Retrospective Tarot Reading

Using the Celtic Cross Spread to Explore a Past Event

We mostly use tarot to find out about the future, or explore a current event in our lives or that of our clients. Tarot is also an excellent tool for exploring past events too. All we need do is tweak the positions of our favourite tarot spread and we have our very own questionnaire built to explore the past! I’m going to use the Celtic Cross Tarot Spread in this post as it lends itself well to customisation.

(See my free tutorial on the Celtic Cross for a deeper understanding of its use.)

Defining a Past Event

Perhaps our first thoughts are about a recent break-up of a relationship, the loss of a job, an argument with a friend – all these are excellent candidates for retrospective tarot reading.

We can explore our own actions and gain clarity on events we never fully understood, why we acted a certain way, why we said those awful things, why we acted in a way we didn’t really mean to.

There are lots of answers to be found in the past and a good tarot spread can help us go over these events with a fine tooth comb, and often with less pain attached. It’s in the past, the wounds are healed and we can look at things we just couldn’t do before.

But I think we can get a little more creative than that – I think we can go way back and find out about our ancestry, our forefathers, those that came before us who we know very little about.

Turning Back the Clock

In the late 1700’s, my great, great, great, great grandfather, Captain Joseph Hynson, was a double agent in the American War of Independence. He was an American working under Benjamin Franklin, acting as courier with his ears to the ground in Paris. He also went on to become employed by the British.

Entrusted with 8 months’ worth of despatches, Joseph managed to hand them over to his British paymasters and replaced the despatches with blank paper destined for Congress. The heist wasn’t discovered for months. A lot is known of that event, he is mentioned in many historical books and in university literature. You can even Google him to find out more.

What we don’t really know much about is the man himself. I’ve used tarot before to find out about him, what he was like as a spy, as a husband and father and what his journeys were like/ I’ve never taken a single event in his life and explored that – so let’s do it!

Let’s explore why my great, great, great, great grandfather, Captain Joseph Hynson, decided to become a spy, his motives, rewards and what happened to him in the aftermath.

This is where the Celtic Cross Spread comes in. And you! Together we can explore this period of his life so you can see how easily you can use the tarot to explore your family history too.

You can read more about Joseph and how I discovered more about his life using the Free Association technique.

Modifying the Spread Positions

I’ve kept to the original Celtic Cross Spread that is published in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot. You may use different position names than the ones I’ve used here – all are okay. The original positions are less important than the new ones we’ll be bringing in. Think of the original tarot spread positions as guides.

Where it was appropriate to change the positions to reflect the past, I have. Some of the staff positions of the Celtic Cross are already appropriate and so I haven’t changed them at all. If you use different position names than Arthur Waite, check to see if they’re still appropriate for your retrospective tarot reading.

You can modify the Celtic Cross Spread more specifically if you want to. I have tried to keep these changes to be a little more generic so that I may use it again in my genealogical explorations – makes me sound like Indiana Jones ;).

A word about the Significator

We often think of using a court card as the significator to represent the person involved. Arthur Waite is clear in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot that we can also use a card to ‘represent the matter’.

If we allow the tarot to designate the ‘signifcator of the matter’ (by drawing a card and not choosing one purposely) we’re gaining a card with extra information that we might not have known about before. It may show you what motivated your ancestor, or what the driving force behind the event was, if it was not of their instigation.

This position also has the potential to clash with other positions in the spread. All of these positions will show nuances between each other and will be related to each other more uniquely than by using the Celtic Cross Spread to determine future events.

(See Part Two of my free Celtic Cross Tutorial for a deeper exploration of the spread positions and their meanings.)

  1. What covers him – What was their major influence?
  2. What crosses him – obstacles they faced
  3. What is beneath him – what was the reason behind their action? What were they looking for? What did they really want?
  4. What is behind him – what event(s) prior to the event lead them to it, to decide upon their course of action?
  5. What crowns him – what was their aim? What were they hoping to achieve?
  6. What is before him – What was their reward or future motivating force to continue? What was immediately before them after their event?
  7. Himself – How were they feeling? What was their mind-set?
  8. His house – What were their environmental influences?
  9. Hopes and fears – What were they hoping to achieve by this action? Were they trying to avert a danger?
  10. What will come – what was the outcome? Or the single biggest change in their lives because of this event? What did they gain or lose?

Retrospective Tarot Reading of Captain Joseph Hynson & Why He Became A Spy

retrospective tarot reading using the celtic cross spread and the thoth tarot deck four-of-cups queen-of-cups queen-of-swords nine-of-cups tarot-hermit tarot-moon three-of-wands ace-of-wands tarot-tower prince-of-disks prince-of-swords

Click on the individual cards for a further exploration of each card in the Tarot Card Meanings section, or use my quick summaries below.

I used the Thoth Tarot deck to find out about the Joseph’s decision to enter the historical world of James Bond and so will be keeping to the subtlety of the different definitions of that deck for this reading.

The Significator4 of Cups – Luxury. Was he seduced by the thought of a fabulous lifestyle? He lived in Paris at the time of the theft, all rather high-rolling. Was there also a sense of being locked into this and not having a way out?

