Troubled Blood: The True Book’s Celtic Cross Tarot Card Spread, Part 1

The run-up to the publication of Ink Black Heart last year coincided with the viva voce examinations for my PhD. The day of those exams, in fact, was the same day as the publication of Strike6. I passed the exams, glory to God, but the months and weeks before and after that event are something of a blurred memory; I eventually disappeared from this site post viva to complete the necessary thesis corrections which I was given six months to make. When I came out of my cave of semi-isolation at the beginning of this month, I tried to pick up where I’d left off in Rip Van Winkle fashion with a list of posts germinating in my head. Readers here obliged me by voting for their preferences.

The consensus pick was discussion of the Running Grave Elephant in the Chat Room, namely, the question of whether Strike7 is the seventh book of a seven book ring, the seventh book in a series of at least ten novels, or both somehow. I wrote up my thoughts on that last week.

The other topic to receive significant reader interest was the use of Tarot card spreads in Troubled Blood, specifically the Celtic Cross spread on page 248 and the embedded three card spreads in the True Book illustrations on 537, 632, and 774. I recalled I had written something about the Celtic Cross spread during my first reading of Troubled Blood and I had a vague memory of taking some notes about the True Book before my oral exams and both recollections turned out to be true.

Join me after the jump for a review of my hypothesis and premises with respect to reading the True Book and the Tarot card spreads in it as well as my introductory notes for interpretation of the Celtic Cross spread in Strike5.

Hypothesis and Premises

I thought I had the time and attention in the weeks before Ink Black Heart‘s appearance to prepare for my viva and to write a series of posts about Troubled Blood’s True Book pages. I was wrong, of course, but I did manage to write out my guiding ideas for the latter project and to complete the interpretation of the first True Book page of seven, the Pitman shorthand fragment. Those guiding ideas will serve as my hypothesis and premise for my Tarot card readings so I reprint them here with the immediately relevant portions highlighted in red.

Hypothesis: The true meaning of Troubled Blood is in the ‘True Book’ pages and illustrations, Rowling’s deliberately covert presentation of what she wants the very serious reader to see and understand, the archetypal and spiritual dimension of the novel hidden in this hidden-in-plain-sight text, all of which eludes the mechanistic and psychological approaches to it deployed by the Strike Detective Agency partners.

  • Corollary 1: The specific pages of the ‘True Blood’ text open up the meaning of the novel Parts in which they appear.
  • Corollary 2: Each includes significant pointers to Whodunnit, not just Janice Beatty.

Premise 1: The astrological chart that Talbot cast for the time and place of Margot Bamborough’s fictional disappearance is accurate and largely determined the various characters and their relationships. Rowling did not ‘make this up’ or choose the time and place to ‘fit’ her story, which would have been next to impossible, but began with the chart and worked from there.

Premise 2: All the Tarot Card ‘readings,’ in contrast, are deliberate choices of the author to convey meaning intentionally.

Premise 3: Rowling’s illustrations for Talbot’s ‘True Book’ pages must be read in light of their organization left to right and top to bottom, which is to say ‘structurally,’ as well as with respect to the tarot and astrological symbolism chosen.

I wrote about the Celtic Cross spread at this post, too, in the introduction to each of the seven pages I planned on discussing in that series of posts:

(3) The Celtic Cross Tarot Card Spread: The single most overlooked [True Book] page appears only eight [Troubled Blood] pages [after the astrological chart] (249) and, though it is reprinted in full, it is the heading that captures Strike’s attention (247) because it is resonant with the Pitman shorthand message. “Twelfth (Pisces) found. Therefore AS EXPECTED killer is Capricorn.” Strike realizes from this clue how to unlock the horoscope: “An idea now occurred to him: those strange, unexplained dates with crosses beside them on all the male witnesses’ statements.” Talbot used the horoscope to narrow down his suspects by inserting them into the chart using their star signs. Strike notes the Celtic Cross — it reminds him of his mother’s facility with the cards (funny, of course, when the [real-world] author, the fictional character’s creator is the one skilled in tarot card reading) — but dismisses the set: “He had never, however, seen the cards given astrological meanings before, and wondered whether this, too, had been Talbot’s own invention.” Charlotte sexts him a naked picture and Strike never returns to this page.

