January 2001 Tarot Spreads

In honor of the new year, I thought it would be nice to to begin with a spread that involves ways to resolve issues that do not serve you.  Mark McElroy's terrific Essential Elements does just that--and you can work with 1-4 of the elements to approach these issues.  And since we were doing one elemental spread, I thought two would be better than one--so Tom Tadfor Little allowed me to share his Elemental Directed Placement Spread with you as well.  I have used this spread on numerous occasions and have always found it to be powerful and insightful, despite--or because of--its simplicity.                --DW

Mark McElroy's Essential Elements Spread


Confronted by an issue you just canít resolve? Looking for a creative way to sidestep a nagging obstacle? Want to avoid a "band-aid" approach that treats the symptoms, but leaves the actual problem unresolved? The Essential Elements spread can help.

Over the last year, Iíve tested and refined the Essential Elements spread with great success, using it to:

-- clarify the root cause of a conflict or disagreement
-- define the factors contributing to or perpetuating unhealthy habits
-- achieve a more holistic, objective, and thorough understanding of any situation

When confronted with a problem or situation, most of us apply the one problem-solving style dictated by our personality type. As a result, we attack only one dimension of the problem, failing to address its other dimensions. The Essential Elements spread bypasses your inherent bias toward one perspective on the puzzle, forcing you to think more holistically.


Like the Tarot, the Essential Elements spread takes a four-dimensional approach (as represented by the four suits) to problem solving.

At the heart of the Essential Elements spread is the assumption that all problems have four dimensions: the conflicting desires and intentions which complicate the problem (Wands), the everyday actions which perpetuate the problem (the practical, down-to-earth Pentacles), the way we think about, analyze, or respond intellectually to the problem (Swords), and the emotional reactions, assumptions, and prejudices that mar our ability to see the problem clearly (Cups).

These Essential Elements define the four primary positions in the spread:

Wands     Pentacles
Swords    Cups

Two additional cards placed to the left of the Essential Elements define the problem itself: two factors that conflict with each other -- the seed of the problem. The final layout, involves six cards and can be diagrammed like this:

Wands             |      Pentacles
Factor One 1  vs.    Factor 2 ----------|-----------
Swords            |      Cups



1. With the problem or situation in mind, deal cards into the six positions, laying them out according to the diagram. Note that cards of any suit can occupy any of the positions -- you don't have to (and shouldn't) force a Wands card into the Wands position, for example. Just fill in the Essential Elements clockwise, beginning with the Wands position, using whatever cards fall into place.

2. Begin with Factor 1 and Factor 2. These cards represent forces "crossing" each other (and can be laid out as a cross, if you prefer) to create the problem. They do not suggest a solution; instead, they are a photograph of the problem itself.

3. Begin with the card in the Wands position. Ask yourself: How do people's conflicting wills, desires, and intentions create an environment in which this problem can flourish? How do the forces represented by this card "feed the fire" of this situation? Before moving on, consider how you might solve this problem by changing your will or intention -- or clarifying it, or making it manifest to a greater degree. Write down at least one "Wands Solution" to the problem.

4. Progress to the card in the Pentacles position. Ask yourself: How is this problem grounded in actions taken by the people involved? How do the forces represented by this card manifest themselves in the mundane, day-to-day actions that perpetuate this problem? Before moving on, consider what actions you can take -- what changes you can make in your routine, your work, your lifestyle, or your methods -- that might help you solve the problem. Write down at least one "Pentacles" solution to the problem.

5. Move to the card in the Swords position. Ask yourself: How is this problem impacted by my way of thinking about the problem? What decisions have I or others made that complicate the problem? What logic has been applied in previous attempts to solve the problem? How might this problem be affected if certain rules are created...or broken? Before moving on, consider how you might impact the problem by changing your mind, your approach, or decision-making process. Write down at least one "Swords" solution to this problem.

6. Move to the card in the Cups position. Ask yourself: How is this problem complicated by my emotional responses to the issue? What prejudices may be keeping me from seeing this problem clearly? What feelings play a role in this issue? Before moving on, consider how you might impact the problem by controlling your emotional responses or reactions. Consider abandoning prejudices or opening yourself up to feeling differently about the situation. Write down at least one "Cups" solution to this problem.


- Watch for a card of a given suit to fall into the position related to that suit. This is an indicator that this dimension is the most important of the Essential Elements, and deserves special attention. If you take no other
action, move to impact this particular element.

- Watch for Trump cards to fall into any Essential Element position. These are indicators that you, personally, must transform yourself in some way in order to overcome, resolve, or have impact on the problem.

- Try Greer's Permutations, rotating the Essential Elements cards through each of the four positions. What new insights are revealed?


You will come away from this reading with a detailed plan of action. Your action plan will address not one dimension of the problem ... but four dimensions. Instead of simply examining what's been done (Pentacles -- as most of us do), you'll also have considered what goals and desires are involved (Wands), the role emotions and prejudices play in the situation (Cups), and how your decisions and approaches (Swords) have contributed to the issue. If you pair your understanding of all four dimensions with a four-dimensional action plan...defining precisely something you will do to impact each dimension...you'll have a balanced approach with four times more chances for success than before! You'll also possess a depth of insight into the true nature of the problem that may surprise or startle others involved.


Tom Tadfor Little's Elemental Directed Placement Spread

For some time, I've been experimenting with what I call "directed placement spreads", in which each card itself tells you where to place it in the spread. Here's one of the simplest examples of the idea, and one that I think works out rather well.

Draw five (5) cards, one at a time. If the card is a major, place it in the center of the spread; if a wand, place it above the center; cups to the right, swords to the left, pentacles below. Subsequent cards of a given suit go next to the first one, one spot farther out from the center. If you get more than one major, they will go side-by-side in the center (you mave have to move cup or sword cards over a bit). 

What results is a graphic picture of the elemental balance in your life, as pertains to the question asked. Getting one card of each suit and one major is quite rare, of course. Often, one suit will strongly dominate. You can visually see what direction you're being tugged in.

The resulting positions don't have specific meanings, of course, because the layout looks different every time. I think of all the cards as "influences", with the stronger, more pressing ones closer to the center.  But the main thing is to see the balance of the elements, and the particular forms in which each element is manifesting.

You can see a sample reading using Tom Tadfor Little's Elemental Spread here.

Mark McElroy works as a writer, creativity consultant, and multimedia designer in Jackson, Mississippi. He began his study of the Tarot in 1997, after travels in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Thailand introduced him to various methods of divination, including the I Ching. His approach emphasizes using the Tarot to generate insights, spark creativity, and plan action. His upcoming book, Putting the Tarot to Work, explores practical applications of the Tarot in business and corporate environments.  His first Tarot deck, a work in progress, can be seen at his personal website.

Tom Tadfor Little works as a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.   He has been working with the tarot for several years, and has a special passion for tarot history and older decks. He has a general tarot web site and a tarot history site.  

Essential Elements Spread © 2000 Mark McElroy
Elemental Directed Placement Spread © 2000 Tom Tadfor Little
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes

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