Seeing Into The Emptiness

For the Marseille reader, backgrounds are a bore. Everything’s white / whitish. In some cards, like the Moon or the Tower, have a nice background, with buildings, hills, lakes and whatever else graces the cards. Others, have some elements, usually hills, plants, water, things like that. But in all of them, when you look at the beyond the central figure, you face the white. In some, like La Force or L’ermit, white is all there is, and you either focus on the figure in front of you, or you’re faced with the emptiness around it.

Now I like the white space in the Marseille cards. In an age where every image is saturated with color and detail, it’s wonderful to rest your eyes in something that matters  instead of having to fight your way through a ton of meaningless embellishments. After all, less is more and even though your sight is as keen as a lion’s, all that cutting down will soon dull your sight’s sharpness.

When dealing with the whole 78 cards of the Marseille deck, this white space is important, specially when reading the pips: do the objects have enough room to breath or are they crammed together? Can you devise a path between the coins / cups / spades or clubs or are they placed in a random order? All cues matter here and as with any other language, silence (or emptyness) is there to let you know when one thing ends and another starts.

If you’re just using the majors, chances are that all this emptiness won’t bother you. If you’re like me, you will take a cue from the remaining cards and assume that, unless otherwise noted, all the scenes before you are played outside. But like anything else in the cards, assumptions can be misleading and you should be careful, else you find yourself in the woods, with no light to guide you back.

It all starts with a question

Yesterday, I had a message in my facebook wall. A woman had met what she thought was a promising man and wanted to know how she should handle this. She was concerned because she had made some choices there weren’t that good and she didn’t want to tread that path again.

She was even more concerned, because as a seasoned tarot reader, she’s not used to not be able to read for herself, lucky her. After all, staring at yourself takes a lot, as you need to be detached from everything that connects you to the subject of your reading in order to fully understand what the cards are trying to say to you.

Time to bring out the swords

You can take this from a fully-pledged Thothite: ‘nothing beats the Marseille when what you want is instant clarity.’ There! I’ve said it. It’s really all in the whiteness: the lesser elements you have before you to consider, the better. Your eyes can cut to the chase and reveal the bones beneath in a snap.

My client gave me two concerns, so two spreads were in order: one about her future with this new acquaintance and a second one relating to her lack of vision. This meant that two spreads were in order.

What lies ahead for this woman and her new acquaintance?

The central line was clear enough: the meeting was pleasant and the two were in sync. There’s a good possibility that things might develop into something more, specially with this guy being represented by the gallant King of Cups. And yet… That Empress doesn’t seem too impressed! She’s looking away from the King of Cups and, even worse, her shield is facing our new guy. She’s leaning forward, trying to reach something, so an additional sight card was drawn: the Hermit.

My first reading of this additional card was a classic one: there’s something else at play here. Is she actually ready to let go of the loneliness or is she waiting for someone that has become absent? Questions, questions!!! And this card becomes even more important once you realize that the whole spread is directing your gaze to the Hermit. Surely this is the gist of the matter! But more on this latter.

Given the situation, what she should do was simple: she should open up to the new guy just enough to figure out how comfortable she was with him. If you look at Queen of Batons you will notice that the shield that the Empress has is gone. And more than that, the scepter the Empress held changed hands and is now leaning towards the King of Cups. You will also notice how the eyes are shut and the baton rests on her shoulder: there’s no need to remain alert anymore: things are good as they are. But she’s also facing that Hermit, so nothing’s really resolved. It’s more of a compromise than anything else: “be opened to what comes in, but don’t let go of your stuff.

This idea is also corroborated with the Judgement card in the don’t position: “don’t blast your way in.” Again, things should be taken softly and without too many waves. Roll along quietly instead of making any sudden calls.

Why can’t she read the cards about this matter?

These are interesting cards. The three-card spread would suggest good things, but as  La Force, below, indicated, it’s all about letting go. The 2 of Swords then, can be seen as this bubble she built around herself. There’s still enough room there for her to grow and develop, but what about what comes from the outside? Well, no matter how many flowers there are, it’s still not enough. Look at how the outside flowers are small when compared to what grows inside this bubble. The fear then, is that this situation might break this bubble. The central flower dulls and wanes as all those coins come into play. They might be good, but they sure feel like they’re too much to handle. And with that Judgement blasting in at full force, you can be sure that her bubble will pop!

