Updated: Jun 8, 2019
A common and often continuing discussion among experienced and neophyte Tarot readers concerns the issue of using reversed cards. “Why should I use them?” “Aren’t reversed meanings always negative or just the opposite of what the cards mean in their upright position?” “Can’t I get these meanings just from looking at the cards upright anyway?”
People who’ve given this issue some thought often fall into one of two groups: those who use reversed cards and those who don’t. I happen to be in the group that uses reversed cards. In this blog entry, I’ll provide a brief explanation of my philosophy on reversed cards and share a few of the ways I use them in readings. Hopefully, I’ll provide you with a fresh and clearer perspective on reversed cards that may help remove any reservations you may have about using them.
But first, a little side story.
The Sherlock Holmes School of Observation
I’m a great Sherlock Holmes fan and I’ve read almost all of his stories. I’ve also followed his “career” in film throughout the past 50 years. I first saw Sherlock portrayed by the great English actor Basil Rathbone when I was a small boy, faithfully watched the BBC television series starring Jeremy Brett (another great English actor), and finally fell in love with the latest adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch (yet another great English actor). I mention this because I’ve learned a lot from Mr. Holmes that I’ve applied in my Tarot practice.
One of the greatest lessons I learned from him was the idea of paying utmost attention to detail. Anything and everything can be a clue. The slightest action or insignificant object, regardless of its perceived importance, can reveal a subtlety or nuance to a given clue that can make a difference in solving a case.
I remember in one Basil Rathbone episode of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock was in the middle of a duel with his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. At one point, both men were desperately trying to decode a top secret, symbolically encoded message from a government scientist regarding Britain’s new secret weapon, both without much success. (This was during World War II, as you can guess.) Sherlock somehow happened to see the message in a mirror and realized that the scientist wrote it in reverse. He then was able to decode most of the message, but there was one piece he could not decipher.
Dr. Watson picked up the message to have a look at it but couldn’t decipher it either. He tossed the paper back on Holmes’ desk, where it landed upside down. Holmes noticed something very interesting as he reached to pick up the paper. Seen upside down, it seemed as if the symbols now revealed the missing part of the message. It turned out that the scientist intentionally did this to make the message much harder to decode and to make certain that the remaining piece of the message was subtly hidden within the body of the main message. Sherlock would have never deciphered this last important piece of the message if he had not seen it upside down.
Seeing Beyond the Obvious
I’m sure the idea of detailed observation that I learned from Mr. Holmes is one of the main reasons I love using reversed cards in my readings. They enable me to see things through a “mirror”, allowing me to see things from a different perspective. I’ve found that they provide me with a distinct level of detail and granularity that enables me to see beyond the overall message of the spread and uncover the various levels of complexity that lie deeper within the message itself. Indeed, they are extremely useful in helping me understand nuances and subtleties that can make the message more complete and meaningful.
I’m a big fan and long-time student of symbols and symbolism, and I can glean a wide variety of meanings just from the artwork on a given card. Reversed cards provide me with an even broader palette of meanings because the artwork can reveal an entirely different set of symbols and imagery in a reversed position than in its upright position. All this just adds to the amount of depth and detail I can convey for a message in a reading. I find it utterly fabulous. For example, consider the 10 of Cups card.
A perfect picture of happiness and bliss, isn’t it? And in fact, that is what the card will represent in many readings. If the card appears reversed in a reading, many readers will indicate that it means the opposite – there is a notable lack of happiness or bliss, which is a reasonable interpretation. I did have a situation, however, where this was definitely not the case.
The reading involved a young man who was having relationship problems with his girlfriend, and he was seeking guidance on how he could improve the situation. He said she seemed somewhat distracted and somewhat ambivalent over the past several months and he couldn’t figure out what might be wrong. He was having a little difficulty at work, but he was trying to be as upbeat and positive as much as he possibly could. He likes to do things outdoors and is an avid movie fan, and he often tried to think of fun things they could do together or interesting movies they could see. Despite his best efforts, her mood did not change very much.
I decided to pull three cards to see what kind of advice the Universe could provide for him. The first card would represent the current state of their relationship, the second would indicate how she feels about what’s going on, and the third would indicate what he needs to do to resolve the situation. These are the cards that came up for the reading.
The message in the first two cards seemed to be quite obvious to me, but I had to consider the third card for a moment. I initially thought, “So he needs to make matters worse before they get better? That’s weird!” And then it hit me – he just needs to make a slight change to his perspective on what makes him happy.
