A Sample Reading with the Great Granddaddy of Tarot Spreads
Years ago I came across Mary K. Greer’s wonderful article, “The Oldest Spread, by le Comte de M***.” She offered a fascinating peek into the first recorded tarot spread. All this week I searched in vain for something to write about that fit Tarot Blog Hop wrangler Raine Shakti‘s theme “ancestors.” Until I remembered Mary’s post! I decided that performing a sample reading with this great granddaddy of tarot spreads would honor our tarot roots. At the same time, it would remind tarot readers of a practical technique from history.
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Cast your mind back to the late eighteenth century. Men wore long coats and short pants, while women’s gowns puffed out over hip-extending panniers and voluminous layers of petticoats. This was the time of Mozart and Goethe. In England in 1781, Sir William Herschel noted that a previously identified star moved against the background of constellations, suggesting it was a comet or perhaps a planet. Eventually named Uranus, this unexpected planet sounded the call to revolution.
In France, Louis XVI reigned by divine right, while an affluent middle class accumulated wealth but had no access to political power. Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. diplomat to France, hosted parties for the bourgeoisie while regaling them with success stories of the American Revolution. In parallel to the changing cultural attitudes, the overly ornate architecture of the Rococo period gave way to tediously symmetrical, blocky, but functional designs in which every element achieved equality in placement. And Marie Antoinette with birdcages in her hair would soon lose her head to the revolution. While the aristocracy became exceedingly frivolous and extravagant, the philosophers whittled down egregious social inequities, calling for egalitarianism, civil liberties, and a return to nature.
The Game of Tarots
During this time, Antoine Court de Gébelin wrote his grand opus, Monde Primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (The Primitive World, analyzed and compared with the modern world). He idealized a simple past, inviting a return to this Golden Age. In volume 8, published in 1781, he included a section titled, “The Game of Tarots” (in English here or here and French here). Appended was an article by another author, “Study On The Tarots, and on the Divination by the Cards of the Tarots” by M. Le C. de M.***, the Comte de Mellet. Within these pages de Mellet described a lofty origin, the underpinning philosophies, and divinatory meanings of the cards. Then he offered a practical exercise for performing a divination. Today we will explore that technique, the great granddaddy of tarot spreads.
The Great Granddaddy of Tarot Spreads
The spread described offers a complex method for laying out cards that works best with two people involved. This is a lovely way to bring a second head to the interpretation, or simply give the client a way to be more directly involved in their reading.
The deck is sorted into two sections, the four colors (the four suits of the Minor Arcana) and the twenty-two letters (Major Arcana). The two participants shuffle their respective piles, then each cuts the other’s pile. This maneuver can be easily done if you’re working alone, handling the Minor Arcana with one hand and the Majors with the other. To cut, cross your hands so each hand cuts the other hand’s pile.
Counting the Cards
Next each places their pile in front of them, face down.
In the following step, both the colors and letters are counted simultaneously, although I’ll describe each person’s process separately.
The person with the colors begins turning up the cards in their pile, flipping each over as they go, all the while counting from one to fourteen repeatedly. Any time the card they turn over matches the number they say, that card is a keeper. So if they say “three” and simultaneously turn over a three of any suit, that card is set aside to be read. Aces are ones, Pages are 11, Knights 12, Queens 13, and Kings 14, and all the other pips their own number.
Meanwhile, the person with the letters also counts cards in conjunction with the holder of the colors. Each time the colors person flips a card, the letters person puts down a card, but in this case without flipping it over. I don’t think it hurts to flip it over, it simply isn’t necessary. Besides, the Majors can be rather overwhelming to the senses if flipped repeatedly in fast succession.
I turned the Minor cards with my right hand, flipping them to the right, while with my left hand, placed the Majors cards to the left.
When the colors person finds a keeper, the letters person takes their card that was lifted at the same time and adds it to the Minor Arcana card to create a pair.
When the letters person is out of cards, counting is paused. They shuffle and as before and offer their pile for the colors person to cut. Then the counting resumes, picking up where they left off. The directions are vague; possibly it suggests that you shuffle and cut the letters pile every time a match is made. However, it goes on to say you go through the pile three times, which is how many times you need to go through the Majors pile to get through the Minors pile once. This, plus the fact that you can get an abundance of matches from once through the Minors pile, makes me think the “three times through” rule applies just to the Majors pile.
This process can produce anywhere from no matches on up to at least ten pairs of cards.
Interpreting the Original Tarot Spread
The pairs are then read, focusing on the meaning of the suits, numbers, and corresponding Hebrew letters.
The four suits are described as follows.
- The Cups represent happiness and the clergy
- The Coins indicate fortune and merchants
- Swords presage troubles and the nobility
- Batons represent the countryside and agriculture
This is the first essay that records an equation between the twenty-two Major Arcana and the twenty-two Hebrew letters. The assignment of letter to card is done in a unique manner, allotting the World card to the first letter, aleph, and descending through the trumps while ascending through the aleph-beit. The Fool, placed in the position 0, receives the final letter, tav. The traditional meaning of the letter influences the card meaning.
Another unique interpretive detail is that the Minor Arcana cards are multiplied by the number of the paired Major. The greater the resulting number, the more powerful the combination. But any card paired with the Fool produces nothing, being multiplied by zero. Interestingly, although the courts are counted in sequence as 11-14, when doing the interpretation de Mellet calls the Pages 1, Knights 2, Queens 3, and Kings 4. I’m not sure which numerology to use for the multiplying process, as his sample reading isn’t clear.
