While leading a tarot seminar a few years back, I was asked, ‘What is the biggest reading you’ve ever done?’ As a tarot practitioner, artist and author, I’ve used the tarot for many kinds of readings, from three card party-style gigs to in-depth relationship sessions lasting multiple hours. But the biggest? That would be a very special reading that took five years to complete, and encompassed every card in the deck. It was a mighty undertaking. It unfolded over the course of creating all the art for the World Spirit Tarot, and the wisdom of every card touched me in the ultimate extended reading!
What is an extended reading?
Usually an extended reading is a record of the cards that recur in your personal spreads over time. The same cards or suits often appear over and over, as if knocking at your psychic door, saying, ‘Hey there, don’t forget me!’ The typical deck has 78 cards, and we usually pull no more than 13 in a spread. And yet we tend to see the same handful over and over. Repeating cards have a significance that often addresses the core of who you are in your life and why. Unresolved and shadowy aspects of Self may asking over and over to be brought to light. Try to attend to these issues; if these facets of yourself don’t receive conscious attention they may demand attention in other ways, through ‘rotten luck’ or damaging behaviors. Please notice and respect these cards as they recur. They are ambassadors from your deep self.
My original tarot teacher, Kate Nordstom then of Rockport, MA, showed my my first examples of this. Regardless of the intended subject of my readings, the Five of Pentacles appeared in every spread. This card of chronic security issues suggested that growing up in a hardworking household where adulthood meant frantic concerns of money and scarcity was paralyzing my hopes and creativity with pessimism and fear of privation. Noticing the recurrence of the Five, I saw how this unconscious attitude was a hindrance, and I at last began to outgrow that learned anxiety.
To track your own extended reading, begin journalling the cards that come up for you over time. They will show you something about the pulse and tides of your deep mind. Some cards will come up repeatedly for years and then sink below the waves, while other images surface and become well-known friends. It defies chance and merits attention.
Now, my most extreme extended reading occurred with the creation of the World Spirit Tarot. I intended to start illustrating the deck from the beginning, with the Ace and Wands, and systematically go through the deck from that first Ace to the last card, the Universe. However this plan rapidly foundered; even armed with copious research notes, I just could NOT render the art ‘in order’ with any authentic understanding. Sure, I could make an image that could stand as a decent product for consumption. But I wanted true inspiration and authentic iconography, to capture each card for future generations. Not just any academic, symbolically ‘correct’ image would do. I wanted to feel that each card was ‘right’.
With blank woodblocks piled about me, I designated one for each card, and let the images come to me in any order. Freed from constraints of sequencing, the images began to flow as if creating themselves. Over time, a pattern emerged. Some cards came easily; the Empress, Temperance, the Three of Pentacles quickly came through. The tarot has evolved to have a card for every aspect of our daily experience. Yet two years later, the Emperor, the Hierophant, the Five of Pentacles still had not. I just didn’t ‘get them’, or the forces they represent. Additionally, something always interfered when it was time to work on these more difficult cards – a phone call, a cat knocking over a plant, struggles with content and composition.
Eventually I had to consider that behind the lack of inspiration and follow-through on those tough cards lay a some magical commentary on my character and experience (I was quite young). I began marking each block-print with its date of completion. They stacked up, becoming a colossal wall of art bricks, a lengthy tarot reading chronicling my development in those poignant years of my life. Sometimes a block had to wait until I had the actual life experience to truly understand the meaning and material of a card before I could create a worthy image. Other times, working the cards summoned their forces into my life. As in, “Ack! Next week, it is the Ten of Swords & I won’t even want to leave the house!”
So, part of the extended reading for me was not only discovering which cards and images were pleasantly accessible to me, and which were difficult, but also to ride through the full human spectrum from struggle to epiphany as the lessons of the cards were gloriously and poignantly unfurled – triumph, joy, death of loved ones and relationships, accomplishment and futility. It took five years to ride that ride.
Fortunately not everyone has to spend years actually creating a deck to experience the tarot as a long-term teacher. Consider chronicling the cards that recur for you, and respect and learn from them. Bring their forces into your life through contemplation of the individual icons. Again, you can employ the cards for fun, party-style three card spreads, and that is great. You can do deep readings that take hours. Or you can embark on the extended reading that never ends, and track the cards that speak to you across the years!
The original concept for this article was first printed in 2001 in an industry trade publication, New Worlds of Mind & Spirit by Llewellyn. This version updated in 2015 by Lauren Onca O’Leary