Deck Anatomy

I’ve always viewed tarot as a complete representation of us. No matter which cards are drawn, the entire pack is within us, so every single card is ALWAYS relevant… But of course there are times when certain aspects of ourselves are more prevalent than others.

We display certain aspects to all, we attempt to suppress some of our most obvious traits, we cultivate those things we feel are latent or hidden. We build our beliefs around our foundational pasts, and we filter experiences deep into our subconscious.

The process of who we are is in constant flux — aspects are buried and resurfaced, mixed and sorted, counted apart and grouped together. Is this also not what we do when we cut, riffle, pile, stack, fan, deal, shuffle, and otherwise arrange our cards — even before turning them over?

Even our language is rife with analogies comparing people to card decks. How many times have we heard, “he’s not playing with a full deck” or “she laid all her cards on the table” or “he plays his cards close (to his chest/vest)” or “if she plays her cards right…” and many others. These are usually rooted in playing card culture, but they reveal a link between cards as a symbol and representation of ourselves.

Knowing this, we can take our representation of the deck as us, and map some associations onto the pack that may affect how we shuffle, sort, and read cards without even looking at their faces. How a person feels about their situation or how they approach a reading may be demonstrated in how they choose cards, if you are a reader who has clients choose their own cards — but more on how that shows later 😉

So what parts of the deck represent which parts of us?

This is of course open to the reader to determine, through both belief and experience… but here are my associations, based on some traditional views with my own twists:

  • Top of the pack: the surface, what’s going on now, most prevalent and obvious concerns and factors. What the querent is conscious of, what’s already on their mind at the time.
  • Middle of the pack: the inner world, the inner struggles, what is hidden from the outside world, but is aware and active within. The thought processes, decisions and choices about action, how the querent feels. The immediate past or immediate future, factors that are at play in a broader scheme.
  • Bottom of the pack: The root, the foundation. Hidden factors, the deep un/subconscious, suppressed material. The distant past or future. Seemingly unrelated, but relevant factors.

Deck Anatomy 1

We can also look at the pack as representative of the Four Elements:

  • Top: Air
  • Upper middle: Fire
  • Lower middle: Water
  • Bottom: Earth

Deck Anatomy 2

Of course, depending on the system you use, the order could be different, usually Fire, Water, Air, Earth. Test them and see which works best or makes the most sense for you.

In the Air-Fire-Water-Earth scheme, we also have the top of the pack being masculine, so: action, logic, square, linear, conscious, rigid, etc.; and the bottom of the pack is feminine: receptive, intuitive, soft, round, adaptable, unconscious/subconscious, etc. And we are moving from most subtle at the top of the pack to most dense at the bottom.

Alternately, in the Fire-Water-Air-Earth scheme, we have the more volatile polarities at the top and more passive polarities at the bottom, which is certainly interesting too — and as a more traditional scheme, it has stood the test of time.

This is all symbolic, of course, but it can lend depth to the entire process, from the time we pick up the cards until they are gathered back into the deck.

With all of this in mind, we can use these associations to both help us choose cards and determine things about the querent, reader, and reading based on where in the pack cards come from. It may even affect how we shuffle cards, depending on what kind of advice is sought and the nature of the situation (more about shuffling later).



So for instance, if we want to know what’s going on at the surface, we can draw from the top of the pack. If we want to look at root causes, deep factors, or what is hidden, we might choose from the bottom. If we want to get into the nitty gritties of the whole thing, we might choose from the middle.

If your querent chooses cards, you might surmise similar correlations: if they choose cards only off the top, they probably only want to look at the surface; or their situation is fairly immediate, or they are not willing to reveal too much about themselves right away (it doesn’t mean they aren’t willing or involved in the reading, they are just more private). If they choose from the bottom, they’re looking for deep, root causes — though possibly prematurely, without being too concerned with the ramifications of how it will all turn out, like a farmer who plows the entire field just to get rid of a few weeds. And if they choose from the middle, they’re eager to get to the meat of things, they’re ready to get in the middle of the situation, and look at the circumstances from the inside.

Some will choose from all over the deck, one or two from the top, a few from the bottom, a few from the middle. Pay attention to the order in which they choose those cards, too: Do they choose from the bottom first, or the top? Do they leave the middle alone till the end, or do they go for it first, and then frame it with a top and bottom card?

Even if you choose the cards for your querents, pay attention to these things anyway, at what you are inclined or compelled to do as you are drawing cards, as it can give you another layer of insight when you do read the actual cards.

Look too at the Elements associated with each region cards are drawn from, using whichever Elemental scheme works for you — either of the ones above, or your own.

This is also helpful when cutting into piles, whether specifically for Elemental readings or not. For Elemental readings, the piles that are thicker show which areas have more going on in them, and the smaller piles show where matters are simpler (though not necessarily easier). This technique of reading piles before reading cards is used to great effect in the Opening of the Keys (OOTK) spread, but even if you aren’t using that spread, start observing this aspect, as it will lay a good foundation for the OOTK and similar spreads.

I mentioned in a previous post that I tend to draw off the top — this is partly for convenience, but is also related to how I shuffle, and how I view the relevance of ALL cards. But, even without those considerations, the same method can be applied when drawing all cards off the top, or all from a particular section of the pack: the first few cards are the top, the next are the middle, the last are the bottom; the first are the state of mind, the next are active factors, emotional, then practical – or – you can completely reverse this, which is pretty common in timeline-type layouts where the first cards turned over are the past, the root, the foundation, and the last cards drawn are the result, the fruit, and the advice.

All of these possibilities are not intended to confuse you, but rather open up new possibilities for discovery, so again, do what makes the most sense to you, and practice to see what method(s) yield the best results.



OK, so that covers where the cards come from in a deck, but what about how we randomize and select them?


