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The Flow of Time in a Reading

If you were to ask a number of people to draw a timeline portraying the major events of the past one hundred years, you would notice that the vast majority of them would put the year 1900 on the left side, and the year 2000 on the right. If you were to show them a timeline with the future on the left and the past on the right, they would protest, and complain that something is wrong with your illustration - that it is "backwards" and that time flows the "other way". Of course, common sense tells us that time doesn't flow in any direction that we can define, but we are still uncomfortable with "backwards" flow of time.

This is not a discourse on time, or even on how mankind perceives time; these topics would be best left to a philosopher or to a psychologist. What I wish to address is the way in which our perceptions of time can affect the meaning of a Tarot reading. In most cases, there is no time but what we perceive. (Physically speaking, there exists a thermodynamic phenomenon known as the arrow of time, which lets us define the direction of time, but no such device exists in the Tarot.) What does this mean for us? Basically, time in a Tarot reading does not flow from left to right unless you want it to. This phenomenon is more useful than it might seem at first glance.

Say that you draw three cards for a client, using a general spread that does not explicity state which card is the "past" or "future" card. Establishing the flow of time for such a reading is important if you wish to know where the client has been and where they are going next. Rather than defining the flow of time in terms of physical directions, as many readers do, it's far more useful to define "past" and "future" in terms of the qualities of the cards - either their numbers, their suits, or some other attributions. This defines the "arrow of time" for the reading.

For instance, say that I draw the Nine of Pentacles, Eight of Swords and Four of Cups, in that order from left to right. If we were to make the assumption that time is flowing from left to right, the Four of Cups would be the future card, and the Nine of Pentacles would be in the past position. If, on the other hand, we define the direction of time as the direction in which the numbers of the cards increase, the Nine of Pentacles becomes the future card and the Four of Cups falls back to the past position. As a result of this change of perspective, the meaning of the reading is radically changed, if not reversed entirely.

What justification can we make for such a change? Study of the suits will reveal that, as the numbers of the cards increase, the energy of the suit is more and more developed, ending with a final expression at the Ten. (Whether or not you place the court cards at the end of the suit or disperse them throughout it does not change this fact.) So growth is happening as the numbers get larger, and it makes sense to consider the direction of time as the direction in which growth occurs. Higher numbers, therefore, refer to a state further along the timeline than lower numbers - a far more logical argument than simply saying "Time goes left to right, and that's that"!

Let's consider a more complicated example. Say that a client is asking about the outcome of a relationship that seems to have fallen on hard times. You do a five-card spread and draw, from left to right, the Ace of Swords, Five of Pentacles, Ten of Cups, Five of Swords and Two of Swords. If we consider time as flowing from left to right, with the Ace in the past and the Two in the future, the cards are telling us this: The relationship started strong and it is indeed going through a rough period. In the present, it does show signs of improving, but it may ultimately degenerate due to conflict and a lack of emotional investment.

Now look at how the numbers are flowing and how the energies are developing, and you'll see a different story. As low-numbered cards, the Ace and Two are both in the past now. The two Fives showing the "hard times" mentioned by the client, are in the present and the Ten of Cups shows the likely future. In this case, the flow of time is neither left-to-right nor right-to-left; it is inwards from both sides. And this totally changes the meaning of the reading. Now the troubles these people are facing will be temporary and will not lead to the end of their relationship. Love can prevail after all.

If the numbers in a reading do not give a clear indication of which way the energies are flowing, there are other ways to determine this vital piece of information. One way is by looking at the suits. Let's say the order of the suits is Wands, Cups, Swords, and finally Pentacles. (I use this ordering because it mirrors the creative process and best fits the four worlds of the Qabalah. If you prefer a different order, use it instead.) So if there are a lot of Pentacles at one end of a reading and a lot of Wands at the other, the energy (and therefore the timeline) is flowing from the Wands side to the Pentacles side.

If you are familiar with the astrological correspondences of the cards, you can use them to determine which way time is flowing in the reading. You could say that cards with attributions early in the Zodiac, like Aries and Taurus, represent events of the past, while cards belonging to Aquarius and Pisces refer to future events. You could also choose the current Sun sign as your reference point; any cards from signs after the Sun's position are in the future and any cards from signs behind it are in the past. If this "arrow" agrees with that given by the numbers or the suits, so much the better. If not, your intuition will have to choose which flow it prefers.

Ultimately, your intuition must also be used to make the choice between the traditional perception of time, or another option like the ones I have presented above. The key is to stop restricting yourself to one direction, and to start seeing all the ways in which the passage of time, the flow of energy and the development of situations can be expressed in the Tarot. Try it once or twice, and you will quickly find that a Tarot reading is not a one-way street, but an open field that can be explored from any number of different directions.

Copyright 2000 James Rioux