The Significance of Reversed Cards

The appearance of reversed (“upside-down”) cards in a tarot reading is a source of endless confusion for novice readers who are still struggling to understand the upright meanings. Many simply throw in the towel and avoid dealing reversed cards, which is often recommended by tarot teachers and books, at least until more experience has been gained. I spent some time scouring my memory for the various “flavors” that might be squeezed from the occurrence of reversed cards in a spread. Entire books have been written on the subject (notably by Mary K. Greer and Joan Bunning), but — although I should — I have not yet read any of them, so any similarities between those books and the following are purely coincidental.

My feeling has always been that use of reversals increases — if not quite doubles — the interpretive range of a spread, offering insights that are otherwise difficult to obtain. While reversal doesn’t change the basic meaning of a card, it alters the “mode of delivery” and the “angle of attack” for the energy. It’s more about the querent’s experience of the influence than its objective reality. It provides a quick visual “pointer” for accessing the problematic subtleties already present, to a greater or lesser extent, in every card, making it a useful tool for quickly and efficiently ferreting out oblique aspects of a situation that could otherwise take considerably more contemplation (and time) to identify. When reading “on the clock,” every second spent scrambling for relevant observations while the sitter gapes at us is a second wasted as well as a credibility killer.

Since one of the primary qualities I see in reversed cards is that they often communicate their meaning in oblique or indirect ways, it could be said that they “insinuate” rather than plainly elucidate their intent. This plays well with my idea that reversed-card implications can “sneak up on” the querent or “come in the back door.” The querent and the reader must be attuned to the proper frequency in order to catch the subtle intonation.

The least effective way to achieve this attunement is to just turn the usual meaning on its head. But there is much more to reversal than mere overthrow or subversion of the upright interpretation, which isn’t very high on my list of assumptions about how they work. I think of them mainly as adverbs that “color” or “shade” the testimony of a card in ways that may make it less emphatic but no less potent at a more nuanced level of inward or outward manifestation. This influence is not necessarily negative but it can sidetrack or complicate the main message in the reading. I find them to be more advisory or cautionary than explicitly demonstrative. They remind me of “Easter-egg” rewards in a video game, you may have to look behind a bush or under a crate to find them but they are usually worthwhile. In fact, one of my favorite metaphors for absorbing them into a reading is “turning over rocks to see what crawls out from underneath.”

Reversal can highlight a sensitive or vulnerable period for the querent, perhaps a “tipping point” where the situation can go either way. There are countless variations on this theme but, in general, reversal changes the complexion of a card’s testimony rather than significantly altering its upright meaning. Reversed cards often serve as signposts pointing down less visible byways in a reading that may otherwise remain unexplored. Numerous reversals in a spread may show an undercurrent working at cross-purposes to the main thrust of the reading, “for good or ill.” This can also reflect a very complicated or difficult situation that demands considerable finesse to sort out.

“Blockage,” but more often a “difficult passage” than an insurmountable barrier; adversity; “hard truths.”

“Delay,” inconvenience; a missed connection or wrong turn; interrupted, inhibited or incomplete action; (often our own fault).

“Detour” or “U-turn;” temporarily and unavoidably put off-course, rerouted or side-tracked (usually an external obstacle)

“Surprise;” expect the unexpected; something sneaking up behind you; being “blind-sided” by events; lesson learned. “Oblique” and “skewed” are similar ideas for “out-of-left-field” influences.

“Avoidance,” as in literally “looking the other way;” “head in the sand;” a “Hanged Man moment,” sacrificing time and initiative; procrastination; “sitting on one’s hands;” denial; “blame-shifting;” passive-aggressive resistance.

“Idling” or “marking time,” chronic backsliding; wasted effort; “stuck in neutral;” loss of focus or traction; “wheel-spinning;” an opportunity lost or at risk — missing the “point,” the “boat or the “big picture; “the one that got away.”

“Time-out,” a pause to reassess the situation from a different angle (“step back and take a deep breath”); a chance to rethink or regroup; “buying time;” mitigation; “damage control;” “putting on the brakes.”

“Passive,” casual, informal, indifferent; noncommittal; unenthusiastic; incurious; yielding; accepting; benign; slow-and-steady; subdued; monotonous; uninspiring; aimless; a necessary sacrifice; giving up; letting go; “going with the flow.”

“Diminishing” in its potency or significance, more inert than dynamic; mild, faint or weak; rudimentary or provisional; declining; receding; regressing; fading; faltering; “out of gas;” a “false start;” impractical; unripe; unlikely at this time.

“Internalized” or subconscious; something that is suspected but not known for sure; speculation; a hunch or premonition; a subjective viewpoint; suppressed; withheld; insinuated rather than explicit; withdrawn; private; reserved; aloof.

“Confused,” unclear; inconclusive; distracted; scattered; vague; fuzzy-headed; flaky; lost; clueless; out-of-touch; opaque; unobservant; mistaken; insecure; inattentive; careless; obtuse; taken aback; wrong-headed; vulnerable to error.

“Contrary;” hostile; negative; unresponsive; uncooperative; unsympathetic; unyielding; obstructive; obstinate; reluctant; touchy; incorrigible; obsessive; closed-minded; critical; an open enemy or agenda; opposition; the “Devil you know.”

“Subtle” or unobtrusive; veiled; “behind the scenes,” perhaps not known until it’s too late; implied; suggested; hard to pin down; questionable; devious; misleading; underhanded; manipulative; evasive; furtive; reticent; illusory; imaginary; unique; concealed; latent; finesse but also guile; a hidden enemy or agenda; the “Devil you don’t know.”

“Ambivalent;” uncertain; indecisive; of two minds; fickle; on the fence; hedging; waffling; self-questioning; conflicted; two-faced, unreliable, vacillating — especially the court cards; “the “horns of a dilemma” (no “right” answer).

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store