Strike immerses himself in a translation of the astrological star signs of each suspect in Talbot’s reckoning but he and Robin both ignore the Celtic Cross spread, despite their supposed “exhaustive examination of [Talbot’s] notes” (539). According to my hypothesis and second premise, the hidden-in-plain-sight Tarot cards on this page should be Rowling’s key both to the Strike5 mystery, that is, what happened to Margot Bamborough and who killed her, and to the greater depths of the story, by which I mean, who really is responsible for her demise.

This may seem like a subject only for the Serious Strikers who obsess over the details, but I disagree, though I am obviously one of those readers. Because of the evident parallel with Anna Phipps’ 2014 search for answers to the forty year old mystery of her mother’s disappearance and the forty year old Strike’s unresolved issues both about his 1974 conception and his mother’s supposed suicide, his own cold case, this may be a pointer to who killed Leda and why she died as she did. The Celtic Cross spread, which unlike the True Book astrological page according to my second premise was a matter of Rowling’s intentional choice, may act as a key to the over-arching mystery of the series.

On the off-chance this is the case, it definitely merits a closer look.

The Celtic Cross Spread: Why Bother?

I did a preliminary dive into the deep waters of this card spread on my first reading of Troubled Blood in the hope of figuring out whodunnit before the Big Reveal at the finish. I failed in that effort. Much of what follows comes from that original probing of the cards which you can find here as point number six. Before we ‘go there, though, I need to explain why I think this is exactly what the author wants her best readers to do.

Strike, in one of his dismissive rants about the occult in general and astrology specifically, told Robin that: 

“If we ever find out what happened to Margot Bamborough,” said Strike, “I’ll bet you a hundred quid you’ll be able to make equally strong cases for Talbot’s occult stuff being bang on the money, and completely off beam. You can always stretch this symbolic stuff to fit the facts. One of my mother’s friends used to guess everyone’s star signs and she was right every single time.”

“She was?”

“Oh yeah,” said Strike. “Because even when she was wrong, she was right. Turned out they had a load of planets in that sign or, I dunno, the midwife who delivered them was that sign. Or their dog.”

“All right,” said Robin, equably. She’d expected Strike’s skepticism, after all, and now put both the leather-bound notebook and Astrology 14 back into her bag. “I know it might mean nothing at all, I’m only—” (586-587)

Please note that Rowling is having a laugh in this passage.

Unlike authentic, real world astrological chart readings and tarot card spread analysis, she has, one has to assume, written Troubled Blood consequent to assigning, as God does the events of our lives in the real world, the date, time, and Clerkenwell location herself for Bamborough’s disappearance whence the subsequent ‘natal’ chart. In addition, she has chosen the tarot cards in the book’s spreads to deliver the meaning she wants, just as she made Strike a Sagittarius and Robin a Libra, an especially magnetic, even archetypal, male-female match. Her readers, unlike Strike’s mother’s goofy mate, then, would be remiss in not returning to the astrological and tarot elements of Rowling’s story for an appreciation of her intentional artistry, especially given her facility with star-charts and cartomancy.

Yes, hindsight is everything here, but that is not Trelawney-esque fraud; this is always the case in appreciation of a brilliantly constructed piece of detective fiction. Until you know whodunnit and how, you cannot appreciate all the writer has done to conceal those facts from you, not to mention the hints Rowling-Galbraith dropped along the way for you to pick up, if not on the first trip through, then on repeat visits. That’s as true for the occult content as it is for the MacGuffins and false leads scattered through the narrative.

Strike is ridiculing the occult material of Talbot’s True Book and all the humbo-jumbo of astrology and tarot cards, but Rowling-Galbraith is teasing the reader to do exactly what the Peg-Legged PI says all occultists do: go back and find the answers you missed that were hidden in the chart and spreads. Readers who cite this passage to dismiss the effort to understand the occult content as a Snipe Hunt or worse forget that Strike in the end only solves the case after meditating on the last True Book page and Robin’s deciphering the clue from that text’s first page about the telephone boxes. He curses himself in the end for “not getting there sooner,” which is not an especially oblique way of saying he should have paid more rather than less attention to the True Book.

Back to the Celtic Cross spread, the most neglected bit of occult writing in Strike5.

