Balancing the Deck: The Light and Dark of Tarot

I believe that the universe is in a constant, albeit undulating or shifting state of perpetual balance. Pulled between life and death, creation and destruction, union and fraction, light and dark, the microcosmic and macrocosmic Scales of the Universe mirror each other in a perfectly, imperfect dance.
This photo features the Triple Goddess Moonstone journal in Ox-Blood brown, the Children of Litha tarot,  and the wine velvet tarot pouch (all available at Xiahunt.com)

Figure 1: This photo features the Triple Goddess Moonstone journal in Ox-Blood brown, the Children of Litha tarot, and the wine velvet tarot pouch (all available at Xiahunt.com)

 

However, while some grow up blessed with affluence, nurtured by loving parents, and surrounded by positivity, there are just as many who experience the opposite set of circumstances. Even though we might perceive our experiences as disproportionately filled with either light or darkness (whether due to our actions, the actions of others, luck, or fate) we are but one microscopic speck of pigment in the painting of the Cosmos. Somewhere out there is a “counterbalance” which ultimately sets right the cosmic scale. I don’t mean to suggest that we cannot tip the scales in our favor and change the hand dealt to us. We most certainly can, and in a multitude of different ways, using a plethora of various tools.

 

Tarot is potentially one such tool. It can help us identify patterns in our lives, and the universe, lay out our current trajectory, suggest steps to change it, if desired, and even help us focus our intention to manifest our desires. To live up to this potential, however, the tarot must be able to recognize and express both extremes of this balance, and everything in between. Life is full of both positive and negative people, situations, and events. Therefore, our tarot decks must possess the ability to express both sides of this coin, or else they are about as helpful as a spiritual “yes man” would be. If our deck is incapable of expressing negativity, how can it warn us about it? Or advise us about how to handle it, or avoid it, or if we must accept it as a necessary aspect of our spiritual growth?

In each effective deck, there should be some, let us say, “predominately dark” cards. For each of these cards there also exists a perfect “counterweight” card, which ensures the deck remains balanced. In this post, I’ll discuss some ways we can make sure our decks and ourselves are working with an optimized vocabulary; how we can learn to recognize and interpret some of these cards that act as counterweights for each other when they appear. 

How do you know if your deck possesses an extensive vocabulary?

When you look for a new tarot deck, you can discern a certain amount of its potential through the visual elements. But not all tarot cards should depict pleasant circumstances, and for a good reason. Cards like The Tower, The Three of Swords and The Ten of Swords are particularly notorious for their harsh or negative reputations. The imagery of these cards should reflect this. They are the counterweight cards for predominately light ones such as The Star, The Four of Wands, or The Ten of Cups. We will delve more into this in a bit. We can also take measures to ensure that the way we use our cards does not limit their potential. 

 

Reading with reversals

Figure 2: Decks from left to right: The Children of Litha, The Miracle Tarot, The Nameless One (A tarot and oracle deck)

Figure 2: Decks from left to right: The Children of Litha, The Miracle Tarot, The Nameless One (A tarot and oracle deck)

Reading reversals proves to be a bit controversial, as many readers choose not to read with reversals at all. That is, readers assign the same meaning to the cards whether or not they appear as upside-down (reversed) or right-side-up during a reading. Here is my disclaimer: ultimately, tarot is a tool and each person should use it the way that works best for them. I happen to be a BIG believer in reading with reversals. Here are my top three reasons why:
  • Reading reversals is an instant way to encourage balance within almost any deck. Often (although not always, and we will get into that in just a second), a reversed card will have the opposite meaning of its typical right-side-up” position. Now, that statement is a little reductionist, as reversed cards have just as much nuance as their upright positions do, but for broad strokes purposes…sure. That is mostly true. Nevertheless, in effect, this means predominantly negative cards can turn into more positive ones and visa versa. For example, The upright Three of Swords is about heartbreak, grief, sadness, turmoil, etc. Reversed, it is about forgiveness, moving on, healing, self-love, and relief. So voila! Just like that, when you cut and shuffle your deck, this one card has the potential to give you two distinct messages depending on which direction it chooses to appear. Which leads to my next reason.

