This article was originally published on the first version of this website in 2016. It has received some minor editing for mistakes or to update some of the language.
In my years of studying the tarot, one of the aspects I still find challenging is deciding how to work with reversed cards while reading a spread. Different books or teachers can take different approaches. Some will say that a reversed card carries the opposite meaning of the card; a happy omen turns into sad news, or a card indicating suffering turns into the relief of suffering. I’ve seen some resources refer to the reversal as having the same meaning, but that it is somehow delayed or hindered. The meaning stays the same, but there is some sort of roadblock or other obstacle. I’ve seen some people ignore reversals altogether! They just flip the card around the face upright and move on with their readings. Whatever approach you take, the thing I feel it is important to remember is that it should make sense with your style of tarot reading and how you do your intuitive work.
I’ve said this many times in regard to working with the tarot, and it’s especially true here: do what feels right! I find that when I’m working with my cards, something will pop out and me and feel important; don’t ignore those gut instincts! For me, none of the individual cards in a reading are very important – it’s all about how the cards in a spread come together to create a “story.” So look at how the reversals in your spread contribute to that story. Does giving a reversal the “traditional” meaning seem out of sync with the story that’s developing? Then try looking at it differently. Is there some other way that this reversal might be affecting the reading?
I had a reading with a woman who was experiencing violence in her relationship. In the reading, three sets of Kings and Queens from the deck were present; all three Kings were upright, while all three Queens were reversed. In this case, the reversals seemed to be symbolizing the way the relationship dynamic had developed: he was planted firmly on his feet and was in control, whereas she felt out of control, unable to ground herself. For this reading, the reversals were representing an emotional dynamic to the situation, how she felt her life was getting out of control because of the violence in her relationship. This is not uncommon; in many readings, I’ve found that reversals often represent emotional dynamics that may not be a physical part of the situation but is nonetheless influencing how events play out or how the client is interpreting the situation.
I had another reading with a woman who described herself as a “hard luck case” (already you can see what sort of energy she was bringing with her!) and wanted to know more about her current job situation. Generally, the cards were pretty favorable but the card representing the client had the keyword “success” and was reversed; also, the card pointing to the most likely outcome given the current actions was The Sun reversed. Both of these cards would normally be very positive, but were coming up reversed. Most of the other cards in the reading had positive notes, except for the card I interpret related to the clients hopes and fears. This card had the keyword “anxiety.” As we were talking through the situation, the client told me that she had recently been promoted and had received lots of positive feedback about her performance, but there were aspects of the job she found confusing and was doubting her own competency. In this case, I felt that the two reversals were more about her feelings than about her reality, especially since she indicated that she had received positive feedback not only about her previous work but also about her work since her promotion. The reversals on the card indicating success and of The Sun weren’t so much about a darkening of her bright future, but rather that she wasn’t allowing herself to enjoy the rewards of her own hard work!
I really started digging into my work with reversals when I found a great book by Mary K. Greer called The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals. It was the first book in a series by Llewellyn called Special Topics in Tarot (which was divine, btw – I would love it if they would bring it back for further volumes!) and it gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I read those cards that were looking at me upside down. Not only did I find the book very helpful and useful, but it was one of those “Aha!” moments in my studies of tarot where I was reminded that there isn’t just one way to “do” tarot. People have different styles and approaches; as with all intuitive work, it’s a symbiosis of the reader, the cards, and the energy of the client(s). I definitely recommend picking up Greer’s book; if that volume doesn’t speak to you, Joan Bunning has a book called Learning Tarot Reversals that I think is definitely worth a read. Both of these books have inspired the way that I think about and read tarot reversals.
For me, my first thought when looking at a reversed card is that it’s been turned on its head – literally! I don’t assume one type of interpretation will be better than any other; rather, I look at how that card fits into the larger story being laid out. What seems to make the most sense? Are there a lot of reversed cards in the spread, or just one or two? Are they Major Arcana, Minor Arcana, or a mix? If Minor, are they court cards? Is there a specific suit that seems to be throwing reversed cards? I look a lot at elemental correspondences when reading; if there is a specific suit that is showing more/all of the reversed cards in a reading, this could mean something is out of balance with that element or its corresponding attributes.
Whether or not you incorporate reversals into your readings, and how you choose to do so, are completely up to you. As with anything related to learning the tarot, I suggest you experiment and play! Throw some cards for friends, and try different ways of interpreting the cards to see what gives you the best flow. If you are having trouble with reversals, try doing a few readings where you ignore them – turn all of the cards back right side up. Or, turn all of them upside down! One of the key things for any tarot reader is to get comfortable with their deck, their style of reading, and their “process.” Do what feels right and what seems to produce results. Just set the intention beforehand, and your deck will respond.
Don’t let reversals make you feel directionally challenged! Instead, think of them as amazing opportunities to spend more time studying and learning the tarot, and they come to you with almost every reading!
Chris M. Stoner, Miss Jaye's "civilian persona," has been reading and studying tarot for 30 years and reading for clients for about half that. They are available for readings by appointment at The Reading Room inside Willow Life Yoga in Grand Forks, ND.