Tarot: a question of card reversals

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By Sarah Taylor

Last week, I invited readers of this tarot column to send their questions, comments and suggestions about tarot in general, and how I approach tarot here in particular. (You can read the article and comments here.) One of the questions gave me pause for thought — enough that it felt right to focus on it in an article. The question was, why don’t I use reversed cards in my tarot readings?

Ace of Swords - RWS Tarot deck.

Ace of Swords from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck. Swords represent the intellect; the Ace is its highest potential.

I think it’s a great question. The reason for this is that I had to do a bit of a personal inventory, revisit and add to my tarot credo, and it challenged me in the process. As a result, it asks for a several-stranded response, because I realised that for me it isn’t a single-answer matter.

I don’t do card reversals at all — whether for my readings here on Planet Waves or those with clients. They don’t resonate with me to the degree that I don’t just have a ‘take em or leave em’ attitude about them; rather, I have actively rejected them.

“Reject” is a strong word, I know, so the first thing I want to consider falls in the ‘personal inventory’ category of evaluation — that of the possibility that card reversals are a sticking point for me. Is there a part of me that doesn’t want to deal with them? I know my knee-jerk reaction to reversals is something akin to, “Oh, I can’t be bothered with them!” So I’m going to unpack that a little.

Fear of unpredictability; fear of change

There are certain cards that have the ability to create a frisson of fear in people. Tarot readers are no exception: at a tarot conference I attended, all it took was someone holding up The Tower card for the room to erupt with mock gasps. Yes, there was an air of theatricality to the reaction — but it also masked something authentic. As much as many of us like to believe that we are agents of change, creating as well as embracing it, I think that there is an aspect to us that resists it too. We are ambivalent.

Tarot, at its best, brings us face-to-face with resistance and ambivalence — because it’s only by acknowledging these that we recognise the potential for transformation. And what better reflection of change in tarot than seeing something standing on its head, 180 degrees removed from normality? That is a literal depiction of change if ever there was one — and, goodness, can the psyche kick and scream in its encounter.

There is a form of comfort to be had in a fully upright tarot pack. When it’s upright, we know where we’re at: there are darker cards, but there are lighter ones to counter them. When there are card reversals, almost any card can be seen either way. There is less certainty when there is another level of variability added.

Perhaps, then, I need to acknowledge that a part of me kicks and screams with the encountering of change and more unpredictability. That is the part that insists on safety, that balks at the idea of disruption, that wants to keep me where I am — in spite of (sometimes because of) the possibility that ‘where I am’ is not always the best place for me to be. So I concede that possibility when I resist reversals. On the other hand, tarot has been an invaluable tool for encountering those parts of myself that I’d prefer to hide, and hide from. The very thing that precipitates the meeting with my shadow also shows me the way through it and into the light.

When I unhook myself from the more personal, emotionally charged reaction I have to using card reversals, I can look at those decisions not to use reversals that are maybe more intuitive and grounded in a deeper sense of what works for me, and what doesn’t. When I do this, any doubt I have about not accommodating reversed cards becomes insignificant by comparison. The following are the reasons why my tarot credo (as opposed to my personal preferences and foibles) does not include card reversals. All of them are connected, but I’d like to separate them out.

Tarot is complex enough

Tarot holds the world in 78 cards. It is a holograph of the cosmos, inner and outer. It might take only days or weeks to learn, but it takes years to master — because in the mastery of tarot lies the path of self-mastery. All readings are accurate; not all readings are interpreted accurately, and not all readings have depth. The cards are as deep as we are. We cannot outgrow them, because they are archetypal. They grow with us, and they show us what we can grow into.

By adding card reversals, we add a layer of complexity that feels irrelevant. The most elegant solutions to anything are the ones that are the most pared down. When I hold a tarot deck in my consciousness, it has that elegance. It feels enough, as is, upright.

And this is one of the reasons why:

Reversals are implicit in every card

Each tarot card represents an archetypal characteristic, behaviour or situation. An archetype, by definition, is a blueprint. It is neutral, timeless, ‘in potential’. What we project onto and into it determines what quality it has and gives it shape.

When we lay cards out in a reading, we are laying out a blueprint. In the moment we start interacting with them, they stop being neutral and they begin to reflect who we are, what we’re doing, the direction we’re headed. We give the cards meaning, and not the other way around. Therefore, by adding card reversals we add a layer of complexity that is irrelevant, because the cards already hold all the meaning that we bring to them. Like a Rorschach Inkblot Test, one person’s flower will be another person’s skull, and another’s robot. In my many meetings with Death in my own readings, for example, I have at times seen it as an unwelcome visitor, at other times a harbinger of change, and at others I have opened my arms to it whooping with excitement. I don’t need anything more than the quality I have already conferred upon it: bad change, neutral change, good change. It’s all there.

We get the same effect with ‘aspecting’ and ‘qualifying’ cards

When we begin to grasp the interdependent nature of the cards in a tarot reading, reversals start to feel surplus to requirements. In the same way that I stated that “it’s all there” in a single card, it’s also ‘all there’ in a reading when all the cards are upright. This is due to how the cards interact and where we find them in meaningful aspect to each other.

