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Reading Reversals (those tricky upside-down cards!)

June 11, 2010

Techniques for Reading Reversals


Many people who are new to Tarot feel confused about just how they are supposed to read a card that is upside-down when they turn it over. Like everything in the the Tarot, there are many answers, and many approaches.

Some of you might take comfort in knowing that many prominant occultists (including Aleister Crowley) thought that reversals were completely unnecessary, and just turned the cards upright and read them normally. The idea is that if all the cards are already a diagram of all of reality, we don't need to add additional meanings to any card, because it is complete as is. Many people feel that none of the cards are either all good, or all bad, and any given archetype contains all of its reflections, no matter how the card falls. Some people favor systems such as elemental dignities-- a way of modifying the meaning of the card based on how its suit combines with the suits of the cards around it, as an alternative to reversals.

The bottom line is, if you find reversals confusing, or don't like them for whatever reason, you should know that it's perfectly acceptable to just turn the cards around right-way up, and read them normally. If you want to give them a try, however, here are a few ways of doing so:

Some people see reversals as opposites. If a card would normally show them generousity, they might see it reversed as greed. If a card normally shows fear, the reversal might indicate bravery. You'll often see this kind of interpretation in the little books of keywords that come with a deck. However, it can be a bit simplistic, as often one card can have many different connotations, and because not everything can be framed so dualistically.

Some readers see reversals as an indication of negativity... they feel that if a card which would normally be read as something positive comes up reversed, it becomes negative in some way (for example, a card about receiving a gift coming up reversed might show them that the gift is unwanted, or that it causes problems in some way), and if the card was already a difficult one, it adds an extra sense of foreboding. This can have a tendency to make a reading a little more gloomy than necessary, so if this technique makes the most sense to you, you may want to augment it by framing your questions in a very empowering way, or something else to ensure that your readings don't leave you feeling worse than when you started!

My method of reading the reversed cards is a bit different. I see them not as changing the meaning of the card itself, but that it shows something about how that card's energy is expressed. Generally, I see the reversal as indicating that what the card shows is present in the querent's life, but that it is hidden, blocked, or slow. For example, it may show something that is happening through a long process or over a long period of time, or perhaps it may show something that someone may be in denial about, or something going on in the background without much attention. This can sometimes show me more about a querent's response to the card, rather than altering what the card, itself, is about.

Many times, reversals can change a spread visually in a way that could alter the interpretation. It can be useful to look at the spread at a whole, to see how the figures in the cards, and other parts of the images, seem to interact with each other. Imagine all the cards, as they are laid out, as one big scene, rather than separate images, and you may notice interesting connections. For example, an image of cups filling up might appear like their contents are spilling out, if we look at it the other way around. To take that further, we might look if there is a card underneath it, as what the cups are dumping out on to. Or, perhaps a sword points towards one thing in one position, and something else in another. Maybe a figure in one of the cards is looking towards someone or something in one of the other cards, and their gaze would be cast in the other direction if the card was oriented differently.

Reversals can help to clarify a reading for some people, and for others, they just confuse things. Trial and error is always a good approach to the cards, in my opinion, so I would suggest playing a bit and seeing what works out the best for you.... and if it doesn't work, turn the cards right-way-up, and don't worry about it!

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