One of my favourite spreads is the 5-card elements*. I use it often, but I use it particularly when I need tarot as self-care. Tarot as self-storying. Tarot as an invitation into a gentler moment with myself. When I use it this way, I am not asking about outcomes or directions for movement – I find that those spreads are valuable and helpful, but when I am in a low moment, I need tarot that meets me in that low moment, I need tarot of the sunken now. Then, once I’ve met myself in that moment, I can think about how to move forward.
This post is a bit of a “how-to” and a bit of an introduction to my tarot reading method. It can be important to know how someone approaches tarot before you trust them with your questions!
First, the spread itself.
Image description: A lined sheet of paper. At the top the spread is labeled: 1 in the centre, 2 at the top, 3 to the left, 4 at the bottom, 5 to the right. The position meanings are described as below.
As with almost all of my tarot readings, I approach this one with some flexibility and an openness to conversation between the cards and myself (or the cards and my querent). What that means in practical terms is that I make choices about which cards to draw after shuffling and which to intentionally select, and when I am drawing after shuffling, I make choices about which cards to lay out first. I’ve numbered the positions in this spread in ascending numerical order, but that’s just for ease of communication.
In practice, if I feel particularly untethered from my solid foundations, I might lay Earth first as an anchor, and if I feel lost in heartbreak, I might lay Water first to honour that. I might put the elements down in the order that I feel most connected with them, or in the order that I feel I most need help connecting to them. And the Core card also works well as both a first or a last card. (Narrative tarot, like narrative therapy, is all about welcoming a diversity of responses and experiences.)
The five positions are:
1 – The core. Sometimes this can be the person that the spread is for, sometimes it can be the situation that they’re asking about, sometimes it can be the primary challenge facing them, or the skill, knowledge, or resource they’re relying on to meet the challenge. This card can be drawn after shuffling, or it can be intentionally chosen. Sometimes choosing this card intentionally can be a way to bring agency into a moment of sadness, discouragement, anger, fear, or other distress. Other times, allowing the card to select itself can give the reader an opportunity to respond dynamically to what presents itself. I also consider this card, even more than others in the spread, to be fluid. Sometimes what presents itself here, even when it’s chosen, takes on a different meaning after reading it in relation to the other cards, and it can be a meaningful act of self-authoring to change this card after the reading is complete.
2 – Air / mental / conceptual. What are you thinking about the situation? How is your mental or conceptual self engaged here, and what might help you feel more at ease in your mind? I think about this card in relation to intellect and thinking, but also in relation to overarching concepts – it might be a card about the metaphors that are at work in the situation, or the plan we have made for ourselves in the situation.
3 – Fire / spiritual. What is fueling this situation, or your response to the situation? Where is your passion, your creativity, your spark in this situation? This position doesn’t need to reflect any kind of metaphysical spirituality – it can also simply reflect spark/passion/creativity for secular readers.
4 – Earth / physical / foundational. What is grounding this situation, or your response to the situation? This can be about the physical self, but it can also be about the material context (finances, housing, food security, health), or about the foundations (history, social context, community).
5 – Water / emotional / relational. How are you feeling about the situation, or your response to the situation? What sorts of social connections do you have, or need? How is your heart in this situation?
When I’m reading, I look for where the elements show up in the cards, and whether there are patterns, interesting interactions, alignments, or opportunities for the cards to inform each other. As an example, I’ll show you the reading I did for myself this morning!
* I first learned this spread from Beth at Little Red Tarot, and she expanded it to a 9-card elements + bridges “Full Circle” spread when she did a reading for me. (She has included that spread in her book of 21 original tarot spreads, and I highly recommend it. You can get it here.)
Tiffany’s ‘Elements on a Tough Morning’ Self-Care Spread
Image description: The five card spread described above. In the centre is the Chariot reversed. Air is the Three of Pentacles, Fire is the Father of Wands, Earth is the Mother of Wands, Water is the Daughter of Pentacles. Around the spread are two small crystals and a small sprig of flowers. All cards are from the Wild Unknown Tarot.
