I sometimes work with what I call directed placement spreads, by which I mean that the cards themselves tell you where to place them in the spread, rather than using pre-defined positions with fixed meanings. This elemental spread is one of my favorites.
Shuffle and cut the cards as you normally do. Then draw five cards, one at a time.
If the card is a major arcana card (element of spirit), it goes in the center of the spread.
If it is a pentacles card (element of earth), it goes below the center.
If it is a wands card (element of fire), it goes above the center.
If it is a swords card (element of air), it goes to the left of center.
If it is a cups card (element of water), it goes to the right of center.
If you draw more than one of the same suit, the second one goes in the same direction as the first, just farther away from the center. (In the photo, you can see I drew the 7 of pentacles first, then the 6 of pentacles later.)
In interpreting this spread, the majors (if any) represent major themes one is working on at the moment. The wands represent where your energy and enthusiasm is going, the cups your emotional life, swords your mental life, and pentacles your pragmatic concerns. Cards farther away from the center represent more remote factors, perhaps farther from present time.
A nice thing about this spread is that, besides what the individual cards have to say, it gives a picture of the elemental balance (or imbalance) in the person’s life at the moment, at least as pertains to their question. This is also a good spread to use without a question, just to provide a snapshot of one’s world at a point in time. It can be strikingly obvious, for example, if there are no swords (as in the photo), or no cups, or a large number of some suit.
In the example shown in the photo, I used the Gill Tarot. The cards speak to my recent activities in bringing my interests in tarot, astrology, and paganism to a wider group of people. (I re-invented my web site with this in mind last Samhain, and started this blog just a month ago.) The major card is The Chariot, a good strong card for the idea of moving forward toward a goal, with a strong sense of purpose. The 9 of wands (above) bears the keyword “preparation” in this deck, and shows the energy and enthusiasm with which I have been lining up topics and ideas. To the right is the 10 of cups, “success”, referring not only to the positive way in which my efforts are playing out and being received, but also to my happiness in my marriage. Below, we see the 7 of pentacles (“delay”) and further out, the 6 of pentacles (“well-being”), suggesting that it may not all “happen at once”, but that a good foundation is being laid now for a strong, lasting base in the future. The absence of swords indicated that intellectual or mental work is not really part of the picture, which is true – I rely more on my accumulated experience and intuition to shape how I share my ideas with others.
This is a simple but effective spread. If you try it yourself, you may want to adjust the placement of the suits to your own liking. Remember some decks use swords for fire instead of air, so you might want to swap the placement of those suits if that is the case.