Book review: Beyond the Celtic Cross: Secret Techniques for Taking Tarot to an Exciting New Level

By Paul Hughes-Barlow & Catherine Chapman

Published by Aeon Books Ltd

RRP £15.99

ISBN 978-1-904658-34-4

I have a love/hate relationship with the Celtic Cross; it’s the classic spread that every tarot reader is expected to be familiar with, and yet nobody can agree on what the card placements stand for and how it should all be interpreted. As a reader, I have tended to steer clear of it, but it’s always been nagging me in the back of my mind that one day I would like to fully master it.

That’s where this slender little book by Paul Hughes-Barlow and Catherine Chapman comes in. Beyond the Celtic Cross: Secret Techniques for Taking Tarot to an Exciting New Level promises to be your invaluable guide to the hidden depths of a tarot reading. It boasts that it will crack open the Celtic Cross so that “you will be in a position to offer clients readings that are out of this world.” So far, so promising – but does the book deliver?

It’s a slim book at only 127 pages, and its contents consist mostly of transcribed and edited conversations between tarot teacher Paul Hughes-Barlow and his student (who later becomes a professional reader herself) Catherine Chapman. Chapman initially reached out to Hughes-Barlow to help her understand a particularly confusing Celtic Cross reading she did for herself. Over the course of the book, they visit and revisit the same cards in different ways, uncovering layers of detail and complex patterns. The result is essentially one incredibly thorough, 127-page-long tarot reading. While subjecting one reading to this much analysis and attention is fascinating, I do wonder if it would have been helpful to see Hughes-Barlow’s strategies applied to other reading examples too.

The strategies Hughes-Barlow puts forth in this book include card counting, elemental dignities, and card pairing. Each method gets a detailed explanation, a transcribed discussion with thoughts from both authors concerning Chapman’s Celtic Cross reading, followed by a handful of general examples of elemental dignities and card pairings (though not card counting; we only have the example of Chapman’s reading for this).

I knew nothing about these strategies going in, apart for what I have studied of card pairing in the Lenormand divinatory system (which, it turns out, is used very similarly here). I felt that the elemental dignities and card pairings are explained in a way that could be easily grasped by an intermediate level tarot reader, but I must confess I became very lost in the chapter about card counting; in fact, I ended up doing an online search for a simpler explanation of the method in order to be able to follow the rest of the book.

The strategies themselves are very worthy of study, though definitely not for beginners. I would also say that these methods would probably suit someone who has a more logical/linear way of thinking. A person who likes numbers and patterns would find a reassuring precision in the practice of card counting, but I’m a bit more fluid (dare I say haphazard?) in my readings and I didn’t quite connect with the rigidity of these methods.

However, when I applied these approaches myself in a Celtic Cross reading, I was surprised and pleased to discover different layers of insight coming through, just like Chapman and Hughes-Barlow demonstrated. Depending on the strategy you are using, different cards may be highlighted in the reading, and you may even uncover different options, outcomes, and advice. What you are then left with at the end of the reading is, well, a lot. It’s certainly a great way to take your tarot readings even deeper than usual, but this is probably not a method of reading you would want to undertake unless you have a lot of time and energy to devote to it.

Personally, I don’t see myself using the card counting method much into the future, but after having read this book I can definitely appreciate its value. As for elemental dignities and card pairings, I will probably employ these a bit more frequently. I would say this book is a useful companion to anyone who wants to take their tarot readings to the next level, and I would especially recommend it to readers who enjoy logical order and patterns — but only after mastering the basics first.

Reviewed by: Maria Hummer


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