How to Read Reversals in Tarot
One of the most popular discussions amongst tarot readers, is whether or not to read with reversals. Some avoid reversals entirely, others read with them only occasionally, and some fully embrace the challenge. Perhaps you’re on the fence about reversals, or find it too daunting to even try. If so, here are a few techniques to add to your tarot tool kit.
When I began studying tarot, I found reversals intimidating at first. Not only did I need to learn the upright meanings of all 78 cards, but I had to memorise the meanings behind the 78 reversals, too? Yikes. Personally, I now enjoy reading with reversals as I find they add an extra layer to the reading, but I do pick and choose when and for whom I read with reversals. Depending on the client and the topic, I sometimes read with uprights only. It’s an intuitive nudge for me; if I feel the client is in a too fragile or emotional state of mind, or the subject matter too emotionally loaded, I avoid reversals. I’ve experienced clients fixating on only the reversed card/s in their reading, thinking they’re somehow spooky omens. In some cases, reversals have resulted in the client being beyond convincing that the reversal simply highlights weakened energy.
Ultimately, tarot readers should decide themselves whether reversals are part of their tarot practice. I would encourage everyone to give it a shot, despite what trends or other external influences might dictate. To experience how reversals impact a reading is embracing the whole of tarot, and until you’ve given it a decent chance, you won’t know for sure if it can enrich you as a reader.
How are reversals translated? In many cases, a reversal’s meaning is the opposite of its upright. For example, the 8 of Cups signifies moving on. Regardless of what’s been accomplished, this card announces it’s time to take off in a new direction. Reversed, the 8 of Cups indicates unfinished business. It’s a message to turn back and deal with a situation. Another example is the King of Wands. Upright, it represents charisma, masculine power, and leadership. Reversed it means timidness, insecurity, and in some cases, abuse of power. These are fairly straight-forward reversals, an almost opposite of the upright meanings. But then there are cards that don’t exactly form the inverted. Instead, they represent a weakened energy. There are also reversals that indicate a delay, and others, a negative influence.
What about the more negative cards of the deck? Does Death reversed mean birth? And does a reversed Tower indicate everything turning out peachy? Upright, Death represents transformation; the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. In the instance of Death reversed, it means someone refusing to let go. They’re clinging to a belief or situation with everything they’ve got, and therefore rooting themselves in stagnancy. So not birth, and most definitely not transformation, instead, the reversal represents a negative influence which prevents the Seeker from progressing.
Upright, the Tower represents sweeping, drastic change, but in reverse, the force of that change is softened. The shift will still take place, but not with the head-spinning force the Tower usually brings. The reversal therefore indicates a weakened energy.
In my early studies, the technique suggested by Benebell Wen in Holistic Tarot clicked the concept of reversals firmly into place for me. Wen uses a mnemonic for deciphering reversals; WIND. This is a direct transcript from her book:
W: Weakened energy of the card meaning due to being overpowered by other forces.
I: Inverted meaning of the card, i.e., the opposite of what the card would mean upright.
N: Negative influence on Seeker (most notably in court cards; think N for nobility).
D: Delay before the outcome will materialise. Not all factors have fully matured yet.
Wen encourages the reader to apply each of the above to the reversal in order to analyse what the reversal could mean. Let’s take the 8 of Cups as an example. Even though the traditional meaning means unfinished business, how does the reversal reform with WIND? It’s important to bear in mind that as part of a spread, the surrounding cards can influence the reversal, but for this example, let’s keep it simple by saying the 8 is a single card draw.
W: A weakened energy could suggest the Seeker is ready to move ahead, but an external force is preventing their progress. What’s holding them back? Can the Seeker change this, or is it out of their hands for now?
I: Inverted energy is the traditional ‘unfinished business’ meaning.
N: Negative influence could suggest the Seeker hijacking themselves either intentionally, or unintentionally. Are they confident of moving ahead, or is a thought process or behaviour holding them back?
D: Delays could be preventing the Seeker from moving on. They will progress, but not with the immediacy they might want. The Seeker might need to simply have patience.