  1. What was his major influence?Queen of Cups. A woman, the pursuit of romance, or a romantic notion of life? Was he a dreamer?
  2. Obstacles he facedQueen of Swords. Another woman? Or perhaps a harsh environment where his intellect, logic and authenticity was challenged?
  3. what was the reason behind his action?9 of Cups – Satiety. Enter the dreamer, was his long range desires of love, money & happiness really behind him becoming a spy? So far the opening Cups cards are very telling.
  4. What event(s) prior to this event lead him to do it?Hermit. Introspection doesn’t seem to fit. With espionage all around, did he carry out other spying duties that showed his ability to Franklin and others? Was he already on a secret mission that only Franklin knew about?
  5. What was his aim?Moon. My initial thoughts are this is about an initiation. His brother James was a Philadelphia Freemason, as was Franklin. Does Joseph hope to be included in the Brotherhood? Or was he a Loyalist double agent all along and his main aim was to deceive those who thought he was loyal to the Colonists?
  6. What was his reward or future motivating force to continue?3 of Wands – Virtue. To perhaps repay an untold debt of honour? Or perhaps to continue his espionage activities and seek a career with larger responsibilities? He certainly had ambitions for himself.
  7. How was he feeling?Ace of Wands. He must have felt such power, I can’t help but feel his feeling of invincibility. At the very least, he’s putting his name in the history books loud and clear and I think he knew it.
  8. What were his environmental influences?Tower. And who could expect anything less in this double dealing world he was living and operating in. It was all about to go belly up, his world turned upside down never to be the same again. In Paris, after the eventual theft of the despatches, his American friends and associates would have nothing to do with him. He moved to England.
  9. What was he hoping to achieve by this action?Prince of Disks. He hoped to be a man of the world, and be seen as a Man of Consequence – those were his own words, I saw them in his own hand writing in letters held at the British Library this year.
  10. What was the outcome?Prince of Swords. The life of a double agent must carry many faces and facades. The web of lies must have been large and complex. He was no doubt fighting for his survival and cover every single day and this became his reality for the period ahead.

Going Beyond…

I have written about Joseph on my blog before, where I use free association as a technique to help connect with him and his life. This technique is also really helpful in many other ways, defining your own tarot card meanings for one. It comes into its own here though, where you can connect with your ancestor in a non-forced and completely open way.

Reading tarot retrospectively has given me some extra clarity on a specific time and decision of my great, great, great, great grandfather. There were a lot of confirmations in there for me as I have been researching his life and know a good timeline of events.

Reading tarot this way can help us understand past events in a way that we would struggle to do otherwise. It sheds light on events that we have no other way of finding out about and so is a useful way to approach the explorations of our own lives and actions so we can learn from our mistakes and make better decisions for our future.

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16 thoughts on “Retrospective Tarot Reading”

  1. Catherine –
    Lots of good stuff here! I do not use significators at all, but for those who do, it is important to know that they can represent the question/issue/event, as well as the Seeker. Very well done! My guess is that you have just sent people scurrying to their decks to address an issue from the past that haunts them! :)

    • Hi Bonnie,
      Thanks! I had a lot of fun doing this and I’ve used this technique and the Celtic Cross Spread to dig deeper into my family history, and of course a few events that I’ve needed to understand, after the fact.
      Always happy to encourage people to get their tarot decks out ;)

  2. What a fascinating use of the Tarot, Catherine. I really enjoyed this. I do readings for fictional characters so I can see where reading for an ancestor would work. I will have to try this out.

    • Hi Arwen,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the technique. Tarot is enlightening, in any time period – even for fictional characters, now that’s fascinating!
      Thank you for your comment, and welcome to Tarot Elements :)

  3. You know how much I love this topic! Mr. Hynson was quite a character & you should be so proud of your roots. Fantastic article, Catherine & I just got the spread to use my new Gaian deck for the 1st time :D Love, Stacy

    • Thanks, Stacy!
      I am lucky to have such a colourful ancestor – particularly one that left a trail for us to follow.
      Glad you liked the post, can’t wait to hear how you get on with it and you shiny, new, gorgeous Gaian Tarot ;)

  4. Hi Catherine,
    I was inspired to give this a go. I picked an historical character that I knew nothing about – Boudica. I’ve been wanting to read more about her so it was a good excuse to use her as the focus of the reading. My plan was to do the reading, see what I could figure out and then consult the history books to see how accurate I was.
    It worked well. I was surprised. The 5 of Disks appeared in a telling position (I used the Celtic Cross to follow closely to your article) which I took to be her motivation. I’ve often found that the 5 of disks is a card of betrayal and revenge so I interpreted it as such = revenge over money. Knowing nothing about her I was pleased to see that money (debt to the Romans) could have played its part.
    Anyway, I won’t bore you guys with any more of the details … except to say that this is a great way to while away the hours.
    Great post :D

    • Hi Doug,
      You certainly did go way back and get creative! Wow, what an awesome way to use Retrospective Tarot Reading – this should be taught in schools, haha :D
      Fortunately for me, my favourite historical person, Benjamin Franklin, is wrapped up with my g,g,g,g grandfather, Joseph so I can get a glimpse of the man, not just from the history books. I’m going to follow your idea though and pick someone way further back and explore them – thanks for expanding this idea!

