Let’s face it, trying to learn and memorize seventy-eight meanings for each tarot card is very intimidating on its own. Adding another layer when the cards are upside-down can make a newbie (or even a seasoned practitioner) question why they even bothered to read the cards at all. Trust me, I have been in that position when I experimented with using reversals (or inversions) in the past few years. Frankly, I’ve had a very tumultuous relationship with it and, I admit, using reversals has become a mood of some sort for me. It comes and goes. With that said, let’s address the elephant in the room…
What are Reversals (or Inversions) anyway?
It is when a card is pulled or drawn by the querent or reader that appears upside-down. Traditionally it is interpreted as the opposite meaning of a card. For example, when you pull The Magician it typically means that you are in control of your situation and you have the resources to make things happen. When it is reversed or inverted, this could mean that there isn’t an opportunity for you to be in control and you might feel powerless.
There are now contemporary ways that have adapted the reversals to suit different preferences, and I will share my personal way of reading these later on. However, there have been lots of debate around whether or not it is actually required for tarot readers to use reversals.
To Use or Not to Use Reversals
Personally, I believe that using reversed cards is optional. There are loads of amazing tarot readers that don’t use them and it doesn’t seem to affect their practice whatsoever. The seventy-eight cards in itself hold a spectrum of human experiences that can be enough to pinpoint whatever circumstance in our lives. So, for me, reversals are just a bonus way to spice up your readings and/or to gain a different perspective on the cards. From personal experience, using reversals has given my readings more of an extra flavour.
Although, I do get frustrated with it from time-to-time. There are seasons in my practice that I get nothing from a reversed card and when that happens I adjust to suit my mood, hence it being a seasonal thing for me.
I highly recommend for you to at least experiment with it and see for yourself whether you find it helpful or not. It doesn’t make you less of a tarot reader if you decide not to use this technique. This may be a controversial opinion for some, but honestly, you are not missing out on anything if you don’t feel the need to use reversals.
How can I read reversed cards?
There are myriad ways of reading reversals and every student of the tarot favours a certain method. Personally, I particularly view reversals in five different ways (and I made a fun acronym for easy reference):
These concepts are not my invention. It is a combination of methods I have learned from different sources that I applied in my practice, which I have found useful. Thinking about these ways of reading reversed cards gives me a wide array of potential interpretations whenever a card appears upside-down.
These are not the end-all-be-all ways! There are other methods that I have not covered here that might appeal to you more, so doing your own research is important. Think of this as your starting point to exercise your skills in reading reversals.
To help explain the concepts presented, here’s a sample case study that I will refer throughout the post:
“Let’s say that you are doing a one-card reading with the intention of knowing more information about a potential creative project for the querent or for yourself. In this scenario, you pulled the Five of Wands Reversed .”
You can view it as a weakened or milder version of the core meaning of the cards. The cards’ flavours aren’t as strong as it is upright and you can view this as an advantage, especially for harsher cards (i.e. The Tower, Ten of Swords, The Devil, etc). It reduces the impact of its energy, which could be taken as something that the querent needs to embody or work on.
In our case study, the Five of Wands Reversed could mean that the querent can expect some minor conflicts or friendly competition with the project. Although the presence of competitive nature is there, it seems that it will not be as intense as the card when upright.
I rarely use this way of reading reversals because it doesn’t suit my preference, but it is a common practice found in traditional tarot books (i.e. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A.E. Waite) that’s why I added it here!
There are tarot scholars and practitioners that view reversed cards as an internalization of the card’s core meanings. According to my research, Gail Fairfield, author of Everyday Tarot (previously titled Choice-Centred Tarot, which I really want to read), pioneered this way of looking at the cards. They expressed that “Reversed cards, on the whole, show that the concept is being experienced in a more subtle, private, or secret way” (Fairfield, 2002). When an inverted card is pulled, the card’s basic meaning can be experienced in a personal and individualized way.
So in our case study of the Five of Wands Reversed it could indicate that the querent has an internal struggle in pursuing this project because they personally feel intimidated by its competitive nature or that they are fighting themselves to fulfil their goals for this project.
I typically use this method, when I am doing more psychological and therapeutic ways of reading the cards. It gives me more room to contemplate how I am expressing the card’s meaning (whether internally or externally) and where the lessons of the cards are being manifested.
Another way of using the inverted meanings of the cards is to view them as the querent’s resistance towards the energy or lesson of a card’s core value. It is seeing the card as a tell-tale sign that we (or something external, which I find rare, but I wanted to put it out there) are blocking the message due to certain reasons. Personally, I think resistance comes from fear, which Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art – another book on my wishlist) and Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Big Magic – my personal favourite) have famously associated with.
To put it into practice, if we look at the Five of Wands Reversed in this context we can assume that the querent is resisting the urge to fight for his creative project. They may not be willing to champion it because they fear that they would lose or fail.
This is what I commonly use in my practice because I have seen it in action in my personal readings and those sessions I have done for others. Whenever I pull a reversed card, I do an internal scan of how and/or why I am resisting its invitation. It gives me a level of awareness I can then use to course correct, which empowers me in such a holistic way.
This method asks us to take special attention to the inverted card. I first encountered this technique in Carrie Mallon’s blog post about reversals and I have found it useful at times. The appearance of a reversed card is a call for us to focus on its basic meaning and treat it with a sense of urgency.
In the context of our case study, the Five of Wands Reversed can indicate that the querent should really pay attention to how the energy of competition plays a role in their creative project.
This is more open-ended and has a lot of wiggle room for the reader’s interpretation. It puts a spotlight on the card and it is up to the querent if they will take the invitation or not.
This pertains to the traditional opposite interpretation of the core meaning of the cards. This is when we switch the upright meaning to its polar opposite. Although it is the most common way of interpreting reversals, I honestly feel that it is the most problematic out of all methods because it’s like tampering with the card’s core identity. Personally, I think that each card represents some kind of shared human experience that is inherent in the imagery, numerology, and/or astrology associated with it. Switching the meaning feels like that the cards’ are posing as each other rather than being their natural selves.
If you place it in the sample reading of the Five of Wands Reversed then there’s a potential harmony in the endeavour and no conflicts shall arise from it.
Don’t get me wrong, I do understand and appreciate this method and I see the value of adding more depth in the nuances of the cards. So if you are drawn to this, feel free to use it with confidence.
Which of these methods should I use?
The answer to that is all up to you and your taste. Use any of the above techniques that spark your interest, combine two or three methods (or all of them), or explore something completely different you have discovered on your own. Regardless, this process is personal and should be aligned with what feels right for you.
I have mentioned that I gravitate towards the Internalization and Resistance techniques because I find that the message under these contexts deeply resonates with me. It helps me put the core meaning of a card into a perspective that is both healing and empowering, which is one of my goals whenever I read the cards for myself and for other people.
Are you now convinced to give reversals a try?
Just remind yourself that there are no specific rules when it comes to reading tarot. The more personal you identify with this system, the more powerful your readings will be because you’ve added your own unique perspective to it.
Disclaimer: As with everything I say and post on this blog, I am by no means implying that my methods and practice are the right way. There isn’t really a correct or incorrect method when it comes to reading tarot (and other divinatory systems). Just take what feels right for you and feel free to leave the rest behind.
Fairfield, G 2002, Everyday Tarot: Using the Cards to Make Better Life Decisions, Weiser Books, USA.
Gilbert, E 2015, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Riverhead Books, New York.
Pressfield, S 2002, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Black Irish Entertainment LLC, New York.