When I began reading tarot, I learned, as many tarot newbies do, to use the Celtic Cross spread. It's a 10-card spread that has been a staple of tarot reading at least since Arthur Waite published it, but he claimed it had been used among tarot readers long before he brought it to the masses. The spread is fairly general, but useful, and gives a lot of information, even some you may not need. A lot of people have difficulty with the Celtic Cross Spread. Some say it has too many cards, others say it's too general and doesn't answer the questions specifically enough. I understand those objections and there's no reason to use the spread if you can't seem to get it to work for you. However, I've found a way to read it that helps me, and maybe you, too.
The Celtic Cross Spread is like a story. It has literary elements like a protagonist, antagonist, conflict, climax, and denoument. It also reveals hidden forces at work, for better or for worse, and gives advice to the protagonist on how best to complete his mission. Tarot is story-telling with pictures and this spread lends itself quite well to that method of reading.
The first two cards are the actual cross, while the next four cards are the circle around the cross. The staff up the side is puzzling to many as it is disconnected from the circular cross and some of the positions seems to repeat the ones in the circular cross. There are many, many variations on this spread and different orders of positions as well. I have included a diagram here of the Celtic Cross but actually, I lay the cards down in a slightly different order than pictured here. It doesn't really matter, but it's best to choose an order and stick with it, embedding it in your subconscious so your readings will be more clear to you.
Some readers will use a Significator as well, underneath the first card. In Waite's version this makes sense, as you'll see, given his position designations. A Significator can be chosen by the Querant from the entire deck or from the court cards. It represents the card they see themselves as in their current situation. Or, you may decide to choose a Significator at random which can tell you what may really be going on under the surface with the Querant. Others don't use a Significator at all and just proceed with the spread without it. If we view this spread as telling a story, this card represents the protagonist of the story. The main character. Our noble hero: The Querant.
The first position card is laid just over the Significator, if used, and is called, "What covers you." If you want, you can say that in a spooky voice. This is the main issue at hand. This can show the main focus of the Querant, the main issue or challenge in front of him/her, their strongest feeling or attitude, or even how they have been or desire to approach the situation. Basically, I see this card as saying, "Ok, here's the situation from your point of view." In the story of this spread, this is the protagonist's dilemma or situation facing her. This is the basic issue around which the plot is centered.
The second position card is laid sideways over the first card. This one is called, "What crosses you." This card indicates the obstacles or that which opposes the Querant. In story terms, this is the antagonist. An antagonist can be another person, an external force, or something within the protagonist that brings conflict our hero must overcome.
Using the diagram above, the third position card is laid above the center cross and this is called, "What is above you." There are various ideas about what that means, but generally speaking this is the intended goal of the Querant. It is a potential outcome if she is able to successfully navigate the challenges and if others cooperate as well. The other cards will show if this goal is realistic or not under the current circumstances. So, in story terms, this is the dream of the hero, the intention of his mission, where he has set his sights to end up.
The fourth position card is laid to the right of the cross and is called, "This is before you." This card shows what the very next action in the Querant's situation is likely to be. It will either give advice or simply show what's coming next. It's also called the Immediate Future position and it foreshaows the coming events in the story. It is also the beginning of the action of the story.
The fifth position card is laid below the cross and is called, "This is beneath you" and will give the backstory about how this situation came about. It's like a flashback in a novel, filling in the missing information about a key feature of the more distant past that brought about the present circumstances. It can also indicate a strong character trait that the Querant has that has gotten them thus far and may remind her that she can get through the current problems in a similar way. It, of course, depends on the card and your interpretation to understand what exactly it is referring to.
The sixth position card is laid to the left of the cross and is called, "This is behind you." Rather than being the foundational issue, as in position five, this position tells the reader what has just happened immediately prior to this situation that is even still currently impacting it, but which is passing now as event unfold. This is backstory, too, but because we are able to see dynamics still present, it's current as well. This is action as well, but it's as if we walked in on the scene already in progress.
This portion of the Celtic Cross gives a good idea all by itself about what is going on and where it is likely to go. But our hero has other influences and the challenge is still before her. So, on to the staff.
The seventh position card is laid to the bottom right of the spread and it indicates the Querants present attitude, feelings, and actions. It should be taken as advice, in that if a card comes up indicating a negative attitude or approach, the reader may point that out as being disadvantageous to the accomplishment of the goal the Querant seeks in the third position card. Also, if her approach has been positive, that can be affirmed as well. This is the hero's action plan.
The eighth position card is laid directly above the seventh and it indicates the Querant's environment, the forces and other people who are impacting the events and the way they may be impacting them -- their actions, their opinions, advice, etc. If, say, the Tower appears here, this could show an event out of the Querant's control that will impact the situation and change things for her quite dramatically. If a court or other "people card" is in this position, this would indicate another person who plays a direct role in shaping the events. They could be helping or harming, depending on the situation. Good information for our hero to know.
The ninth position card is laid, again, above the last and it indicates the Querant's hopes and fears concerning the outcome. Other versions use this position as "something the Querant should know." In either case, it sheds more light on what will be the necessary approach, given all the other cards information thus far. It's the final conflict, and if it be her own hopes and fears, it is the protagonist's own inner struggle which brings about the climax as she resolves this conflict within herself and ....
The tenth position card above the ninth indicates the Outcome. This card shows what will likely happen if the story plays out as described in the sequence of cards already shown. Sometimes a card that isn't welcome shows up here, so sometimes one needs to look carefully at the other cards to determine where something might be going badly. It's possible the end result is simply outside of our hero's control and the story becomes rather a tragedy, riveting but sad. Other times there are clues to attitudes we can change, behaviors to adopt and new things to try. The outcome is not written in stone. All the other cards are there to tell our hero what she needs to know to make her OWN outcome, if she can. She can re-write the story at will, and that is one of the best qualities of a tarot reading: that it provides information, ideas, and clues to help us write our own life's stories as we go along.