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The Quintessence Spread

Quintessence, the Quinta Essentia, the Fifth Element: to philosophers and alchemists it’s the spiritual dimension underlying the material world; the subtle fluid that binds all creation together; the spirit that shines from the heart; and the vital force that animates the four elements.

We can extract the quintessence of a situation with a spread found in nearly every European tarot book. Four cards are laid out to the left, right, top and bottom like the center of the Celtic Cross. A fifth card in the center distills the essence of the four cards.

The spread positions are organized into two sets of polarities. The cards on the horizontal axis could be pro-con, positive-negative, help-hindrance, past-future, or self-other. The two vertical cards might be advice and outcome, what is known and what is hidden, the foundation and the crown, or the advice and the result. Use your imagination to adapt spread positions to the question.

For the fifth card, add up the sum of the four cards, reduce the sum to a number below twenty-two and put the corresponding trump card in the center.

French and Italian tarot readers use just the major arcana with this spread. I’ve turned the European method on its head by using only the minor arcana except for the trump card in the center. I read this card as the underlying theme, lesson or message of the reading.

Let’s see this spread in action with a reading I did recently for a fairy tale princess.

Last month a waif in ragged clothes rushed into my booth in the market square. She looked up and down the street nervously before pulling the curtains tight and telling me that she snuck out of the house while her stepmother and stepsisters were being fitted for ball gowns.

Then she tells me somewhat defiantly that she can’t pay for a reading because her stepmother keeps her trapped at home doing all the heavy housework. She doesn’t get spending money, just leftovers from the family meals and a few miserable rags to wear. But she tells me she can probably sneak out of the house again next week while her stepmother and stepsisters are at the hairdresser and repay me by helping with my housework.

It was a slow day, and I felt sorry for the poor mite, so I motioned her to sit down. The false bravado fell away and she became the sad, vulnerable child she really was. “Is it ever going to change?” She asked in a quivering voice. “Am I ever going to wear nice clothes, have friends, maybe even a boyfriend? My stepsisters have everything and I have nothing! My stepmother hates me and treats me like a slave”.

I shuffled the minor arcana of my 200-year-old Italian deck and laid out four cards in a cross to give an overview of her situation and a possible future. Here’s what I told her.

The Two of Swords shows what is working against you. See that young, healthy laurel branch with the red berries? There’s so much youth and vitality and potential in you, but it’s held in suspension, as if floating in a bubble. But the walls of this bubble are thin and easily breached. Your situation is not crushing you. You’re just in a holding pattern until your moment comes to emerge into the sunlight.

The Queen of Cups is working for your benefit. She’s a loving, maternal figure who has your best interests at heart. Look at that large chalice festooned with a garland. It looks like the queen has a gift for you.

{My client snorts cynically and says it certainly isn’t her stepmother. Then she tells me a sad story of how her mother died so long ago she can barely remember her; but she still takes flowers to her grave whenever she can sneak away from her chores. She finds comfort and peace praying at her mother’s grave, and she often feels that her mother is watching over her.}

The Nine of Coins at the top shows a way to rise above your situation and transform it. I realize nothing in your life up to this point has given you a reason to believe this is true — but this card is asking you to have faith and believe that the universe is basically generous and supportive. If you believe your circumstances can change, and if you can envision a better future, then the universe is waiting to grant your every wish.

The Three of Cups on the bottom shows future possibilities. The heart-shaped vine supporting the top cup promises much love and happiness in your future.

{These cards seem to taunt me. How can I talk of great wealth and love to someone in such dire circumstances? But I’m bound to read what I see. As long as I’m truthful, the cards never lie to me}

The sum of the four cards is 18. (I count the court cards as 2, 3, 4 and 5). The quintessence of this spread is Trump 18, the Moon. Magic in the moonlight. Midnight – when the moon rides high in the sky. Everything in this spread – the wealth, the love, her mother’s spirit, seems like a misty illusion to her – the foolish dreams of a kitchen drudge. I encourage her to believe that it’s all possible and it all can become real. With magical assistance, her life will be transformed. She says she’ll go to her mother’s grave that night and pray that this reading comes true.

{Now that my client is queen of a neighboring realm, everyone knows how her mother answered her prayers, and how a prince was bewitched at the stroke of midnight. I can’t help but think the red berries on the Two of Swords are those greedy stepsisters’ bloody toes. When I squint my eyes, I see a foot encased in a slipper on the bottom card. And doesn’t the top card look like an aerial view of Cinderella seated in her glass coach?}

Postscript: Cinderella has become a kind and generous monarch, loved by her people. She didn’t forget the old fortune teller who encouraged her to believe in a better future. Thanks to Cinderella’s generosity, I quit that drafty booth in the marketplace. Now I read my cards in front of a cozy fireplace in my snug cottage on the edge of town.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. You OTR, you. I love it!

    November 13, 2011
  2. Argenta #

    I tried this spread yesterday with two friends who came over, but was baffeled with two things in the horizontal part:

    1) What to do when both positive and negative cards are reversed?
    2) How to read a “good” card in the position for the negative, and vice versa? (eg. I got 2 Swords reversed for “positive” and 9 Coins for “negative”)

    I appreciate your time to answer 🙂

    February 18, 2012
    • Hi Argenta,
      Here’s a short course in reversals. I don’t see cards as a polarity of good and bad, but rather a spectrum of shades of gray. Every card has a core meaning which doesn’t change when it’s reversed. Death reversed isn’t Life, it’s Death impacting you in a dysfunctional way.

