Telling a story based on a series of images sounds like a simple task but it can be as complex to interpret as cryptography if you’re not accustomed to thinking in narrative and metaphor. Tarot is a language of visual metaphor and its narratives are full of nuanced detail, if you know how to extract meaning from the collection of art composed in response to your query. But even experienced readers sometimes struggle to see the story in the cards…
Tarot’s wide range of possible meanings for each card, and the number of unusual interactions which can occur between the cards, only serves to make this more challenging. At the same time, this breadth of possibility is what makes Tarot so powerful at telling our stories in all kinds of different situations. The interplay -the collaboration- with the human reader enables the dialogue between the cards and their interpreter enormous flexibility.
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The collaborative nature of a Tarot reading is what gives it a distinctly magical, conversational quality. A good Tarot session feels like a cryptic dialogue with an omniscient ally. It’s not just Q&A, it’s a conversation.
Like any conversation, as the two parties become familiar with each other, the formalities are dropped and a kind of conversational shorthand develops naturally to enable rapid-fire exchange. And this leads to some very spooky, and very fascinating phenomena, which I’ll explore in detail in this post.
A good reading is rarely complete in a single spread; it takes multiple questions and a variety of approaches to thoroughly explore any important interpretation. Through the course of which a competent reader will enter into something like a direct dialogue with the cards, more or less simply channelling the answers out of their subconscious at the speed of conversation.
Across multiple spreads, and even multiple readings, it is not uncommon to see certain cards appearing repeatedly, bearing the same interpretation in each. If you have repeating patterns in your life, or in your thoughts, you can be sure they will appear in your readings as the same cards -over and over again.
When this happens, I interpret it “literally” as the same individual (if a “face” card), situation (if a numbered card), or influencing factor (if a major), appearing in new contexts. Often I find myself appearing in my readings as the same character again and again (if work-related, the King of Wands; if about my dreams and aspirations, the Page of Cups). Other times it is the problem, or the outcome, which repeatedly appears as the same card.
In any case, the card which repeats can be interpreted as a reference to that card’s role in prior readings -and this can occur many times, over multiple readings, and relatively long periods of time. This is one of the Tarot’s most uncannily magical tricks, since the odds of the same card being repeatedly singled out of the 78 in the deck is exceedingly low if the cards are dealt at random. These repeating cards represent an obvious break from typical reality and should be taken as an important message.
Often these repeating cards indicate a thematically-consistent period of your life. For instance, during a time of intense change, the Tower card made frequent appearances in my readings. Once I embraced this pattern and the resulting changes in my life, I stopped getting the Tower card in readings and haven’t seen it since.
Cards that stick with you for many readings, especially over weeks and months, are representative of some aspect of your story that’s playing out in real-time -something important and immanent. They are a shorthand which Tarot “uses” to remind you of conditions it has already “spoken” with you about previously; linking the readings together to form a chain of revelations on a particular subject.
There are many ways to read reversals (cards which appear “upside down” in spreads), to the point that any “meaning” may synch more with the individual preferences of the reader than any universal technique. If you rarely reset your deck (turning all the cards upright), you will, of course, have more reversals appear in your spreads and that might not mean much. If, like me, you always keep them ordered in the same direction, then a reversal is extremely unlikely and carries more weight.
However, it’s not absolutely necessary to read reversals differently, since upright cards already represent a spectrum of possibilities which the reader has to contextualize with their interpretation. Which is to say, the same message can be communicated regardless of the card’s placement (upright or reversed), but appearing as a reversal may serve to draw your attention to its importance.
The modern-traditional approach to reversals is usually to assume the worst / most negative interpretation for the reversed card but I feel like this can be misleading at times and this approach has just never really panned out for me in practice. I say misleading because, if you can’t get a straight, accurate answer from a technique, then it is of little practical use.
Often overlooked, though, is the potential for a reversal to instead indicate connections between cards, or provide clues as to the “direction” in which to interpret the spread at hand. Court cards (pages, knights, queens, and kings) often depict the character facing a particular direction and a reversal, reverses, this direction. This means that a reversed court card may be “looking at” a card it wouldn’t otherwise be facing -indicating a connection between the two cards. Alternatively, it may be “looking” in a meaningful direction, such as “forwards” or “backwards”, suggesting a focus on the future, the past, or simply disinterest.
This becomes especially meaningful in spreads where directionality is detected, or in larger, more complex, spreads with “movement” in multiple directions, such as tableaus (square spreads of 3×3 or 5×5 cards). Analyze your spreads as if these cards are “looking” in the direction they’re facing, for a reason.
