Troubled Blood: The True Book’s Celtic Cross Tarot Card Spread, Part 2, Card 1

Three days ago, I introduced the problem of the ten card Celtic Cross tarot spread in the ‘True Book’ embedded text of Troubled Blood. I shared there the hypothesis and premises of my argument about the pages of the ‘True Book’ as well as information about the accepted or received understanding of how to read this popular tarot card spread, with the broad meanings assigned to the positions of each card in that cross, circle, and staff lay-out. What follows here, a look at the first card in Talbot’s Celtic Cross, may not make much sense unless you are familiar with that material and the notes I wrote yesterday about the history of tarot decks.

Today I hope to discuss one of these cards, the Nine of Swords, what the Thoth guides (those we know Robin has and must assume Talbot did), Aleister Crowley, and the “traditional” Celtic Cross view say it means, as well as what Talbot, judging from his annotations on the page, thought of it. The goal is to identify the clues in this card and the others in the coming days that reveal to the discerning reader what question Talbot brought to the cards, what happened to Margot Bamborough, and what is going to be the outcome of any search for her. Join me after the jump for all that.

Card 0: The Significator

The real “first card” in a Celtic Cross spread is not represented in the Talbot True Book illustration (Troubled Blood, page 249). There are, it turns out, eleven cards in this ten card spread, with a ‘Zero’ card equivalent to the Fool in the Major Trumps; Talbot for reasons unspecified omits this. This card is called the “significator” and is chosen by the reader as a representation of the person for whom the reading is being done. All the other cards are discribed with respect to their relation to this base point, i.e., the first card’s “This covers you” and the second’s “This crosses you” are descriptions of the cards’ placement over and across the significator.

How to choose this card? The booklet that is included in the Rider deck (or Waite-Smith tarot cards) as published by U. S. Games Systems ends with a brief description of how to use the cards in a Celtic Cross spread. It is the only spread described, whence, because of this deck’s age, ubiquity, and use as a template, the familiarity of tarot card readers with the Celtic Cross. The booklet for the most part is a condensation of Waite’s Pictoral Key guidance for reading the Trumps and Suit Cards; this ‘Art of Tarot Divination’ is not.

The advice given there for choosing the significator is right to the point:

Select the Significator of the person or thing about whom or which the inquiry is made. It is the card which, in the reader’s judgment or experience, is the most representative, and is not, therefore, of necessity the Magician or High Prierstess mentioned in the official divinatory meanings…

Cups are assumed to represent people with light brown hair and of fair complexion; Wands represent those having yellow or red hair and blue eyes; Swords correspond to persons with dark brown hair and possibly gray, hazel or even blue eyes; Pentacles answer to very dark people. (22)

The ‘Method of Divination by the Tarot’ provided at the end of the booklet Tarot Divination, a repackaging of Crowley’s ‘A Description of the Cards of the Tarot’ (1912), is probably referring to this hair and eye color procedure for picking the significator card: “Choose a [Significator] card to represent the Querent, using your knowledge or judgment of his character rather than dwelling on his physical characteristics” (63). The ‘Method’ described therein by “O.M.” and in The Book of Thoth (249-250) is nothing like a Celtic Cross.

What card did Talbot use as his significator? He doesn’t include it in his True Book depiction of the Celtic Cross Spread so we are left to speculate. My best guess is the safest option, namely, that he didn’t choose one because he was the Querent and the question, also not shared, was a personal one. Naming a significator, from this perspective, was superfluous.

The only reason it matters is because, in the U.S. Games System booklet at least, the placement of the fifth and sixth cards are made with respect to the direction that the significator is facing, i.e., if the figure on the card is looking to the reader’s left, the fifth card is placed to the right of the cross, and vice versa if facing right. Without knowing which card is the significator, one of the Royal Cards of the four suits presumably or Trumps with faces, the reader cannot know whether the fifth or sixth card is on the spread’s first two cards’ left or right. As described in Part 1 of this series, I am using Bunning’s method of laying out the Celtic Cross which makes no reference to the significator.

The absence or invisibility of the significator in Talbot’s spread illustration is worth reflecting on because it highlights just how much we don’t know about this reader’s tarot practices as well as what this reading was about. His notes suggest, as we’ll see, that he is consulting the cards about how to solve the Bamborough case or whether he will be able to find out what happened to the missing doctor. That suggestion, though, is not a surety, and neither is even what deck he is using or how he is interpreting the cards. There are markers that we will discuss along the way that indicate he is using a Rider deck (the Thoth deck booklet, for example, only uses the word “coins” for what Waite called “pentacles” [sort of!]) and yet there is no ‘Prince of Swords’ card, card 10 in the spread, in the Rider deck while there is in the Thoth.

On to a card we are given, card one, with its astrological sign —

Card 1: The Nine of Swords/Gemini

What follows is a collection of notes taken from various guides about what this card means per se as well as what it might mean in the first card position.