I told the young man that the first card confirmed the fact that his relationship is a little rocky right now and that she is actually somewhat displeased with him. I said the second card indicated that she is trying to present something to him and that he is either oblivious to this or just disregarding it because he may think it’s trivial; we’ll circle back to this point in a moment.
Before I uttered another word, he asked, “Does that third card mean I’m not going to be able to resolve this and we’re just going to continue being at odds?” “Not at all!” I said. In fact, I told him that he needed to concentrate more on doing things that she likes to do and that make her happy rather than focus on just his interests. I told him that the second card showed that she was trying to suggest things that she liked to do or in which she was interested, but he just wasn’t getting the message. I also said it looked like he might be a little stubborn about sticking to things that interested him the most.
Finally, I told him that I was confident he’d still be happy even if he did things that she liked to do. When he asked me how I could be so sure, I turned the 10 of Cups around so that he could see it the way I had seen it in the reading. “Put your first two fingers across the top of the card. What do you see?” His face reflected exactly what he saw on the card at that moment. I reiterated that he had to stop focusing entirely on his own interests and start focusing more on those of his girlfriend’s, and that what he was seeing on the card in his hand indicated that he would find happiness in making her happy.
As you begin to explore using reversed cards in your readings, allow your mind to go beyond any meanings you may have learned or created for a given card. Take some time to look at the artwork in the card and see if any new images emerge. You’ll be surprised how a deck you’ve known and loved for a long time can become revitalized and fresh again.
Getting Down to Business
Before I begin, let me state three tenets of my Tarot Philosophy regarding reading reversed cards:
Reversed cards are not inherently negative.
Every card in the deck has both positive and negative meanings.
Read the cards in context to each other and to the overall story they tell within the reading.
Reading a reversed card accurately depends upon several factors: the spread you’re using, the card position’s meaning within the spread, where the card falls within the spread, and the context of that card in that position to the overall message of the spread. Last, but certainly not least, your intuition plays the key part in reading the reversed card – it really centers on what the card says to you at that particular moment in space and time in relation to the story you see unfolding before you.
NOTE: Before I go any further, let me say that you should be relatively comfortable with the basic, generally accepted descriptions of the cards in their upright (normal) positions before you start working with them in a reversed position. You should also keep in mind those interpretations that you’ve developed for the cards based upon your intuition and reading experiences. Having this fundamental knowledge will serve you well when you begin working with reversed-cards.
You likely have three or four spreads that really work well for you, a few Tarot decks that you use for your readings, and a good deal of intuition at your disposal. You’ve got all the elements necessary for good readings, so now let’s look at how you can incorporate reversed cards and take your readings to the next level.
Methods for Reading Reversed Cards
Here are just a few of the ways that you can interpret a reversed card based upon the factors I mentioned above. The questions that appear in the definition can help you determine whether a particular interpretation is applicable. Although you may not use any of these interpretations anytime soon, I recommend that you learn them so that you can build a core base of reversed card definitions. You’ll find that they could become quite valuable in a variety of situations.
Difficult situation. Does the card indicate that the Querent will be encountering or facing a difficult situation or issue? Does it represent a warning that the Querent should consider?
Blocking energy. Does the card indicate that something or someone is blocking the energy or lesson the card represents? Is the Querent himself or herself blocking the energy or lesson?
Weak energy. Does the card indicate that the energy it represents is weak within the Querent? Could it be that the Querent is losing this energy because it is unavailable for some reason?
Excessive energy. Does the card indicate that the Querent is taking the normally positive qualities of the card in its upright position to excess?
Internal focus. Does the card indicate that the Querent should turn its energy or lesson inward?
I’ve actually broadened the number of definitions I use for reading a reversed card and expand upon them in greater detail in a book on reversed cards that I’ve got in the works. Stay tuned….
A Few Last Words…
I believe learning how to use reversed cards is a good exercise, even if you don’t use them in your readings. At least you’ll understand the premise behind them and they will no longer make you feel uneasy. Remember that there are no correct or incorrect interpretations – each of us sees that layer of the reading to which we are attuned relative to our own intuition, insight and observational skills. I hope what I’ve discussed here will help you see your cards in a whole new light and help broaden your Tarot vocabulary.
All card images from the Radiant RIDER-WAITE Tarot. Copyright (c) 2003 US Games Systems, Inc.