The Hermit and Danger of Words

When she got back to me after the reading, her thoughts were on this bubble as related by the 2 of Swords. According to her, ‘I don’t really know what that “prison” is, however. I don’t consciously feel it so it’s hard to say.’

‘Well, it’s all in the cards’, I think… and I go back to that first spread and again my eyes stop at the Hermit.

Now, as tarot readers, we’re “educated” into seeing the usual concepts of loneliness and abandonment in the Hermit. “it’s the hermit, the one that leaves everything to pursue its goal of enlightenment”. All fair and good. But that really doesn’t play in here. There’s something else… Something important in the card, that only the Hermit can point to. And, as usual, something so clear and blunt it’s staring in your face, but you’re just too close to see it.

But all there is pictured there is this monk holding a lantern! There’s nothing else except that damned monk and its little light. And it hits me with the full might of a lion’s paw: ‘it’s the monk! That’s the thing about this card.’

The card is called “The Hermit”, but in the end, “Hermit” is just a word. And words have no business in cards, other than to facilitate the transmission of knowledge to the client. I should be hit 30 times for getting stuck in a word. ‘Loose the words, keep the pictures’, should be the motto of every card reader.

So, if you forget about the card’s name, everything becomes clear: like the hermit, a monk will withdraw from society to pursue its goals; but unlike hermits, monks live in monasteries. It’s normal for them to walk down shadowy corridors holding their light up to see the path ahead. And, unlike the free life of hermits, life in a monastery is all about routines: there are fixed times to pray, chores to do, etc etc.

Now routine is something that agrees with the story at hand: as we settle in our routines, we tend to see them as comfortable / safe / predictable. And when something comes to disrupt this routine, we might look at it wondering if all this commotion is actually worth the trouble of leaving the security of our little bubble for the uncertainty that waits outside. The more stable out life is, the less we’re inclined to change it to accommodate all the novelties that might come our way.

Thus, in this reading, the Hermit stands for the contentment that arises from routine. What this woman has is enough for her, or so she thinks. In this light, the QB in the “do” and the Judgement in the “don’t” make perfect sense. She should let down her shield (see how the shield in the Empress rhymes with the space delineated by the two swords in the following question) and allow him to come closer, but not change her routine over this. The fact that the new guy is represented got the KC as him is a good thing: he’s experienced (as opposed to Jack and Knight) and he knows what he wants. So you can allow yourself to relax a little and see what happens, while going about your stuff.

Her “prison” then it’s the routine she settled into: the way she’s comfortable with how things are. As the 2 of Swords indicates, this barrier she erected for herself works for her: the flower inside grows and blossoms. It defines her space and how content she is with it, as well as how ready she is to come outside.
Loose the Words, Keep the Pictures
In the end, it all really boils down to this little mantra. ‘Loose the Words, keep the pictures’. Words might feel safer, but it’s all an illusion. In reality, they have a way of sticking to you and soil things out. Pictures, on the other hand, will always point you out in the right direction. They are there for everyone to see. As tarot readers, we are asked to “see”, not “read”. Even that name, “tarot readers”, is misleading. Maybe we should be called “tarot seers” and just to keep looking at the pretty pictures wonder what might be hiding in there.
When it comes to interpret pictures, everything can be useful; even a white background. Specially a white background. By forcing you to look at what really matters and loose all that doesn’t, that empty space is your best protection against all the noise that might creep in.

Tarot deck: Der Lombardische Tarot

Reading with the Thoth deck

As a self-taught reader, I remained unaware of the weight the Thoth deck carries for a very long time. It was my first deck and, for several years, the only one I used to read cards. My reading skills developed gradually, over time, first by trying to apprehend what the hell Crowley wanted to say when he described the cards; then by taking a more visual approach and finally, by developing a personal set of rules, somewhere in between what Crowley had pointed out, with things I picked up from various sources (whether tarot-related or not) and instinct / inspiration or whatever you want to call it.