  • Thoth Guidebook Notes:

The booklet that comes with the Thoth tarot deck published by U. S. Games Systems is the only guide to the meanings of the cards we know that Rowling has; she has Robin refer to this booklet when she does her three card spreads in Laemington Spa and her London flat. This booklet has two guides to the Thoth deck, both written by Lady Frieda Harris, the illustrator, and, the publisher believed, they were written up from Crowley’s notes. In the first guide she described the Nine of Swords card as “Cruelty, Yesod in the suit of air, Mars in Gemini. The nine swords are of different lengths, pointing downwards, poison blood drips from their jagged points. The background is studded with tears and crystal forms. In this card intellect is replaced by heartless passion (30, emphasis in original). The second guide, same author in 1942, reads:Cruelty, Mars in Gemini, Yesod. These jagged swords are dropping blood and tears, and represent mind dominated by insatiable desires” (47).

  • Crowley notes:

Crowley’s Tarot Divination was written decades before there was a Thoth deck. His description of the Nine of Swords, a card representing the archetype ‘The Lord of Despair and Cruelty,’ is nothing like Harris’ deck or Waite-Smith’s.

Four hands, as in the preceding figure (Eight of Swords), hold eight swords nearly upright, but with the points falling away from each other. A fifth hand holds a ninth sword, as if it had struck them asunder. No rose at all is shewn, as if it were not merely cut asunder, but utterly destroyed. Above and below are the Decan symbols of [Mars] and [Gemini].

Despair, cruelty, pitilessness, malice, suffering, want, loss, misery. Burden, oppression, labour, subtlety and craft, dishonesty, lying and slander.

Yet also obedience, faithfulness, patience, unselfishness, etc. According to dignity. (55)

“Cruelty” here is not highlighted but is mentioned. In Crowley’s Book of Thoth (1944), however, he twice describes the Nine of Swords as “Cruelty,” first with respect to all the Nine cards:

The Nine of Swords is called Cruelty. Here the original disruption inherent in Swords is raised to its highest power. The card is ruled by Mars in Gemini; it is agony of mind. The Ruach consumes itself in this card; thought has gone through every possible stage, and the conclusion is despair. This card has been very adequately drawn by Thomson in “The City of Dreadful Night”. It is always a cathedral – a cathedral of the damned. There is the acrimonious taint of analysis; activity is inherent in the mind, yet there is always the instinctive consciousness that nothing can lead anywhere. (186)

As an individual card, he writes:

Cruelty: Nine of Swords

The number Nine, Yesod, brings back the Energy to the central pillar of the Tree of Life. The previous disorder is now rectified.

But the general idea of the suit has been constantly degenerating. The Swords no longer represent pure intellect so much as the automatic stirring of heartless passions. Consciousness has fallen into a realm unenlightened by reason. This is the world of the unconscious primitive instincts, of the psychopath, of the fanatic.

The celestial ruler is Mars in Gemini, crude rage of hunger operating without restraint; although its form is intellectual, it is the temper of the inquisitor.

The symbol shows nine swords of varying lengths, all striking downwards to a point. They are jagged and rusty. Poison and blood drip from their blades.

There is however, a way of dealing with this card: the way of passive resistance, resignation, the acceptance of martyrdom.

Nor is an alien formula that of implacable revenge. (208)

Harris’ “intellect is replaced by heartless passion” (italicized in original) is an excellent summary of Crowley’s exegesis.

  • Rider Deck (U. S. Games) Guidebook Notes:

Again, this is supposedly the Waite-based interpretation of the cards and, as likely as not, the one Joanne Rowling used to learn tarot back in the day:

NINE OF SWORDS — One seated on her couch in lamentation with the swords over her. Divinatory Meanings: Death, failure, miscarriage, delay, deception, disappointment, despair. Reversed: Imprisonment, doubt, suspicion, fear, shame. (10-11, emphasis in original)

This is taken word for word from Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot (236).

  • Talbot notes:

Talbot writes on the True Book page: Poison and blood drip, CRUELTY, she suffers now — STILL ALIVE?” This is a direct quotation from The Book of Thoth, “poison and blood drip from their blades.” “Cruelty,” too, is the highlight of both the Book of Thoth description and Lady Harris. Both sets of Harris notes in the U. S. Games booklet begin with the word “Cruelty.”

  • Celtic Cross Position:

I described one sequence for laying out the Celtic Cross spread in the first part of this series of posts on Talbot’s ten card divination in Troubled Blood. I wrote there that “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.” I have since found other sequences, most notably the Rider Deck guidebook’s illustration, which makes a sign of the cross with cards three to six rather than drawing a circle around the first two cards. I prefer the circle — the spread’s name all but requires a circle around an inner cross — but because of the importance of ‘The Devil’ card’s location, I will have to include discussion of alternate card sequences to the clock-wise wheel in future posts.

