Tarot 101: How to Read Reversals

Those pesky, pesky reversals. Getting into tarot and remembering 78 meanings to cards that branch off into even more meanings and possibilities isn’t a piece of cake. Taking all of that and adding another layer — reversals — is something incredibly daunting as a beginner, and no doubt, I experienced it too.

First thing’s first: Not everyone uses reversals. For one or two decks, I don’t read with reversals, which is just a preference I picked up with those particular decks. But some readers don’t use them at all for varying reasons. Nonetheless, reversals do add a layer of complexity and life to your readings, which is typically undisputed. Tarot does a beautiful job of depicting different stages of life and human experience, but reversals give us a gray area amongst that. Sometimes we are The Four of Cups (bored, rejecting experiences), and sometimes we aren’t The Four of Cups but not quite The Fool (open, adventurous). I recommend learning how to handle reversals, and if you still decide it’s not for you, by all means leave them out of your practice.

Here’s a few ways to read reversals:

1. Blocked Energy / Path

3 of Cups, Rider Waite Tarot

One of the most common misconceptions with reversals is that they have to be the exact opposite meaning of the card. Let’s say, for example, you pull the Three of Cups in reverse. Upright, you know that the Three of Cups is about teamwork, positive communication, and a healthy connection between people.

In reverse, the tendency might be to say that it means people are arguing or actively fighting. Instead, we could interpret the Three of Cups in reverse as still about teamwork, positive communication, and all that good jazz, but something is just blocking the querent off from those things. In other words, nothing has to be actively going backwards or opposing the card directly; it could just be that we’re not moving forwards either.

2. Excess Energy

Knight of Swords, Rider Waite Tarot

Here is where we reach the closest I get to an “opposites” interpretation. I don’t want to say that a card reversal can’t mean a direct opposition, but it’s not my preferred way of reading cards, and I think it’s what turns people off often times to reading reversals for the lack of nuance. Let’s look at the Knight of Swords for this example.

Upright, we know that the Knight of Swords is brave, bold, and out to accomplish his goals. What happens, though, if he is too bold, too goal-oriented? He can turn out to be reckless, potentially harmful in his quest to reach his goal and take on a “at any costs” attitude, or too stubborn and abrasive.

The positive traits and attributes of the Knight of Swords, when not taken in moderation, become an unhappy imbalance. This reversal is the definition of “too much of a good thing.”

3. Stifled Meaning

3 of Swords, Rider Waite Tarot

Instead of a full on block, sometimes a reversal can indicate that a meaning of a card just gets toned down a bit.

The 3 of Swords, for example, is one that we recognize for its signal of heartbreak, loss, loneliness, and betrayal. The image of three swords piercing a heart is one that always makes me say, “Ouch,” and I often associate it with the first heartbreaks we experience as we lose our innocence.

In reverse, I could interpret this instead to be something more equivalent to a disappointment experienced at work, and/or some longing and sadness. The reversal tells me that, yes, the existence of heartbreak is certainly in the air, but perhaps it was expected, or perhaps it’s something you’ll move on from quickly.

Unlike an energy block, the existence of the meaning of the card is most definitely present, but we just bring it down a few notches.

How do I tell which reversal meaning is the right one?

The same way you know which upright card meaning is most applicable: you just gotta feel it out, and go with what intuitively feels right.

If you’re stuck and nothing is feeling exactly right to you, look at the cards surrounding it in the spread. For example, are there a lot of other positive but reversed cards? Perhaps this is indicative of a block, as the querent might have one central issue that’s causing all of these paused opportunities.

This is most definitely the trickiest part of reading reversals, but remember that it’s honestly not too different from reading upright cards. It’s not as if each tarot card has one fixed meaning — there are layers and complexities within one upright card too, especially depending on the context of the situation. The Lovers upright in a romantic question is something totally different to me than The Lovers upright in a spread that’s looking at careers.

In other words, don’t let reversals intimidate you. You don’t have to go and learn a whole other 78 meanings to the cards; it’s just one more layer to the knowledge you already have.

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