One of the most important aspects of card reading is asking a good question. Many a card reading novice has no doubt stayed awake at night, wringing his hands in anguish, wondering how to phrase the question he so desperately want an answer for. Or maybe the novice fears having angered the fates because she asked her friend Susie’s question directly, rather than re-wording it into one of the forms she’s been told must be used in consulting the cards.

Which prompts me to ask: what makes for a good question when reading cards? Tarot, Lenormand, playing cards or whatever… a focused question will focus the reading. Totally.

The question is like a map: without it, a reading won’t go far. It gives the reader a defined area to explore, and a precise question — like a precise map — makes it more likely that the reader can reach a certain destination. An abstractly drawn map with randomly-colored, squiggled roads and labels like “long way” or “four-lane Fourier” is most likely going to look better on the walls of an art gallery than it is going to be useful in navigating to (or through) a new city!

The Ten Commandments of Cartomancy Questions

So it’s no surprise that a lot of words are spoken, written and argued about how to ask a question for card reading. When it comes to the average tarot practitioner, there tends to be a standard litany of how a question should be asked or phrased, as least among the typical books or online discussions. It puts me in mind of the ten commandments, had they been given by a be-turbaned (you know, like bespectacled) woman who owns at least 200 tarot decks.

  1. Thou shalt not ask yes or no. Otherwise thou shouldst just flip a coin.
  2. Thou shalt not ask the cards anything about, “Should I…”
  3. Thou shalt not ask the same question more than once.
  4. Thou shalt only ask An Important Question.
  5. Thou shall not ask questions on thy own behalf.
  6. Thou shall rephrase an improperly formed question from another.
  7. Thou shall not asketh of the future, for only fortune-tellers do that.
  8. Thou shall not ask questions requiring professional knowledge thou doth lack.
  9. Thou may not ask questions of a general nature.
  10. Thou may ask questions of a general nature.

While this list of ten commandments for asking a cartomantic question is presented tongue-in-cheek, it doth — sorry, does — cover a general list of instructions on the art of the question; all of which I (and probably you) have seen or heard at some point in your card reading practice. I’m sure there are more than this that aren’t coming to mind, and I apologize to any commandments who didn’t make this list. Perhaps we’ll address you in a future installment.

Meanwhile, I’d like to explore this list and question the nature of the properly formed question, at least in the card reading sense.

1. Thou shalt not ask yes or no. Otherwise thou shouldst just flip a coin.

One of the most common rules is not to ask questions that can only be answered yes or no. The reader has a fifty-fifty chance of getting the right answer, and it’s pretty easy to eventually prove him right. Or wrong. The usual argument against this type of question is that cards are not able to answer these fixed questions; that an open-ended question is most suitable to the cards. And yet there are a variety of spreads out there to provide yes-or-no answers. One of the most common of these is a tarot spread that involves laying cards into three piles, looking for Aces or counting up to thirteen cards; the number of upright versus reversed cards provides the answer.

That well-known staple spread, the Celtic Cross, can also be used to answer yes-or-no questions. Don’t believe me? Then how about believing that last card, the Outcome, in position 10? If a question were about the ability of a querent’s marriage to weather current storms, the Tower seems like a good candidate for a no, whereas the Ten of Cups could make a great yes. “But Jase!” I can hear someone say. “You have to read the whole spread as a gestalt! All of the cards matter!” And I agree, all the cards do matter, otherwise we’d have the Celtic Card not the Celtic Cross. If every card was positive except the Tower in the example above, then maybe the Tower isn’t a no. It’s going to come down to the actual reading and all factors in play at that moment. But if the Tower isn’t a no, then is it a yes? (Which still answers a binary question.) Does the outcome card in this spread summarize the reading, or is it truly an outcome? I belive the latter, as the summarized reading is the synthesis, and is what the reader better be doing.

Do you think that summarizing a situation seen in the cards, and including a probable outcome, is NOT going to provide an affirmative or negative answer when the given question can be answered in such fashion?

I’d like to contrast card reading with what I’ve been learning for horary astrology and geomancy. While card readers are often cautioned not to answer yes-or-no questions, when it comes to horary and geomancy these are exactly what is encouraged. The reading from a chart is going to be precise and deft, and excels in giving the affirmative or negative. A chart seems to encapsulate the questioner’s present situation; and in reading the chart, the diviner is answering the question by providing insight as to why this is the case. I think this is important, so please let me state it again: the diviner is answering the question by providing insight as to why this is the case.

The imagined question above was from a client wondering if her marriage would weather its current storms. We could get a variety of answers depending on how it is approached:

Coin flip: Heads. Yes, it will!

Yes-or-no tarot spread: Two upright cards, one reversed. Yes, after a rough patch.

Geomancy: The right witness Fortuna Minor shows that things have changed for you, but you have outside support. The right witness Aquisitio tells of good things coming your way. Carcer is the Judge, and while it is a prison, it is also stability and tells me things will settle down. You might feel trapped now, but in the long run it will be worthwhile to work things out.

Celtic Cross: I see sets of conflicting cards, starting with the King of Wands covering the Queen of Cups. Every pair is a set of opposites in some way, and the Tower shows the outcome. Generally you don’t see eye-to-eye and can’t seem to resolve your ongoing conflicts. The Tower as outcome shows that things are going to come crashing down in order to make way for the future; ultimately you will split to change your life, hopefully for the better.

Horary chart: Nope! No way! His ruler Venus opposes your Mars, and is approaching Saturn in the 9th house, ruled by Jupiter. In this chart he’s met an older woman on a business trip. Don’t point fingers though, I see your Mars conjunct the Sun in the 5th house. Looks like you’ve already got someone to console you!

You can see from the above examples that there are different ways to handle yes-or-no questions, and that in fact these binary answers can be provided. I ordered these from roughly least to most informative. The key seems to be providing enough details to explore and explain the answer, otherwise one might as well use the coin flip. Which is generally considered the easiest to use, but least accurate method. I think if the reader gets enough information to be comfortable synthesizing an answer, and if there is enough information to describe a situation, then a yes-or-no outcome can be determined, if one wishes. As with so much in card reading, it will depend on personal reading style and comfort level with the type of question being asked.

To be continued. Meanwhile, share your thoughts in the comments!