Sestina Tarot Spread

Images in Tarot are like the building blocks of poetry—words. We only have so many words, and how we combine and recombine them is a key aspect of writing. In Tarot, 78 images reoccur and we read them in tandem with positions. Rearranging the images is what creates unique readings. Recycling words and imagery is at the heart of the sestina form.

A sestina is a poem that uses six different end-words and rearranges them six times. One example of this is poetic form is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.” She uses and reuses the words: house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, and tears. These are her cards. The positions in her spread are determined by the form.

To recreate this in a Tarot spread, six cards are read in six positions, and then rearranged in those positions a maximum of six times (a partial version—a few stanzas—could also be an alternative). I suggest using Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s “six degrees of men” as positions:

1)    Intellect

2)    Memory

3)    Sense

4)    Motion

5)    Life

6)    Essence


(Excerpt from Three books of occult philosophy, published in 1650, via Early English Books Online)

Using the sestina form, these would be rearranged as such:

Variation 1) 615243

Variation 2) 364125

Variation 3) 532614

Variation 4) 451362

Variation 5) 246531

The final variation is what is called an envoi in poetry—a shorter conclusion—and would be only three of the previous six cards (only three end-words in the poem): 531

Why rearrange the same cards in one reading? In poetry, the sestina’s reshuffling of words allows the writer and reader to plumb their depths. Bishop explores different perspectives of the scene with the grandmother and child, giving a voice to even the stove; she illustrates how they all interact and intertwine.

In Tarot, this exercise can plumb the depths of six cards, highlighting interactions between the intellect and sense (what happens when we feel before thinking or think before feeling?); between memory and motion (how can we integrate the static past with the moving present and future?); and between life and essence (how does the root of the matter relate to the whole?).