I woke up sad. I hadn’t slept well, I am feeling lonely over here in Australia for the narrative therapy intensive, and I’m anxious about many aspects of my life. I felt untethered from a solid sense of myself. It felt like a good opportunity to use myself as a case study for how tarot can be used in a self-care practice. So, I got up and did this spread and spent quite a bit of time with it before I checked my phone, logged in to facebook, or even looked at email. Tarot can, sometimes, be a way to set a small boundary around a block of time and connect with our own experience of ourselves, not mediated through the news, the memes, or the world outside. It can make space for those conversations with ourselves that allow us to reconnect.
I shuffled and drew all of this – no intentional card choices.
I laid them all facedown to start with. (Sometimes I flip as I go, but this morning I wanted the whole thing revealed at once.)
In the centre, at the core, The Chariot reversed. Oof. I felt this one right into my bones – the sense of enthusiasm and passion, the desire to move forward, the energy, all present but blocked. In the Chariot, especially this Chariot, I see so much of the kind of forward movement I want. This Chariot is grounded – that pentacle on the horse’s chest is so prominent! Not rushing forward and about to skid out, she’s got some solid grounding to push off from. And she’s connected to the moon, which always feels so right for me. She’s not rushing forward without any intuitive understanding or openness to new insight – she’s got that crescent on her forehead, allowing her to learn and adapt. Everything I want for myself! But blocked. Reversed. The gut-punch of an answer that feels so accurate.
Then Air, Three of Pentacles. (I drew it reversed but turned it upright when I flipped it. Why? It just felt right to flip it, just like the Chariot felt right reversed.)
Fire, Father of Wands.
Earth, Mother of Wands.
Water, Daughter of Pentacles.
All Wands and Pentacles! Fire and Earth. Creativity and grounding. Spiritual self and material self.
Reading them together, I was able to see a picture of myself within this feeling of sadness, loneliness, restlessness, anxiety about financial and professional sustainability and success. I am a passionate and creative person – Mother and Father of Wands in Fire and Earth, fueling my actions and also grounding me. The Mother here is so protective of her creative projects, and that protectiveness is something I can lean on. I do protect my work.
In her blog series exploring the cards in the Wild Unknown Tarot, Carrie Mallon writes about the Mother of Wands, “Although she can be kind and warm, she is fierce and loyal, and not afraid to stand her ground. She holds her values dear to her heart and isn’t afraid to live in a way that lines up with her moral code. She doesn’t do anything halfway – she’s in it to win it. She pours all of her love, originality and unique energy into everything she does.”
That’s me. That’s the foundation that grounds me. And the Father of Wands with his fierce determination and courage, he fuels me. The creativity, commitment to my values, and determination that I bring into my work is present even in this moment of soft sadness.
Then the Pentacles in my Water and Air. The work that I do in my mental and emotional self-care to keep myself grounded, because otherwise I’m at risk of drowning or floating away. It felt very encouraging and validating to have Pentacles in both these positions – an invitation to recognize how much work I do to keep myself tethered, rooted, connected.
The Three of Pentacles reminds me that I am not alone, and that I have a strong community around me. Even when I can’t feel that connection, I can think about it and know that it’s present and real. In this ‘conceptual’ position, it also reminds me of the work I’ve done to plan my life out, and the fact that I am following through on that plan. I’m launching this tarot business, I’m working on my Master of Narrative Therapy degree, I am acting on the plan. I’m not just floating aimlessly through life hoping to bump into success – I am approaching this intentionally, from a position of forethought and insight, and I am standing on solid ground in my communities.
And then the Daughter of Pentacles. Soft. Vulnerable. Gentle. But also curious, eager to explore, and living under that rainbow – I love how this deck reflects back to me my queerness, lets me see my queer self as valid and present. My heart is a Daughter of Pentacles – ready to step out into the world and explore, still soft and willing to learn.
After the reading, I realized that The Chariot didn’t need to stay reversed. All those feelings of being blocked and unable to access my forward movement didn’t feel as relevant after being reminded of my strong grounding and the fire that keeps me going. Things are moving forward slowly, but they’re not stagnant, and I’m not stalled.
So I flipped that card, and I felt a lot better.
Image description: The same spread as above, but with The Chariot upright. Onward!