My first clue about the way many people regard the deck came when I heard about the U.S. System version which had the three Magus versions. At the time, I tried to buy the deck here in Oporto, at a tarot shop. Obviously, the shop didn’t have it. The attendant was extremely nice and said that even though they didn’t had it, I could order it and they would find a copy. A later visit, several weeks later, the same attendant informed me that the owner thought the deck a “devilish one” and didn’t want to have anything to do with it, so they would not even try to hunt a pack down.

Fast forward a few years. The year is now 2011. I was attending my first Tarot Convention, mainly wanting to see just how good my reading skills were. A convention seemed like a good idea, as it would present me with different people with different skills and would allow me to somewhat measure my progress since the early days of “if I don’t know what to say about the Strength card, then it’s probably someone born under the Leo sign” type of thinking.

During that event, either at the sessions or at social gatherings, I could always register some astonishment or surprise because I was using a Thoth deck. Something that I would counter with “well it’s just a deck” type of response to which I would get “yeah.. but it’s Thoth!…”

Well, yes, it was Thoth. It was also my deck and I had already passed that stage of “how can I read it?” I then spent a good amount of my time there giving people some pointers on to how they could approach the deck. Was it really necessary to know all the Cabalistic / esoteric / astrological meanings? Could it be approached in simpler terms? Where do we start looking? and with such intricate images, what should we value the most?

When I started, I read the Crowley book about the deck. At the time, all that stayed present was the astrological attributions and a few meanings per card. I didn’t have a system and all that mystical talk about Sephiroths, visions, mythology or insights like the Naples arrangement seemed so out there that they didn’t really register.

Eventually I decided that any of that wasn’t for me, and so I went for the only thing that remained: the images. The first and main reason for me to buy the deck in the first place. Again, my reasoning was simple: If this was the way the cards were supposed to look like, then everything I need to know is right there, in some level or another. This was complemented with another notion that was that the bigger the symbol, the more importance it has in the overall reading. So the Charriot card was, at the time, obviously about cars and means of transportation or travels. Of changing places. But then, there were the sphinxes, each pointing to different sides and I would think about indecision, paralysis, struggle, or the lack of ability of the driver to actually conduct such a vehicle. Or… maybe it was about that Cancer person, when nothing else could felt right.

The Magician was about this young kid who was always on a wire juggling things. Playing with possibilities, not much caring about what could come out of it. But then, there was that monkey who could fly like Superman, but was headed straight for the kid, as if to throw him off balance. Not that it should matter, as the kid possessed some nice wings on his feet, so the wire thing was probably show off.


In time, and with hundreds of readings, my ability to read cards became refined. I would start to notice other things, and to relate some cards with others. Little by little, I ended up encountering so many texts about Cabala and its relationship with tarot, those concepts became more understandable. But I never diverged from this picture analyzing path.

In fact, I still hold the belief that anyone can read with the Thoth deck without any knowledge of any type of matter other than the usual image analysis skills. Does this means that any of the mystical things Crowley keeps mentioning doesn’t matter? No, it doesn’t. It just means that you don’t need that system to work with the cards. Arthur Koestler, in his book “Sleepwalkers” points out that even though we thought the Earth revolved around the Sun and didn’t know the actual movement of the planets and stars, that didn’t stop us to use stars as guides to travel around the Globe. To put it in another way, we don’t have to know how things actually work to be able to extract meaningful information and act upon it. In fact we never know if the systems that we use do indeed correspond to the actual events that we see. We just know that it’s the best system that we could find that can explain said events. However powerful the cabalistic system might be, it’s still just a system. A map, if you will, of how the Universe might function. Other people, other cultures might have other views which are just as valid.

Getting back to the Thoth deck, it means that whether you use what Crowley left us as he intended or you use it in your own way, you can still extract information from it. As an example, here’s a reading I recently made to a woman who wanted to know if her sister’s boyfriend was betraying her. Here, I purposely used only image analysis techniques and not anything else.

