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Tarot Hermeneutics

Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot

The Illusion Spread

The Illusion Spread is an example of approaching text interpretations with the serendipity of random card draws. James Ricklef developed the process. His book Tarot Tells the Tale: Explore Three Card Readings Through Familiar Stories (Llewellyn Publications) demonstrates learning to read tarot by adapting stories and characters to the power of the manifold three card spread. The following example was provided by Mary K. Greer and is used with permission.

Mary has more information on this technique on her blog of May 14, 2008. There she discusses the Definition Spread as selecting an important word's meaning and selecting cards at random to elucidate it. By extension the process seems similar to Rachel Pollock's Wisdom Readings. My application to more complex and varied writings is a development of these practices.

Mary reflects (personal communication): "The interesting thing about using a favorite quote is that first you can explore the deeper meaning of the quote itself and then you can draw cards to see how the elements of that quote apply to your own life. Picking cards face-up for the first part can be equally as elucidating."

As I understand the Illusion spread, once the text is identified, the reader underlines key ideas in the passage that become spread positions. Then cards are drawn at random to complete the layout. The cards are read as commentary on the text. Now for Mary's example:


The Illusion Spread:

With a Wisdom Reading (ala Rachel Pollack)

by Mary K. Greer – 6/2004

This spread is based on using the key ideas from a significant quote that you would like to explore, either to understand it more deeply or to see how it applies to your own life. Underlined concepts become the spread positions. (Thanks to James Ricklef from whom I first learned this technique.) 

“We are seeing span class="style2">imprinted on the world outside the qualities that would satisfy our basic longings. The qualities are actually not there; we project them. . . . So the illusory nature of the world is better understood as the projection of our longing. . . . The longings are essentially emotional. They are there because at our very core we have a fear. This is the fear of mortality. . . . Everything that we do in an unexamined life is an attempt to cover up that basic fear of death.”  — Mu Soeng, Director, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, in an interview by Richard Smoley, “The Real and the Mirage,”Parabola, 29:2, Summer, 2004.

  1. We (I) see imprinted (projected)                High Priestess
  2. on the world outside (or on others)                    Judgment
  3. the qualities                                   Ace of Cups Reversed
  4. that would satisfy                      Five of Swords Reversed
  5. Our (my) basic longings (emotions).           Five of Wands
  6. At our (my) very core                                          Empress
  7. we (I) have a fear (of mortality).           Five of Pentacles

Deck used: Roots of Asia Tarot

  1. We see the High Priestess as the wisdom, memories, and images from the unconscious that, as the Moon reflects the projected light of the Sun (self) when all else is dark, projects memories, images, and intuitive wisdom . . .
  2. onto awakened and liberated Beings who we feel (have judged to) have shed their limitations. [Synchronistically, Judgment is numbered 20, which reduces to 2, the High Priestess).
  3. We project on them, the quality of pouring down from above the Ace of Cups Reversed’s gifts of love and emotional nurturance on us . . . (this is especially apparent in this particular deck)
  4. so as to satisfy, that is, heal by recouping (Reversed), the Five of Swords’ mental energy (intellectual clarity), which has been depleted and fragmented . . .
  5. that longs and strives to build something worthwhile and powerful, by putting the pieces of the Five of Wands together: unified, despite conflicting desires and counter motivations.
  6. At our core is the Empress, Gaia, Earth-Mother, Life, the generative soul, core of nurturance, fertility, both source and place of rebirth, . . .
  7. where lodges a mortal fear that is the Five of Pentacles’ insecurity, impoverishment, and lack of protection—both material and spiritual.

Summary: We fear being deprived at our core of regenerative life, leaving us insecure and bereft of protection, if our longing to build and create a power base (despite conflict) is not satisfied by recouping fragmented energies of the self via the qualities of love and nurturance poured down from the deep inner wisdom and images that we project onto awakened and liberated beings.

If we consider: “The illusory nature of the world is better understood as the projection of our longing” in light of these cards, then: The illusion of a being liberated from limitations is the projected inner wisdom of the striving for power among conflicting emotions.


One aspect of tarot hermeneutic practice at variance with this example are the several discursive steps that emphasizes the analytical and normative meanings to the cards as remembered by the reader in  deliberately selecting cards that elucidate the text's meaning. After this work is done it makes sense to further question the oracle about the how and why of our work by selecting some blind cards.

Viewing the Viewing Circle or Buddha through a Window
Viewing the Viewing Circle