  5. Fascinating article… I can think of someone straight away that I could use this on… my dad. He was a mysterious and elusive character and his death left us with more questions than answers. This might be a good time to do it too since I’m cat sitting at the house where he used to live. I’ve always had a macabre urge to stay a night in the hotel where he killed himself, and this might be a good focus for what I’d do when I was there. I want to add that memory is a trickster… even the events of yesterday are tainted and coloured by our reflections in the present. The mind constantly edits and changes our memories so that they become something they weren’t. Even happy memories (perhaps especially) are false to some degree. Tarot techniques like this might bring some surprises or revelations to even the most mundane situations in the past…

    • Hi Chris,
      Yours is a delicate situation, more poignant that seeking out historical characters and family from a bygone era. But I do believe this could be good for you – and I agree about how we can cloud a situation with preconceptions and hopes – we both know tarot doesn’t lie, at least you will get a fair assessment in the answers to your questions. If I can help you in any way with this, please let me know.
      Thank you for your comment, and for sharing your story. Welcome to Tarot Elements :)

  6. Catherine, I love everything retrospective, just because it makes the present acquire more depth and significance. Your idea of using the Celtic Cross for this exploration is brilliant. I think you had a lot of Joseph in your personality… Like if there is a ribbon that ties both of you.
    I do have further insights. I`m using the RW as my mental tarot… I perceive he had been influenced by his mother heritage`s. He had a very intuitive and receptive nature. All this combined with an inquisitive and very curious mind. Air and Water, a mind that could not stay quiet… The Hermit in the position of – what event(s) prior to the event lead them to it, to decide upon their course of action? – I think this card is also taking about a natural inclination he had to bring light to obscure circumstances. Maybe he already experienced using insights to bring light to an obscure situation or to a secret? Very interesting The Hermit in this position. His motivating force, 3 of Wands; he needed to bring things to the light, to bring them more abroad. He had and adventurous and inquisitive nature that pulled him toward foreign territory. I also think he had a very good healthy physical. He had a young personality, fresh mind, and was not fossilized by experiences. Great aspirations moved him during his career.
    Kate, I love “the feeling of invincibility” you describe. I perceive he was fearless. An extraordinaire quality for a spy.
    The Tower in the position of – environmental influences… Maybe he was a survivor and had an easiness to be in the middle of risks. He kept his soul young until the end.
    Did you know how did he died?
    Love the spread and the cards that show up! Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Aurora,
      Wow – thank you! I love your interpretations. I skimmed over the reading for the sake of space, but I love what you’ve brought to it and will ponder on your insights and merge them with mine for a more rounded view of Joseph and his life at that time.
      His life after spying was spent in service with His Majesty’s Navy. He eventually retired, though there were still dramas that were played out in that time. I have no idea how or what he died of, but I do know his date of death and the burial ground where eventually lay. I went there a couple of weeks ago and spent some time around a tree that my dowsing rod centered on, meditating on him and sending him healing. It was a wonderful experience, made better by the presence of my psychic-medium friend, Beryl Stockman, who was a tremendous help that day.
      I’ll keep you posted of further developments around Joseph’s life and my part in it, from his future.

  7. Really great article, Catherine!
    I love how you make us all lean in and reveal another facet of the tarot.
    Aurora’s insights about the hermit makes a lot of sense as well as his connection to his mother (2 queens & the moon).
    Thanks for sharing your journey back in time, Gayle

    • Hi Gayle,
      Interestingly, Joseph’s mother was widowed and she remarried, which was common. She married a man called Samuel Wickes. His son, Lambert Wickes, now Joseph’s step-brother, became a celebrated sea captain and was the man charged with taking Franklin to Paris on a ship called the Reprisal. Joseph becomes a spy, Lambert died a young hero. Perhaps there was competition between them. Though I also have to say, among Joseph’s papers in the British Library, I saw a letter from Lambert to Joseph which was affectionate and even began, “My Dear Hynson”. If there was competiton, it perhaps came from others, his mother perhaps, and her family?
      It’s an angle I hadn’t thought of before, but it certainly warrants merit and further investigation, though no doubt through tarot and our own intuition as those kinds of records will likely be non-existent.
      Thanks for your input :)

  8. What a superb topic and exploration, Catherine! As both a tarot and genealogy enthusiast, I’d love to see you tackle a book-length study of ancestral spreads.

    • Hi Craig,
      I love genealogy, particularly my own (damn that Leo Rising…) and have always said I’d like to write a book or blog about Joseph but my recent trip to London and his burial site (not to mention holding his handwritten letters in my hands) showed me that what he really needed was karmic healing, not a correction in the history books. I still may write about him, if I can find the time…. and another book topic? I have about three outlined and a massive online project I’m contemplating. I think I may need an extra pair of hands, lol :)
      Thanks for your comment, it’s lovely to see you again.

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