By Alana Davenport
Not everyone likes to read reversals, which means interpreting a card differently when it is drawn upside-down. Personally, I love the nuance (and sometimes the extra challenge) that reversals bring to a tarot reading. Many readers choose to ignore reversals and turn the card upright if it happens to fall upside-down, which is a choice that I completely respect. This post is for readers who don’t feel confident in their ability to read reversals, or who worry that reversed cards bring “negativity” to a reading. My feeling is, it’s better to learn and then decide for yourself that it’s not for you than to avoid it by default because it seems intimidating! I hope this tutorial will be helpful to anyone who may not already know what they’re missing.
There are basically four possibilities for interpreting the meaning of a reversed card that I’ve learned from other readers over time and that I use regularly. Usually when I come across a reversed card in a reading, I do a brief mental “trial” of each way of interpreting it to see which one is the best fit with the rest of the reading. More than one interpretation might fit very well, and if they aren’t contradictory, I might use aspects of both. If there are two ways to read a reversed card that both work with the rest of the reading but are mutually exclusive, I use my intuition to decide which one to go with, or if I’m reading for someone else, I might present both possibilities to the querent.
These are the four different ways of interpreting a reversal that I most commonly use:
Blocked, Slowed Down, or Delayed Energy of the Upright Card
You or your querent may not like to hear that a longed-for outcome is blocked or delayed, but the positive part of this type of reversal is that the energy of the card is there — it’s not so distant or irrelevant that it doesn’t even show up. It shows that the energy of the upright card is attainable if the roadblock is addressed, or possibly just by being patient and waiting a little longer. For example, a querent hoping to start a new romantic relationship might not like to see a reversed Ace of Cups (or might prefer that you read it as if it were upright), but the good news is that this wonderful energy of new love blossoming is there as a potential, and the rest of the cards in the spread may provide information about how to unlock that potential or get headed in the right direction. Having to wait or work for a desired outcome isn’t always what we want, but it’s certainly better than not seeing any chance of it on the horizon at all.
The Opposite of the Upright Meaning
This interpretation is the one that gives reversals a bad name. Except for a handful of cards that carry a more worrisome meaning in their upright position (like the 10 of Swords or The Tower), we typically don’t want the opposite of what a tarot card represents. I use this way of reading reversals very sparingly. If I’m considering all of these four possible ways of reading the card, this one is rarely the one I will choose. To me, it’s usually quite a leap to draw a total opposite meaning — but it can happen. One card that I do read this way more often is the 5 of Swords. The 5 of Swords upright shows a victory that came at too dear a cost. Winning that feels like losing. It’s an interesting card because it practically has a reversal built into its upright meaning — loss as part of the victory. That can make the reversal of this card feel even more confusing, and the way I’ve found to clarify it is to look at the opposite meaning that takes both winning and losing into account. So, instead of the win that feels like a loss, the reversed 5 of Swords can mean a loss that feels like a win. Maybe you lost the battle, but you claimed the moral victory. Or it’s a situation where you realized you actually had more to gain by not achieving your goal. Upright, the 5 of Swords keeps pushing to win no matter how much it hurts, so I see the reversed 5 of Swords as a kind of sweet surrender. I can easily imagine a querent going through a divorce or other kind of legal battle getting the reversed 5 of Swords, showing they will have more peace of mind if they give in a little and walk away rather than fight for every single concession they believe they’re entitled to.
The “Shadow Side” of the Upright Meaning
Like reading the opposite meaning, looking for the more negative expression of a card may feel uncomfortable or undesirable. This way of interpreting is slightly different from the opposite in that it involves the upright energy of the card, but there is potentially too much of that energy or it is twisted or abused in some way. I find that this interpretation is most applicable to the Court cards or to the Major Arcana that represent people, like The Emperor or The Magician. The Emperor, or one of the Kings in the Minor Arcana, can demonstrate authority and leadership, but reversed it might indicate an abuse of power. This is an example of when two ways of reading a reversed card might be contradictory. If we read a reversed Emperor as having personal power and authority blocked, we may conclude that the querent needs to develop more of the Emperor’s fire energy and embrace their inner authority. If we read a reversed Emperor as expressing its shadow side, then there might be too much fire and too much authoritarian control, leading to tyranny – so the advice might be to tone it down a bit! Hopefully you or your querent will be aware enough of the given circumstances and the message of the surrounding cards to determine whether it is more or less Emperor energy that is needed. Either way, you know that a reversed Emperor means that something about power and authority is out of balance.
