I have been thinking about reversals a lot recently. I never used to use them as I was under the illusion that using reversed cards would give a deliberately negative slant to my readings and why would I willingly inflict that upon myself and my querents? Plus I felt that after it had taken me years to finally grasp conventional card meanings, was I really going to have to do it all again, for all 78 cards in reversed position? I now know that both of the above ways of thinking about reversals are rather wide of the mark. When I first started learning tarot 25 years ago, all reversed meanings I remember seeing were negative ones but recent years have seen new ways of thinking about reversed cards and what it might mean to use them in readings. As I have become more and more comfortable with card meanings – especially Rider Waite Smith-based decks – I found I craved a little more nuance in my readings, a different spin on the accepted divinatory keywords. My readings with the Rider Waite Smith deck itself had come to feel – dare I say it? – a little jaded. I know people keep telling me that there is a lifetime of symbolism and meaning to unearth in the deck, but the fact is, my interpretations were starting to feel a little tired. Then maybe last year I started thinking about incorporating reversals. It made perfect sense to me to think about logical opposites of card meanings. If you feel you have a grasp on what a card means, it is an interesting exercise to think what the logical opposite of that might be. It really doesn’t need to be doom-laden. Take the Eight of Wands for example; if we think of it as speed and communication, we can logically see it reversed in a spread as meaning delay and crossed wires, perhaps? I was of the opinion that once we feel comfortable with our own card meanings which we have arrived at via trial and error, thinking of that meaning reversed or – as it were “inside out” – would be a fascinating and useful exercise to get us thinking about the elasticity of card concepts. It seemed to be something that only we ourselves could do, as it would have to be the opposite of something very personal to us. A few times, I did readings for close friends and asked them to reverse some few cards whilst shuffling, but it had to be a deck I knew well; Rider Waite Smith style to the core (e.g Morgan Greer, Aquarian, Hoi Polloi, Royal Fez Moroccan Tarot, Russian Tarot of St Petersberg). Working reversals into these decks, sometimes on the spur of the moment, made sense to me and I got some insightful readings as a result. Yet I still felt that I was poised at the precipice of reversals, unsure of exactly what I was getting into and sensing that there were so many more perspectives to think about that I could very quickly feel overwhelmed. Reading Janet Boyer’s Tarot in Reverse: Making Sense of the Upside Down Cards in a Tarot Spread (Schiffer, 2012) has nudged me into new directions and given me much to chew over.
Over almost 200 pages, illustrated with the Universal Waite Tarot, she anatomises reversed tarot cards, reflecting on what might be appropriate meanings, all done in a quickfire, entertaining manner with pop references and affirmations for each card, Major and Minor, all combining to give fun and – above all – contemporary card meanings. Her take on the Eight of Wands, for example, takes in “traffic jams, no wi-fi, too much caffeine, spam, lost mobile phone signal” to mention only five in a long, long list. I hear time and time again how reading other people’s divinatory meanings is not always very useful for a beginner, who simply has to find their own feet. I have to say though, when I was a beginner 25 years ago, such advice would not have been very helpful for me, but thankfully nobody ever really used to suggest it (that I remember). I think it is always useful and fascinating to reflect on – and bounce off – other people’s ideas for the cards. That is how you come to find which middle ground works for you. What I find especially useful is the introduction which paves the way for how we can think more generically about tarot card reversals. It isn’t all pain and negativity and disaster unfolding. A tarot card which comes up reversed can be approached in many different ways and she elucidates some of the possible ways we might think about this. She gives twelve different ways to think about reversals, any one of which would be enough to give more depth to a reading. For example, a reversed card can be something as simple as a “not” put before all the upright meanings. Or it could signify something overlooked. I found this part of the book especially useful as you could take any one of these twelve approaches and then devise workable reversed meanings with very little mental adjustment to how you actually read now. The book also has some introductory information for those who are relatively new to tarot, but I think the bulk of the book would be useful for both beginners and advanced readers alike. For each card, she gives an extensive list of reversed meanings and then a paragraph with more familiar cultural analogies from Micheal Jackson and the Berlin Wall to Icarus and the BP oil spill. There is also a quotation for each card (e.g Four of Pentacles; “security is a kind of death”, Tennessee Williams), followed by advice and then 20 affirmations. The book is divided up into Majors, then Minors (grouped by number rather than suits) and then Court Cards, concluding with some sample readings. What I found useful was to think about those cards in the tarot deck which I just don’t “get”, and I think we all have about 5 of them (or maybe not?) The Two of Wands, Temperance, Ten of Pentacles are the ones which – for me – immediately spring to mind. I mean, I know the meanings as I have looked them up and thought about them a lot but they are some of the cards that least inspire me when they turn up in a reading. Looking at ideas for reversed meanings gives me a new perspective to start from. By looking at what an opposite of it might be I can retrace back to possible new upright meanings. However you approach the book there is bound to be something in it which can bring a breath of fresh air into all readings. Schiffer have been giving us some great contributions to tarot and divination of late, both in terms of decks and also books. I like what I have seen of their publications to date and Tarot in Reverse is a welcome addition to their ever-expanding catalogue.