Do you read reversed tarot cards?

First published on Autostraddle.

You’ve got your awesome new tarot deck. You’ve been reading for yourself and for your friends. You’re really starting to get the hang of it… to the point where you don’t even have to look every card up any more (go you!) and your readings are making this weird kind of sense.

And then… you start thinking about reversed tarot cards.

You know, that thing where maybe a card takes on a whole new meaning if it appears upside down? As in, like, 78 whole new card interpretations to learn? Whaaa??

The first thing to know is that you don’t have to interpret reversed tarot cards in a special way.

Personally – I don’t. It just didn’t work for me, and it confused my clients too – especially in face-to-face readings.

Plenty of tarot readers do, and if you’re getting started with tarot, it’s a good idea to pick a side. You don’t have to stick with it forever, but at least when you start laying down cards in a reading, you already know which approach you’re going to take. If, like me, you decide you don’t want to interpret reversed cards differently, when cards appear upside down in a reading you can just flip ‘em around and carry on as normal. Or, you can confidently go forth, interpreting them in the way that feels right for you.

If you do think that cards appearing upside down carries significance, then you have some choices:

Some people simply add extra weight to reversed cards in a reading. No special meanings – these cards just carry a stronger energy than the rest.

You can learn a new set of interpretations. Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, biddytarot.com and many other learning resources provide reversed meanings, and Mary K Greer has literally written the book on this topic: The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals.

Alternatively (or additionally), you can use your intuition right there in the moment to put a spin on your existing ideas about the card – for example, it could be a re-working, corruption or blocking of the card’s original meaning.

A few possible ways you could interpret a reversed card:

1. Fear of/unwillingness to work with the energy of the card
2. Corruption of the card’s meaning or energy
3. Blocking of/inability to achieve the ‘goal’ or state shown by the card
4. Enhancement of/too much – the energy of the card gets stronger
5. Opposite of the card’s meaning
6. Passing of the card’s energy

Let’s use Justice as an example, and here let’s say I’m thinking that right-way-up Justice represents the inevitable law of ’cause and effect,’ and the need to be accountable for your own actions.

How might we read this interpretation of Justice in reverse?

Here are a few ideas:

1. Fear of/unwillingness to work with…

Maybe you’re unwilling to accept the consequences of your actions. Or to accept that your actions even have consequences, because that would mean accepting something way more big and scary.

2. Corruption of…

Justice hasn’t been done — someone has been treated unfairly and no one is doing a damn thing about it.

3. Blocking of/inability to achieve…

Maybe it’s time to forgive someone or admit that both of you were in the wrong… but for some reason you don’t want to or simply feel you can’t.

4. Enhancement of/too much of… (energy gets stronger)

You’re being way too black and white about this. Or perhaps you’re expecting the law of cause and effect to solve a problem where really you need to step in and act.

5. Opposite of…

Shit is totally messed up right now. The baddies are winning and the good guys are getting trodden into the mud.

6. Passing of…

Justice has been served and it’s time to move the heck on.


Try it with any of your own cards (it’s even more interesting with so-called ‘negative’ cards.)

Do you read reversed cards? Experimented with different approaches? Let’s hear about it in the comments!

All cards shown in this post are from the Dreaming Way Tarot, by Rome Choi and Kwon Shina.

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19 comments

  1. Ok this is perfect timing. I have been dragging my feet about working with reversals, and your six options each resonate more than “78 new meanings.” I’m going to be trying them out and seeing what works!

  2. biddytarot.com talks about the interpretation that right side up could mean the external energy of the card, while the reversal could mean the internal energy of the card. I like that because it takes away the positive/negative vibe (which can be useful, but not always). Thanks for the post! That list is going right in my journal :-).

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      That’s a cool way to look at it – it would make an interesting exercise to go through the cards looking at them in this way, figuring out what internal/external expressions would actually look like.

  3. Roger says:

    Yes Beth, perfect timing! Getting into your Alternative Tarot course this is a perfect added extra to put in the mix! Thanks, Rog.

  4. Kim Van Dyke says:

    I have found that I only read reversals when they are “screaming at me” to be read that way. It took me a while to realize that *I* am the one who gets to make the rules how I read and my intuition has served me well for this subject. Don’t be afraid to make up your own rules! It’s the most wonderful thing about reading the Tarot.

  5. ncaciola says:

    I like using reversals, but I never read them as just the opposite of the upright meaning. I take the approach that if the card appears in a reading, then it’s energy is operative in some manner. But I usually consider that energy “compromised,” in some way. Possible interpretations: it’s not at full strength or perhaps dissipating; it’s not at full strength, but could be growing (the difference between these two often has to do with the position it occupies in the spread); querent is resisting that energy, but it’s still part of the situation; that energy is driving someone else who is involved in the question, etc.
    A new favorite is that the energy of the reversed card is like a nuance or overtone to the energy of its paired card. In many spreads, the meanings associated with certain positions or cards can be seen as pairs, so after I do the card-by-card reading, I usually see if there are any pairs that stand out. An inversion can bring a secondary resonance to its partner card.

  6. anemonerosie says:

    I see reversals as a need to return to the card before. So for example, if I get the 4 of coins, then it means that the lesson of the 3 of coins hasn’t yet been fully learned, at there is an attempt to move on too early (which is how people can get hurt, depending on the lesson that needs to be learned).

  7. Lauradinosaur says:

    Thanks for compiling this list of possibilities. I’m just starting out on the Alternative Tarot Course (and loving it!) and trying to decide how I feel about reversals. Good timing for me! Thanks.

  8. Jacques D. says:

    Actually, Joan Bunning in “Learning the Tarot” doesn’t provide separate alternate meanings for reversed cards at all – her approach is quite similar to the one you describe above:

    “The meaning of a reversed card depends on what the card would mean if upright. A reversed card shows that a card’s energy is present, but at a lower level. For some reason, the energy cannot express freely, normally or completely.”

    (via http://learntarot.org/howcard.htm#howreversed)

    I point this out because it was somewhat of a breakthrough for me to read this when I started studying Tarot nearly twenty years ago. Until then, most of the sources I consulted did indeed provide a separate meaning for each reversed cards, making the process of learning how to read literally twice as difficult. But even more important than simply being easier, Bunning’s approach simply made the most sense to me and I’ve been using it ever since.

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      Oh my goodness, so she does! I’m not sure why I said that, I must have been thinking of another resource or writer, whoop! Thanks for pointing that out Jacques, I’ve corrected the article.

  9. Nektar says:

    Great article!

    It’s best selecting one side as you describe. Caution, warnings or threats exist in all cards no matter the direction. After all, they provide with a deeper understanding or a significance to our intentions or actions.

    For example, the Fool is following a butterfly. Can that be an inner guidance or a naive choice?

    Could you elaborate more on the “Corruption of the card’s meaning or energy”?

    Thank you!

    N.

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      True!

      Sure – by ‘corruption’ I mean something like, it’s been taken too far so it gets distorted, or is being used for ‘selfish’ purposes (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). Quick examples off the top of my head: say the Six of Wands is a card of personal victory and celebration, with this reversed interpretation it could mean being domineering, letting that victory go to your head or something. The Six of Cups as nostalgia, reversed could be someone living in the past.

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