So-called Tarot “reversals”—that is, cards that appear “upside down” or inverted in a spread—have always been a point of contention in the Tarot community. Most experienced readers—present company included—integrate reversals into their work with the cards, though there is a minority that insists that the cards contain sufficient interpretive meanings in their “upright” positions as they are, and that reversals just “muddy the waters” for all but the most adept readers. Personally, I agree on both counts; reversals can make a reading more challenging and are probably best left to readers with sufficient experience to decipher them, but they also give us another powerful tool we can use when interpreting a spread, and I’d encourage readers—even less advanced practitioners—to “get their feet wet,” perhaps by dealing a single reversed card at a time and studying it at length; with enough dedication and practice, meanings of reversals will suggest themselves. Just as with riding a bike or playing the piano, the longer we keep at it, the more proficient we become.
Besides altering or modifying the meanings of the individual cards, reversals can also give us an indication of the spiritual “energy-forces” flowing around us on any given day. A preponderance of reversed cards in a spread might suggest, for instance, that we may be “going against the current” for the time being despite our best intentions. On the other hand, they could equally imply that we are being asked to surrender any negative feelings or impulses we have bottled up inside us (we see this quite a bit with cards that portend ominous outcomes when they appear upright, as we’ll see momentarily).
Let’s look at a couple of examples using a simple three-card layout. Here,the querent is depressed over a romantic relationship that has ended badly for her. The spread is a simple “past-present-future” arrangement:
This sequence suggests that the querent is refusing to relinquish her hurt feelings (Ten of Swords) even though the opportunity to move on and begin a new chapter in life has been presented her (Death, which having been rebuffed, appears reversed, implying spiritual stagnation and rot). The querent may also have come to this end, initially, because her expectations of relationships are not realistic, or because she is not terribly adept at choosing the best partner (the Prince of Cups reversed, which stands for duplicity and bad faith). Now let’s turn the tables and see what we find:
A new day dawns in the querent’s life (the sunrise at Death’s horizon), and if she is willing to surrender her hurt feelings —letting gravity release the Ten swords from her back—she can know love again. Matter of fact, Mr. Right might have already entered into her life, stage left, if she would only look! In any event, we can see how reversals can enhance our appreciation of the cards, and also they remind us in no uncertain terms that there is no such thing as an absolutely “bad” or “evil” card; even an image as unsettling as the one conveyed by the Ten of Swords can serve a noble, even healing, purpose in a reading—we simply need to learn how to contextualize the card within the spread in which it has been lain.
Let’s try another one. In this case, the querent is engaged in a legal dispute, and he is wondering what his prospects are for a successful outcome:
At first glance, this might not suggest a pessimistic reading, but look again. The two parties—the Knights, one an extrovert (Swords), the other an introvert (Cups)—view the matter in completely different directions. They cannot cooperate with each other in any meaningful way because they have literally turned their backs on each other. Given their current negotiating positions, it is hard to see how their differences can be reconciled to the satisfaction of either party (the Two of Cups reversed). Let’s flip the cards, however, and:
This is a case where more reversals can actually provide a more optimistic reading, reminding us additionally that reversed cards don’t necessarily suggest an inherent “negative” meaning. Here, the two parties are still at loggerheads (both Knights reversed, and hence quarrelsome), but now they are at least facing each other, and if they are willing to commence a dialogue out of mutual respect, an outcome that is amenable to both parties is still quite possible (the Two, upright).
Disclosure: Unlike the other spreads you have seen on this site, these cards were not dealt at random but were selected specifically to illustrate how reversals can be interpreted in regard to a given matter, and even a cursory glance at them reveals other interpretations for other events. Look again at the spread above; it could easily suggest that querent is considering, or engaged in, an adulterous relationship, or in a state of being “torn between two lovers” who are vying for her affection. It could also stand for a reunion of brothers or a similar familial connection. It could suggest the value of teamwork in any successful relationship. It could even stand for a romantic relationship between two men. The point of this post, therefore, is simply to demonstrate how reversals can be viewed; the situations we’ve analyzed here have been only means to an end.
Probably the best reason I can think of to incorporate reversed cards into our Tarot spreads is that they challenge us to think even more creatively about the cards—and unleashing our powers of creativity in the pursuit of greater self-awareness helps us to lead a more fulfilling inner life. This is a major goal of the work.