The Celtic Cross Spread: The Traditional Method of Reading the Ten Cards

Troubled Blood offers something of a short course on astrology because of the detectives’ work in trying to decipher Talbot’s notes and star chart for the time, date, and place of Bamborough’s disappearance. We are given next to nothing about cartomancy, only Robin’s glancing at a tarot card booklet to understand her two three-card readings, and exactly nothing about a Celtic Cross spread. Let’s begin, then, our look at the ten card spread in Talbot’s True Book with the fundamentals that Rowling probably learned to entertain her friends with card readings at her comprehensive. I have gathered a small library of fifteen Tarot reference books since the publication of Troubled Blood, but will be using the relatively straight-forward Learning the Tarot by Joan Bunning for this introduction (275-289).

Illustration from

Strike goes all in on interpreting (deciphering?) Talbot’s mad astrological chart and his attempt in 1974 to find the Baphomet through this unconventional if relatively traditional method.  Strike told Robin he hoped that the rational Talbot may have buried some of his rational reasoning and investigative findings in the notes he makes about stars and planets. What Strike does not pursue is the Tarot Card reading Talbot attempted, a Celtic Cross ten card spread that the Police Detective Inspector wrote down in his True Book with various annotations. Just before Charlotte interrupts him with her birthday suit birthday gift text message, he sees the card spread and thinks, as reported above:

Returning to the notebook, Strike recognized the Celtic cross layout of tarot cards from his youth. Leda fancied herself a reader of tarot; many times had he seen her lay out the cards in the very formation Talbot had sketched in the middle of the page. He had never, however, seen the cards given astrological meanings before, and wondered whether this, too, had been Talbot’s own invention. (250)

On the True Book page facsimile we get in the hardcover edition of Troubled Blood on which the Celtic cross spread is depicted, Strike’s confusion is understandable. By far the most popular and available set of tarot cards is the Rider-Waite deck and I think it can safely be assumed that these would be the cards that Leda would have used for her amateur hour readings at the Norfolk Commune (on the sly?). There are no astrological signs assigned to those cards in published guides though the suits are usually interpreted in terms of the four elements into which astrological signs are also sorted.

Rowling, though, has all but told us which card deck DI Talbot is using. See the Rowling twitter page header for Strike’s birthday 2019:

The very serious Striker at Pools of Venetian Blue identified these cards as Thoth Tarot Deck pieces. The Thoth Deck is the collaborative creation of Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris. The deck was painted and complete in 1944 but only published as deck in 1969 and that in a poor reproduction of Harris’ paintings (a better set came out in 1977). Crowley’s guide to the tarot, one of them at least, is The Book of Thoth, in print since 1944. He does not assign astrological signs to every card, to any card in that guide.  Most of the minor trumps’ signs, though, can be found on the deck’s Wikipedia page or in the little booklet that comes with the U. S. Games Systems Thoth Tarot deck (the booklet includes a card by card exegesis by Lady Harris supposedly from Crowley’s notes).

As with Talbot’s astrological chart and its inherent challenges to the reader, so here with the neglected Celtic cross reading. Rowling-Galbraith via Strike’s key and notes gives readers a lot of help with the astrological chart. We aren’t given more than the cards’ positions and a few Talbot annotations with the Celtic cross spread.

The good news? Unlike the astrological chart which would have been a monster to create in terms of what the story demands and then match up with a time and place that would match the hoped-for chart, the spread could easily (well…) be created to match what Rowling wanted to communicate. Which is? A reading that would reveal to the careful cartomancer the answer to the question Talbot asked when laying out the cards and, per this post’s premises, to the careful reader perhaps a key to the series mystery.

The problem is that Talbot doesn’t give us more than a few clues about what he was hoping to learn from his divination. A bigger problem than that,  I rush to add, is that neither the typical Troubled Blood reader nor Robin and Cormoran have the first idea of how to approach interpreting a ten card Celtic Cross tarot card spread. They should have asked for help from, first, a professional astrologer team — Starsky and Cox! — to interpret the chart and, then, just as important,  a tarot card maven; what follows is the best I can do with the latter task using the tarot books I have at hand, especially the Bunning Tarot Book for Beginners.

