Learning Tarot Spreads

Learning Tarot Spreads

by Joan Bunning


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Each tarot reader has a unique style that they hone over time into the fine art of divining the future. In this essential guide to arranging cards into prophetic patterns, Joan Bunning has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of tarot spreads with great appeal for accomplished readers who want to explore further as well as novices with their very first deck. What sets Joan Bunning apart from every other writer on the subject of tarot is her ability to take a rather complicated esoteric system and break it down into manageable, clear, and easily learned parts. Chapters include spreads for relationships, family, love, money, health, work, and even specific time periods. Sample spreads are comprehensive, ranging from manycard "Gypsy" spreads to quick and easy "Three Card Draws." She also gives the reader reference charts, exercises and structured tarot lessons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578632701
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 02/01/2007
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 7.25(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Joan Bunning received her B.A. in Social Psychology from Cornell University and has worked as a writer, editor and computer programmer. Since 1995, her "Learning the Tarot" website has helped thousands of people worldwide discover the personal value of the tarot. She lives in Virginia with her husband, two sons and two dogs.

Read an Excerpt


By Joan Bunning

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2007 Joan Bunning
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-220-5



Our lives have two dimensions—the outer, based in the physical, and the inner, based in spirit. A tarot reading is a way to connect these two worlds. The cards exist in the physical, but they're also portals to the inner dimension, conveying meanings that exist on this deeper level.

When you do a reading, you show faith in life's meaning. You demonstrate your intent to know your world more completely. You consciously open yourself to the inner realm so its messages can be revealed.

What a wonderful and mysterious process! How can you best encourage it? How can you approach a tarot reading so the cards communicate their messages? In these lessons, we'll explore these questions.

Structure and Freedom

There's a tension between structure and freedom in many areas of the tarot. Should card meanings be fixed or fluid? Should a reading be formal or casual? Are rituals required? Readers often debate these questions about the best way to carry out a reading.

At a minimum, there must be a plan for selecting and examining the cards. This can be as simple as picking a few cards at random, or it can involve elaborate preparations and procedures. Most readers prefer an approach somewhere in the middle. They like having a procedure to follow, but not one that's too restrictive. They want to be free to improvise, but not in a vacuum. They just need a framework to guide and direct their intuition. This is the purpose of the tarot spread.

The Spread

A tarot spread is a predefined template or pattern that defines how to distribute and interpret the cards in a reading. A spread limits the scope of a reading for greater focus and clarity. It gives you a predictable way to enhance your intuition without stifling it. It adds structure to the otherwise free flow of a reading.

The basic unit of a spread is the position—a placeholder for one card. Figure 1 below shows a typical three-card spread pattern. The rectangles represent the three positions and their relationship. Figure 2 shows this spread as it might appear after cards have been drawn.

A spread is defined in four ways by its positions: total number, order of placement, location (spread shape), and meanings. Let's take a look at each in turn.

Number of Positions

A spread can have from one to seventy-eight positions—the number of cards in a standard tarot deck. Spreads can be divided roughly into three groups by size:

Small spreads—1–4 positions

Small spreads are easy to learn and use. They convey concise information directly. They're useful when you need a few basic insights quickly.

Medium spreads—5–19 positions

Medium spreads are quite varied. They take longer to learn and interpret, but they offer more detail. They're useful for looking at a single subject in depth.

Large spreads—20+ positions

Large spreads are not as useful as you might think. They can be unwieldy and difficult to grasp as a whole. Also, having so many cards tends to water down the value of each one. Still, large spreads can be revealing if carefully structured. They offer grand vistas you can study over time.

Order of Placement

It's impossible to place every card in a spread at the same time, so an order of placement is necessary. In figure 3, card #1 would be placed first, card #2 would be second, and card #3 third. Placement order is important because meaning grows as cards appear. Your impression of a reading develops as each new card is drawn.

The first position is key. Card #1 is the opening chord of a symphony. It sets the tone, especially when it's isolated or in the center. The positions that follow build up the body of a spread. The last card often shows an outcome or result, summing up the earlier cards.

Spread Shape

The shape of a spread is determined by the relationship of its positions. In theory, a spread can take any shape, but most have a recognizable design such as a line, a triangle, or a circle. These shapes can also appear within a spread as subgroups of cards. In lesson 3, we'll discuss spread shapes in more detail.

Position Meanings

Each position in a spread has its own individual meaning assigned when the spread is created. This is arguably the most important—and most fascinating—aspect of any spread. In the next lesson, we'll look at how position and card meanings interact to deepen the message of a reading.


Structure and Freedom

Spend some time thinking about structure and freedom. Become aware of the interplay of these two energies in your life. As you go about your affairs, notice what you and others do to create structure or freedom. Consider these questions:

* What is the purpose of structure?

* When do people value structure, and when freedom?

* How does it feel when there's too much of either?

* How much structure do I need in my life?

