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Reversals

Reversals are one of the things that make the Tarot so powerful as a divinatory system. They allow the reader to see subtle changes in the energy of the cards he or she has drawn, without actually changing the nature of the card and therefore making it hard to interpret. The key to the use of reversals is realizing that a reversed card is not always the exact opposite of the upright card; reversals involve variations on a common theme.

For example, consider a reversed Three of Swords. Upright, this is a card of pain and sorrow. But reversed, it does not become a bright and happy card. The swords are still piercing the heart, only now the picture is upside-down. Sometimes the pain is lessened (gravity is pulling the swords down and away from the heart), sometimes it is preparing to go away (the swords may fall out), and sometimes it is made even worse by a reversal (the swords fall and the heart starts bleeding again). The pain is still present, only in different forms.

It's a central principle of physics that energy can be converted into different forms, but not created or destroyed. So mechanical energy (moving water) can flow through a hydroelectric dam to turn turbines (electrical energy) that provide power with which you heat your house (thermal energy). Energy is always present, but transformed depending on its purpose. Likewise, the energy of the upright card is still present in the reverse - only changed somehow.

A reversed card can have dozens of possible aspects, and can impart so many more changes on a card's energy than a simple negation. Reversals, to use a language metaphor, are like adverbs. They modify the meaning of a word without changing it too drastically. Here are some of the most useful and widely accepted alterations:

  1. The exact opposite of the upright meaning. This is rare, but is it not unheard of. Although most Tarot cards have a natural opposite (the High Priestess and the Magician, for instance), sometimes this energy must be reinforced through a reversal of another card.
  2. An immature state of the upright meaning. The sun at sunrise is still the sun, but its light cannot be cast as far and it does not light up all within its view. The energy may be still developing, and not able to fully express itself at this time.
  3. An end to the upright energy's influence. Continuing the analogy of the last posible interpretation, this would be like the sun setting. It is still what it always was, but its power is waning and soon the night will fall as the sun falls beneath the horizon.
  4. A version of the upright meaning weakened by surrounding energies. The sun analogy is still useful here; this interpretation could be viewed as an eclipse. The Sun is still there at its zenith, but its energy cannot be expressed because something else (the Moon) is in the way.
  5. A version of the upright meaning, completely blocked by energies in the vicinity and thus having no effect. This is a variation of the last example, and would be the equivalent of a total eclipse, where the sun completely disappears. One who did not know better would swear that the sun is gone.
  6. An overabundance of the upright energy, possibly being used for the wrong reasons. A reversed Nine of Cups might show an overindulgence in sensual pleasures that could lead to hamful consequences.
  7. A delay in time or distance of the upright meaning. At its source, the energy of the card is indeed powerful, but that source is so far away that its power has diminished with time or distance. Sometimes the full energy will manifest later, sometimes not.
  8. The energy of the upright meaning is only present in appearance. Someone could be feigning loyalty and faithfulness when in actuality they are engaged in deception and trickery.
  9. A sign of caution, warning of the upright energy's arrival/departure. These are the heralds that an energy is approaching or receding, giving you time to prepare for the change, or avoid it entirely.
  10. A lack of the upright meaning, possibly correctable. This shows what tendencies are lacking in your life right now, but that might benefit the situation if you still had them. Try to retrieve that which was lost.
  11. A refusal or denial of the upright energy. This would be akin to turning your back on the sun and seeing only the shadows. The energy is present but you are not ready to acknowledge it right now.
  12. No change to the upright meaning. Like the first interpretation, this is exceedingly rare but not impossible. Use it with care and moderation or you risk defeating the purpose of reversals altogether. Where other attempts to decipher the meaning of a reveral fail, use this meaning for the moment and return later to think some more.

You may be also wondering, which of these interpretations do you use when a reversed card appears in a reading? There are three ways.

You can often eliminate a few possibilities based on the question. A reversed Two of Cups in a question about a failing marriage probably does not indicate a time block or overabundance of that energy. But the reversal could show weakened energy, blocked energy, diminishing energy, or approaching energy (in which case the situation is about to turn around and the reversal is a good sign!).

Once you've eliminated the immediately impossible, focus on the other cards in the area, and see how they influence the reversed card. A Five of Wands next to the Two of Cups basically eliminates the rather optimistic interpretations, but leaves the rest. An Ace of Cups, on the other hand, would do just the opposite. Sometimes this won't help (if an Ace of Swords pops up next to the Two of Cups, for example) but in most cases you can get a somewhat clearer picture of what the reversal is trying to tell you.

Sometimes a few possibilities will remain. In this circumstance the best thing to do is let your intuition handle it. With practice, as soon as you lay down a reversed card you will get an idea of what it could mean and what it could not. Go with your first impression; your first guess is usually the right one.

The proportion of reversed to upright cards can tell you a lot about the situation. Many upright cards shows a positive and generally unhindered flow of energy, where all your feelings are clear and your intent is certain. If the majority of the cards are reversed, energy is low, possibly because it is not the right time for this energy or because of a blockage of some kind. A situation with many reversals is not well defined, and your purpose may not be entirely clear.

Just like expressing ourselves properly would be more difficult without adverbs - there are four in this short sentence - readings are much easier to interpret in most cases when reversals (or some similar system) is used. Try writing a story without adverbs and you'll see how hard it would be for your Inner Voice to communicate without reversed cards. They add to the vocabulary of your Inner Voice so it can explore a situation to the utmost of its capability.

Copyright 2000 James Rioux