When people ask about tarot combinations, the questions usually fall into one of two categories. The first is how to join the cards together in a reading to interpret the story they're revealing. The second often refers to the blended meaning of particular cards appearing together in a spread. One of the common misconceptions is that each card combined with another must have a universal and set meaning, like a fixed list that needs to be learned. As with most things tarot, there can be a good deal of flexibility within the interpretation, just as in language there can be more than one way to convey something.
Just to slightly confuse matters, most professional or seasoned readers do tend to have some favourite set pieces tucked away in their tarot toolbox that have proven to be accurate and reliable, gained through experience over time. Yet, even on this note, we still have subtle differences because of the individual nature of our reading style. With the exclusion clauses covered, how then do we begin to work through these various threads that weave through the spread?
Set Your Intention
Before we begin to try and combine cards together, it helps if you're clear in your own mind as to what each card means to you first of all. In addition to interpretations found within books, or particular traditions and different branches of tarot, the symbolism contained within the card images resonates on a deeper subconscious level and can speak to each of us slightly differently, based on our personal experiences. One of the ways you can do this is to break each card down to its core concepts, or the basic fundamental message of each card. Many of the cards have different facets, so some have more than one meaning or ways in which they can be applied—but hold that thought for the moment as we'll come back to it shortly.
Birds of a Feather…
Most cards have some supporting allies, found as similar themes and overlapping interpretations. When a number of these "allies" appear collectively anywhere in the spread, they can act as a reinforcing aspect, alerting and pointing you in the direction of their shared meaning.
Once you feel fairly comfortable and satisfied with the interpretations you like to use for your cards, extract one card out of your deck and place it in front of you; perhaps try one that you feel really at home with and confident about first. Then go through the rest of the deck and take out any others that may closely share similar meanings, themes, or qualities, and lay them alongside in a line so you can examine them as a group. Whilst the cards may share certain similarities and crossover points, you can more readily identify their subtle nuances when you see them together; the way they express their message and that which sets them slightly apart from one another.
When the card you're working with has more than one meaning you can then turn your attention to the alternative interpretation and set up a new line, working through your deck to find any that may complement that aspect and lay them down as a new thread. As an example, if we take the Six of Wands: for me it represents acclaim, rewards, and recognition, so it is a card of triumph and success when people are supportive and singing your praises. As a secondary meaning, it can be the bearer of important news, so it could also represent messages.
My groups would be organised along these lines:
Six of Wands (success/triumph aspect): Three of Wands > The Chariot > The World
Messages aspect: Eight of Wands > the Pages
Now consider which cards you feel represent the opposite meaning for your chosen card; extract them from your deck and place them across the table in a separate group. Opposing cards feel as though they repel each other; they don't seem to sit easily or naturally together and can disrupt the flow of your reading.
For instance, my choice of opposing cards for the Six of Wands would be:
Five of Wands (rivalry, lack of support) > Five of Cups (disappointment) > Five of Swords (malice and spite; a hollow victory), and the Ten of Swords for failure.
Depending upon their placement to the Six of Wands, opposing cards can show challenges or contradictory forces at play. For instance, try pairing one of the opposing cards with the Six of Wands; first of all, read it placed before and then swap it over and read it as an event that follows, and you'll see how it can completely change the outcome when the ordering is altered. Similar to a kaleidoscope, one slight turn and you could be looking at an entirely different picture! The Six of Wands immediately followed by one of the opposing cards shows that in due course the situation will run into the difficult circumstances that are represented, whereas if the Six of Wands follows an opposing card, we may be applauding the efforts of having triumphed and overcome some trying circumstances.
Before moving onto another card and gradually working through the deck, you may like to make a note of your chosen groups, and over time, as your work evolves, you may wish to make changes accordingly. One of the benefits of working through this exercise is that it can provide a thorough grounding of the card meanings and raises your awareness to the card relationships, so it becomes a natural recognition when they appear together in a spread.
Brainstorming and Storyboarding
Visual media use a planning technique called storyboarding prior to filming, which is a graphic visualisation of the scenes, arranged in order of the unfolding story. Reading tarot is not too dissimilar, and whilst we may not have the benefit of seeing the script beforehand, we do have a mutual agreement with our subconscious of our intended and designated meaning for each card. When we lay down the cards, they provide us with an unfolding sequence of events as one situation leads to the next.
One of the ways you can begin to get comfortable with the linking process is to try some brainstorming with your cards; select all those you feel would apply for a chosen familiar situation, and then create a storyboard with them. For instance, which order of cards and sequence of events might you expect to see for an ongoing family dispute gathering steam, buying a house, the start of a new romance, or running into a financial problem that is then resolved?
Try working with a few cards that represent key points to begin with, like stepping-stones in the story; retrieve them from your deck and lay them out before you as a forward moving timeline of events. This can also be a good way of discovering where you may have any gaps in your interpretations, or any grey areas where you may need to make some decisions regarding the allocation of meanings for your cards.
As you become more confident you can expand the narrative and introduce more cards—and the more you use the higher the probability of similar cards appearing to add reinforcement. As well as providing good practice in making the connections, it can help build familiarity with the main cards you would expect to see in a given situation. Sometimes, it is the absence of those cards that can be most revealing when answering a specific question.
With the storyboard exercise you're creating a perfect set of events from point A to point B but, as we're all aware, real life often presents less than ideal circumstances! Just as a true reflection of the client's life, in a real tarot reading situation the journey to the destination can involve a few detours and unexpected developments en route. Challenges can occur (opposing cards), and life can change direction with altered circumstances, or intervening situations taking precedence. This may explain why sometimes it feels as though the reading isn't making sense; we expect to see perfect circumstances when, in reality, life is often messy. If you stay true to your cards they will tell you all you need to know; you don't need to bend the meanings to try and make them fit, but listen to the way they converse, connect, and interact with one another.
If we return to the original questions that I'm usually asked about Tarot combinations, both methods can be relevant in different circumstances. Sometimes the meanings of the cards will easily join together and read as one, almost like a straightforward statement, such as: Knight of Cups > Eight of Pentacles: an offer of new work. At other times, and usually more regularly, you may find that each card acts like a sentence within a paragraph, a series of events that form part of the evolving story.
Tarot reading consists of a series of layers and connections and, as readers, we naturally look for synchronicity within the patterns we find laid before us. There can be many strands that contribute to the rich tapestry within your tarot spread that form different types of combinations. In addition to similar and opposing cards, themes, multiples, polarity, and flow, are all woven throughout and can add depth to enhance your readings, and these are some of the concepts I share with you in my latest book, Easy Tarot Combinations. Tarot combinations are not really lists that you need to learn and memorise, but a natural extension to the way you read your cards.