"Tarot Triumphs" by Cherry Gilchrist


I just finished reading this recently-published book. Despite only discussing the 22 trumps (or triumphs, as the author refers to them - because of the recent political developments I believe I will adopt "triumphs" for my own usage from now on), I believe this is the best English-language book on TdM available today.

Cherry Gilchrist is a professional author and writing teacher, and her lucid prose is a pleasure to read. She is certainly thorough; besides giving both brief and expanded meanings for the cards, she also covers the history of tarot, iconography of the images, the metaphysics and ethics of divination in general and of tarot reading in particular, and much else.

Gilchrist's approach, which she apparently learned from a tarot teacher named Glyn, who isn't otherwise identified, encompasses a whole system of practices which are very particular, including a three-card spread, a four-card spread, and a shortened seven-card Celtic Cross. She uses no court cards, no pip cards, and no reversals. But the centerpiece of her system is a 22-card spread called the Fool's Mirror, which, obviously, uses all the triumphs. She refers to the entire system as the Fool's Mirror School of Tarot, although I think she means "School" in a metaphorical sense -- I can't find any evidence of an actual school existing at this time.

The author has been using this system for a long time and while she does say that we should experiment, if we wish, with different spreads, with reversals, and with courts and pips, one definitely gets the impression that she believes strongly in the efficacy of her system and is not really interested in anything outside of it.

In some ways it's refreshing and intriguing when an author has a very specific system - it allows us to simply follow her guidelines and not have to weigh and measure everything against our own expectations. But it can be a disadvantage too, if the reader happens to strongly disagree with some of her positions. I suspect that, like myself, readers will generally find a lot of things to agree with but some things to disagree with as well.

For example, she feels strongly that the basic raison d'être of reading tarot is to read for others. She doesn't like the idea of one reading for oneself. "Reading Tarot for yourself or for someone close to you may be risky, and sometimes downright dangerous," she warns. I think even she realizes that it's a bit unrealistic for her to expect that her readers will never read for themselves, so she does allow for the possibility, but frames it with so many warnings and cautions and general disapproval that I can imagine her doing so with gritted teeth. This is one area where she and I must part company. I work at home now and am pretty isolated, and am not in a position to do a lot of reading for others, so if I were to stop self-readings, that would be the end of my tarot involvement. So, apologies to Ms. Gilchrist, but I am going to keep right on reading for myself. :D

Besides her graceful prose, Gilchrist deserves praise for the quality of her research. Besides the tarot specifics, she's well-versed in art history, mythology, esoteric occultism, and other fields which serves her well for a tarot book. I found that she sometimes had a tendency to discount probable origins of the images if they didn't fit in with her chosen meanings. For example, she says of the Popess, "She is not a historical counterpart of the Pope, either, or a renegade version of the Pope in female form." I feel this is a rather strong statement when the card shows a female Pope and has been titled "La Papesse" for centuries.

Nevertheless, I liked her iconographical commentary, and I especially liked her card meanings. Of course there was plenty of material that wouldn't be new to someone who has studied the cards, but I found a lot of good insights into the images which hadn't occurred to me before.

I liked her attitudes toward several facets of tarot reading with which I'm in agreement. She supports considering the images and their major elements but not necessarily unimportant visual details. While intrigued by correspondences to other esoteric disciplines, she thinks tarot should be studied as a self-contained system without those correspondences. I also like how she recommends taking reading seriously but also with a certain lightness and humor.

She has much good advice to give about the reading process. "Don't be tempted to elaborate, to say more than you can quickly or easily see in the combination of cards. Otherwise, too much imagination can come in, and it's possible to drift off on one's own chain of association." And she doesn't mind practical, down-to-earth questions: "Tarot is robust, and an apparently mundane question will not devalue its deep symbolism." She also gives some advice that could have come from a Lenormand reader: "The significator and the question define the reading: do not be tempted to go further and speculate about additional events or the querent's overall psychological makeup, for instance; stay with what you can see in the cards."

The 22-card Fool's Mirror spread diagram looks rather intimidatingly complicated. Interestingly, the layout position meanings are very non-specific. There are no meanings such as "goal," "obstacle," "opinions of others," etc. Instead, each position has a temporal meaning (past, present, or future) and an orientation meaning (external or internal). Half of the positions relate to the external, half to the internal.

