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The Trumps: Interpreting the Images, II

July 16, 2016

by Tony Willis                  


In the 1950s, when I was learning to read the tarot, the general rule was that, for a card in reverse, the significance it bore when upright was lessened and/or made more unfortunate. Most often, the card’s upright meaning was considerably altered; in a few other instances, it might be adjusted only a little. Trump 6, The Lovers, when the right way up, is indicative of an outpouring of love or affection, and when reversed, points to romantic troubles or some degree of unhappiness in married life. However, The World’s upright value, “success, attainment of goals”, is only mildly subdued when the card falls reversed, when it points to eventual success after some delay or frustration.

Among the trumps, one stand-out exception to the above rule is The Tower, Trump 16. Its upright significance is “unhappy surprise, ruin of one’s plans, catastrophe or accident”, but when turned on its head, it assumes a sunnier disposition, becoming a symbol of “release from prison”. Usually the delineation manifests in a metaphorical sense: the imprisonment spoken of may be mental, and relate to outworn concepts or an inherited world-view, or emotional, the reference then being to a friendship or other relationship the inquirer would be better off shedding.

All these meanings are, of course, subject to modification in response to the implications of the other cards the trump is associated with. This facet of card interpretation is the hardest to learn as well as being the hardest to teach. I will do my best to insert into my posts some instances where the significance of a run of cards adds up to more than simply a series of individual meanings coupled together like a row of train carriages.

Looking more closely at reversals, and taking a slightly different tack, we can say this. Where the upright significance of a trump can broadly be classed as beneficial to the inquirer’s interests, its reversal is invariably assigned a meaning opposite to the upright one. According to this tenet, and taking the trump Strength as our example, Courage will be converted into Faint-heartedness, Persistence into Capitulation, Application into Lack of Effort. From the predictive angle, Strength reversed intimates that in any struggle for supremacy, the inquirer will be bested; in a contest, victory will go to the inquirer’s rivals; in love, the inquirer’s chances are liable to slip away while they shillyshally on the sidelines.

This is a different approach to “interpreting the image”. When, as diviners, we scrutinize a reversed card, we observe the image turned on its head, and that, in most cases, is what is done with the card’s meaning also. The opposite of Strength is Weakness; the opposite of Courage is Fearfulness; and in the case of the trump Justice, the opposite of justice competently performed is justice ill-served or perverted.

When the tarot trumps appear in reverse, interpretation ceases to be a matter of “reading the image”. Instead, as a general observation, a reversed card implies the opposite of what it indicates when upright. This is a hangover from an earlier era of tarot divination. From the latter end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, reversals were a rarer occurrence than they are apt to be today. In texts dealing with tarot divination dating from this time, the upright position is frequently described as normal. This is because that is the way the cards were expected to present themselves. Reversals were an anomaly. There were tarot readers who scrutinized the deck before a consultation began so as to assure themselves that all cards were right way up. That done, the inquirer might be invited to reverse two or three cards at random before shuffling the deck; or not; in which case, Fate might possible take a hand and contrive to have a card reverse itself while the deck was being shuffled. I have had this experience myself: in a pack where all cards were upright at the start of the session, one became turned around somehow, and formed an integral part of the subsequent reading.

Murry Hope, my senior by sixteen years, learnt the same procedure for reversals that I was taught. She adhered to it when, in the 1970s, she created a form of card way of cartouche 200_divination based on Egyptian myth and symbolism, Cartouche. In her book, The Way of Cartouche (St Martin’s Press, USA, 1985), she advises that when using the Cartouche cards, the diviner should ensure that all symbols are the right way up at the start of a consultation. She further observes that, should any cards fall from the deck face down during the shuffling process, they are to be returned to the deck without their symbol sides being looked at. Inevitably, some will go back into the mix in reverse. Ms Hope goes on to explain that, when reversed cards appear in a spread, they are to be returned to the deck the right way up once the reading is over. The result of this action will be to keep most cards in upright mode. An occultist to her finger-ends, Ms Hope makes this telling comment: If any cards “are meant to reverse, they will do so by themselves.”

The infrequency with which reversals appear when the above formula is adhered to explains why reversed meanings were sometimes given a brusque or cursory treatment by tarot authorities of yesteryear. Papus, in The Tarot of the Bohemians, supplies his readers with no reverse meanings for either the trumps or the minor arcana cards. Writing in 1952, Frank Lind, in How to Read the Tarot, an instruction book for those wishing to learn the art of divination by tarot cards, gives sample reverse meanings for trumps 1 to 12, but thereafter adopts the view: Now that the student can see how reversed meanings are arrived at, let her/him work out the reversed significances of the remaining trumps for themselves.

Occultists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries treated tarot cards as representations, emissaries almost, of esoteric principles. The trumps were identified with the esoteric principles that held together the various interpenetrating levels of Being through and by which the universe in both its visible and invisible expressions functioned. The minor cards were identified with lesser, but no less integral, principles attached in occult terminology to the so-called “Elements” of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.

An upright card was considered to be mediating the particular energy with which it was associated in all its shades and gradations. Upside down, the card was taken to be signaling that the energy it embodied had become blocked or in some way deflected from its intended purpose. It is according to these understandings that the cards were interpreted in earlier times. And according to these understandings, the energies, for the majority of the time, operate normally, as they were intended to do, without experiencing deviation or hindrance. Cards were, therefore, expected to go into reverse very infrequently under standard conditions and for the errant energy to return to its default ‘’normal” role as soon as it was possible for it do so.

Is “Upright good, Reversed bad” Universally True?

Oswald Wirth, in The Tarot of the Magicians, mixes benign and infelicitous meanings together when describing the significances of the trumps. Frank Lind, in his manual of tarot reading mentioned earlier, at times includes ‘negative’ meanings alongside ‘positive’ ones when describing the kind of event to be expected when a card is upright. Wirth and Lind take this approach because, as has been said, a card’s meaning is not only affected by its being upright or reversed. More subtly, a card will be influenced for good or ill by the symbols that fall with it, most particularly those lying on either side of it. For example, if Justice were found lying between The Devil mmTarot 15mmTarot 08mmTarot 12(corruption, underhand dealings) and The Hanged Man (anxiety, suffering), this would alter Justice’s basic meaning from “justice punctiliously performed” to “the course of justice is dishonestly diverted (Devil), causing the inquirer distress and loss of face (Hanged Man)”. In short, Justice would act in pretty much the same way it would do if it were reversed. Now, perhaps, you may begin to realize what a demanding business it can be to decipher the message carried by the cards that make up a reading.


From → tarot divination

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