala representing the quality of the particular moment in which a person takes his or her first breath. By examining and delineating the quality of that moment, and holding to the belief as well that everything contains both its beginning and end (ie, seed also contains fully grown tree), one can determine the characteristics of the soul incarnated into body, and its mission for that particular incarnation.

While this might seem like a stretch to some, to me it makes a lot of sense, because divinatory practices seek to give information about the quality of a moment in time, rather than simply report what time it is. In that sense, we can see oracles as giving us information about what a moment holds within itself, rather than simply how much time is held within a moment or its relative position in time (past, present, future).

Now, how does this come back to tarot? Well, one question I often get asked by those who are skeptical of the value of tarot as a practice, is: “But if you did another reading on the same question, immediately after, you’d get different cards. So, how is that worthwhile, then?”

Statistically speaking, yes, if you do two readings in a row on the same question, generally you will come up with different cards. It would be highly unusual to have the exact same cards in the exact same positions two times in a row in a random draw one after the other. Miguel has also commented on this in some of his writing. Also, I’ve known tarot novices and professionals alike who have fallen prey to “not accepting” the cards that came up in response to a particular question (especially when reading for themselves), and so deciding to draw different cards immediately after, seeking a “better” or more agreeable response. Sometimes querents will also ask me, “Has enough time passed between now and my last reading, in order to do another reading on the same question?”

So, I find this concept of quality vs. quantity quite relevant, when it comes to tarot.

My answer usually to querents is that it’s not necessarily important how much time has passed (ie, quantity) so much as what has happened in the time that has passed (quality, events). Have any actions taken place that might change the outcome? Something could happen in the span of mere hours between one reading and another that potentially changes everything. One moment is never qualitatively exactly the same as the next, and even “a moment” is a concept open to definition.

To illustrate this, I’ll offer a practical example from my work.

The querent wanted to know about her budding relationship with a potential partner. I generally have a more or less standard 5-card layout that I find works well for this type of inquiry, which comes up a lot in my practice:

1-Querent in relationship, their intentions, how they view the partnership
2-Other/partner in relationship, their intentions, how they view the querent/partnership
3-Querent and partner together
4-Potential near future outcome
5-Advice and guidance, what querent should do now

Here was the first 5-card spread:


She’s pouring her heart out, he’s smug as the cat who ate the canary. Hmm.


Together there needs to be some balance, impartiality, truth needs to surface, no glossing over the facts or letting emotions cloud judgement. Potential outcome: negative thoughts or objective facts that break hearts. The truth cuts through the emotional longing, and it hurts.


Advice to the querent? Own it. Speak your truth, don’t mince words, and get over the feelings enough to be able to communicate clearly and coherently, even if it means heartbreak.

Yeah, not so fun.

The next day the querent came back to say that she had spent some time thinking things over, and examined rationally rather than emotionally what she really wanted for herself in terms of relationships, and then followed the Queen of Swords model by voicing her truths to the partner, even if it meant that they’d have to go separate ways due to differing needs or views.

Simply out of curiosity, and to test out this quality vs. quantity idea, I decided to pull 5 more cards, even though less than 24 hours had passed. How would the story potentially change, now that the advice had been followed? How was the quality of the moment altered?

Here are the querent and partner in the second spread:


Now that’s quite an energy shift. Not only are the two more on the same page (same suit, and symmetry of the wands themselves), but now we’re in a suit of fiery passion, and some even say love affairs. Robert Place in his book The Tarot calls the Ace of Wands the beginning of an enterprise or a love affair, and curiously, also calls the Page of Wands the beginning of an enterprise. While I wouldn’t necessarily attribute the Ace of Wands myself to a love affair necessarily, I would certainly point out that the energy of the wands has a vibrant charisma, magnetism, and creative energy pulsing through it at full intensity. Also, from a purely visual standpoint, look how interesting things have gotten now. The querent is the Ace of Wands, and the Page is clutching that wand in his hands, looking up at it admiringly. It’s as if the querent and partner have merged into the same card.


Together now they’re shown as the Knight of Pentacles, a beacon of stability and steadfast loyalty. The most interesting change from the first reading, however, in my opinion, is the 3 of Swords becoming the 3 of Cups. Numerically it’s the same, but from a standpoint of suits, rational thought that caused heartache is now emotional feeling being toasted and celebrated in abundance. Perhaps the act of clarifying thoughts and needs and getting those truths out into the open transformed the situation to one in which the two people involved were able to find a way to harmonize their emotional needs.


And now, rather than the no-nonsense words of the Queen of Swords, the querent is being advised to take the “soft control” hands-on approach of the Strength card. Gentle, soft persuasion in order to move forward, and, in another bit from Robert Place that I like: “self-mastery through love.”

I think these two spreads serve to show that yes, of course two readings on the same question won’t turn up the same cards, no matter how closely or far apart in time they’re performed.

What we can ponder and keep in mind when working with divinatory systems is that time has a very tangible yet unseen quality to it, and that is precisely what we’re seeking to learn more about and reveal with whatever system we employ. Tarot then could be seen almost like a “watch” measuring the quality of a moment, or perhaps we could call it the energies of that moment, rather than the hour and minute assigned to it.

In conclusion, and returning to Dethlefsen, he counters the argument that certain divinatory systems are less “scientific” than others, for example, that astrology is more “accurate” somehow because it requires precise mathematical calculations while tarot doesn’t. To paraphrase Dethlefsen: “All mantic systems operate on the same principle, only the points of reference change. The value of one practice over another depends entirely on how well the person using the practice is able to translate observations from one plane of reference (the birth chart, the tarot spread) to another plane (delineation, interpretation, reading). That’s why there are infinitely more untrustworthy practitioners than there are trustworthy practitioners in general, and this has nothing to do with whether they are practicing astrology or tarot.”

In this way, we can see tarot not only as a divinatory practice, but as an actual initiatory practice in which the individual grows in self-knowledge, and in so doing, knowledge of the divine nature of the world itself and everything it contains. That “all in all” is what the quality of time can teach us about.