When I began reading reversals, I found this method hugely helpful. Instead of turning over a reversed card and panicking about how to read it, I methodically went though the WIND steps and calmly formed my own understanding. It allowed me to build my own depository of reversal meanings, but also further impressed upon me the importance of considering the surrounding cards in a spread, as they also bear an impact on the reversal’s meaning. So, in my experience, along with the WIND method, and taking pause to note any surrounding cards, the mystery and fear was taken out of reading reversals.
During your studies, you may come across the word ‘reversal’ being written as Rx. This shorthand is the medical term for a prescription, but is also used in astrology when planets go into retrograde. With this in mind, consider reversals from an aspect of retreating or declining energy, like a planet in retrograde.
I’ve picked Strength as an example. Looking at it through a retrograde lens, it could indicate the Seeker shying away from a situation. Instead of taking control and facing it with courage, they’re either panicking, or retreating, possibly overwhelmed by a lack of confidence. A retrograde view could also be considered as the energy only emerging internally for the Seeker, so not affecting their outer world. In the instance of Strength, this could suggest the Seeker needs to, or is already quietly working on building their confidence and learning how to handle stress with greater emotional maturity.
Reversals are often considered as the subconscious mind affecting our outer world without our knowledge, so in the case of Strength, perhaps the Seeker isn’t aware that their propensity to panic when under stress is directly affecting the situation. When it comes to reversals indicating the subconscious mind, there’s certainly a lot to consider. Take your time. The more you practice, the sooner you’ll find what fits you best.
What about seeing the reversal as a prescription? I firmly subscribe to the concept of tarot as medicine, so considering reversals as a remedy to heal brings even more depth to a reading. Using Strength again, I could therefore look at the reversal and tell the Seeker that the medicine they need is grace. If they’re struggling with an issue, I would prescribe a refined, gentle approach, where the Seeker should hold firm, but maintain finesse. Approaching reversals as a treatment actually flips the card back to its upright meaning, but isn’t it an intriguing option? Instead of regarding the reversal as blocked or weakened energy, the card has reformed into a tool for healing. For readers who find reversals intimidating or even a little spooky, viewing a reversed card as a healing prescription could negate that negative impression entirely.
What about intuitive readers? If, like me, intuition takes over when reading, then you’re approaching your readings with a different mindset. Of course you’ll still need to have a grasp on the meanings of each card, both upright and reversed, but an intuitive nudge, or a poke from clairsentience or claircognizance may whisper a different message entirely. For example, I recently read for a client who had a reversed 2 of Cups. Upright, this card represents unity; a meeting of hearts and minds. Reversed, it typically indicates quarrels and a break up. As I read for the client, my intuition told me the reversal didn’t indicate a break up of the relationship the client had been tentatively forming, but instead, for her to delay. External factors had the client in a tricky situation, and my advice was for her to take her time and settle an issue in another area of her life before inviting in a new romance. She contacted me a month after the reading to let me know she’d followed my advice, and that the situation she’d resolved would indeed have impacted her burgeoning relationship if she hadn’t dealt with it first.
Does this confuse the concept of reversals even more for you? Perhaps, but this will only be resolved with practice. You might find security in rote learning the meanings of every reversal, and sticking only to those meanings. You might prefer more fluidity, and practice Benebell Wen’s WIND method, or define reversals as remedies only. Or, you may choose to rely entirely on your intuition. Regardless, a basic understanding of the upright meaning, at the very least, is vital if you’re going to utilise reversals.
With this in mind, if you’re starting out with tarot, then you might want to consider parking the idea of reading reversals for a while. Get comfy with the uprights first. Get to know the cards, experience how they interact and shape a reading when they form a spread. Make friends with your intuition and learn how to decipher intuition from ego (that’s a blog post for another day!). Once you’re settled in with the basics, you can then give reversals a spin and see how it feels. You may decide, like many other tarot readers, that reversals aren’t for you, or you may discover a delightful new layer to your readings.
Deck: Rider Smith Waite Tarot (US Games)
Book: Holisitc Tarot by Benebell Wen
What are your experiences with reversals? Would you consider viewing them as a healing prescription? Have you already formed your own how-to or do you stick to the standard reversal meanings? You know how much I love to chat, so reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know your thoughts. Likewise, if there’s a topic you’d like to see featured on the blog, or would like to write a guest blog article, let me know. Our creative community is wide and deep, so don’t be shy! The more we share our wisdom and experiences, the more we spread the love.