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Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads

This is no book of ready-made spreads, but instead a much-needed explanation of the principles and inspiration of tarot spread design.

By Teresa Michelsen

Book - Published by Llewellyn


Review by Tom LeBlanc, CTC

It is not at all uncommon for novice and seasoned readers alike to find themselves fettered by spreads that do not fit the issues at hand. Often, the solution is to go forth and learn new spreads, forged by other, "more qualified" Tarot experts in the hope that these new designs will fit their needs. Unfortunately, these pre-prepared spreads are often unsatisfying. Frequently, they offer too little information to be of significant help, or are so expansive that they quickly become confusing.

The prospect of designing one’s own spreads, however, appears audacious and is viewed as a sort of taboo by many readers. Always bemused by this belief, I had aimed to construct an article with the purpose of providing a framework and guidelines for the guilt- and grandiosity-free production of one’s own Tarot spreads. Although I still intend to write that article one day, it seems that Theresa Michelsen has not only beaten me to it, but has done so in a much better fashion than I had dared.

I ran across her book while doing research for my article and was immediately drawn by her simple, straight-forward writing style and short, punchy chapters. This book is immediately comprehensible and decidedly unpoetic. In short, Michelsen has devised a cookbook capable of liberating even the neophyte Tarot practitioner from the trepidation inherent in spread design.

This is hardly surprising. Michelsen, a Certified Tarot Master (CTM) is a rather well-known Tarot reader and teacher who has been involved with the American Tarot Association (ATA) for quite some time. Well-published on the internet on the topic, she has helped many new and seasoned practitioners expand their horizons.

This text, part of the Special Topic in Tarot series from Llewellyn, is a rather short (156 pages), 16 chapter book divided into two parts. Of particular benefit to the reader, Michelsen ends each chapter with a series of exercises that help the would-be spread designer practice the principles that he or she had ust read.

The first part of the book, “Fundamentals of Spread Design” devotes itself to describing the principles of planning and designing a new spread. In her section regarding the influences that question phrasing may have on spread design, she tackles the tricky issues of problematic questions (e.g., vague, multiple, and contingency questions). She also discusses issues that influence the size of the spread, such as proposed pattern, time consumption, cost (for those who charge “per card”) and amount of information needed. Michelsen then details the process of defining the positions of the cards and discusses means of dealing with commonly associated difficulties, such as incorporating reversals and including timing positions in your spreads.

She also provides useful guidelines in deciding on the spatial design of your new spread and including special cards. This section is particularly helpful, not regarding the subject of spread design, but to the subject of choosing a signifcator. Michelsen details several methods of significator selection. She also describes the use of adding positions to your spread such as 'question', 'comment', or 'bias' cards, each with their unique contribution to your spread. Once all of this is decided Michelsen, naturally, rounds out the section by confronting the concerns involved in placing and reading the cards (such as choosing the order of the layout).

Although I was particularly enthralled by her detailed-yet-simple treatment of spread design foundations, most readers will likely enjoy part 2 of this book, "Inspirations for Spread Design" moreso. In this section, Michelsen details the use and construction of a variety of spread types, illustrating each with examples of similarly constructed spreads. She seems to target spreads for the most common Tarot queries and details the techniques used to design spreads for just such occasions.

For example, Michelsen rightly noted that most queries posed to Tarot readers involve relationships. As such, she demonstrates the construction of various types of relationship spread, including "mirror spreads", which are often helpful in exploring both sides of a relationship. The creation of practical spreads, such as career, finances, and general life changes are explored as well as decision-making spreads for specific (e.g., choosing the best university) to more general choice situations are explored.

Of course, Michelsen explores the construction of psychological spreads (which, thankfully, seem to be directed more toward understanding oneself, rather than diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders), spiritual spreads (e.g., the famous "tree of life" as well as some very nice spreads aimed toward past-life reading), as well as spreads for special occasions (such as birthdays, weddings, and holidays). I appreciated most, however, her treatment of the spread request that I have found most problematic: The predictive spread. Michelsen offers concrete suggestions and tips on how to handle that which is put to you by those querants who insist that you "tell the future" and provides advice that very well may have you creating a spread that will satisfy them.

