Lurkers on the Threshold

There is an old cliche that “a bad penny always turns up.” This aphorism perfectly describes the barely civil dispute about the practice of reading reversed cards that is currently simmering on one of my more advanced tarot forums. The weary consensus is to just “pick your poison” (I’m full of platitudes today) and move on, treating them as essential, optional or unnecessary as you see fit; but one of my forum-mates raised an interesting point that brought me to greater awareness of their true value:

“One’s understanding of how and if reversals work is an inner part of their magickal practice; meaning it can not be intellectually debated with and taught to others, or even a satisfactory explanation reached by one self.”

The only point I disagree with is that it can’t be satisfactorily explained by and to oneself. But I would have to frame an intellectual argument to define how I know that (which I’ve already attempted in more than one previous essay, as some of my long-suffering readers know well), and it would be unlikely to mean anything to anyone else, much less convince them. For me, reversals work well enough when I want to use them, and when I choose not to I don’t miss them. It’s just another tool in the tarot reader’s toolbox; there’s nothing mystical about them. I consider reversal a “shortcut” to the implicit meaning already lurking within the symbolism, so we can spend less time and effort teasing it out and cut right to the chase.

The idea of “lurkers” behind the customary definition of any card is where I want to take this. Many people who don’t want to think too deeply about the subject (at least in a clear-eyed, unemotional way) believe all possible meanings – both positive and negative – are already encoded in the upright appearance of the card, so all we have to do is painstakingly find the specific “good” or “bad” interpretation that makes the most sense and tailor it to the context of the question. I have no problem with this in principle, but it sure does sound like a lot of work (and intuitive guesswork at that) when we can simply tap into reversal as a kind of prescient hint to look behind the facade first rather than having to drill down and examine every detail until something jumps out at us. Personally, I don’t want to expend that much energy on a subtle inflection that can be very easily deduced using one of my numerous variations on the theme of reversal and its consequences in a reading. In practice there is rarely enough time in a scheduled reading session to linger too long over such minutiae, so we can wind up just “shooting from the hip” or “winging it.” (Arrgh! As Ronald Reagan used to scold impertinent reporters, “There you go again!”)

Where it can really run off the rails is with a decidedly cheerful card like the Sun. We can certainly do the mental gymnastics to produce ominous warnings like “too much of a good thing; no place to hide; don’t be overly optimistic” and their ilk (which can be especially futile when the sitter doesn’t warm up to such feeble admonitions), but with reversal I might only talk about a “cloud passing over the Sun.” To be fair, most of the other Major Arcana are complex enough to escape this conundrum, although the Empress and the Chariot come close. Someone of my acquaintance once called the Empress a spoiled “royal bitch,” and the Chariot can be obstinate in his single-minded purpose. The trick is to look a bit askance at them to see where their “poster child” mystique may be tattered around the edges; despite all appearances to the contrary, not all archetypes are pure of heart – there is always the “shadow” to deal with, and this is where reversal excels.

The Minor Arcana can be even trickier. When the card is upright, it’s hard to see any downside to the saccharine Waite-Smith 10 of Cups that can be turned into cautionary advice (it’s much easier with the Thoth card and its notion of “surfeit” or over-indulgence). In this case, reversal introduces an aura of uncertainty and perhaps even skepticism into the pleasant, if insipid, tableau (Aleister Crowley might have called it “the seeds of corruption”), making it less of a sure thing. There are a few other minor cards that are almost as innocuous (although perhaps not as singularly vacuous) at first glance, and I’ve written extensively on aspects of them that the average tarot reader is neither trained nor predisposed to see (blame my long association with Crowley’s work): the 2 of Cups is a card of callow “puppy love” that can’t last; the 6 of Wands is fraught with envy and “fatal pride;” the woman in the 9 of Pentacles is trapped in her garden and must make do with what she has. Reversal can nudge these less salutary aspects into the spotlight.

In my own practice, reversal introduces interpretive nuance or shading in the form of minor “tweaks” to a card’s more explicit influence, often by changing its “mode of delivery” or “angle of attack” into something more elusive and oblique (although seldom entirely opaque). I once called its forte “insinuation” rather than “declaration.” Think of being “blind-sided” by a rogue energy, or having it unexpectedly “sneak in the back door,” with the obvious recommendation to “watch your back.” It all makes perfectly good sense to me.

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