Good cards, bad cards

First published on Autostraddle


It’s common, especially when you’re learning tarot, to see certain cards as ‘good’, meaning only happy things for the querent, and others as inherently ‘bad’, so that the sight of them is enough to totally freak you out.

Life's a bitch and then you die - the Ten of Swords

Life’s a bitch and then you die – the Ten of Swords from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

I was doing tarot readings at an event a few weeks ago, and, as always happens, someone came up to me saying ‘I hope you’ve taken all the bad ones out!’  I asked him which cards he meant, and of course he said Death, The Tower, and the Ten of Swords.

I don’t buy this good cards/bad cards idea – it’s not compatible with my belief that there is a tarot card or combination of cards for every human experience. Life is not black and white, with only good experiences and bad experiences – things are obviously so much more complex that that! So too are tarot cards.

The most obvious ‘bad’ card is Death – and the card itself does little to dispel its bad reputation, usually depicting the grim reaper or some other skeletal mosterous thing. But as you probably already know, this card doesn’t actually mean ‘you’re going to die’. It’s more about the death of the ego, the passing away of a part of yourself which you no longer need. Death enables you to say goodbye to outdated ways and allow yourself to be transformed into something new. Which is clearly awesome!

The cards below show some alternative takes on Death. In the Wildwood Tarot, this card is replaced by ‘The Journey’, whereas in the Shadowscapes, Death is a phoenix. In the Mary-el Tarot, the image is a wise old woman who I feel has been through many, many lives, deaths and rebirths:

Death tarot cards

Then there is The Tower. Tarot readers often refer to traumatic life events as ‘tower moments’, and I’m certainly no stranger to these. The Tower represents a lightening-bolt moment when everything you thought was certain crumbles around you, leaving only rubble and dust behind. A tower moment could be a break-up, a job loss, any unexpected disaster. It can be terrifying, destabilising, completely unnerving….but in the passage of time, usually ends up liberating you in some way. The Tower represents the current status quo – it’s crumbling often indicates that it’s high time for a change, and if you’re not going to do something about it…something else will. So there you are, dazed and confused, standing in the rubble. As your head begins to clear, you realise you have a chance to rebuild things differently – to do things your way.

The Tower tarot cards

Another dismal sight is the Ten of Swords, but honestly? It just cracks me up. Here is a person with TEN SWORDS in their back (seriously, how many does it take?) lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Talk about melodrama – this is so OTT it’s laughable. More and more as this card appears in my own readings, I come to see it as a sharp and humorous message. ‘Yes, Beth. Things are tricky right now. But for Christ’s sake get a freakin’ grip!’ And then I know it’s time to stop feeling like such a damn victim and drag myself up by the bootstraps. Lying their moaning won’t change anything, but look, there’s a sunrise on the horizon! In this way, the Ten of Swords is like a springboard – a much-needed kick up the bum to get off the sofa and do something.

The Five and the Eight of Cups are both sorrowful-looking cards, and both do suggest heartache. But again, they can bring a positive or welcome message. The Five of Cups acknowledges pain and says ‘it’s okay to feel this way’. I know I’ve been grateful for that gentle message at times, reassuring me that I don’t have to bounce right back from every emotional challenge. The Five of Cups allows you time to be with your sadness for a while, to truly experience and process what you’re going through.

Meanwhile the Eight of Cups gives you permission to walk away from a challenging time. In a period of heartache and self-doubt it can be hard to make that final decision, but this card gently suggests that it might be wise to call it quits and gently walk away.

Five_of_Cups_Eight_of_Cups

The Five of Cups from the Shadowscapes Tarot and the Eight of Cups from the Phantomwise Tarot

It works the other way too of course. Seemingly ‘positive’ cards can bring warnings or even a telling off, for example I often feel the Ten of Pentacles is reminding me not to miss the magic in life as I focus on building my business and home, whilst the Three of Cups once showed me how I was being suffocated within a close group of friends I had thought were supporting me. This isn’t about putting a positive spin on every card, it’s about understanding that things are never as simple as black and white, good and bad.

It’s so tempting to glance at the cards in a reading, not like the message you see, and hastily shuffle the cards back into the deck to try again. We all have our favourite cards…and those we prefer not to see in our readings, but the more I use tarot in my personal life, the more I learn to respect the message they bring me, to lean in and listen a little closer, rather than dismissing cards I think are irrelevant, ‘wrong’, or just not what I was expecting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sun, sea and sex…not.

A couple of weeks ago I went on holiday to Spain. Emma and I drew cards the night before – mine was the Three of Swords. I was gutted. Heartbreak? On holiday? Dammit, that was not what I wanted. Then each day in Spain during my daily draw, the seeming ‘negativity’ continued. Poor health, mental overwhelm, bah, it was heavy stuff…and I really felt it! Eventually I did a full reading to find out what was going on. It turned out the holiday wasn’t so much about sun, sea and sex as I’d hoped, but about allowing myself space to undergo a fairly profound series of realisations that I’d been resisting for a long time. Once I understood what the cards were trying to tell me and allowed the process to take place, things took a turn for the better.

What about you? Have you ever been taken aback by the ‘negative’ message of an old friend, shocked by how such a friendly card could be so cruel? Or have you gradually come to realise that something sad or scary is actually strengthening you or setting you free? Which are your ‘favourite’ cards, and which ones make you want to shuffle again?

Join the Bits & Bobs List!

Friendly, weekly-ish emails from Beth with tarot tips and ideas, news, and other good stuff. (Including cat pictures.)