The Celtic Cross Spread is called that because it is made up of two parts, three really, that work together to act as a Celtic Cross.  What does a Celtic Cross look like? It is the conventional two bar cross with a circle around the intersection of the two bars. It is also called a St. John’s Cross, though this is not the symbol that prevails in Clerkenwell, is on the pavement brick at Hampton Court, and is the pattern on the floor of the Phipps family gazebo. That is a Maltese cross, which has obvious resonance but a different emphasis than the Celtic cross. With water, that cross is the predominant symbolism of Troubled Blood.

The two parts of the Celtic Cross ten card spread that give it that name are the circle with embedded cross and the staff to its right when viewed from above. Transpose the staff to a position beneath the circle and there is a Celtic cross. The ‘circle’ is not visible except in the sequence in which the cards are placed. The ‘cross’ is made with the first two cards and the circle is then drawn around it with cards three to six, moving in a clockwise direction with card three at 6:00, four at 9:00, five at 12:00, and six at 3:00. The staff cards, seven to ten, are placed in ascending order with seven at the bottom and ten at the top.

In future posts, I hope to explain the significance of this symbolism, specifically with reference to the first two Major Arcana tarot cards and ‘Sammy’ Athorn and to the Faerie Queen embedded text of the Red Crosse Knight and Una, both reflecting Strike and Robin’s relationship and the allegorical/anagogical content of the Strike series. There are pointers to the Deathly Hallows symbol, too, believe it or not, in its yonic and phallic qualities. Today, though, let’s focus on the details of the True Book’s overlooked Celtic Cross spread with Thoth cards.

The Celtic Cross Spread Sequence and Meaning(s)

Every book in my small tarot library had slightly different interpretations of the card meanings in the ten card Celtic Cross spread but all agreed with respect to the sequence of the layout and the ‘received’ or ‘traditional’ meanings of each card, from which interpretation most added their individual spins. The accepted or foundational meaning of the spread’s three parts are:

The Cross at the Center: Cards 1 and 2

Card 1, often called the ‘significator,’ is “That Which Covers You” (a card can be chosen to represent the querent that goes beneath this card, also called the ‘significator,’ whence the first card ‘covering’ the seeker). Bunning uses the words “heart, essence, present, primary factor, as well as the inner meaning beneath the surface to describe this card.

Card 2, placed horizontally across the first card to form the cross, represents “That Which is Crossing You.” Bunning explains that this means opposition, the factor for change, the secondary or ‘outer’ factor, “what’s rocking the boat,” the catalyst for change.

The Circle of Time: Cards 3 to 6

Around this central cross of cards, the next four cards, as explained above, are laid in a clockwise direction from bottom to top to bottom again, as in, say, a ring composition diagram (just saying), enscribing the cross in a circle.

  • Card 3, beneath the cross, represents “That Which is Beneath You,” what Bunning refers to as the “root cause” of the querent’s issue.
  • Card 4 to the left of the cross as viewed by the reader is “That Which is Behind You.” This per Bunning is the past, a receding influence, a resolved factor, or a quality to let go, “a factor to be discarded.”
  • Card 5, above the cross, is “What Could Come Into Being,” which is not the future per se. Bunning describes this card’s meaning with the words alternate future, goal or purpose, attitudes and beliefs, and conscious influence, with the various possibilities of “delusions or illusions,” “what you’re focusing on/obsessed about,” the “desired result” and “your expectations for the future,” and a “potential development” or “what you think will happen.”
  • Card 6, to the right of the cross, is “What Lies Before You,” which is in opposition to card four obviously but not quite the future or “outcome” predicted by the cards. Bunning describes this card as “something related to the future,” an “approaching influence,” an “unresolved factor,” and, most clearly echoing in contrast card four, a “quality to embrace” rather than discard.

Cards Seven to Ten: The Staff

The first six cards, then, describe the querents psychological make-up and condition at the present time, The next four, the staff of cards 7 to 10 continue this reflective exercise bit concludes with the predictive outcome or probable future.