  • Remember that whole thing about a deck needing an extensive vocabulary? Well, when you read with reversals, your 78-card deck becomes a 156-card deck. It essentially gives you twice as many messages to combine, or mix and match, which creates endless combinations and paints much more detailed and nuanced spreads. Tarot is a visual and symbolic language, and language is more effective the more specifically and accurately it can communicate our thoughts and feelings. Think of a word like “sadness,” for example. It gives us a general idea of the energy we are working with. However, we also have words like distraught, displeased, gloomy, worried, troubled, melancholy, despondent, and many others. These all are shades of sadness, but they are more nuanced words for this emotion, which can help inform us how best to react, interact, or deal with it. Probably, you would not help a “sad” friend the same way you would help a depressed or inconsolable one. When you read with reversals, you allow your deck to express situations with a greater specificity. 
  • Finally, reading with reversals helps us organize all that glorious nuanced information and keeps us honest about it. A tarot deck will communicate with you within the parameters you set for it. This is why we can read with or without using tarot spreads. When you create or use a spread, you are saying to your deck before you start: “When I pull a card for X spot, I want you to respond specifically to X’s prompt, question, issue, statement, etc.” When you read without a spread, the deck gives you the answer it deems most relevant. Either way, you both agree to these terms beforehand. People who read well without reversals can still get subtle and nuanced responses because each tarot card is intrinsically subtle and nuanced, possessing many facets. Let us take the Three of Swords again as an example. Theoretically, someone who reads without reversals can say: “The Three of Swords can mean heartbreak, grief, sadness, turmoil, AND forgiveness, moving on, healing, self-love, and relief, regardless of if the card is upside down or not.” And that’s true. We can always look to the other cards in the reading or rely on our intuition to determine how this energy is trying to communicate with us. But, raise your hand if you have ever gotten a set of cards and were not super stoked to see in your reading, so you immediately started looking for ways it might mean something other than what it obviously meant? If you are not raising your hand, I do not believe you. We have all been there. And here is the kicker: sometimes it really can mean something other than our immediate worst-case scenario interpretation. People tend to think the worst. But they also tend to start looking for loopholes or excuses as to why that might not be the case. When you and your deck “agree” to read with reversals, it has the potential to communicate exactly what it means. If that Three of Swords really does means forgiveness, hope, and moving on, it will show up reversed. Otherwise, it’s the heartbreak train to ice cream and late-night online shopping…or whatever else you do to cope with that Three of Swords energy. Good-bye safety net of ambiguity, and hello hurtful but helpfully honest communication. 

Counterweight Cards 

While choosing to read with reversals automatically provides ample give and take between positive and negative meanings, there are measures of balance within the deck already. What I have been affectionately referring to as “counterweight” cards, are pairs of cards within the tarot deck that represent the extreme ends of opposite energies. These cards work together to ensure the deck remains fundamentally balanced. Here is a short list of parings I would include in the counterweight category:   
  • The Magician & The High Priestess
  • The Empress & The Emperor
  • Temperance & The Devil
  • The Tower & The Star
  • The Moon & The Sun
  • The Three of Swords & The Three of Cups
  • The Nine of Wands & The Nine of Pentacles
  • The Ten of Swords & The Ten of Cups
  • The Ten of Wands & The Ten of Pentacles 

The card pairs included above imply each other. In some cases, they provide the positivity to the other’s negativity, but that again is a bit reductionist. Really they are just opposites. For example, while the Magician is active, the High Priestess is passive; he is expressive, and she is receptive; he is motion and she is stillness; he is the Ego and she is the Subconscious. To everything he represents, she represents the opposite. Just as the Empress is the feminine energy to the Emperor’s masculine energy, and so on. Both pairs are equally essential and are neither bad nor good. Other examples, such as The Tower & The Star, which we are going to get into in a moment, are a bit more cut and dried in terms of light and dark. What makes those listed above counterweights is A) they fundamentally oppose the other. Yet, together they provide balance, and B) if you took any of them away and did not remove their counter, the deck would be promptly and obviously imbalanced. One could make an argument that The Fool & The World also belong on this list (and maybe a few other cards as well) but why I chose not to include them is a topic for another blog post entirely. 

How to interpret counterweight cards

Depending on if you choose to read with reversals or not, how you interact with some of these cards when they appear might be a little different. To highlight how they work, I am going to compare two sets specifically: The Ten of Swords and The Ten of Cups, and The Tower & The Star. 

The Ten of Swords and the Ten of Cups 

These cards belong to The Minor Arcana, so we know that they deal with specific real-world events, emotions, people, or situations. Because they are tens, they represent “the end of the line” for their suit, and the result of the narrative development that started with the Ace of their suit. This means they both speak of finality and conclusions. But where the Ten of Cups looks distinctly “positive,” the Ten of Swords appears distinctly “negative.”

