Reading Reversals in a Tarot Spread

What does it mean when a tarot card is dealt upside-down?
It depends who you ask.

One reader — or tarot book — might tell you that a flipped card (also known as a Reversal) means the exact opposite of its upright counterpart. Another might insist that it means nothing at all, and that the card should be read the same no matter its orientation.

In between these extreme views are many nuanced opinions. I’m inclined more toward the latter, and usually don’t ascribe much meaning to a reversed card. “Usually” is the operative word here. Based on factors like the query and the reversed card’s position in the spread, there are times when I take much more notice of a reversals. 

Reversals By The Book

Most tarot resources — from the tiny, vague pamphlets that come with modern decks, to in-depth, academic tomes — assign some basic, generally accepted keywords to each card.

Early in my study of tarot, I adhered to the black-and-white school of reversals. i.e.: If a card was upside-down, it meant the exact opposite of being laid the ‘right’ way. For example, if the upright keyword was “strength” I read it’s reversal as “weakness.”

This method never felt right to me. It seemed to oversimplify the beautiful complexity of the tarot’s symbolism.

A More Nuanced Approach

Practice, study and experience build on a reader’s understanding and interpretation of the cards. Over the years, I’ve softened considerably on the subject of reversals. I no longer read a reversed card as being opposite or negative. Instead, I believe a reversal merely indicates that the qualities associated with the upright card might be somehow diminished, undeveloped, or blocked.

Just as no human being is one thing, neither is a tarot card.

As you advance in your study, you’ll develop the ability to read each and every card in a spread not as a stand-alone, but as a chapter in a larger story, or as member of a community. More than 35 years of interpreting the cards have mellowed me. Just as no human being is one thing, neither is a tarot card. Our environment, our experience, our world view — and so much more — informs who we are.

A reversed card could be shining a light on an opportunity for self-improvement or honest reflection.

Case Study: The Hanged Man

Traditional Interpretation:

Some of the keywords traditionally associated with this image are “Surrender” and “Acceptance”

If, for example, the upright card points to the querent’s ability to go with the flow, then perhaps a reversal could indicate the need to be more accepting before a goal can be reached.

Of course this is a greatly simplified interpretation of the card, and ultimately its meaning can only be read in the context of the querent’s question and the card’s position in the overall spread.

Intuitive Interpretation:

Not to confuse things, but when the Hanged Man is upright, he’s actually upside-down. Despite being suspended from a tree, he looks pretty chill, and not at all stressed or panicky. Maybe he’s enjoying the fresh perspective he gets when he’s just “hanging out.” In fact, that’s how I like to interpret this card — he’s consciously changed his view of the world to gain new insights. 

When reversed, he looks to me like a ballet dancer! His right foot looks like he’s en pointe. So, if the upright card is about fresh perspectives, and being open to new ideas, maybe the reversed speaks to posing, or painful self-discipline for the sake of admiration. Possible Interpretation: Are you (or the querent) worried that people are judging the way you look? Do you feel that you’re always on display? Do you stress about your physical appearance to the point of overspending on clothing or dieting and exercising to the point of pain?

Gaming the System: Avoiding Reversals

You don’t have to read reversals. Seriously. No one will confiscate your Official Tarot Reader’s Membership Card if you choose to skip this kind of interpretation. It’s not worth stressing about, especially when you’re just starting out. And, much like declaring a college major, you’re not locked into the decision forever. You can shout from the rooftops today, “I shall never read reversals,” then change your mind tomorrow. No big deal.

If, however, you choose not to read reversals. There are a couple ways to deal with it. The simplest is probably to just correct the orientation as you lay the cards. If you pull a card that’s reversed, just turn your wrist and lay it on the table right-side-up. Easy peasy.

When I’m reading for myself, I find reversals a distraction, and I intentionally dissuade reversals in the way I shuffle. I sort my deck right-side-up, then shuffle by dropping the cards from my right hand into my upturned left palm, interspersing the cards as I go. This gives me a nice, clean spread. Now, if a reversal does show up after I’ve carefully tried to control the cards’ orientation, you’d better believe I pay attention!

Interpreting the tarot is an art, not a science. A reader’s philosophy on reversals is just one of the many things that make us each unique. My way isn’t the “right way”… it’s just my way.

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