For example, consider the Two of Cups. Alone, it is most often associated with ‘romantic love’, and it tends to elicit positive feelings if it is already in our lives, hopefulness or joyful expectation if it isn’t. Now, let’s put it next to a few other cards and see how our reactions might differ in each scenario:

Two of Cups and Eight of Cups – How do you feel now? If there is love present in your life, it might represent a need to walk away from something. That might be permanently, towards something else, or temporarily, because what came to me in this instance was the fact that the figure leaves, but also leaves a ‘space for the Ace’. The Two of Cups is aspected by the Eight of Cups — just as the Eight of Cups is aspected (perhaps mitigated) in return, depending on where they are in a layout.

Two of Cups and Three of Pentacles — Notice the quality of the Two of Cups change from the previous aspecting to this one. Now, the feeling to me is more neutral — something about needing to apply oneself and learn a skill, to put oneself in the role of apprentice. This might be about learning something more about what the Two is about. It is thoroughly practical.

Two of Cups and The Lovers – Wheeee! New quality yet again — one of falling in love and experiencing self through other. It’s not all plain sailing, given that The Lovers is also about choices based on this — perhaps the most important choice being around accepting or rejecting a partner as whole, autonomous, never fully knowable. But still — I challenge you not to have a different reaction to the Two of Cups here from the one you had with the Eight of Cups.

‘Aspecting’ and ‘qualifying’ (what I call drawing an extra card to shed light on an existing card in a layout) work in a different way from reversals, but I would argue that using them, and not reversals, doesn’t mean you’re missing out on some vital information. To argue that would be to fly in the face of synchronicity, which forms the very bedrock of a reading. Synchronicity is what lies behind all forms of divination, being the ‘acausal connecting principle’ (Jung) that gives a reading meaning.

Whether we use reversals or not, if we approach a reading with love, humility and an intention to be clear, we will pick the cards that are meant to be picked. Neither way is wrong or right, and this is simply my point of view. Following that same logic, whatever you do will work for you just as effectively.

 

If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article explains how to use the spread.

Sarah Taylor

About Sarah Taylor

Sarah is now taking applications for her online tarot training - a five-week course starting in the fall. Find out more on her website: www.integratedtarot.com/services
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12 Responses to Tarot: a question of card reversals

  1. Maeve Maeve says:

    Sarah – I finally caught my friend online and got the name of the deck. It’s the Revelations Tarot. I daren’t post a link ’cause I think my account got flagged for spam and I haven’t been able to post damn near anything since that day we were all talking about GMO crap.

  2. Sarah Taylor Sarah Taylor says:

    Oh, tell me about those ‘pack-jumpers’! If I shuffle and something/s flies out, I’ll use it/them; it feels like a call to attention.

    Yes, different approaches as seasonings – I like that. But I’m still going to be keeping your comments about reversals in mind … :)

  3. Maeve Maeve says:

    I can see your point. I never really thought about using them or not using them. Years ago, I used to do all sorts of crazy readings, usually drunk, cards would fly all over the place, on the table, on the floor… I’d shuffle and cards would fall out, or I’d pull a card and lay it down sideways or flip the card as I took it off the deck…
    I don’t see that they’re necessary, but they can add an additional flavor to things. Just like you don’t always need salt on something, but sometimes a little dash can bring to mind a new flavor.
    I’ll get back to you with that deck, soon as I figure out the name. :)

  4. Sarah Taylor Sarah Taylor says:

    I’d be interested in knowing the name of that tarot deck you mention, just the same. It sounds intriguing.

  5. Sarah Taylor Sarah Taylor says:

    Maeve – Thanks so much for sticking your neck out, in a manner of speaking, and sharing your thoughts. Criticism (the neutral sense of the word) is good – it keeps things elastic.

    My main aim in the article was to show my own process of enquiry as a way of demonstrating what I feel is a responsibility we have as readers to hold ourselves accountable for the shadow content we bring to our readings.

    That said, I’m also going to reserve judgement about why I choose not to do card reversals for the moment, because I remain unconvinced that they are necessary – and that might be primarily to do with my style rather than an inability to look at what I’m avoiding. I don’t work with elemental dignities or astrology symbols in my readings, and my feeling with those is that they are different modes, rather than better or worse approaches. I’m wondering whether it’s not the same with reversals. I’m going to be pondering what you’ve written here with that in mind.

  6. Maeve Maeve says:

    There is a tarot deck (whose name I cannot recall… a good friend has it, I’ll ask her about it tonight) where each card features a mirror image, kind of like Jekyl and Hyde. Afaik, it’s meant to be read either way. It seems like that deck might be a useful tool for you. Not that you need to read reversals, but to more broaden your perceptions about it. It does seem like you’ve got a bit of a block there. And I have no idea how to say any of that without it sounding bad, but I really don’t mean it badly.