      When a card is reversed it’s a red flag telling you that there’s something unbalanced in how that card’s energy is affecting the situation the reading is about. Whatever the card represents could be repressed or denied, it’s action might be delayed, or it might be acting in an unhealthy way. If it’s a number card, it can mean you have to re-do the previous card in numeric sequence and learn its lesson. FOr example, if the Four of Coins is reversed, you can’t solidify your project or business deal because you didn’t work hard enough in the Three of Coins phase; so you have to go back and do the job properly before you can move on to the security of the Four.

      A good card in a negative position could mean having too much of a good thing, or not being able to handle the good things the card represents. It could mean that the good things are on their way but delayed. Or you have the good things the card represents but you don’t appreciate them or really see them, or they are unavailable to you.

      If the Nine of Coins means having lots of money, when it’s reversed it might mean being so filthy rich you live in an artifical bubble, or leading a life of wretched excess and self-indulgence. Or it could mean a pile of money is on its way, an inheritence perhaps, but it’s delayed. Or you have a materially comfortable life but you don’t appreciate it, or you think you’re poor because you aren’t assessing your situation realistically. Or you have lots of money but you can’t use it because it’s tied up in a trust fund.

      A negative card in a good position could mean that the negative really isn’t that bad, or it’s a blessing in disguise. Or dealing with the negative situation will teach you an important life lesson. Or once the situation is over you will be better off than you were before.

      I hope this isn’t adding to the confusion. Let me know if I didn’t answer your question properly.

      February 19, 2012
      • Argenta #

        Dear Sherryl,
        the answer was very thorough and sensible. I am rather a beginner at tarot (can you tell?) so I love to read and learn from more practiced readers

        One of the reasons why I felt attracted toTdM-type tarot is that no card seems negative at the first glance — no pierced hearts, blindfolds, bandages etc. However, I do tend to see reversals as negative, perhaps because it’s what I found on the few available TdM sites (Hadar’s, Camoin’s & Tarot Authentique). Your approach seems to tone this down, which is great since I personally dislike “doom and gloom” readings, and try to find points that can help the person, even if circumstances are less than desirable.

        I do have a few additional questions, if you don’t mind answering them: Can the more positive card be interpreted as the good, and the negative as the bad, or do meanings strictly depend on positions? Is it all the same if positive is left, negative right, or the other way around?

        Thank you again!

        February 19, 2012
      • Hello Argenta,
        I’m always willing to answer questions from a serious student. So here’s more of my philosophy on reversals. The fundamental problem is knowing when to interpret a card negatively, positively, or some shade of gray in between. I think it’s too simplistic to see cards as having good and bad meanings that you alternate between like flipping a switch. Part of the art of tarot reading is knowing what nuance of a card is the most appropriate in a specific reading.

        At the moment, I can think of three main methods for deciding whether a card should be read with a positive or negative slant: upright/reversed, spread position, dignities. All three work equally, but you need to decide before shuffling the cards which method you’re using, then stick to it.

        If you designated the position on the left as positive, then the card in that position must be given a positive spin, even if it’s the Tower, the Devil or a reversed card. One possibility is that the upright interpretation of a reversed card will manifest after some work. Two of Cups reversed could mean that you’ll fall in love, but it won’t be right away. Or a Tower experience turns out to be liberation from a miserable situation.

        I prefer using dignities rather than reversals. This works especially well when the cards on the left and right of the spread have the function of either supporting or working against the card in the middle. A card of an incompatible suit or element will operate in a way that undermines the center card. It’s not a question of being good or bad, but just that the card’s nature doesn’t promote the agenda of the middle card.

        I hope I’ve addressed your question. If not, I’ll try again.

        February 19, 2012
  3. What a charming post, Sherryl. I just found your blog and have enjoyed reading through it. This was a very fun one!

    March 29, 2012
    • It’s great to connect with you again Arwen. Thanks so much for all the mentions you’ve been giving me. It’s very gratifyihg to know you enjoyed the blog.

      March 29, 2012
  4. Cynthia #

    I stumbled across your blog while looking for information about the quintessence spread, and what a wonderful example you gave, thank you thank you very much. I really wanna try this spread (can you tell I’m excited? xD) but I’m a little confused about the sum of the cards cause I don’t understand why the sum of the cards was 18, what do you mean when you say “(I count the court cards as 2, 3, 4 and 5).” ?
    P.S. I hope you can answer cause I just noticed this is a last year’s post 😦

    September 16, 2013
    • Hi Cynthia,
      I’m sorry it took me two days to post your comment and reply. I can see how my explanation of the math isn’t very clear. In order to include the court cards in the sum, I’ve assigned them numbers. Page=2, Knight=3, Queen=4, and King=5. I came up with the numbers intuitively, but was very pleased to discover that the court cards have the same value when you’re adding up points in the game.

      So, in the spread I posted, the sum is 9 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 18. So I put trump 18, the Moon in the center.
      If this still isn’t clear, let me know. Math and numbers aren’t my strong point.

      September 18, 2013

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