It’s probably evident that I’m getting a lot of intellectual stimulation and pleasure (not to mention expository mileage) out of reading The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis, a thoughtful, scholarly study of Medieval cosmology that has intriguing implications for the Renaissance tarot. Here is another instance.
At one point Lewis mentions that “night” in our location is just the Earth’s shadow projected in the opposite direction from its daily face-off with the Sun (aka “day”) on the other side of the globe. As any competent astrologer will tell you, the significance of the nocturnal Moon is not secondary to that of the diurnal Sun, just different in its purview. This got me thinking about the practice (which I seldom use) of pulling cards from the bottom of a deck after the shuffle and considering them “shadow” cards in the Jungian sense. I’ve always maintained that it’s preferable to build such “clarifying” cards into the structure of a spread rather than just tacking them on at will. I’ve created spreads in the past that adopt this paradigm via the use of “hidden” cards, but here is another spin on it that is commonly encountered within a typical draw: reversed cards as depicting the “night side” of their usual modus operandi (or at least an in-between “twilight” zone). This is not to say that they are exactly opposite in meaning to their upright orientation, perhaps only a more ambiguous expression of the same idea presented in a roundabout or clandestine way that is more obscure than directly threatening. I’ve always thought of them as half-buried “rocks” that allow interesting things to “crawl out from under” when overturned, if we have the sense and skill to look for them. A more mystical way to envision it is that their muted testimony issues from the nebulous “abode of the Moon,” while the more plain-spoken evidence of their natural (upright) state originates in the “domain of the Sun.”
Lately I’ve been approaching reversal as signifying something left unsaid in a reading that must be translated into comprehensible terms through a more fluid, imaginative appreciation of its oblique import. I might now see reversed cards in a spread as elusive “pools of shadow” that are more resistant to elucidation than their upright companions, more implied than explicit in their voicing. We might say they are more “lunar” than “solar” in that they impinge upon waking consciousness in the same subliminal way that dreams can trouble our sleep. In that sense they can have a sidelong or illusory slant that may run counter to the more overt testimony of the reading; one could think of them as “making an end-run” on rational cognizance. (Now that I’ve opened Pandora’s box, I’m really going to have to pursue the notion of reversed cards as describing an interlude of “sleepwalking” or “waking dream.”) One of my older assumptions is that they can lead down less obvious byways in the narrative that might otherwise escape notice, but now I’m thinking that such avenues could be occluded by symbolic “darkness” (denial, ignorance, error, neglect, etc.) rather than simply being overlooked. This makes the concept of reversal even more compelling since it suggests a “knot” to unravel in the otherwise unimpeded flow of the story. I do love a good mystery! It’s the kind of thing that makes professional diviners earn their pay by shining a light into those dim passages. Tarot readers who don’t (or won’t) use reversals are missing half the fun.
To continue the analogy, it’s safe to say that almost any spread containing more than a handful of cards will appear to be a dappled patchwork of “light and shadow.” (I also sometimes liken it to an isometric map with its peaks and valleys.) While it is often observed that there are no “bad” cards, only opportunities, there are undoubtedly problematic examples that deepen the gloom of the shady spots, especially when their spread positions have been assigned unfortunate meanings or when the difficult cards themselves are reversed or otherwise ill-dignified. The impact may not emerge primarily as negative events or influences, but more in the inscrutability of interpretation that can cause even more paralyzing doubt than an outright risk of adversity (which can at least be confronted head-on). Unless one prefers to operate on “blind luck,” a challenge must be understood before it can be successfully countered, and cards that shrug off immediate understanding don’t lend themselves to prompt resolution. Discerning “red from gray and yellow from white” as in the memorable Moody Blues soliloquy can be a tough call in the half-light of dusk. It can take more than the dim-bulb inclusiveness of the “It’s all good” ilk to master the nuances of such thorny distinctions. Coming to terms with them can pay off handsomely in increased depth, breadth and subtlety in both our practical and psychological observations.