The Celtic Cross: A Classic Tarot Spread

I remember the first time I saw someone lay out the Celtic Cross spread before me, just after my thirteenth birthday. Although I didn’t know how to read the cards, I had a sense that the cryptic cross shape and the vertical line of cards beside it could reveal many mysteries if only I understood the language. Today, the language of the Celtic Cross has become my tried and true tarot spread for almost any situation.

Because the Celtic Cross consists of ten cards, it can seem daunting to newer readers. If you are new to tarot, you should dive into our beginners guide first. However, after breaking down the components and spending some time practicing, you’ll find that the Celtic Cross is more accessible than it seems. And if you’ve been pulling one card or using three-card spreads, you’ll also find that having the context from more cards can add valuable depth to your interpretations.

When to Use the Celtic Cross

The Celtic Cross is the Swiss Army knife of tarot spreads! In other words, it’s useful for most circumstances. Whether your querent has a specific question or not, you can gain important information from this spread.

However, Arthur Waite—who first published documentation of this spread in the early 20th century—advised applying it to a definitive question. If you do want to form a question, I recommend choosing one that can’t be answered by “yes” or “no.”

For instance, a question like “What are my prospects for love in the upcoming months?” is more suited to the Celtic Cross than “Will I fall in love soon?” This is because the complexity created by ten interacting cards doesn’t always result in a clear “yes” or “no.” The querent also always has some control over what happens. Instead of a simple “fate,” you’ll be able to identify several supportive factors and detracting factors for love. 

On the other hand, you can rely on the Celtic Cross for general inquiries too. You might have a general focus area, like love or work. You might also be open to any message as you seek clarity. Either way, this spread can offer empowering guidance.

Should you find that the Celtic Cross spread doesn’t feel right, maybe the nine card Work Cycle or the seven card Horseshoe spreads can help. It is great for gaining more insight into a given problem or situation you or the querent is facing.

The layout of the Celtic Cross Spread

Celtic cross
ArrowTarot, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, you arrange six cards in a cross shape. Then, you finish the Celtic Cross by arranging the final four cards from bottom to top in a vertical column. However, the fine details of organization and interpretation depend on the source.

Waite’s version, the first published account, is likely the most influential. But there are others, which I won’t cover in depth here, that have their own unique perspectives. Before Waite, readers likely used this spread for years throughout Ireland, Scotland, and England and their private customs either persisted through oral traditions or disappeared since.

Significance of the Shape

An actual Celtic cross blends pagan symbols related to the ancient Celtic religion with Christian symbols. As a result, the cross represents a historic transition from one faith to another.

Although speculations about the original pagan symbolism vary, a few interpretations are consistent. For example, the cross continues to represent resilience through wisdom, strength, and love. The arms of the cross also indicate the importance of the four classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Therefore, these arms correspond to the four suits of the tarot.

In addition, a Celtic cross contains a circle that’s mirrored by the way you place the cards in the Celtic Cross spread. Circles are important shapes in pagan rituals; for instance, pagans used them to create sacred spaces and represent blessings. The circle also persists as a symbol of eternity and cosmic connection.

When you read tarot using the Celtic Cross spread, you can call upon this powerful tradition to empower yourself and your querent through times of uncertainty.

Parts of the Spread

Before diving into the details of each card placement’s meaning, you can learn a lot by first understanding where to find certain information. The parts of the Celtic Cross are like locations on a map:

  • The small cross consists of the two cards at the center of the larger cross. The first card is upright, and the second card crosses it. The tarot writer Rachel Pollack believes that you can gain the most critical information from the small cross, so much so that you could form a deep interpretation just by contemplating how these two cards interact. As a result, you can think of the small cross as the heart of the matter.
  • The expanded cross contains a small cross at its center. In addition to the first two cards, this expansion includes four arms that offer more information about the current matter, including internal and external influences.
  • To the right of the six-card cross, you arrange the staff. This staff consists of four cards placed from bottom to top. I generally think of this shape as a reference index. If something in the cross is unclear or conflicted, the staff can help clarify by providing larger themes and different perspectives for the querent’s circumstances.