Three cards were drawn: the Ace of Clubs, The Hierophant and the Ten of Cups:

2014-01-23 19.31.36

It is evident from the very first card (the Ace of Clubs) that he is betraying her. In fact, this card is so affirmative, with its phallic club cracking with energy, that we wonder why do we need any additional cards.

But more surprising is the presence of the Hierophant in the middle, as we’re dealing not with a relationship, but with a betrayal of said relationship. In fact this card has such a strong pull that it immediately becomes the center of the whole reading, as it seems to suggest that such betrayals are not only known, but permitted. How so? Well, the card represents a pope. Someone “appointed” by God itself to be its agent on Earth. Someone whose sole job is to point out and enforce the Divine teachings. A pope can then represent a guide. Someone who is there to advise you on how to act. In this particular case, this interpretation is reinforced by the presence of the 10 of Cups, aptly titled “Satisfaction”, where we see 10 cups, laid in such a harmonious way that one can get the idea that the relationship doesn’t suffer because of the guy’s betrayals. This is also reinforced by the water that comes forth from the cups. As if everything is bright and shinning, no matter how you look at it.

But then the question arises of why doesn’t this situation seem to bother the querent’s sister. It certainly does bother the querent enough that she has to ask about it. And again, the answer lies in the Hierophant card, since it is the only card with human figures. There’s the obvious pope, which fills the whole card, and then, right at his feet, there’s a woman in blue. Both seem in harmony with each other, as can be seen by the diamond that connects the woman heart to the pope’s heart.

However, the difference in sizes is too obvious to miss. It is not so difficult to see the querent’s sister as the woman and her boyfriend as the pope. Some obvious signs would include the halo around the pope’s head which is positioned at the same level as the center of red cloud in the 10 of Cups, from which sheds all the water of this relationship or top of the Ace of Clubs. The woman’s size is just enough for her to fill the lower part of the Ace of Clubs and the lower cups, thereby suggesting that even though she is content with what she gets from him, he certainly is not.

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The cards seem to suggest that he seeks more, sexually speaking, than what she is willing to offer. And so, he simply accepts this and goes to find what he craves elsewhere. As for her part, she seems content in being by her side. In being there for him whenever he needs. In a sense, in being the base from which he can grow. This is something that the querent agreed on, at the time. She described her sister as someone quiet and more interested in maintaining a relationship than it actually living it to the fullest. As putting her boyfriend in a pedestal and being pleased with just his company.

And if this fulfills her, why would she look for anything else? Why would she look for the energy and activity that comes forth from the Ace of Clubs? She doesn’t need to and, even though he still has to find sexual fulfillment elsewhere, this relationship still provides a stability and a sense of well being that makes the guy want to keep it going.

Crowley’s tarot deck might have complex imagery. You might be aware of all the things Crowley wanted to include in the deck and feel a little frightened about the amount of information that you have to work with. However, it’s also true that the cards can function at various levels. And that even if you don’t want to work with all the things Crowley did work, you can still use the deck to have insightful readings.

A simple way to work with it is simply noticing the first thing that you see and try to figure out why you see it. It might be a card or a detail in a card. Chances are that’s the most important thing and where most of the answer lies. That is your point of entry to the story at hand. You then just have to pull that thread and see where it leads you. In this case, the whole reading came forth by noting the Ace of Clubs (the answer to the question the querent asked) and then the Hierophant (the answer to the question the querent really wanted to know). Then it was just a matter of pattern matching and looking at the same positions of each card to find out what could be said.

That said, if you know Cabala, you’d recognize the pattern in the Ace of Clubs and the 10 of Cups as the Tree of Life. And that the woman’s size amounts more or less to the distance between Malkuth (The Kingdom, or Earth) and Yesod (Foundation, the sphere of the moon, where dreams and illusions, which form the basis of our reality, lie). However, we managed to get to similar conclusions without it.

Designing Your Own Three Card Reading

I always find it interesting to ask tarot readers their opinions on “spreads.” There are so many books that deal just with different sorts of tarot spreads. I do think that examining these books can be useful for creativity and giving us some options or tableaux that we can present our clients with to give them some choices that will spark their minds into honing in on what information they want to gather from their reading. At the same time, in my own practice I’ve never used books or pre-designed “spreads” other than the classic Celtic Cross, when someone wants a general overall read of a moment in time or their current situation.