* Does my preference change with circumstances?

How many positions?

1. Take your tarot deck in your hand. Turn over the top card and place it face up anywhere in front of you. Note the card and its meaning to you.

2. Turn over the next card, and place it in any random spot. Note the meaning of this card and its relation to the first. Continue in this way, trying to keep all the cards vividly connected in your mind.

3. Watch your comfort level as you go. Keeping mental track of a few cards is easy, but it gets harder as you continue. At some point, did you start losing your "grasp" of all the cards?

4. Repeat the exercise, but this time, put the cards into some kind of order as you go. Use any guiding principle—for instance, organizing by number or suit. Notice how this practice eases the way and aids understanding. How many cards can you place when there is structure?

Order of Placement

1. Choose a large spread to work with from the Spread Shapes section (see pages 158–160).

2. Using your tarot deck, recreate the pattern of your chosen spread as quickly as possible. Place the cards in front of you in whatever order occurs to you spontaneously. Don't worry about the cards or their meanings. Do this before reading on.

3. Think about the order you used when placing your cards. What guided your choices? Were you aware of those principles at the time? Did you start on one side or in the middle? Did you go clockwise or counterclockwise? How did you handle opposite positions? Your choices reflect your natural order preferences.

4. Repeat this exercise with a different shape. Be sure to place cards quickly to bypass your conscious mind.



Imagine showing a picture of yourself to a friend. You're smiling in the picture, but there's no clue as to why. Now imagine showing your friend the same picture, but this time in a frame labeled "My first day at work." Suddenly, the picture takes on new meaning. Your friend now knows why you're smiling. The label tells her how to interpret your mood.

In a tarot spread, positions act like labeled frames. A frame is a holder with an empty place for a picture. A position is a holder with an empty place for a card. The meaning of each position comes from its "label." This meaning affects whatever card falls in that position during a reading. It provides a context for the card—a frame of reference.

The Ace of Cups can symbolize love. In a position labeled "What I desire," the Ace of Cups implies a desire for love. In a position labeled "What I fear," this same card shows the opposite—a fear of love. In both cases, the card meaning is the same, but the implication is different. In a frame labeled "My last day at work," your smile takes on a whole new meaning!

Positions are the building blocks of spreads. Each position/card combination creates a unique message that blends their meanings. These messages, in turn, combine to form the meaning of a spread as a whole.

Popular Spread Positions

Traditionally, the positions in a spread are defined by its creator. During my research for this book, I explored hundreds of spreads designed by many card readers. I saw unique and unusual positions, but also many repetitions. Gradually, I began to think of positions as having a life of their own, independent of any spread. I realized it would be possible to study them individually, just as we do tarot cards. I decided to keep track of popular positions and work up a detailed definition for each.

The result is the Position Reference on page 73—a collection of twenty-eight positions for use in spreads. Each position has a name, description, keywords, and interpretation hints. The positions are divided into two main groups—subjects and qualities.

Subject Positions

Subjects are people, situations, and other topics of interest in tarot readings. In the reference section, there are three positions used to represent different kinds of subjects in a reading—main, related, and potential. Each one has the same basic meaning. It stands for a subject's central or key issue. In my research, I found this type of position to be the most popular by far. It goes by many names, such as heart of the matter, essence, and main theme. It's found in nearly all spreads because it's so useful. We always want to know what is most essential about ourselves, other people, and situations.

Quality Positions

Quality positions describe the status or condition of a subject. Most are defined in opposite pairs with each position representing one side of a quality. For example, the enduring and temporary positions go together. They are opposites in length of time. In the enduring position, the Hermit suggests solitude is long lasting; in temporary, that it's short-term.

In our dualistic world, whenever we name a certain quality, we always imply its opposite. Hot implies cold. Dark suggests light. This pattern is true for tarot cards, so it makes sense that it's true for positions as well.

There are two positions in the quality group that are not paired. The environment position describes the atmosphere around a subject. It shows what is other than the subject. The potential quality position identifies a quality as yet unexpressed.

Guidance Position

The guidance position is unique. The subject and quality positions are what I call "factors." A factor position tells you what is true and real at the time of a reading. It's objective in that it describes how something is, for better or worse. The guidance position is more subjective. It offers personal commentary—a point of view or way of looking at what's involved. I expand on the difference between factors and guidance in lesson 8.

The Position Reference is a foundation for you to build on. Some positions may be familiar from spreads you use now. Others may be new. Feel free to adjust this collection to suit your personal tarot style. For now, though, the positions in the Reference give us a common language to use throughout this book. I'll refer to them often in the lessons to come.


Position Reference Study

1. Take a few moments to become familiar with the Position Reference. There are entries for subject, quality, and guidance positions.

2. Choose one quality position to examine in detail. Read through the description of your position and its keywords. Note the opposite position if there is one, and read its description as well. Think about how the two positions reflect opposing views. Ignore the flex-spread entry for now.

