Tarot spreads come in all shapes and sizes. You can deal just one or two cards, or cover your table in so many that you can’t see the wood grain any longer. And the most popular is probably the Celtic Cross, popularized by Arthur Edward Waite in his books he wrote to accompany the tarot he made with Pamela Colman Smith (I won’t swear that he invented it; I suspect I’ve seen similar in some other writers he knew, but it’s still absolutely true Waite is the inflection point for that spread hitting culture more generally).
Now, the thing is, Waite wrote a lot of books. And, come to that, poems, short stories, and essays. I’ve got a nice little indie publication of a few of his essays on tarot, and in one he provides a spread, or well, when you see it you’ll see why it’s debatable that’s the correct word, in one he talks about a spread, a way to read the cards, that caught my attention. What’s interesting about it is how much it looks like folk traditions of fortune-telling by cards, rather than really polished, instagrammable "spread."
My post is in two parts, then. In the first, I want to tell you about the way Waite says to read cards. And in the second, I want to talk some about how that looks like folk traditions, at least insofar as they were recorded in Europe generally in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Book of the Secret Word and the Higher Way to Fortune
Yes, that’s the title of the essay. It was in A Manual of Cartomancy, a book Waite wrote in the early 20th century and published under the pseudonym "Grand Orient." He wrote under a variety of names. The traditional explanation I’ve heard is that Waite wanted to be taken seriously, like dead seriously, and when he also wanted to explore things he thought were more frivolous, he used a false name. That’s probably true. But honestly, I think there’s a fairly interesting con going on here, nothing sinister, but in that weird sense that occultists are always having you on, even when they’re not.
See, sometimes, Waite would write under his own name and refer to the books he wrote under a pseudonym. In another essay in this little collection, Waite writes
the publishers of The Occult Review have recently issued a certain Manual of Cartomancy … which gives one of the modes of operation among a hundred and one curosities for the delectation of people with occult predispositions and perhaps some intuitive faculties. The writer of this Manual, who has sufficient grace in his heart to speak of trifles only with becoming seriousness and of grave things as if he knew that strange worlds lie occasionally behind them, has included in his budget of paradoxes a long and recollected section on this very subject of the Tarot. 
That’s his own book he’s writing about. Waite, it should be remembered, believed popular fiction was a vehicle for spiritual growth (though he did also believe it was for people who weren’t smart or educated enough for the real thing, to be fair). Waite’s weird, is what I want you to get out of this. Everyone thinks he’s this stuffy Victorian, and sure, yeah, he is, but he’s also odd.
And one of his oddities is that no matter how much he kept saying that tarot was for spiritual enlightenment and the Holy Grail, he also kept telling people how to perform fortune-telling with it.
Now, in Secret Word, Waite, writing as Grand Orient, does two interesting things with the tarot. First, he says the "major arcana" (the trumps) can all be read in three ways, depending on the question: basically, pragmatic, religious, and spiritual. So you can ask tarot cards how to get a job or whether you should switch religions, for instance. He provides short meanings for each card in each of the three modes. He ends that section by saying you can eventually read all three at the same time, but it’s a bit of a feat. And that’s definitely true, of course.
The second thing Waite does is provide some case studies, some readings. It’s unclear if he’s making them up or if he really read these for people. And he proceeds to list every single card, by number value, until he’s listed every trump but the Fool (which he sets to the side to indicate the querent). That’s a lot of cards. Most spreads you get nowadays aren’t going to have you use 22 cards, even if they include the entire deck. Damn.
Of course, since the cards indicate universals (that’s the argument anyway, right?), they should all be present in a person’s life all the time. So shouldn’t they all be on the table? It’s the arrangement, not the presence or absence, that Waite is looking at here.
And that’s where Waite’s method looks like traditional fortune-telling.
In Donald Tyson’s book Essential Tarot Writings you can read a handful of essays, from the 18th and 19th centuries, on how to do fortune-telling with cards. This isn’t directly related to tarot, but Tyson includes them because they clearly influenced tarot writers like Waite. The basic method didn’t change much between the essays, and in fact Tyson points out that some obviously plagiarize from others, so in essence every essay is adding small changes and innovations to the same method.
What you would do is deal out all the cards in rows, and then read combinations of cards, particularly those surrounding significators. So the querent might be a light-haired woman, and so the reader would search out the queen of a red suit and look for what was around it. They would also look for the first cards, and cards on the corners, and other particularly important positions or individual cards. The 2 of Hearts is the "wish" card and its disposition indicates whether the querent’s desire will come to pass, a bit like looking to the Moon in a horary question — the chart is still the chart, and the cards are still the cards, but look first to the Moon, or the 2 of Hearts.
If you’re familiar with Lenormand tableaux this will sound famliar, because it seems as though Lenormand was developed in part to help simplify this traditional method.
What’s interesting from an analytical point of view is that the traditional method hinges not on positions in a "spread" but on the relationships between the cards, though there are "spread" positions as well. Waite’s method, then, is obviously an attempt to recreate this context-sensitive reading with the tarot trumps.
Last note on how to do this
If you’re like me, you want to give this a try. I do not know if Waite’s use of triplets is an innovation of sorts because he’s only got 22 cards to work with, all in a single line, or if there’s a tradition that was doing that, instead of basic pairs. But either way, Waite has you using triplets, though in a way they’re just two pairs (and, in that sense, something I have seen before, in modern Lenormand methods that have you deal three cards, or look at three cards in a tableau).
Waite does use reversals here, as opposed to his more formal Golden Dawn influenced writing in which he uses dignity instead.
Pick out a card that indicates something. Waite doesn’t really talk about how to do this, so to get started, just look for the most obvious card. If you’re thinking of how to deal with a bad situation, look for the Tower and the cards next to it. The card on the left and the Tower make a pair, and the card to the right will make another pair with the Tower.
Waite does seem to use the first few cards to figure out the main theme, and then to scan the rest of the cards for related pairs. He determines, in his first case study, that marriage is the apparent solution to the querent’s problem, because the Empress is the first card and Judgment near the end indicate a big change — an important woman and a big change can add up to marriage, right? 
We might say, then, that in general, begin by looking at the first card and the final card or triplet to determine the overall indication of the reading, and then scan the cards for obvious connections before going systematically through and reading each triplet in turn.
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