Different cards in different decks are sometimes drawn facing one direction or another, and most cards can be interpreted as depicting some kind of “movement” or “motion” towards one edge more than the rest. This can be subtle, at first look, but is fairly obvious in a spread where there are multiple cards to compare. Viewed together, the “directionality” of the cards (which way the spread is “moving”) will either appear to lean more to the left, or the right, or have no consistency (with cards alternating towards both sides). These three states can provide useful insight into the reading in number of ways.
For example, the direction of the spread helps indicate if it should be read linearly from left to right, vice versa, or if there is no beginning / ending and should be interpreted from the center out (or in some other way). Likewise, if there are any past, present, and future, states indicated by the cards, the directionality of the spread may provide clues as to how to interpret this data.
Sometimes one (or a few) cards will seem to be moving in a different direction than the rest; which may indicate a differing view or that it is “going in a different direction”. If the card in question is a court card, it could represent someone being “stuck in the past” or “dreaming of the future”.
Generally speaking, cards which appear to be moving in the same direction (especially if adjacent) can be considered to be aligned and in concert with one another. Cards moving in different directions are divergent and, potentially, at odds; depending on the question at hand. There are many ways to “read into” this dynamic but the one that most speaks to you is the “right” answer. Being able to recognize directionality in a spread, however, is universally useful.
Court (Face) Cards
Typically speaking, cards with human faces in the Minor Arcana represent people in the circumstances of your reading. If the question was about yourself exclusively and no one else is relevant to the response, in rare cases, court cards can also represent different states of the querent (the person asking the question). Usually, though, they are actual people involved somehow in the matter of the reading.
Since they can be personified, court cards possess unique qualities which communicate the human dramas at work in a given situation. The court cards of Tarot de Marseilles style decks are infinitely more evocative and revealing than their equivalents in Rider-Waite-Smith varieties (which rarely depict the court cards facing any direction but forward). Having said that, different decks depict different artistic interpretations, so it just depends on which cards you favor. In any case, if a card appears to be looking at another card -or looking away from it- this is important information. Interactions between cards are never coincidence; everything you notice in a reading is essential information.
A king and queen in a spread which do not face each other, or at least in the same direction, are not seeing “eye to eye” (reversals become very important here). The Knight of Swords charging away from the Page of Cups could indicate an ambitious youth abandoning a young love. Two face cards staring each other down with a sword between them is a clear indicator of malice and conflict between the people they represent.
Whichever direction a court card is facing is relevant to the story and their particular role in it. Any interaction (“eye contact”) indicates a key dynamic at play between the characters involved. And, interpreted in concert with the other cards around them, a wealth of meaningful detail and nuance can be extracted about the situation in question. Looking at the relationships between face cards, and those adjacent to them, is the divinatory equivalent of “reading the room”.
Read Between The Cards
Don’t just read the cards, read between them; meaning, examine the relationships between cards to gain more insight into a reading. “Eye contact” between cards, “movement” in their art (both individually and collectively), reversals, and times when they repeat in multiple readings. These are only a sample of the many nuanced ways Tarot communicates with us.
Looking up card interpretations in your tarot deck’s companion book is never going to provide these kind of subtle details because these conditions are different in every spread. Don’t just read the assigned meanings of the cards and assume you’re getting all the information embedded in the response to your question -there is inevitably more that you’re not seeing.
The language of Tarot is visual, so interpret it visually first before turning to a written interpretation for insight…the story is depicted in the images of the cards and the way they relate to each other. Ask yourself what meaning is hiding in every detail of every spread.
Look at a spread emotionally as well as analytically. How do the cards feel? If there are any face cards, what are emotions are they expressing? What is their “state of mind”? Trust your intuition and develop a narrative (a story) from the intuitive data you receive.
Repetition is a common way the universe gets our attention, so the repetition of a suit in a spread is also important information. Moreover, the repetition of cards across different readings is essential to recognize and explore.
“Reading between the cards” and even between spreads and readings, allows new paradigms of intuitive insight to arise. Look and you will see…the cards are expressing their wisdom to us through their art -the images themselves- and not the meanings assigned to them in any book. Tarot is hyper-dimensional, living art which tells stories through the images on the cards and all the many ways they can interact in a spread.
These relationships between cards are different in every spread and, therefore, their meanings shift and evolve to suit the story that’s being told. You, the interpreter of these stories, become a better storyteller (and fortune-teller) through entering into a dialogue with the cards directly, rather than by memorizing a collection of assigned meanings. These techniques deepen that relationship with the cards, extending their potential meaning in new directions and, in turn, enhancing your ability to peer into the future to bring back its wisdom.
Featured Image: Sabat 5: Tarot by Cleber Rafael de Campos