3. Glance briefly through the accompanying table. This material will become more meaningful later. Right now, your goal is simply to get an overview of what's available for each position. You don't need to study or memorize anything in depth.

Positions in Your Favorite Spreads

Think about the positions in a spread you use now, or one from a tarot book. Compare the positions in your spread with those in the Position Reference. Are any similar? How close are the meanings? What are the differences? My matches for the Celtic Cross spread are in Appendix A (see page 161). Use this exercise to help you begin customizing the reference section to your own tarot practice.



A tarot spread has two levels of meaning. The first comes from the individual positions, as we learned in the last lesson. The second comes from the overall design of the spread. In this lesson, we'll take a look at these spread shapes.

A spread's shape comes from the arrangement of its positions. If the spread's shape is familiar, it's easy to learn and remember. If the positions are random, the spread makes little sense. Structure conveys order and meaning.

Design Principles

Most spread patterns follow four design principles: symmetry, spacing, repetition, and orientation.


Symmetry is balance among parts. Most spreads use symmetry for beauty and harmony. Positions often mirror each other. Even–numbered spreads tend to be solid and regular—every position has its counterpart. Odd–numbered spreads are more dynamic—the lone position creates tension.


The space between positions is usually uniform. The exception is the use of a wider margin to define a lone position or group of positions. In figure 4 on page 16 the single position in the center is set off by the extra space around it.


Positions are often repeated for balance and uniformity. A spread about two people may have two duplicate sets of cards—one for each person. In figure 4 the 3–card groups to each side are duplicates.


The orientation of a card shows whether it's upright or reversed. In a vertical position, a card's orientation is obvious. If a position is angled or horizontal, the situation is not so clear. You must decide beforehand how to interpret these cases. Any decision is fine as long as you're consistent from reading to reading.

Spread Patterns

Sacred geometry is the "art of using geometric forms as a gateway to the knowledge and presence of the living spirit." Certain archetypal patterns have the ability, in and of themselves, to open us to deeper levels. A spread in one of these shapes resonates with the universal meaning of that form. Below are some common shapes and their meanings. Each is a spread pattern in its own right, but also a possible element within a larger layout.


A solitary position announces "I'm special." In the center of a spread, it shows central importance—a hub of interest. To the side, it shows a unique stance. A single can be at the end of a line to show where all the other positions are leading. It can also be a bridge between two position groups, as in figure 4.


A pair consists of two positions that belong together. They can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, or crossed. A pair creates a two–sided dynamic. It shows two similar or opposing qualities. Position pairs are always interpreted in relation to each other.


A line is three or more cards in a row—horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. A line can mean "interpret us as a group"—all the positions in the line refer to the same subject. Sometimes a line shows direction, such as the flow of time. In this case, cards for the past are traditionally placed on the left, cards for the present in the center, and cards for the future on the right. Arrows are lines that highlight direction (page 158). A line can also show cause (left) moving toward effect (right). The horseshoe is a line bent into a curve (page 158). It can show the rise and fall of energies or the impact of two influences meeting in the center.


A cross is made up of two perpendicular lines. The simplest form has positions in the four directions: north, south, east, and west, with a fifth position in the center as a point of integration (see Greek Cross on page 156). A cross can be extended in any direction with extra positions. The arms of a cross can be the same length or different lengths (see Roman Cross on page 157). The "T" and "L" shapes are variations of the cross lacking one or more arms.


A grid is a set of lines grouped together in a square or rectangle. Usually, each line is defined as a unit with the meaning of each position fixed by its row and column. The spread in figure 5 on the next page compares three people over time. The middle position shows "mom" in the "present." The lower right position shows "dad" in the "future." Grid spreads are quite versatile. You can create many variations by changing the line definitions.


A triangle is a group of three positions. One simple type has two cards on the bottom and one on top. The two "combine" to create the third, which is their sum or integration. Another triangle has one position on the bottom and two on top. This shape shows two developments arising from the same root (page 154). The "V" shape is an extension with extra positions. The pyramid is an expanded triangle with additional lines. Each line has one more position than the line before (page 157).

Excerpted from LEARNING TAROT SPREADS by Joan Bunning. Copyright © 2007 Joan Bunning. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Preface     ix
Introduction     1
Lessons and Exercises
The Spread     5
Position Meanings     11
Spread Shapes     15
Subjects     23
The Flex Spread     27
Qualities     33
Related Subjects     39
Guidance     47
Planning a Layout     53
Serial Readings     59
Variations     63
Reading for Others     65
Positions, Layouts, and Spread Shapes
Position Reference     73
Sample Flex-Spread Layouts     143
Spread Shapes     153
Exercise Answer Key     161
Areas of Life and Time Periods     167
Card Meanings     169
Flex-Spread Reading Procedure     173
Flex-Spread Worksheet     175
Bibliography     177
About the Author     181

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