Students of tarot often wonder how to handle reversed cards. Sometimes even advanced readers dance around reversals, trying to settle on a system that applies across the board. One of those includes the idea that a reversed card means a reversed meaning. Some readers go through their reading process without ever making more of reversed cards and that is also absolutely fine. The reversal can be ignored, or we can read meaning into it if we want to. I generally find, however, that, if I need to take notice of something within my divination practice, it finds a way to let me know. It might show itself in a repeated way or it might stand out in some sort of unusual way. And that is the reason for this particular piece of writing.
For quite some time now I have read reversed cards based on my frame of mind at the time of the reading. In other words I have read them intuitively. That seems to have worked ok and I see no particular reason to deviate from that general approach, since intuition in a reading seems to have served its purpose well over the years. However, I did notice a certain pattern in the cards just recently, which stood out and made me stop and think. It was in the context of being aware of changes in another divination system, which is astrology. I have always thought that these two systems held equal value and so I learnt about them hand in hand. This seems to have been helpful in unexpected ways because, for example, when I find it hard to find a reliable answer on timing through the tarot, I can turn to astrology instead. Similarly, when I cannot see an obvious answer to my current question in the birth chart, the tarot will often give me a clearer clue. Interestingly, the observation that I made seems to relate to something that ties astrology and tarot together, although I have not noticed it mentioned much elsewhere. This is that there is a way in which planets seem to “reverse” in the skies, at certain times, just as there are moments when tarot cards appear reversed. Notably, these two phenomena are based on appearances only, but as readers of symbols we can ascribe significance to those appearances.
In astrology we call this apparent change of direction by the planets as “retrograde motion”, which simply means that some planets sometimes look to be moving in a backward path, compared with the direction of the other planets in the sky. There are specific meanings given to planets “in retrograde” and I have spoken about some of the ideas and events associated with them before in this blog (see under Mercury Retrograde, Mars Retrograde etc). Moving on to when we turn up cards from the tarot deck that appear to be reversed, we can also assign specific meanings to this phenomenon and tarotists who do see tarot reversals as significant may have all sorts of ideas about what those reversals can mean. One of my favourite sources on this subject is Mary Greer’s book aptly named The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals. As you might guess from the title, Mary looks at every single card in the deck, including the Court cards, so it is a really helpful source. But I want to look at this phenomenon of reversed tarot cards for a moment in another context, because I have noticed that a lot more cards have turned up in their reversed positions, whilst Mercury was last in retrograde motion earlier this year (from April 18 to May 11 2010, in the zodiac sign of Taurus). Mercury is the communications planet in astrology, so I suppose it makes sense that tarot cards, as “messengers” might appear upside down. The question here, I think, is, do they then especially carry reversed messages? I think the answer is that yes, they do – and possibly more.
A clue as to the “what and why” of this can be found through a comparison with retrograde planets in astrology. Frequently, when planets are retrograde, we end up going over things again, either at the time of the retrograde path or soon after it. We end up reviewing matters or revisiting ideas, places and people. Sometimes the world itself seems turned upside down, or at least our own little world may do. Nothing seems to work the way we expect it to. Other people don’t respond the way we think they will. Everything is confusing! In a specific sense this is like the normal appearance of card XII The Hanged Man, in the Major Arcana, which is an image of someone permanently upside down! But in broader terms, across the deck, I think that reversed tarot cards often show these various themes, too: confusion, things being the opposite of what we expect, feeling the need to look again at everything – and so on. It probably doesn’t matter if the cards happen to show up that way when planets are also apparently reversing (so you don’t actually need to know any astrology to make any sense of this, if you are a tarot reader!). What does matter is that there is some sort of linkage of ideas here. The clue, just as with understanding what retrograde planets are about, is really simple – it is to have a think about any words that begin with the prefix “Re”. Because those words will often tell you what the problem is. As a verb prefix in the English language, “Re” simply means “again” or “back”. So, to review is to look over again and to return is to turn back, to revisit is to visit again, to reinforce is to enforce something again – and so it goes on.
Here is a recent example of what I mean, when it comes to tarot reversals.
You may not be too surprised to hear that I have received a lot of questions about work and money, during the current recession (another “re” word!). The Two of Wands, from the Minor Arcana, turned up reversed in a reading for someone who was finding they could not move ahead in the same old way in their world of work. The main issue was that they had to realise that they no longer had the energy and passion for the work that they were doing. They were feeling burnt out and exhausted in that area. So the key here was a need to recharge and review the situation. Confusingly, they had ended up demoted into a role that they felt was beneath them. It was like they were forced to revert to something from the past. To me, this card was showing that the brakes were on, but for a good reason. This person could not just go on as they had done. They had to stop and reconsider everything achieved so far and look at what was now going to work for the future, too. Could it be that they would become resigned to this situation or that they could see some new way of moving forward? Surrounding cards, which were upright, gave clues as to a new approach that would help for the future. However, the one reversed card, the Two of Wands, spoke reams about the problem and the need for action of a certain kind.
It has taken me a long time to feel really comfortable working with reversed cards. Generally, I have done my best to interpret them. Sometimes I have noted them whilst feeling that I did not fully understand, in that moment, what they were trying to show. More recently I have increasingly felt that the reversals are truly there for a reason and have felt their message was clearer. Have you had any memorable experiences with reversed tarot cards in your readings, I wonder? If so why not share about them. If not, I wish you some meaningful – and hopefully useful and helpful – experiences in the future!