Some readers, however, may find Michelsen’s work overly simplified. The direct, intuitive process by which she organizes and presents her material that I had enjoyed so much may turn some readers off as dull or too easy. Further, although the examples peppered throughout the book were extremely useful, it may have been helpful for Michelsen to expand on them a touch more in the first section, "Fundamentals of Spread Design."

In sum, Theresa Michelsen’s "Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads" is a grand resource for the seasoned reader and is easily comprehensible by the novice. It is virtually guaranteed to help widen the repetoire of any reader who seeks a bit of diversity in his or her practice. I hope to see more from this author in the future.

While learning to read Tarot as a young child, Tom LeBlanc had no idea what role Tarot would one day play in his life. Having grown up providing readings to family and friends, he took his trusty deck to college and discovered that he could partially support himself by reading for others. Now a Certified Tarot Consultant with over 25 years experience, a Ph.D. in Psychology, Tom enjoys providing occasional readings in addition to writing. Tom is currently involved in designing a Tarot Certification course for the College of the Sacred Mists.


Review by Sandra A. Thomson

Llewellyn's Special Topics in Tarot series has made another important contribution to Tarot work with Teresa Michelsen's new book. Some of the most frequent questions new-and sometimes not so new-Tarot readers ask are:

"Where do you get your spreads?"
"How do you know which spreads to use?"
"Do you know any good books on spreads?"

No more do they need worry. Dr. Michelsen's book answers those questions beautifully and thoroughly, plus many more. Unlike other books that simply present a series of spreads, the first half of the 156-page book focuses on the fundamentals of spread design. Michelsen begins by defining the five basic components or building blocks of a Tarot spread: the question, the number of cards to be used, their spatial arrangement or pattern, the meaning of the card positions, and the order in which the cards will be displayed and read.

The subsequent seven chapters address each of these components in detail. Each chapter includes exercises to help hone the ideas presented in the chapter. The book is also filled with examples of spreads to demonstrate the particular topics being discussed.

Particularly interesting, and usually only partially discussed in other spread books, if at all, is the chapter on ways to choose significator cards and how to use other "special" cards that "stand outside" the reading but may add additional or special information to a reading. This is much more than the usual "clarification" card.

The second half of the Michelsen book contains nine chapters on the sources or inspirations for designing spreads based on frequently asked questions, important patterns and rituals, and inspiration from other spreads. After reading this book and working through its exercises, it's likely that never again will you be satisfied with using the Celtic Cross spread as the most appropriate, or easiest, spread available for your readings. Even if the Celtic Cross spread remains your spread of choice, Michelsen encourages you to think of ways you can modify it to make it more your own, or to fit the particular question for which you are seeking an answer.

Michelsen also covers the tricky issues of predictive and yes/no questions. She and I differ considerably on the way to handle these issues, but for me the chapter will have served its purpose if it causes you to think about how you are going to deal with yes/no and time frame questions, and spreads you can develop to handle them. Yes, Virginia, there are spreads beyond a three-card (one upright, two reversed, etc.) yes/no spread, and Michelsen gives some excellent ideas for expanding on the situation.

Note this is not an elementary book defining the meaning of cards or explaining which deck(s) to use. You are expected already to know those things, or be learning them in some way. This is an advanced series, after all, and Michelsen's purpose is to expand your Tarot reading skills so that you may read for your querents in a much more personal way than ever before.

This book is a distinct, unique, and much needed addition to Tarot literature, and I am delighted to see its publication. As for the next few students who try to tell me the best spread is something akin to Past, Present, Future, or whine that they don't know what spread to use. . .well. . .they may find themselves wearing the lovely green and gray cover of this innovative book. Or, in a more thoughtful and gentle moment, perhaps I'll simply recommend they buy the book, and save myself assault charges. Thank goodness Michelsen wrote this powerful book, to enlighten Tarot readers worldwide. . .and to save me from a life of crime.

