Left or Right? A Matter of Orientation

There is a tradition in tarot reading that visually scanning from the left to the right in a linear spread presents a past-to-future panorama of circumstances signifying an urge to move forward, while looking from right to left suggests a need to first deal with past events in the situation that may still be unresolved and can even imply being “stuck in the past.” This convention is further emphasized by the “facing” of any cards with human figures or other obvious directional features on them. In his Tarot de Marseille book, Paul Marteau also considers left to represent a passive stance and right an active one, and he brings up the point that, for any human figure on a card, an object that appears to be on the viewer’s left is actually on the right of the person within the scene. He likens it to a mirror image, which can complicate the scenario of the reading if we choose to interpret it that way. The notion that the right hand is active and assertive while the left hand is passive and receptive is deeply ingrained in popular culture, although modern terminology favors the less negative descriptor “dominant” hand.

I first encountered this left-vs-right conundrum when contemplating the orientation of Adam Kadmon, the archetypal “Primordial” or “Celestial” Man, within the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Traditional interpreters approach the Tree from the viewpoint of an outsider looking in, and consider the left side of the Tree — the Pillar of Severity — to represent the left hand of Adam, apparently under the theological assumption that “God punishes with the left hand” and rewards with the right hand on the opposite Pillar of Mercy. But James Sturzaker — in his book Kabbalistic Aphorisms — turns this around by depicting Adam standing within the Tree looking out. His assumption is that we should “back into the Tree,” such that our right hand is to an external viewer’s left and vice versa, rather than walk face-first into it. I’ve found historical precedence for his theory in the qabalistic literature as noted below.

I’m not inclined to take at face value anything theologians 2,000 years ago said God might or might not do, so I think Sturzaker has it right from a more humanistic perspective. In classical military terms, the right arm is the “sword arm” — ideally symbolic of the concept of “severity” — and the left arm is the “shield arm” — more closely aligned with the opposing concept of “mercy” and exemplified by the ideas of protection and preservation. So Adam Kadmon shown looking out from within the Tree is well-situated to dispense the correct measure of justice. I posted previously on this subject in a slightly more anatomical context.

https://parsifalswheeldivination.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/adam-cardman/

Here is Pat Zalewski’s version:

However, in a tarot reading I generally stay with the observer’s perspective rather than that of the figures on the cards. For example, a Queen looking to her right is offering a view of circumstances to my left. This seems appropriate since in many cases the individual pictured is not actively engaged in the events implied by the flow of the reading but only represents how they will (or should) be received by the querent. A passive Queen looking to my left may be acknowledging past issues in the matter while not doing much of anything but stew over them, while looking to my right she is trying to ignore the past and distance herself from it. An active Knight, on the other hand, should be a little more proactive in either case. It can be useful to examine the “gaze” or “regard” of the court-card royalty as a way to determine where their focus or attention lies, but too much of a definitive nature should not be read into this “accident of orientation” in a spread unless it’s clear that the court card describes the querent’s direct experience of the matter (such as facing a “Should I stay or should I go?” decision). On a final note, I very much like Caitlin Matthew’s idea that if there is no card placed adjacent to a court card in the direction that it faces, a good practice is to pull another card to identify any relevant issues that the figure (and by association the querent) may be confronting.

Originally published at http://parsifalswheeldivination.wordpress.com on June 23, 2022.

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Parsifal the Scribe

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.