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?
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.