For the first card, though, assuming there is no ‘Significator’ hidden, there is something like consensus about what it means. From the Rider deck guide:

Turn up the FIRST CARD; cover the Significator therewith, and say; “That covers him.” This is the person or thing’s general environment at the time, the influence with which he is actuated throughout. (22)

Waite rights in Pictorial Key that “This card gives the influence which is affecting the person or matter of inquiry generally, the atmosphere of it in which the other currents work” (301).

Bunning uses the words “heart, essence, present, primary factor,” as well as “the inner meaning beneath the surface” to describe this card. Konraad writes in Classic Tarot Spreads that the first card is the “covering influence in the life at the moment” (82). Caponi in The Guided Tarot says  this is the “Current Situation: The energy around your current situation” (47). In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Tarot perhaps not surprisingly I found an alternative sequence for the cards, one that insists on a Significator and a sui generis numbering of the cards in the spread which Tognetti and Lenard assure the reader is “the ancient wisdom on the energies of card two,” namely,

This is the cover card. It is always upright and represents opposing or supporting forces. When it’s a good card, it’s supporting the Querent’s energies – always good news. Yes, cards can be dealt reversed, but if that happens, the Querent will physically position card 2 upright for the reading. (269)

Rachel Pollack in Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom writes:

In my work I have developed a slightly different way of looking at the first two cards, referring to them not as cover and ‘opposition’ but as ‘Centre’ and ‘crossing’. for their meanings I term them the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ aspects, or some times ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ time, or simply ‘being’ and ‘doing’. The Centre card shows some basic quality of the person or the person’s situation. The crossing card then shows how that quality affects the person, or how it translates into action. Put another way, the first shows what the person is, the second how he or she acts. (281)

The Nine of Swords as a first card in a reading, consequently, is very bad news. Talbot reads it as a description of Bamborough’s circumstances, which is curious, to say the least, and not in keeping with his reading of the other sword cards in the spread, especially the Ten of Swords, card seven.

  • Conclusions:

My working assumptions or premises are that Rowling-Galbraith chose these cards rather than lay them out at random, that in them the reader can see the solution to the cold case Strike and Ellacott work on in Troubled Blood, and, an extra twist, that the ghost of Margot Bamborough is guiding the cards in Talbot’s hands, an omniscient hand from the psychic realm as all-seeing as the author of Strike5.

The first card, the Nine of Swords, is a picture not of Bamborough’s circumstances, as if she is the Querent or the question on the table is about her, but of Talbot’s mental state. He is the Querent, and even if the question is “Will I be able to solve this case?” as later cards suggest, his self-blindness is on show. As we learn throughout Troubled Blood, DI Talbot is on the edge of a nervous breakdown, is cruel to suspects especially the Bayliss family because of his “good old-fashioned racism” as Strike puts it, and his judgment is almost totally occluded by his passionate desire to solve the case.

So much so that he ignores the mirror that Bamborough-Galbraith gives him in this first card about his “atmosphere,” “current situation,” and predominant “influences.” Given that this is his mental condition, of course, how could he be expected to understand this? The mistake and missed opportunity in ‘getting’ this meaning are really Strike and Ellacott’s, who ignore the True Book’s Celtic Cross Spread for the most part.

Talbot does understand that the “poison” element in this card is important. It is the first of several pointers in this spread to the killer of Margot Bamborough and how she did it. I have not read all of Crowley’s Book of Thoth but a quick survey of Harris’ distillation of these notes reveals that the word “poison” is only used in the commentary on the Nine of Swords. The title of the book, forgive me, Spencer fans, could have been Poison Blood, though that would have given away the solution to the crime — just as this card alone might have been enough for Strike and Ellacott to investigate the poison angle if they were not such skeptics about the occult arts (don’t they realize they’re characters in a murder mystery?).

Swords are a big deal (sic) in this spread, with three cards from this suit: the Nine, Ten, and Prince. In Crowley’s interpretation, the suit represents the “intellect,’ which I think has to be understand as the noetic faculty of perception, the eye of the heart, rather than the rational mind of prevalent usage today, whence Harris’ “intellect is replaced by heartless passion.” The placement of these cards at the beginning and end of the spread as a whole, cards one and ten, as well as at the start of the two symbols within the Celtic Cross, the wheel and staff, cards one and seven, in effect the beginning, middle, and end of a ring, suggest that Rowling-Galbraith is writing about this spiritual capacity within the human person. The same emphasis is evident in her epigraph choices for Ink Black Heart; see my posts here and here for much more on that.

Tomorrow, Card 2, the Two of Cups!


  1. Brian Basore says

    Is it a pattern that Talbot did not choose a Significator (0) card, and that in Marsh’s Off With His Head! the Morris Dance did not have its ninth dancer (Mrs. Bunz) until late in the story?

  2. Brian Basore says

    In case that doesn’t make sense, what Tarot and the Morris Dance murder have in common is swords. In Marsh’s book, at the book’s end (the turtleback’s latch) it says: “Aunt Akky so does like things to happen. She’s been saying what a long time it seems to next Sword Wednesday.” Does that help?

Speak Your Mind