  • Card 7 is “You as You See Yourself,” which Bunning explains includes ‘You as You Are,’ ‘You as You Could Be,’ ‘You as You Present Yourself,’ and ‘How you Limit or Magnify Yourself.’ That’s quite a bit of wiggle room, even more than the usual for card interpretation and Talbot seems to have despaired here.
  • Card 8 is “How Others See You” in the traditional or received reading. Bunning says this includes outside environment, another’s point of view, another’s expectations, and the impression you make or effect you have on others.
  • Card 9 is traditionally assigned the meaning “Hopes and Fears.” Bunning’s annotations for this include guidance or how best to proceed, a helpful suggestion or word of warning, the key factor, what you need to know, what you’re afraid of or long for, and the overlooked factor, “someone else who has a role to play.”
  • Card 10, the finale and tip of the staff, is the “Outcome” or most likely result. Bunning highlights that “outcome” can have different meanings when interpreted in light of the specific question, that is the overall outcome, the inner state of the querent, what the querent needs to do or the necessary actions to take, and the outcome with respect to effects, the future in general with respect to circumstances, external environment and other people. 

Note that there are ring elements to this ten card sequence, especially with respect to the first two cards, cards five and six, and the last two cards. In chiasmus terminology they are the beginning and end latch and the story turn, the meaning in the middle. The “reward” of the spread is in the advice given at card 9 and the predicted probable outcome in 10, but the reflective value is principally, I think, in the start and center, which provide, if accurate, the self-knowledge to make the advice helpful, at least potentially, and the future bearable or preventable. Note, too, the parallel symbolism with the astrological natal chart in having an enscribed cross as its geometric shape.

If you want to practice reading a Celtic Cross spread before jumping into Talbot’s, but don’t want to buy a deck of Rider-Waite or Thoth tarot cards and attendant guidebooks or spend the time flipping cards and book pages, go to the Celtic Cross page of Lotus Tarot wiki. It will throw a ten card spread ‘just for you!’ and provide the accepted Rider-Waite card meanings. You’ll have to figure out how these meanings apply to the position of the card in the spread and how/whether they apply to your circumstance and personal haunting question. Fair warning, though; unlike Harry Potter, this website and Celtic Cross exercise is definitely, even definitively a gateway to the occult. Caveat Discipulus!

Whether you take a practice run to sharpen your Celtic Cross skills or not, we’re left with the key questions about the True Book’s principal card spread: what does Talbot’s Celtic Cross tarot card spread say, how did he understand it, and what might Robin and Cormoran have learned if they’d studied it with anything like the attention they gave the thyroid-afflicted DI’s astrological efforts?

Talbot’s Celtic Cross Tarot Card Spread in his ‘True Book’

The tarot cards in Talbot’s Celtic Cross card spread are, in sequence, (1) the Nine of Swords/Gemini, (2) the Two of Cups/Cancer (possibly Taurus), (3) The Priestess/Moon (Cancer), (4) The Devil/Capricorn, (5) The Chariot/Cancer, (6) Ace of Pentacles Reversed/Taurus, (7) Ten of Swords/Gemini, (8) Five of Pentacles/Taurus, (9) Hierophant/Taurus, and (10) Prince of Swords/Sagittarius-Aquarius. (The cards in this post are these ten cards in sequence; House points for finding the mistakes in the spread pictured at the start and for figuring out what seems to be a confusion in the Sword cards.)

I think we need to read this spread first in search of its actual meaning, which is to say, the one Rowling-Galbraith created intentionally for those who either attempt to solve the crime using the cards or who come back to it after learning whodunnit to see the clues they missed. The guiding premise of this post, again, is that the author chose the cards rather than throwing them at random.

Then we need to see what Talbot made of the cards, that is, how he botched the reading in his mental illness, bias about Creed, and prejudices against black people. This will be fun, because I’m guessing that Rowling-Galbraith chose the Thoth cards not only because of the Crowley connection but because of the astrological assignments he gave the cards. If the ghost of Margot Bamborough is the one throwing the cards here, she knows in her relative omniscience about Talbot’s astrological fetish, assigning suspects’ star signs with the natal chart for her abduction, and will push him to see Janice as the killer.

Last we need to consider what Strike and Ellacott could have realized from the cards if they would asked for a professional tarot card reader to look at the spread with a Thoth deck guide in hand. If they had given any credence (!) at all to the cards, what might they have known or suspected from the start?

Which effort we will have to continue tomorrow! See you then for a look at the True Book Celtic Cross spread using Crowley’s Tarot Divination, the instruction booklet that accompanies the Thoth Tarot deck, several Tarot references, the received or conventional method to understanding this spread explained above, and the 20-20 hindsight we have in knowing Troubled Blood’s resolution.


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