I enjoy designing custom three-card spreads with individual positional meanings when I read for clients. It’s nice for me to be able to help a client transform a rather simple “yes/no” question into something multi-faceted that can provide more than a yes or no, and give deeper insights and suggestions.

As an example of this practice, I’ll choose a personal situation that I can ask the cards about. I have my first public reading event coming up this Saturday evening, so I can take this to the cards and see what resources I can draw upon to make the event a success, or what factors to be particularly aware of as I approach my event.

I decide to create a 3-card spread with these questions:

Card 1: What do I need to know or be aware of about this event?
Card 2: Advice/guidance
Card 3: Most likely outcome

The cards that come up are the following:


I like to approach the interpretation of these readings from two angles. The first one is by looking at the spread and cards holistically, looking at the images without too much regard right off the bat for each card’s individual question/meaning, but rather getting a first impression for how the cards interact and the energies that present themselves. I especially like to notice how the characters are interacting (or not), and the attitudes that are reflected in their body positioning. I lay the cards out from left to right 1 – 2 – 3, even though here they aren’t displayed in a line.

Here we see a man fighting hard at first to stay on top. He’s in a sort of defensive posture, and ready to prove himself to anyone that wants to knock him down. He wants to show that he’s “got what it takes” to stay on his feet amidst competition and possible conflict. Jumping across the second card (because with two figures it’s quite different than the others), I look at the contrast of this first card with the third, the confident and calm King of Swords. This king has clearly won his battles, and now rules with a firm hand, calm demeanor, and no-nonsense approach. The reason I specify no-nonsense is because his “airy” mental and intellectual “kingdom” doesn’t contain a lot of frivolous decoration or embellishments (think Queen of Pentacles, for example, and the lavish richness and abundance of the way that card is filled to the borders and spilling over, with details and colors). Here it’s as if the young man in the first card has in fact proven himself to be worthy of sitting on the throne. This king also represents clear thinking and straightforward speech, without deception or trickery. Then in the middle we see a meeting, the actual event itself, where two people come together for a common purpose on an emotional or “heart” or personal level, on equal footing, for an exchange.

Here you can see that we can already draw quite a bit of meaning and insights from the images themselves, without even getting into the specific context or frames of the positional meanings.

Moving then to the individual questions and positions, we can interpret the narrative on a second level. In the first card, the man in the 7 of Wands seems to be fighting hard, so what I need to know or be aware of is that I’ll most likely be trying to “prove myself” in this event, and also differentiate myself in order to rise above the competition. That makes sense to me because here in Rome I’m not aware of anyone who reads the tarot with my approach, and unfortunately there’s quite a strong climate of charlatan-like stench surrounding the practice of tarot. Therefore, I do feel a bit on my guard and defensive, because I don’t want to be lumped among the random “Madam Zelda” types who use tarot in a way that takes advantage of people.

In fact, this leads nicely into the advice/guidance of the second card, which is in fact my heart’s intention for this event. My biggest desire for this event is that I be able to connect with people on a meaningful level, even if the readings are short sessions of 20 minutes. I want people to be engaged in the process of looking at the images, and allow them to make contributions, participate in constructing their narrative, and feel that the reading process is an equal exchange of heart and information, and not a hierarchy of active reader “telling” the querent something while he or she passively sits back and listens. The advice here is to have a caring approach and meet people where they’re at.

The most likely outcome then, shows the King of Swords, the bringer of truth and no bullshit. That’s nice to see as the outcome because it shows that the event will be seen as a professional one and not something frivolous or ridiculous. Truth be told, he almost looks a bit “too” serious for me, as I do want people to enjoy their readings and feel lighthearted about the tarot, but this card here shows that my dedication to helping give tarot a “clean” image is likely to be one of the results of this first event.

I’ll follow up next week with actual details of how the event goes!

Your thoughts about these cards, and any further ideas or interpretations? Please share in the comments section!