Meaning of Card Positions

Although the small cross and the staff are all fairly consistent for tarot readers, the order of the cards in the extended cross (cards 3-6) varies more often. For example, Waite arranged those four cards to mimic the Catholic “sign of the cross.” Eden Gray, another influential tarot writer, places card 3 in a different location than Waite does and proceeds in a different circular pattern.  

I’ll outline how I learned this spread, which differs slightly from both Waite’s and Gray’s versions. My arrangement is popular among many contemporary tarot readers, but I welcome you to explore the other possibilities as you practice!

Celtic cross

You can refer to the image above for the placement of each card described in the table below.

CardCard KeywordMeaning
1SituationThis card captures the essence of your circumstances. If you feel lost in the meanings of surrounding cards, you can always return to this card to ground yourself in the energy of the moment. 
2ChallengeThis card represents an element of the situation that you must currently face. It usually represents an obstacle, but this card could also indicate a positive element that you’re repressing or a positive influence that’s distant or difficult to integrate. When I read reversals, I consider this card upright when the top aligns with the right side.
3PossibilityTraditional texts might call this “what crowns the querent.” I think of it as the strongest possibility amongst all other swirling possibilities because it’s generally what you’re working toward consciously. It might represent your best outcome or what you want to happen.
4RootThe card below the small cross tells you about subconscious motivation. This card can be surprising if you aren’t in touch with your deepest drives and beliefs. Because this card indicates what isn’t always clear on the surface, it can carry energy from an event that happened in your deep past, an influential childhood figure, or a karmic pattern.
5PastTo the left of the small cross, card 5 represents a past event or theme that has a waning influence on the situation. 
6FutureTo the right of the small cross, card 6 gives you insight into an event or theme that will have a growing influence on your situation.
7SelfThere are many interpretations of this card, which rests at the root of the staff. Some see it as a representation of how others perceive you; other readers use it as an advice card. I like a little of both: it’s the energy you can channel to invite (or discourage) the best possible resolution.
8EnvironmentOften called the “house,” this card shows you how your environment is affecting you. Therefore, this card could be family, friends, geographical location, school, work, or whatever has the most immediate impact on your situation.
9Hopes and FearsPsychologists are likely to remind you that what you fear is often what you long for, and what you desire is often something you resist. Hence, an optimistic card in this position can be hopeful, but it might also represent something you’re subconsciously resisting such as professional success or happiness.
10OutcomeRemember that nothing is fated. However, if you stay the course you’re already on, this card reveals the resolution. If you’re not satisfied with this card, you can look at the other cards to learn how to alter the outcome.

Interpreting a Celtic Cross Tarot Spread

Beyond simply reading each card individually, you can spin a coherent story by examining how the cards interact within the Celtic Cross. While any card interaction can be significant, there are certain pairs that provide shortcuts to meaningful information.

Important Card Pair Interactions

Compare and contrast the following cards to learn more about the current situation:

  • Card 3 (Possibility) and Card 4 (Root): These two cards essentially represent the conscious and subconscious, respectively. If they bring very different energies, then perhaps you’re not very aware of how card 4 is influencing your behaviors. Becoming more aware of your root motivation can help you gain more control over an outcome.
  • Card 2 (Challenge) and Card 8 (Environment): Does the obstacle seem mysterious to you? Card 8 can point to a negative influence coming from your environment that might illuminate the challenges you’re facing. If the environment provides supportive energy, then you might be your own worst enemy in the situation.
  • Card 4 (Root) and Card 9 (Hopes and Fears): The subconscious motivation represented in card 4 can shine a light on the reason for particular desires or anxieties. 