There’s symbolism here, too, if you choose to observe and apply it. This of course is also based on our habits and what bits of tarot lore and system we adhere to, so take it all with a grain of salt — these are generalizations that may or may not apply to specific situations. I’m not stating right or wrong, just experience and preference.

If you’re a reader who has the querent choose their cards, and especially if you let them randomize them, you might be able to tell a bit about them and how they’ll receive the reading:

  • If they fan the cards out, they are ready and willing to “lay all their cards on the table” but watch here as to how carefree (or careless) they are in choosing cards from different parts of the deck. Look too at whether they select from a particular part, as they may be fanning the cards to *look* like they are quite open, but selecting cards very close together may indicate they are not as ready to reveal everything as they first wanted to appear.
  • If they swirl the cards, totally randomizing them, twisting and turning them to include reversals and create total chaos, they may be very aware of the chaotic nature of existence. They probably do not have many control issues, or if they do, their manner of coping with uncertainty is to throw caution to the wind. They could also be very scattered, in all or many aspects of their life; or their particular situation is (or feels like) it is disorganized.
  • If they just cut and are ready to go, they are likely no-nonsense, and ready to get to the gist of things. Don’t mess around with this person, just give the reading straight! This too could be a coping mechanism, though — avoiding the messy stuff by cutting to the chase… but sometimes the messy stuff is where the value is.
  • If they overhand shuffle, they may be reconciling control and randomness — they may be exploring their relationship with both. Overhand shufflers may be looking to compartmentalize, and may not readily see interconnectedness. With overhand shufflers, you may also want to pay attention to the order that the cards are picked up and fall in: do they pick from the middle and fall in sections on top, continually, effectively keeping the bottom of the pack still? Do they let the cards fall in 3 or 4 large clumps at a time, or smaller ones? Do they throw the cards into the receiving hand forcefully or carelessly, or with purpose? Reserved and contained, or confident and determined?
  • Rifflers (that is, if you allow your cards to be riffled) may want a more logical approach, but are probably more interested in interconnection than those who only do overhand or cuts.
  • You may even get what I’d call “counters” — they will count cards off the top (or bottom, or cut) into any number of piles or combinations, and this could be from a very organized and sophisticated esoteric bent, a mathematical or numerological bent. They are highly controlled and probably very organized. It’s possible they don’t deal with chaos and randomness very well, or contrarily, see the larger patterns inherent in chaos.
  • And overall, those who put a lot into randomizing may also want to “clear” any psychic residue from previous users, or they are unsure on their question, and are trying to make it clearer before selecting cards. They may be hesitant, or unsure, even scared of what may be revealed and explored. On the other hand, those who don’t spend a lot of time randomizing are either rushed, or very decisive and clear about their question and situation… or they also have fear, but their tactic for dealing with it is to rush through, like pulling off a band-aid quickly!

Again, these are generalizations — people are far more complicated than any category we can place them in, but use these as pieces to build upon. Similar assessments can be made of readers as a querent, or as a reader observing themselves when shuffling and reading for others. These things can reveal either where your state is as the reader, and through whatever kind of psychic connectivity happens or doesn’t happen when the reader places attention on the querent.




So — how do I use this personally, in my own readings?

Based on my own biases, beliefs, theology, and experience (and my own control issues surrounding the interaction), I usually do not let querents handle my cards. This cuts out a huge amount of interpretive possibility, but it also assures that other aspects of my “system” are kept in check. I will, however, employ other methods for gathering and utilizing some of the information above.

But first, SHUFFLING! I love shuffling. When I’m bored, when I’m thinking, when I’m chatting with others… basically whenever my hands are free — and I’m a riffler.

I basically do a mix of overhand or group shuffling, and riffle shuffling. That’s partly as a carry-over from when I used to play cards often, but also because I just find it the most effective way of randomizing cards that is efficient, thorough, spatially economic, and displays some degree of proficiency and confidence.

More specifically, I have developed a very particular manner of overhand and riffle shuffling that takes deck anatomy into account. I call it the “revealing what’s within” shuffle — though I’m sure I’m not the first or only one to use it!

It goes like this: for overhand shuffling, take the middle of the deck out, and alternate letting cards drop to the front and the back (top and bottom):

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For riffling, the same thing, take the middle of the deck out in one hand and keep the top and bottom in the other, then riffle them together:

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It’s a minor detail, but for me carries great significance. My main interest in turning to tarot whether for myself or reading for others is to “reveal what’s within” and so, taking the middle of the deck and interspersing it with the top and bottom moves cards up from the bottom, down from the top, and distributes the middle up and down in a continual, nearly toroidal cycle. The Elements are similarly randomized.

After sufficient shuffling, whatever needs to come to the surface, theoretically, will — and so from here I usually just draw off the top. I trust that this shuffling process will reveal what’s necessary without any further selection method.

At the same time, in face-to-face readings, if I feel I need a little more information from the querent, I may cut the deck into 3 or 4 piles, and ask them to choose one, noticing which pile it was (top/middle/bottom or Air/Fire/Water/Earth) and the relative size of each pile, especially the one that was chosen.

I may then ask if they want cards drawn from the top or bottom of the pile(s). This part is better reserved for readings of 4 cards or less; it’s not so convenient for a 15-card spread! Then again, there’s so much information in larger spreads, the need for these subtler details is much less.

Even in remote readings, I may sometimes cut into piles and ask which pile the querent wants. This is best done live, though, and doesn’t usually work so well for email or written readings (which I’m not doing often anymore anyway).

Incorporate these considerations in your readings, and in designing your spreads. The Pairspectives series takes advantage of some of this, but it can of course be taken much further… play, experiment, investigate, and enjoy!

(Decks pictured: Zombie Tarot from Quirk Books and The Orbifold Tarot)


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