Grammar Lesson 3: Reversals

You may have heard of the concept of a reversal before, which is tarot lingo for when a card appears upside-down or “reversed.”

Often readers will interpret this position as indicating a struggle, resistance, or difficulty at play with the themes of the card. Sometimes it will even be interpreted as indicating the opposite meaning to the card’s upright form. For example, if the Lovers upright indicated balance, the Lovers reversed might be interpreted as indicating a lack of balance.

Many readers use the reversal as an essential part of their interpretive style. Others don’t factor it into their practice at all. Depending on how you shuffle or what cards you use, reversals may not even occur in the first place. For instance, the Motherpeace Tarot, pictured below, is one of many circular decks which can be interpreted as having no “right-side up” and therefore no upside-down.

I personally believe that every card has many facets to it, some light and some dark, and that at any moment, the card has the potential to express itself in its highest form, lowest form, and anything in between. Which aspects of that card come into play in a particular reading depends more, to me, on the context of the spread than on the literal orientation of the card. What position is the card in? What other cards does it contrast or interact with? Most importantly, what do I intuitively feel about the card when I see it? How do I sense it relates to the story unfolding to me in the entire spread?

There are many factors which can indicate, to me, that a card’s expression is distorted or out of alignment, and the reversal is only one of them. I generally find the concept more limiting than helpful and so it will typically only factor into my readings as a subtle nuance, as opposed to a dramatic modification. This is what I’ve found works for me, but you may feel differently.

It is worth noting that a card's orientation can be interpreted beyond simply indicating a reversal of meaning. You may consider, for example, how a card's orientation affects the figure in the card, whether it changes their point of focus in a symbolically relevant way.

In this reversal of the Queen of Swords, for instance, the figure goes from facing forward in her upright position, to facing backwards in her reversed position. I might interpret this as indicating that the Queen's sharp, analytical eye is being directed towards the past, making sense of past experiences, as opposed to looking forward to the future. One is not necessarily better or worse, they are simply an expression of two different points of view.

You may find that the contrast of reversed vs. upright serves as a helpful framework and gives you an additional dimension to work with in your interpretation. Or you may decide that it’s useful for you in some context but not in others, and that you prefer to use it more fluidly, on a case-by-case basis. I encourage you to experiment with reversals and see how it feels to factor a card’s orientation into your reading. Know that the degree to which you choose to incorporate reversals into your practice may well vary from one reading to another, that this is normal, especially as you’re first starting out.

For our work in this course, I will do my best to give you the fullest possible explanation of each card so that you have a sense of what the card has the potential to convey across the complete spectrum of light/dark, high/low, up/down. I will not refer to a card’s reversed meaning as some books or tarot readers do, but I will give examples of how a card’s meaning may shift when it is presented in the form of a challenge or an enemy. This is my way of saying that sometimes a card’s medicine can be necessary but difficult for us to accept (challenge), while at other times it may not be the medicine that we need and will actually only serve to further hinder us in our work (enemy).

Keep the idea of reversals in mind as a possibility throughout this course. As we gradually take on more and more complicated spreads, you may find this becomes more available as an aspect for you to incorporate. As always, know that there is no right or wrong way to read the cards, and that there is always room in tarot for surprises and variation. Take what resonates for you!