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Fortune teller holding tarot cards

When a tarot card appears upside-down, many readers take the card reversal into account in their interpretations. This is commonly called “reading reversals”. It’s not necessary to read reversals to give a great tarot reading. In fact, some tarot traditions, most notably Crowley-Harris-Thoth, do not honor reversals at all.

Each tarotist, whether novice, or expert, hobbyist or professional, discovers and develops a reading style that works for them. As long as the readings are helpful and reflect truth, there is no one right way to read tarot – the technique is judged entirely by the results.

Likewise, each tarot pro has their own way of formally teaching tarot to their students, and informally teaching about tarot to their clients, and to the public at large.

However, it really gets my garters in a bunch when I hear tarot pros speaking of reversals in terms of positive and negative, or light and dark. This leads to students who tell me “I don’t want to read reversals because I don’t like negativity!”

Today I saw two such posts online – tarot pros who believe that a card reversed is automatically interpreted as “negative”. The suggestion is that a tarot reading without reversals will offer a more uplifting message.  

The idea that limiting the details of a reading reduces negativity seems silly. Likewise, the idea that reversals automatically create negative information or negative energy is laughable.

In general, modern tarot thinking asks us to depart from the fortune-telling days of old when we might see a card as “good” or “bad”. While we would all rather see the Sun than the Tower, most of us realize that, in a particular reading, the Sun, a generally happy card, might indicate something undesirable, while the Tower, a generally unhappy card, might represent a positive change.

I truly believe that the more we readers cling to ideas like positive/negative and good/bad in our understanding of the cards (and in life) the less able we are to use the cards to help bring actual healing opportunities to ourselves and/or our clients. Often, what we fear or resist is the thing we need most, and what we long for doesn’t serve us. When we look at the energies present without judging them as light or dark we are better able to see all the options.

Beyond the philosophical question is the more practical question of how to read reversals. if reversals don’t automatically create a negative interpretation, what do they do, and why are they helpful?

To understand reversals, we must first understand the concept of tarot dignity, or aspect. Even in traditions where reversals are not commonly read, dignity plays an important role in tarot interpretation.

In tarot, the word “dignity” or “aspect” refers to the way context affects interpretation. If a card is well-dignified, it’s strongest and most direct interpretation would be used. If a card is ill-dignified, there may be a resistance, a delay, an avoidance or an opposition.

Dignity can be determined based on the elemental association of the cards in a spread, by the context of the question or the surrounding cards, or even by the way the reader feels about the card in the moment. However, the most common way to determine dignity is to see upright cards as generally well-dignified, and reversed cards as generally ill-dignified.

Many talented readers who don’t read reversals rightly say that their intuition, and the surrounding cards, let them know whether the card should be read directly or with some sense of force or resistance.

I agree that this technique works, but still stand in favor of reversals, for two reasons.

The first is that a reversal can offer a nice visual clue. For instance, if the Waite Three of Swords is reversed, the Swords can easily fall out the heart and offer healing. If the Hanged Man is reversed, he appears to be dancing.

So much of tarot is visual. Reversals literally offer us another perspective on the tarot images.

The second reason I advocate reversals is that reversals present an opportunity for magick. If you receive a card whose energy you don’t welcome, you can reverse it to lessen its effect in your life.

If you receive a card reversed whose energy you would like to welcome, you can turn it right side up as a way of bringing that energy more strongly into your life.

In interpreting reversals, the important thing is to release the idea that reversals are always negative. You can also release the idea that a reversal always creates an opposite of the card’s direct meaning. Sometimes that can be true, but other times not.

The thing to remember is this. A reversal shows an aspect of the energy of the card. When interpreting a reversal, consider first the direct energy of the card. Then, think about the context of the question, the surrounding cards, and how you feel about the card in the moment.

Consider what a more indirect form of the card’s energy might be. A reversal may put the card’s energy in the past, or lessen it, or make it more forceful. And yes, sometimes, it might create an opposite.

There are times when the reversal of a card is less desired than its upright presentation. Yet, that still does not create a sense of negativity, only a question of what to do to welcome that energy more fully.

And, there is the third reason I recommend working with reversals. Each reversal offers us an additional opportunity for contemplation. Is this an energy that is passing out of your life, and are you ready to see it go? Or, is this something coming in that you want to welcome more aggressively?

Reversals let us see nuances, and give us a sense of the passage of time.

Some readers seem to avoid reversals out of fear of confusion. Aren’t 78 cards enough? My answer is that reversals help us understand the full range of each card’s energy. In the end, this can actually make tarot reading less confusing.

Whether or not you want to have reversals in your tarot practice, don’t fall into the trap of thinking reversals create negativity, or give superfluous information. If you hear a tarot teacher suggesting such a thing, it might be time to find a new teacher.