The Celtic Cross is Kind of Terrible

photoWhen I got my first tarot deck, The Unicorn Tarot, it came with a little white book (LWB) that listed vague keywords for each card, the usual bullshit history about the totally ancient art of divination with tarot, and instructions on performing a reading with the ubiquitous Celtic Cross spread.

I tell you what, I poured over that tiny fucking book, pulling it out every two seconds and trying to make sense of lines like, “The spiritual unicorn reminds us of our spiritual selves!” and “He has awakened to his higher self, as we all must learn to do, given time.” (Hint: I couldn’t make sense of these sentences as a teenager because they don’t actually mean anything in real life.) I diligently (not to mention ultra-spiritually) laid out cards in that ten-card pattern, only to be immediately overwhelmed by New Age buzzwords and really terrible unicorn pictures.

Being a no0b, I did what most people who buy tarot decks do: I assumed the problem was with me and I put my cards away, because, clearly, I just wasn’t cut out to work with tarot.

The problem wasn’t me. The problem wasn’t even really my heinous teenaged taste in art. The problem was that the Celtic Cross is a poor place to start for anyone, and doesn’t even make much sense further down the road.

Near as anyone can tell, the Celtic Cross comes out of the assorted Golden Dawn materials and was propagated (if not totally invented) by A.E. Waite in the early 20th century. Waite was super into the Holy Grail/Celtic religion thing and was, like many of his colleagues, invested in demonstrating how there was a great deal of commonality in the various schools of occult thought, intersecting with ancient religions, etc., etc. Nobody at the time was really above making weak claims as to the antiquity of assorted pieces of occult wisdom, and the Celtic Cross just sort of gently leached into the magical water supply as the tarot’s popularity grew.

Whatever the Celtic Cross is, it is most surely neither ancient nor Celtic.

But even if it were, it would still be a crappy spread for beginners (and maybe anyone). I say this because it’s just a hell of a lot of information. Ten positions, plus ten individual card interpretations, plus whatever connections you make as a reader is just a lot of opportunity for overload. Especially when any one card provides so much detail that it could, essentially, answer any question. Whether you’re an intuitive reader or you rely on an esoteric system, there’s a ton to say about any single card. A beginner, especially one relying on a LWB, does not need ten of them. In fact, most of the professionals I know don’t need ten of them.

I very rarely use spreads that involve more than five or six cards. My favorite spreads involve three or less. I think it’s a mistake to assume that “more complicated question” automatically equates to “more cards.” Just consider how much has been written about any one card (including the minors). Consider the level of detail in each image (at least, the ones that come out of the Golden Dawn tradition, which is most of them). Consider the possible permutations for interpretation available in the combination of any two or three cards.

Less is more. Less often ensures a greater level of clarity. Less is fewer opportunities for confusion or conflict. Less is further safeguard against just reading whatever you want into a spread.

Don’t believe me? Try answering a complicated question with a single card. Pull out every detail and every bit of tradition attached to that card. I think most people would be surprised.

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7 thoughts on “The Celtic Cross is Kind of Terrible

  1. Steve

    I mostly agree. I don’t use it often but I do use it. I have zero belief in it’s antiquity and it doesn’t surprise me that Waite likely invented it. In general, I really dislike LWB’s too but some can useful.

    I did use it as I learned. Complicated, but the good thing was that it gave me more exposure to a greater number of cards. It can be informative too but, as I moved along, I’ve mainly used two cards–sometimes 5. People being read seem to like the Celtic Cross because that’s what they’re familiar with. And I’ve had really good readings using it.

    If I am using more than 5 cards, it’s generally for a “one off” or a specific spread (like the astrology spread). Another larger spread I like for choices is the 15 card Crowley/ Golden Dawn spread. On the other extreme, I was read by a very good reader who used all the cards but focused on seemingly arbitrary cards as questions arose. Paul Huson mentions

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  2. Raven

    Totally agree with you here. My first deck was the Rider-Waite and it came with one of those LWB. Being a new reader, of course I was referring to it every two seconds and trying to make sense of it. I carried ti everywhere with me trying to study the meanings of the various cards that way (though when I went to read later I still found I had to refer to the LWB). Of couse the Celtic Cross was mentioned. I tried to use it and was immediately overwhelmed. Even now, years later, and being slightly more familiar with the card meanings, I still find it to be…eh. I don’t like it, and it still seems like way too much.

    Question: do you create your own spreads, or do you use ones already created?

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    1. thornthewitch Post author

      I usually create my own! It’s fun, it’s easier to be more specific, and you can concoct things unique to your own situations (for example, check out Beth over at http://www.littleredtarot.com who has recently been posting some cool spreads just for folks in poly relationships, and whom I think you would just totally dig because of general badassery).

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  3. Miss Honey Bare

    Ugh, this! Thank you! I am currently re-learning tarot after a 13 year break and have been using Joan Bunning’s ‘Learning the Tarot’. The only spread she uses as an example is the Celtic Cross and I am struggling a bit because it’s just a bit too much. I am now drawing a single card every couple of days and journalling about it and I’m finding this a better approach for myself with regards to learning meanings and developing my own ideas about the cards.

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  4. benebell

    The Celtic Cross was the first spread I learned and, for the first maybe 5 years of my tarot practice the only spread I used. I am by no means an exception. This was during a time when anybody learning tarot was learning it on the CC and reading pretty much only with the CC.

    I’m glad tarot pedagogy has shifted in recent years and that is no longer the case. In many ways, the Celtic Cross was like a tarot gatekeeper, testing to see who was willing to take up the gauntlet and really learn tarot. However, that idea is just stupid. The more the merrier. (I’m full of clichés today. So sorry.)

    The same way law students learn a bunch of antiquated laws they will never use or apply, I do teach the Celtic Cross to beginners. My observation has been that while it is kind of a terrible spread for many tarot practitioners, enough love it to pieces that I am affirmed to continue teaching it.

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  5. Chani@tarotmore

    This is really great advice! I’ve used the Celtic Cross, & was never a fan. However, I love Rachel Pollack’s Alternate Major Arcana spread, & that uses all 22 cards! So I think number of cards boils down to personal preference. This reminds me of how people are encouraged to use clarifiers sparingly. Generally, I agree, but one of the “perks” of being an intuitive reader is “I read however the fuck I want”- meaning I’m allowed to develop my own style of reading, lol. So there used to be times when I would pull 4-5 clarifiers, but I might look at them as a collective whole, eg- “there’s a bunch of wands, so this is confirming that Wands issue.”

    Still, “less is more” is a good practice. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    PS- I don’t ever remember thinking the problem was me. I always figured it was the crap booklet. n_n

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