The art of interpretation can seem mysterious at times. What is the secret that allows a diviner to peer at a bunch of symbols — such as the cards spread on the table — and eke out the secrets of fate and a querent’s life? How are these building blocks turned into a coherent reading?

The core answer is simple: interpretation is telling a story.


What story might this random drawing tell?

As human beings we are good at telling stories. It seems to be an inherent trait of our species to formulate tales and myths and epics. We build narrative into much that we think and do. There are a lot of smart and studious people who’ve written and lectured about this at length. Joseph Campbell is a popular name in this area.

On a personal and intuitive level this makes sense. When we tell our significant other about our bad day at work, we often create a narrative drama: we faced the Hellish Hordes in the morning commute; slayed the great beast of fatigue with the Magical Beverage of Brown (coffee!); leapt over the heads of insidious Morons to fight a fire threatening our current project; only to be ignored by the nefarious Powers That Be (middle management) who dictate our fates by whim.

Similarly, the story of a first date may involve weaving a romantic epic from a simple coffee shop get-together, in order to entertain or impress one’s friends.

John Michael Greer wrote about geomancy that interpretation is simply making a story from the figures, each of which is a chapter in the story about the subject of the reading. I thought this was a great way to describe what we do in a reading. It’s also a reminder that for a reading to be coherent, the story has to be coherent.

If a tarot reading is a question about the client’s marriage, the Four of Cups might indicate boredom with each other. What happens next? The next card is Two of Pentacles, so boredom might lead to shaky ground in the relationship. The next chapter, or card, comes up as The Moon: is someone having an affair? If the next card is Six of Cups this could be likely, whereas the Eight of Swords could indicate thoughts that have led nowhere, but don’t help the relationship grow either.

In this example, each card is a chapter about the client’s life story, and each one leads to the next. They all tell a story about the client and her marriage. A real reading won’t always be so linear. The reader above may look at The Moon then focus on the other cards as a gestalt concept comes to mind. “You’re looking for a relationship with someone who will take charge in the bedroom!” is suddenly blurted out.  But there is still a story; and a storyline is a great way to start looking at a spread.

An example using the Lenormand: The Tower sets the stage as the seeker’s workplace. The Birds tells of the seeker attending a meeting. The next chapter, or card, might be the Fox indicating that someone was dishonest. What happens next? Snake? Uh-oh, there’s trouble ahead! And so on.

And that’s all there is to it. There are a lot of rules, methods and fancy techniques out there for reading cards. In the end, I think they are all designed to get us out of the way of ourselves; to let the unconscious and irrational mind pick up what’s going on, and transmit that without the interference of the local conscious mind. By doing what we do best: telling stories.