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads is presented as part of Llewellyn Publications "Special Topics In Tarot" series. In her foreword, Mary Greer very succinctly puts into words exactly what place this topic has in the Tarot world. She reminds us that a Tarot reading flows from the coming together of three things: the question asked, the meaning of the spread positions, and the meaning of the cards occupying the positions. What makes this book stand out is that the focus is on designing spreads that will answer specific questions. On a very practical level, this empowers the reader to create a tool (their spread) that best serves both reader and Seeker.

The spreads that Michelson covers in Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads are broken down into two different styles: predictive (those that ask for a specific answer), and facultative. While attempting to remain neutral on the validity of both styles, there is a definite feeling that the facultative spreads are more empowering for the Seeker. My feeling here is that if both styles were going to be presented, they should both have been presented for what they are. I find this important, as there is quite a division within the Tarot world as to whether predictive readings should be done at all.

In her introduction, Michelson does a nice job of focusing on what this book can do for all readers: "(1) Modify existing spreads to make them more personal, (2) Create spreads that you can reuse for common questions you may encounter, and (3) Develop custom spreads that are specific to individual clients and their questions. Michelson comes from a background of professional reading - on the Internet, by e-mail, and by phone. She also has a highly respected Internet site, with lessons, articles and information on individual Tarot cards.

The book is divided into two sections: the first section deals with the fundamental elements of spread design, the second section includes a discussion of themes and general types of spreads that can be modified to each individual readers style. From the book:

Part 1: Fundamentals of Spread Design

Chapter One - Elements of a Tarot Spread
Chapter Two - Defining the Question
Chapter Three - Layout Size
Chapter Four - Position Definitions
Chapter Five - Spatial Design
Chapter Six - Significators and other Special Cards
Chapter Seven - Placing and Reading the Cards

Part 2: Inspirations For Spread Design

Chapter Eight - Sources of Inspiration
Chapter Nine - Multipurpose Spreads
Chapter Ten - Love and Relationship Spreads
Chapter Eleven - Practical Spreads
Chapter Twelve - Alternatives and Decision Spreads
Chapter Thirteen - Predictive Spreads
Chapter Fourteen - Psychological and Interactive Spreads
Chapter Fifteen - Spiritual and Metaphysical Spreads
Chapter Sixteen - Special Occasion Spreads

Michelson defines the basic elements of a Tarot spread as:

* A question or topic area
* The number of cards to be dealt
* The spatial arrangement of the cards
* The meaning of the card positions
* The order in which they will be laid and read

She adds the following elements that can be used in a spread, if the reader wishes:


* Special constraints on how the cards will be placed or read
* Additional cards that are not part of the main spread but add to it in some way

Throughout the book, various spreads are used as examples, including some that are well known, such as the Astrological Spread, and the Celtic Cross Spread; and some that will be new to most readers, such as the Internet Romance Spread, the Businessman's Dillema Spread, the Whole Person Spread (based on the chakras), the Tree of Life/Relationship Analysis Spread, the Elemental Square Spread (this is a five card spread, including the element of Spirit), and the Wiccan Tetrakys Spread.

Each chapter also includes exercises that allow the reader to actively work with the information presented in that chapter. (My problem here is that some of the exercises presented do not have enough background in the chapter to make them easily understandable. An example of this would be exercises on rephrasing, which include questions such as "When will I finally meet a man who will love and marry me?" and "I really need to know if my husband is having an affair!" The questions are excellent - as readers we hear them all the time. I would like to have seen Michelson give one or two examples herself of how to proceed here.)

Issues that Michelson brings up, but does not adequately cover, are things such as each reader developing their own code of ethics, rephrasing questions and how and where to draw the line at the types of questions asked (such as health, financial and legal related issues).

Overall, I found Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads to be wordy, and at times lacking in depth. It is, however, well organized and well presented. It is an important book/resource for developing your own Tarot spreads. While it could have been better presented, there is a heart in this book that makes it an excellent tool for personal growth and empowerment.

© Bonnie Cehovet

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.



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