A Sample Reading
It was my initial intention to attempt to read the cards entirely following the guidelines provided by de Gebelin and de Mellet. But the story immediately appeared as I looked at the cards. This interpretation primarily follows my standard way for working with the TdM, although I made an effort to include some of the interpretive guidelines from the time period. De Mellet’s card descriptions indicates he was using a Besançon-style deck. Not having one on hand, I used the François Chosson 1736 Tarot de Marseille, published by Yves Renaud.
- Four of Coins/La Lune. Four seeds were planted in the imagination.
- Ace of Batons/Temperance. One sprouted under the nurturing water of an Angel.
- Three of Coins/XIII. The remaining three seeds withered and died.
- Seven of Cups/L’Amoureax. From the single sprout, six other plants emerged, like offspring propagating from a marriage.
- Four of Cups/Le Mat. Four of these propagated plants came to nothing. (4 x 0, the Fool)
- Eight of Swords/L’Hermite. One remaining plant was only a small blossom, hidden deep behind thick brambles, and only visible if you looked carefully.
- Four of Swords/Le Jugement. One broke free of the brambles, a flourishing plant with a beautiful blossom.
- Ten of Batons/Le Diable (Typhon). The third plant was so strong it grew into a two-branched tree, well protected against the coming winter (Typhon is associated with winter).
- Cavallier de Coupe/Le Monde. There is a deeper spiritual meaning to this story. The plant is the Divine Feminine, trapped in an enclosure. The Knight searches for her in vain, like Percival for the Holy Grail.
- Reyne De Baston/La Maison Dieu. The farmer queen understands these deeper mysteries. She recognizes that the mature plant releases dozens of seeds when it wilts and dies. The one becomes three become many and the cycle renews.
That wasn’t my first interpretation. I initially saw the blossom in the Eight of Swords and the full plant in the Four of Swords as the same. Then the Ten of Staffs, agriculture, was the whole crop, harvested before the winter (Typhon). The Knight took it to town and successfully sold it (Knight of Cups and World). But then for some reason, a storm destroyed the Queen of Staffs/Agriculture’s silo. This fit the Tower imagery, but not the previous sequence that said her Knight sold the crop. When I realized the dancer in the World card was in the same vesica shape as the plants in the two Swords cards, I realized the deeper meaning.
Considering the idea of multiplying the Minor card by the paired Major, my largest product would be pair 8, the Ten of Batons and the Devil, equalling 150. Either happiness or misfortune is compounded by this operation. The highest number in agriculture indicates an abundant crop. I feel the eight wands interlaced in front of two shows a well guarded situation, which I read as the crop protected against the winter (Devil/Typhon). I would like for the multiplication to magnify my positive interpretation, but I can’t help but recognize that in modern parlance the Ten of Wands and the Devil are both very negative cards. Perhaps the overall suggestion is that the crop is fortified against an excessively difficult winter. Actually, considering some details of my current situation, combined with information from my first, practice spread, this makes good sense to me.
I asked Hal to look over the spread and offer his insights. He asked, what is the seed that sprouted? I realized that I had at least four distinct ideas to write about. But only this one captured my imagination and came to fruition.
Hal also pointed out that it’s possible to find the full sequence of the story of Rapunzel in this layout.
An Answer Heard from Across the Centuries
Oh, by the way, the question I asked was, “what can I write about for this blog post.” But curiously, I had asked another question first as a practice. That spread gave a perfunctory but disappointing answer with two pairs of cards. However, as I worked on the second, larger spread, I read de Mellet’s notes on the Tower. I recognized a story that I had heard previously. The names and places differed, but the sequence of events was identical. This story reminded me of a class I taught a couple of years ago, providing an answer to the first question I asked. Pretty cool how this works! Thank you Great Granddaddy de Mellet for reaching out through the centuries to provide my answer!
Use the links to hop back or forward to read what the other bloggers have to say on the topic of ancestors!
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That was a really interesting spread. I’m not sure if I will ever be bold enough or a sophisticated enough tarot reader to attempt it, but it gave me a lot to think about.
Hi Raine! It might take a bit of boldness knowing you could end up with ten or more pairs! But other than that you could easily do this spread. Keep in mind that I only used the TdM to fit with the historical period to keep to the theme of ancestors. I was attempting to recreate an early tarot reading experience. That said, you don’t have to use a TdM. You can use any deck you like, which would make this easy to read. The counting business is hard to explain — I’m not sure I did the best job — but really quite easy to do. So with a modern deck a reading with this spread would be very doable. <3
Thanks, Joy! This is a really interesting post. Such a unique way of doing a spread. I am going to try this out soon.
Thanks, Pat! If you do try it, let me know how it goes!
Wow. I’m a bit overwhelmed but grateful for the sample reading. How cool to see it all come together. I write poetry, so I’m always blown away by the ability to identify a narrative. I never see them unless I have a person in mind that I’m reading for. Thank you for taking the time to share this, Joy.
This is fascinating and brilliant, particularly since the journey and history of the Tarot is of great interest to me. So to add something that tracks its journey through the world as I understand it, and to have that confirmed by someone that I am in awe of half the time, and floored by (in a good way) the other half just makes this post all the more amazing. Thanks Joy <3