The shifting definition of tarot reversals

To read reversals, or not read reversals…

That is the question – at least for a lot of tarot readers out there.

Questions about what reversals mean, and whether to read them at all, is one of the most common inquiries I hear within the tarot community.

I’ve talked before about my thoughts on reading reversals here. I did work with reversals at a previous point in my tarot practice. I do think they can be an effective technique, but that’s what I always tell people first and foremost:

Reversals are a technique, not a rule. There are different ways to read tarot cards, and as a tarot reader you will gradually develop your own style and approach that incorporates various techniques that you feel are effective. But you won’t necessarily adopt every card reading technique out there.

When I have read reversals, I have looked at them as something that isn’t quite working the way it should, or as a possibility that has yet to grow. There are other ways to read reversals, and like many things that are taught in tarot, there’s no singular definition to abide by.

For the last few years, I’ve noticed there’s been a strong tendency among tarot teachings to look at upright cards as purely positive and reversed as purely negative.

I’ve never been a fan of this approach because I find that it gives a polarized, either/or approach to the cards, and often relies heavily on standard card meanings to give those opposing definitions.

This black-and-white take on reversed vs. upright cards often sparks lively discussions and debates among tarot readers for several reasons. A big one is that some readers feel that those who don’t read reversals are avoiding or ignoring difficult or challenging messages.

It also assumes that readers who read upright cards are only seeing half of what the deck can do.

I’ve always had an issue with this assumption for several reasons, one of them being that I don’t look at tarot as a binary system of good or bad, or either / or. Whether cards land upright or reversed, I would argue that every image in the tarot contains a spectrum of possibilities. You don’t have to read reversals to see those possibilities.

To me, tarot is always a both / and system, not either / or.

Because of this, I don’t look at tarot as a deck of cards with 78 meanings, and then with another 78 available if read upside down. When the debate about reversals comes up, I often hear it hinged on traditional card meanings. To look at tarot as a simple list definitions feels limiting: I’d rather be liberated by tarot’s imagery than boxed in by a standard definition.

My approach to tarot is much more driven by context and questions than whether a card lands upright or not. Often, if there is a challenge that presents itself in a reading, it will be evident by the cards that appear in response to the query – they don’t need to be upside down to show a block or issue.

I’m burying my point with this missive in explaining all of this, but I feel it’s necessary to help provide some basis from where my thinking is coming from in regards to a shifting definition of reversals that seems to be taking place at this time.

In recent months, I’ve seen the word “reversal” to take on a new meaning.

No longer is it just about looking at whether cards are inverted in a reading: Now, some definitions are broadening to say that cards can be upright and still be read as a reversal.

“Reading reversals” is taken to mean reading the full spectrum of a tarot card when upright.

If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

When I first came to tarot, I was taught that cards that are inverted can be read as a reversed meaning, or a blocked, unconscious, or unmanifested energy.

But getting that message relied on allowing for cards to be physically reversed in the first place.

Now, some of this language is changing. Maybe it’s because of the back and forth that goes on about whether reversals should be read at all.

I think any tarot technique can work if a reader is able to apply it skillfully and consistently. Just because there are variations between people’s tarot practices doesn’t mean one way is better than another.

But I do find this shifting definition of reversals to be a bit of a head scratcher.  

To me, reading reversals was never about integrating new or different meanings to the cards. Tarot can mean anything and everything, or nothing at all – it’s always about the art of interpretation, not the technique itself.

Readers who have never read reversals, but still see a full spectrum of possibility in the cards wouldn’t bother to distinguish between whether they read upright or reversed cards. They would say, “I’m reading tarot.”

Which I think is much simpler than putting labels on the types of messages that are derived from the cards.

Likewise, if I say, “I don’t read reversals,” what I mean is that I don’t read cards upside down.

But with this new approach to reversals, someone might think that I only read for positive messages, which is not true.

See where the confusion sits here?

This might feel like splitting hairs to some, but because so much of my work is focused on teaching tarot, it’s important to me that we have clear definitions of the techniques we are using, and how they are being used.

And it feels like this shifting definition of reversals is a reflection of earlier misunderstandings about this technique overall: That it’s an overly simplified way to see a message as good or bad, either or, this or that.

I’ve been trying to get to the origins of this shifting definition of reversals, but I’ve yet to pinpoint where or how this originated. If you know, I’d love to dig deeper – get in touch with me about it.

In the meantime, I encourage a call back to the original definition of reversals and a move away from seeing inverted or upright cards as simply positive or negative iterations of pre-determined keyword meanings.

Tarot is, and has always been, something that goes beyond basic labels and categories. I’ll continue to simply say, “I read tarot,” without bending to any requirements to clarify or uphold the muddy waters of shifting definitions.

I’ve always felt that tarot benefits from simplicity, and I’ll continue to stick to that.

Until next time,



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