Because of long practice with considering tarot triumphs as spiritual or psychological "heavy hitters," I wondered if a spread of 22 triumphs with no courts and pips would be too heavily invested in spiritual or philosophical principles. But the absence of pips and courts means the triumphs can take on more mundane meanings, especially when located in the external half of the spread.

After finishing the book, I tried out the spread. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able, in addressing a relatively mundane question, to string the 22 cards together into a reasonable story which made perfect sense. I'm encouraged by this and plan to continue using this spread.

After reading the book and trying the spread, I can't help but wonder if, by indulging my fascination with assigning meaning to the pips and courts, I'm just chasing my own tail. Another book which I like, Sallie Nichol's "Jung and Tarot," also recommends reading without pips (although Nichols added in the courts and the four Aces). Gilchrist considers the triumphs to be an entity to themselves, and the pips and courts unnecessary. Whether one ultimately agrees or not, it's certainly an issue that merits contemplation and consideration.

I also enjoyed her husband's line drawings of the triumphs - they were faithful to tradition (mostly - he snuck a third disciple onto the Pope!) and added some nice moods and expressions to the faces.

I highly recommend the book. If anyone reads it and wants to exchange readings with her Fool's Mirror spread, I'm game!


Thanks, Lee! I will check this one out. I can't say that I find reading for myself dangerous, just not very profitable as a routine practice after doing it for the last four decades. So I don't do it much. These days there's simply more value (not to mention more fun) in reading for others.


I can't say that I find reading for myself dangerous, just not very profitable as a routine practice after doing it for the last four decades. So I don't do it much. These days there's simply more value (not to mention more fun) in reading for others.
Then you would fit right in with her paradigm. Her ideal reader is one who will be doing their practicing while reading for others. Let us know how you like the book!


Excited to check this out. I haven't read a tarot book in a while. Sounds like this one will make it to my top shelve, right next to yours, Lee, and Ben Dov's and Camilia's. Thanks for that thorough review.


Patrick Booker

I am waiting for the Amazon courier to deliver this today. This looks like an interesting addition to books available on using the Marseille. Cherry Gilchrist has written a number of interesting books, including Russian folklore and alchemy.


Patrick Booker

I am reading it now - clearly written and useful, with interesting anecdotes and historical material. I particularly like her use of cards to represent internal and external factors, and also to represent their meeting. I think that this could be used regardless of whether one used her spread and method.



I just finished the general section on divination and find it thoroughly in tune with my own impressions (except the proscription against reading for oneself, which I find a little narrow). I haven't looked ahead at the "Fool's Mirror" layout, but I get the idea it's a more comprehensive layout than we see in common use today, and large spreads are "meat-and-potatoes" for me. The book is both reasonably scholarly and highly readable at the same time.


Sounds like this one will make it to my top shelve, right next to yours, Lee, and Ben Dov's and Camilia's.
Thanks, I am flattered. :)
Patrick Booker said:
I particularly like her use of cards to represent internal and external factors, and also to represent their meeting. I think that this could be used regardless of whether one used her spread and method.
I agree -- while she presents her method/spread as a complete package, and I'm in fact using it that way at present, I also think it would be interesting to use elements of her ideas in other ways. For example, I think her 22-card spread is a good one even if one uses a 78-card TdM or an RWS-type deck. I think one could also take her spread and make it much smaller while keeping the past-present-future/internal-external pattern.
Barleywine said:
The book is both reasonably scholarly and highly readable at the same time.
That's one of my favorite things about this book. Not to denigrate other tarot authors, but I find most of their writing skills to be adequate but not great. It's a pleasure to read a tarot book written by an author who is actually good at tarot AND good at writing.


I'm getting into the "Fool's Mirror" part of the book, and had a sudden inspiration when doing any reading to pull the Fool card from a different deck and set it above the spread as symbolic of the Fool holding up a "mirror" (the spread) that reveals to the querent his or her own folly or wisdom in the matter. I doubt I would read the card in combination with anything (although I bet I could find a way to), just treat it as a kind of imaginative archetypal "significator."