Internalized or Inward-directed Energy of the Upright Card
Finally, the fourth way of reading a reversed card is to see the card’s energy as internal to the querent, rather than related to their external circumstances. I learned this more uncommon way of reading reversals from this article, or a similar one, from Biddy Tarot many years ago. This can be a very positive and healing way of reading a reversed card. If I see several reversed cards in a reading, or especially if all of the cards in a reading are reversed, this is most often the application that makes the most sense to me. If we go back to the Ace of Cups example from the first way of reading reversals, this method would result in a message about self-love and developing a new positive relationship with oneself rather than speaking about the possibility (delayed or blocked) of a blossoming romance. In this case, I wouldn’t necessarily see these two readings as mutually exclusive (focus on self-care or removing the roadblocks to finding new romance). They might seem opposed to each other, but I would find myself wondering if more self-love on the part of the querent would actually be the process that removed the block to them starting a new relationship with someone else.
Even a card like The Tower can be quite positive when read reversed in this way. I once pulled The Tower for myself as an overview for the month, and I spent a lot of time worrying about what might happen. All that ended up happening that month was a big change in my way of thinking about something, in a sudden burst of insight — very similar to Ace of Wands energy, but with more depth of understanding about a lifelong issue, and completely internal. And it was great!
Reversals in a “Negative” Position
One of the trickiest things about reading reversals is when a reversed card shows up in a negative position (“don’t do this”), resulting in a double negative. At first glance it might seem like the negative position is already referring to the “negative” meaning of the card, so the reversal is just reinforcing that. There could be times when this is true and it’s best to trust your intuition on what meaning works best in the context of the whole reading. I tend to take a grammatical approach, to at least see what it would mean if the double negative were to be translated exactly as is.
Let’s take, for example, this simple 2-card spread, where the first card position advises “do this,” and the second card position advises, “don’t do that.” In the first position we see Justice, and in the second we see the 7 of Wands reversed. Is the querent meant to apply the “harmony and balance” aspect of Justice, or the “fight for what’s right” side? The second card may give us a clue. The 7 of Wands is all about taking a stand and having the courage of your convictions. We could see the 7 of Wands in the “don’t do this” position and give the advice to back down from a battle, to stop being so defensive, in the name of peace and restoring equilibrium. If we take the grammatical approach to a reversed 7 of Wands and read the double negative, we see that it can mean giving up or allowing room for your strong beliefs to be changed. The position of the card indicates that the querent should not do this: don’t give up or back down, stay strong and keep fighting for what you know is right.
So if two completely opposite readings are equally legitimate, how is that useful? The key here is that there is more to reading tarot than just direct translation. There is no definite meaning without the reader’s intuition about which of many possible interpretations is the right one for a particular querent in a specific situation. Someone who knows the language that a poem is written in can say the words of the poem and know what each word means literally, but to understand what the poet was trying to convey in choosing those words takes a certain degree of imagination and intuition to feel with the poet, understand their experience, and empathize with their point of view. Likewise, learning how to translate the symbols of each tarot card is an intellectual task, but interpreting the message for a particular querent is an emotional, imaginative, and intuitive one. The greatest skill I think a tarot reader can develop is discernment about whether a reading feels right because it’s the easiest or nicest interpretation, or because they’ve considered several options, even “counterintuitive” ones, and somehow just know which one the querent needs to hear. Sometimes we really don’t know, and we can share as much as we are able to understand and let the querent decide what resonates.