Powered by ConvertKit

19 comments

  1. Ellen says:

    Great post Beth. I agree with you on this one. Cards aren’t good or bad it is our perception that colors their meaning. I remember 15 years ago I went on a holiday with my family, I had my first tarot deck and a little guidebook with me (brand new) I’ve read the book, but when we came home the cards were still sealed. I was so afraid I would pull the death card and I would learn we wouldn’t get home safely :)

  2. Em says:

    I think I’m more fond of the 4 of Pentacles than most people seem to be; I’ve turned it up in a few readings lately, and I’m realizing that in some contexts (such as, for example, dealing with my fucked-up controlling family), “NO, THIS IS MINE, YOU CAN’T HAVE IT” is an incredibly powerful, freeing statement.

  3. chloetarot says:

    Totally with you on this, Beth! I once had the World come up, and it was what I was banging my head against – hoping and expecting the World would be beautiful and happy, when really it is just all those shades of grey. Kind of like a magnified realisation of the potential cruelty of the Ten of Cups, which you’ve discussed :) However, I still don’t much like the Tower – maybe just because there’s a Tower event from nearly seven years ago that I still haven’t really come to terms with…

  4. Joanne says:

    And then there’s the position issue in a spread. I had a reading today which was very complicated, indeed, because I got a really “positive” card in an “obstacle” position and vice versa. Make the reading interesting, but it showed me all too well, as your longer reading on vacation did, that context is so important, and that the cards can be positive or negative, or more likely some gradation between, depending not the question and if used, the spread position.

    I love the relating of cards to each other, as well. Modifies the “black and white” view of things.

    And totally agree with Em on the 4 of P: He’s not always a miser. Again, the context is everything.

  5. I dropped the good card/ bad card view a long time ago… Though recently I go a little eye opener courtesy of the Sun… I was looking at an ongoing problem I’d been having and wrote myself a spread and where I’d put – How did you get yourself into this situation? Up came XIX… Now it is one of my birth cards so I do have a fondness for it and it’s easy for me to think of it as a happy happy joy joy card… But that day, it said… Karen,,, you landed yourself in this mess with your naive optimism…
    lol :D

  6. beablesnucks says:

    One thing that really helps me is having a really good spread or question in mind, knowing exactly what I’m asking from each card – it’s easy to think that a Three of Swords or a Tower just means YOU’RE GOING DOWN no matter what the initial question was about, but often, I find, those cards come up for me as symbols of strength and positive change. Similarly, I find it helpful sometimes to include a card meaning, plain and simply, “obstacle” in a spread, so I can’t project any possible feel-good meanings on it, no matter how “positive” a card it is considered. Every card has good and bad sides just like literally every situation in life. Learning to read the tarot, I’m finding, is basically learning how opposites interact to construct everything.

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      Completely – yes. If you’re using a spread, the position a card appears in has so much influence over the meaning of that card.

  7. Brooklyn says:

    Hi, I am doing a research project in my psychology class on suicide. It’s a very broad subject and I plan on including a brief section about how people can take death omens/superstitions very seriously. I was wondering if any cards sort of related to suicide in any way or if you’ve ever had a reading like that. Sorry in advance as I know this could be personal. Thanks in advance.

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      Hey Brooklyn, that’s an interesting question. I’ll email you about this.
      (If anyone else has suggestions and wants to add them below, go for it.)

  8. Katie says:

    I love this. I’m somewhere between a grounded Earth type fond of stability and an up-at-’em, flexible Fire type, so I’m very fond of the Tower in my personal readings. It lets me know that I can really lean in to whatever change is coming instead of trying to hold things steady. My feelings about the Queen of Swords, on the other hand…

  9. Gina says:

    Hi Beth – great post. I just got the shock of my life this morning, when I did a reading for myself using the celtic cross spread, with the Ten of Swords representing me, the Death card symbolising the situation and the Seven of Swords being the most probable outcome! Would you have any insights on this?! It’s the worst spread I’ve ever pulled for myself! :o

    • Leah says:

      Gina, I’ll put in my 2 cents here! (But I definitely look forward to Beth’s insights, too…) Sounds like you are in for some big transformation! When the Death card comes up, it can so frequently be about getting rid of what you don’t need in order to make space for positive change — challenging, yes — but do-able and necessary in your current situation.
      If the 10 of Swords is you, then it looks like there’s nowhere to go but UP (and that’s a good thing). BUT beware of perceiving yourself as a victim.
      7 of Swords says to me that your probable outcome is that you’re taking charge of this situation and acting in your own self interest (sounds positive to me). There is a BIG difference between the victim of the 10 of swords and the “Lone Wolf” of the 7 of swords!! The Lone Wolf knows how to take care of herself and take charge when no one else will.
      Cheers!

  10. Alex McLean says:

    A few weeks ago I was drawing cards with my 10 year old son. He was due to go to a birthday party and I suggested he draw a card for it. He drew 10 of swords! He has had a history of behaviour issues (much better now) and this is a new school/new friends so I was a bit worried. Anyway we got to the party and it’s at a sports play centre, where they do a cricket workshop. Dropped him off. Came back a couple of hours later, and it turns out the cricket play centre also does glow in the dark battle themes, and I walk in to see a table full of kids, each with a white ‘sword’ in front of them. I had to laugh! As I get more in to tarot, I find so often the cards are very literal in that way for me, I’m quite a practical, straightforward person so I guess that’s just the way they speak to me.

Add your comments...