The book keeps getting better. I like her idea of reversals as an "intellectual overlay" that separates us from direct experience of a card's meaning. All I can say to that is "Guilty!" Because my reading style is as much analytical as it is intuitive, I appreciate anything that gives me more avenues of meaning to explore. I consider reversals an invitation to open an alternative window of insight and peer inside with a different set of "spectacles." As something of a "tarot theoretician," I like an oblique perspective as much as immediacy, and think many people get too hung up on its seeming artificiality and don't see it as just another tool. Many things in life ultimately come down to a 50/50 proposition: "Should I stay or should I go?" (although I like the wry spin the Clash put on that by following with "If I stay there will be trouble/If I go it will be double!" - a perfect reflection of what reversal could mean in such a situation). I've been using reversals for a very long time (but not with Marseille decks) and believe them to work in a fashion that Gilchrist doesn't choose to explore.


I like her idea of reversals as an "intellectual overlay" that separates us from direct experience of a card's meaning.
For me, this gets to the core of what I find so intriguing about her approach, although in my case it's the non-use of pips and courts that's caught my attention.

For decades, I've been absorbed by the question of how to read the pips. In fact, experimenting and inventing different methods has been one of the things I've most enjoyed about my tarot study. I was exposed early on to the concept of not using them - when I read "Jung and Tarot" back in the '90s - but it's hard not to take for granted that one should use them. After all, they're there in the deck box, to leave them aside seems counterintuitive.

But Gilchrist is articulate and persuasive on certain issues. The phrase "bright shiny object" has been used a lot in political press coverage lately to indicate things that catch and occupy our attention in the short term, but that end up not having long-term significance. Gilchrist doesn't use that term, but after reading her book, I began to wonder if pip systems were basically acting as a bright shiny object for me, and proving to be a distraction from what Gilchrist would call the "real" tarot - i.e. the 22 triumphs.

Looking back, I can see how this has been the case for me. Whenever I've looked at a book on TdM, my main focus of attention has always been how the book handles the pips. There was definitely a feeling on my part that I already have a good handle on the triumphs, so why give that part of the book much attention? I suspect I'm not alone in that regard. In posts here on AT about my TdM book, the discussion tends to focus on how my book handles the pips, and not many people have seemed to have much interest in my treatment of the triumphs, despite the fact that I took what I felt was a fairly innovative approach to divinatory meanings for them.

The result, I fear, has been that my grip on the triumphs may not have been as firm as I thought it was. Now that I'm working pipless, I'm finding a lot more in them than I've found in the past. Taking the pips out of the equation frees up brainpower to focus on the triumphs.

In my post that started this thread, I wrote about how I tried a sample reading with her Fool's Mirror spread, using just the triumphs, and I was pleasantly surprised with the subtleties and nuance that can be uncovered without the pips and courts. Since then I've done several more such readings on different topics (using Pipistrelle's practice questions - thanks Pipistrelle!), and am continuing to find that while the readings have a distinctive plainness and directness, there is also plenty of subtlety and nuance there to be uncovered. These readings have seemed to me more like "true" tarot readings rather than tarot-combined-with-a-numerologically-based-oracle.

This impression of mine seems to confirm, for me at least, Gilchrist's thesis that the triumphs are the heart of the deck and that the pips and courts don't add much, on the one hand, while on the other hand, they take attention away from the important stuff going on in the triumphs.

The important thing, I think, about her spread, when done pipless and all upright, is that despite the simple-seeming position attributions (time on the one hand and inner/outer on the other hand), each card is actually interconnected with many other cards. The top and bottom halves of the spread mirror each other symmetrically, the top being outer, the bottom being inner.

That means any card in the external section has its internal counterpart, so already you have two cards working together. Then you have four "connecting" cards, connecting past with present and present with future, above and below. So besides each card having a counterpart vertically, the connecting cards connect each card to their neighbors horizontally, thus creating a web of connectedness.

So once we expand the range of meanings of the triumphs a bit to include some more mundane meanings, it really does provide a direct yet subtle and nuanced reading process, all without pips, courts, or reversals. I'm having a great time with it.