Sometimes, the outcome (card 10) doesn’t seem favorable to you. In general, comparing various cards with card 10 helps you understand how you have control over that outcome:

  • Card 3 (Possibility): If this card differs significantly from card 10, then you can look to the other cards—especially the challenge, root, and hopes/fears—to determine why your conscious striving isn’t resulting in a related outcome.
  • Card 7 (Self): This card helps you understand your impact on the result.  
  • Card 6 (Future): Is something happening in the near future that requires a careful response? Your approach to that person or event might be pivotal.

Key Patterns in a Celtic Cross Spread

Other general patterns amongst the ten cards can also focus your reading. Consider the following elements within the spread:

  • Major and Minor Arcana cards: A larger proportion of Major Arcana cards can indicate major themes and formative periods of time. You might need to accept the flow of events around you although you have little control over what’s happening. Minor Arcana cards, however, are more likely to suggest that you have control over the actual events in your life.
  • Elements: Each suit represents a different element, and each Major Arcana card is also associated with a specific element. What’s the proportion of each of the four elements in your spread? For example, a high number of water cards can mean that relationships, emotions, and perceptions are especially impactful at the moment. If an element is especially imbalanced, however, you might want to consider how a counterbalance could help. If you have seven water cards in your Celtic Cross, for instance, you might want to introduce some active fire energy.
  • Directionality: Do you have five court cards that all face the same Major Arcana card? That pattern could point to the largest lesson of the moment. Are there two cards with figures who seem to face each other? A relationship might then be indicated. In summary, you should use your intuition when you interpret directional patterns.  
  • Imagery: Again, use your intuition as you interpret the colors and images that you immediately perceive. Do you see an overwhelming amount of yellow? What does this color mean to you? What could it say about the situation?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The questions below are commonly asked about the Celtic Cross tarot spread.

What does the Celtic Cross tarot spread tell you?

The Celtic Cross provides context for a current situation. This includes the heart of the matter, external and internal influences, and probable outcomes.

What does the second card mean in the Celtic Cross spread?

The second card crosses the first and represents the challenge or obstacle that you face.

How do I choose a significator card for the Celtic Cross?

A significator is a card that represents the querent, and it’s chosen before the reading begins. You don’t need a significator to complete a Celtic Cross. But if you do use one, you can choose a court card that represents the querent’s astrological sign or a Major Arcana card that represents the inquiry.

What does the Celtic cross symbolize in paganism?

The Celtic cross contains symbols for strength, love, and wisdom through times of transition. Its four arms also represent the protective forces of the four elements.

How do you interpret card 7 of the Celtic Cross?

The seventh card of the Celtic Cross represents how you show up in the world. This might include your identity, how people perceive you, and how you influence your situation. Some readers also interpret this card as advice.

Do you need a question for the Celtic Cross spread?

You don’t need a question for the Celtic Cross, though you’re welcome to formulate one if it helps you focus the reading!

Learn the Tarot with Online Flash Cards

Are you looking to dive into the world of tarot and master the meaning of each card? You should check out our post, “Learn The Tarot Cards – Online Flash Cards” by our own Tarot expert Ersa Fay. With interactive flash cards covering all 78 cards in the tarot, both the Minor and Major Arcana, you will learn key facts and the symbolism and meanings associated with each card. 

By using these flash cards, you’ll become more comfortable with performing your own readings and enhance your journey into the world of tarot. 

In the post, Ersa focuses on the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, known for its rich imagery and profound symbolism. The captivating illustrations in this deck draw from various sources such as mythology, astrology, alchemy, and the Kabbalah, creating a visual language that resonates deeply with the human psyche. So, if you’re ready to start learning, don’t miss out on this fantastic resource. We hope you find it useful and remember to have fun with it!

Featured Image Credit: Nosferattus, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Ersa Fay

Ersa Fay (they/them) is a traveling writer, mystical dancer, and tarot reader. You can often find Ersa in central Texas, but they have connections to places all over the world. With nearly 20 years of tarot experience, Ersa draws cards not to find definite answers but to uncover the questions that focus attention. Their tarot practice supports clarity and protection for your personal journey—for this reason, Ersa is inspired by the powerful beginner’s energy of the Fool in the tarot’s Major Arcana.