    I sometimes read reversals. When I shuffle my decks, I move them the way they want to be moved, so I totally don’t keep track of what’s upside down and what’s not. Sometimes cards will fall out of the deck when I’m shuffling… they play where they lay, regardless of orientation. I find that often, the reversed cards can still mean what they mean while upright, but it’s a signal to shift perception. What thing or card does someone-in-the-reversed-card point at now that’s it’s reversed? What kind of contortions are required to see it as upright? Why do I shy away from reversed cards? For me, all of those things are too useful of markers to purposely avoid.
    I guess, to me, reversals are a tool that I can choose to use if it seems appropriate. :)

    Tangenting from Charles’ 3D line of thought… I like that. It makes sense. Upright and reversed give an X and Y axis, where as upright might only give the X line. Not saying that non-reversed spreads are one-dimensional, but I like the analogy.

  7. Sarah Taylor Sarah Taylor says:

    I was just thinking, Charles, that another way that reversals come up is in the reaction of the client and the circumstances that brought them to the reading. In other words, if a client gets the Seven of Swords, their attitude and mood might ‘transform’ the Seven of Swords from one where a figure is getting away with something, to where they need to ‘get away with something’, i.e assert themselves in a way that might feel opportunistic, but which is actually perfectly acceptable.

  8. Charles says:

    I like to think cards have pretty specific meanings. But then, we always want certainty, and rarely get it.

    Yes, I use “rote” interpretations like the Sun always being positive, merely being diminished or perhaps we are turned away and can’t feel the warmth of the sun. That brings up the various “rules” for interpreting reversals, like they diminish an effect, change its polarity, change the flow from inward to outward (or vice versa), facing towards or away, etc. Sometimes the specific meaning of a card (or its reversal) only becomes apparent in context with the adjacent cards (as you noted). Two cards can have very specific meanings and still require intuition to interpret how they work together. A card can be afflicted by an adjacent one and have the reversal meaning just as strongly as if it was actually reversed. So I figure you have to learn the reversals anyway.

  9. Sarah Taylor Sarah Taylor says:

    “There usually isn’t a single reversal interpretation that can’t be overridden by context, or by other alternative ways of interpreting a reversal, or even just a feeling. I’m not sure I can fully describe how I do that, just off the top of my head.”

    I absolutely agree with you – don’t you think that’s an intuitive response to the cards at any given time, rather than a rote response? And I also agree that the cards are a way to observe from a standpoint that is definitely not of this world.

    I love the story about your friend and colours, which really reinforces the idea that all paths, trodden with integrity, reach the same destination.

  10. Charles says:

    Perhaps my 3D analogy is a poor one, it compresses a complex subject too much. I actually think the cards are a way to step outside of the 4D bounds of space-time and look at it as an observer. But let’s not get too deeply into my eccentric cosmological beliefs.

    I don’t really interpret elemental dignities with reversals. Elements are sort of a separate issue, it influences the card’s interpretation in the layout, but doesn’t directly connect with reversals. Some traditional methods like “Opening of the Key” don’t use reversals at all, only elements.

    I use a lot of the traditional reversal interpretations, but that was more of a starting point for developing my own interpretations. But sometimes I get nothing, so the traditional interpretation is a good “fallback” position to start from. There usually isn’t a single reversal interpretation that can’t be overridden by context, or by other alternative ways of interpreting a reversal, or even just a feeling. I’m not sure I can fully describe how I do that, just off the top of my head.

    LOL I was just thinking of when I was reading cards with a friend of mine, she brought out her Thoth deck and I shuffled them, being careful to do it in the way the cards get their reversals mixed. I started drawing cards and she woefully exclaimed, “Oh no! You got the cards mixed upside down! Now I’ll have to sort them all out!” I said I was sorry but I didn’t know she didn’t do reversals. I asked her how she interpreted the Thoth cards and she said she looked at their colors first. I thought about that and decided this was as good as any starting point. Many of the Thoth card colors are somewhat aligned with their elements.

  11. Sarah Taylor Sarah Taylor says:

    Charles – I’m genuinely interested: when you use reversals, do you use traditional interpretations of reversals (e.g. The Sun can never be negative; some ‘negative’ upright cards become more ‘positive’), or do you go with what you feel the reading is saying to you moreso? Also, do you interpret reversed elements? Is that possible? And, if so, what is a reversed interpretation?

    It might be that we have differing approaches – all roads leading to the same destination. It might be the difference between a masculine vs. feminine approach (*not* male vs. female). It also might be that I’ve been reading tarot for considerably less time than you have, and that upright-only still appears as 3D to me. :) All things are possibilities.

  12. Charles says:

    That is an astute observation, that reversals are implicit in every card. Some methods (like the elemental dignities I use so often) don’t deal with reversals, but rather with “affliction” or “elevation.” A card may be afflicted when it is positioned next to cards of an opposing element, and elevated when it is next to an aligned element or its own element. Some people use astrological dignities, which is almost too complex to consider.

    I use reversals in most of my readings. I need the additional influences of the reversals, and I’ve worked hard to develop my understanding of them. When I consider a spread without reversals, it is like I’m looking at a flat plane of cards instead of 3D.

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