One of the most popular and well-known Tarot spreads in the world is the Celtic Cross Tarot spread. This popular 10-card spread features an instantly recognizable cross-shaped layout of cards, and an iconic sideways-positioned card (called a “crossover card”) in the second placement.
Where did this world-famous Tarot spread come from? Who invented the Celtic Cross reading? And what makes this Tarot spread so special?
Where the Celtic Cross came from
One thing to keep in mind about early Tarot-lore is that most traditions were spread by word of mouth. As such, our modern-day understanding of Tarot history is often limited to the account of whoever first wrote it down.
In this case, the first published reference to the Celtic Cross spread comes from the work of A.E Waite (co-creator of the famous Rider-Waite Tarot cards). In Waite’s seminal 1910 “how to” guide, “A Pictorial Key to the Tarot“, Waite hints to us that the Celtic Cross has been used in private settings for a very long time. How long exactly? We wish we knew.
Here’s what Waite wrote before revealing the Celtic Cross:
“I offer in the first place a short process which has been used privately for many years past in England, Scotland and Ireland. I do not think that it has been published — certainly not in connexion with Tarot cards; I believe that it will serve all purposes.” — A.E. Waite, 1910
The main takeaways here are that the Celtic Cross had already been around for quite some time at the time of the book’s publication in 1910, and that the spread originates (as its name suggests) in the British Isles.
Why the Celtic Cross Tarot spread is so special
Waite also seemed to understand that the Celtic Cross was an amazingly versatile spread. His simple suggestion that “it will serve all purposes” has been echoed by countless Tarot readers over the past century. What makes the spread so versatile is both its size (10 cards is larger than most everyday Tarot spreads) and the somewhat generic meanings assigned to each of the card placements.
By contrast, many more modern Tarot spreads address very specific issues and questions, (“Will My Ex Come Back” or “The Week Ahead“, for example) but the Celtic Cross has no such “suggested question” or obvious use-case. To countless tarot readers, the spread’s flexibility is part of its strength, but also part of its mystery.
There’s also a somewhat interesting suggestion in Waite’s last sentence in the quote above. In saying “certainly not in connexion with Tarot cards“, he implies that the Celtic Cross may have been used with conventional playing cards, Lenormand cards or some other type of oracle prior to being used with Tarot. This cryptic statement opens up some possibility that the Celtic Cross reading may be older than Tarot itself.
Nevertheless, Waite’s description of the Celtic Cross spread and the publication date of his book most likely place the origins of the Celtic Cross Tarot spread sometime in the 19th century, but again, since Tarot lore was passed on through oral tradition, there’s no way to know for sure if the tarot spread is in fact, much older.
The Florence Farr Theory
Despite their being no contemporaneous written record suggesting her authorship, there is also a well-known theory that the Celtic Cross spread was first invented by occultist and early feminist Florence Farr.
Is this possible? Yes it is!
Farr herself was a well-known member of Waite’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later, the creator of the occultist Sphere Group. So it makes perfect sense that she certainly could have created the Celtic Cross spread. She is known to have practiced a “cross shaped” Tarot reading. However, the few notes we do have regarding Farr’s use of her cross spread, suggest that she used a slightly different layout of the cards. (Farr’s spread is thought to more closely resemble this cross shaped rune reading).
So while Farr’s “Cross tarot spread” may not be the same as its better-known cousin, it’s entirely possible that her version laid the groundwork for the Celtic Cross practiced by millions today.