 

  Figure 3: The Children of Litha tarot, focus on the Ten of Swords

When we look deeper into the energy of The Ten of Swords, It is important to recognize that the card right before it (the Nine of Swords) was about severe insomnia-inducing anxiety, nightmares, and mental spiraling. The Ten is a firm END to that trending energy. If the Nine indicates that we are losing sleep worrying about our worst-case scenarios and endless what-ifs, then the Ten comes along as says: “Guess what? You don’t have to worry about it anymore, because here it is, your worst-case scenario and it’s DONE.” Additionally, the Ten of Swords can represent a sense of overkill, or insult to injury. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, I mean, it’s usually depicted as ten swords piercing one body. You only need one to kill someone once. Ten seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it? And yet, there are many situations in which we feel like we don’t deserve the results, and frankly, they feel malicious.

 

In the Ten of Swords from my Children of Litha deck, vultures feed on the carcass of the fox, which has been torn asunder by ten swords. The vultures carry an additional sense of finality because let’s face it they are getting what they want at the expense of someone else who clearly is not! It implies a situation that cannot be reversed because it has already happened. The fox has died. There isn’t anything more we can do for him. That said, we don’t have to dwell on it. When we reverse this card, it is still predominantly dark. It does not indicate that the adverse outcome was avoided or lessened. But it can suggest that we have accepted the results and so can move on. At it’s best, it ushers in the sense of peacefulness and relief. The situation may not have ended the way we liked, but it has ended. Let the vultures have the corpse. There isn’t anything inside it with saving anymore, anyway.

 

 Figure 4: The Children of Litha tarot, focus on the Ten of Cups

Meanwhile, the Ten of Cups comes after the Nine of Cups, which depicts emotional fulfillment and material security. The narrative spun by the suit of cups is one of forging and losing relationships and the emotional highs and lows experienced along the way. The Nine of Cups shows an acceptance of and reliance on one’s self, which leads to healthy and fulfilling relationships with others, specifically ones that result in a happy home and family life, as is shown in the Ten of Cups. The Ten of Cups is everything one could hope for in a relationship: happiness, security, family. It is the perfect “they lived happily ever after” ending. Unlike the fox in the Ten of Swords, who is both alone and dead, the Narwhals in this card are together and thriving under the beautiful bloom of the Northern Lights. They bask in the cold beauty around them, warmed by each other and the love they share for one another. They are a perfect, idyllic family. When we reverse the card, it implies family tension, romanticizing relationships, holding unrealistic expectations, or neglecting family issues. Just as the Ten of Swords became “lighter” with the inner-peace and acceptance that came with letting go and moving on, the Ten of Cups becomes “darker” because we hold onto people and fantasies that are not informed by, nor can survive reality.

In the Ten of Swords upright, we suffer because we dwell on something we cannot change. Reversed Ten of Swords, we feel relieved because we let it go. In the Ten of Cups upright, we are happy because we can relish our loving, healthy relationships. Reversed Ten of Cups, we suffer because we won’t let go of poor relationships or accept reality. These two cards balance each other in both their upright and reversed positions. If the Ten of Swords were not a potential ending, the relief that we feel when we see the Ten of Cups would be less significant. The darkness gives the light meaning and value. It is in the contrast between these two cards that we find clarity.     

The Tower & The Star 

 Figure 5: The Tower and The Star in the Children of Litha tarot deck.

Arguably, The Tower is the most feared and ill-reputed card in the deck. Some even interpret The Tower as ALWAYS indicating disaster, negativity, destruction, and strife, regardless of position, even when reversals are involved.  Conversely, The Star indicates “wishes fulfilled,” and most regard it as one of the most positive cards in the deck. First off, if we choose to interpret The Tower as always being negative, then I would advise we interpret The Star as always being positive. Otherwise, what energy opposes the Tower? The Sun, maybe? Then who counters The Moon?

personally, I do not think The Tower always indicates something negative. However, I do think it usually indicates something uncomfortable.  Likewise, I do not think that The Star always indicates something positive, but I do think it always indicates something comfortable.

The Tower is about huge, externally driven, life-changing events. It foretells of something so immense and undeniable that it forces the foundations upon which we have built our identities to crumble and collapse. In the wake of this destruction, we often find transformation as we pull ourselves back together the best we can, thereby building a stronger foundation going forward. When reversed, maybe we are in denial, maybe we are delaying the inevitable, but the result is the same. Sounds horrible, right? Wrong! If our foundations are so easy to crumble, then they were not worth their salt. Moreover, something big and life-changing doesn’t always equate to bad, although it will certainly require some recalibration, which is almost always uncomfortable. 

For example, the first time I kept repeatedly drawing The Tower, I was pregnant with my first (and, at the time I am writing this, my only) son. Let me tell you; little else forces you to recalibrate, reevaluate, and rebuild your entire identity faster or more seriously than to give birth and then care for a helpless new human being. It is all cute and congratulations in theory, but it quickly becomes a lot more tempestuous in practice. In addition to knowing that his future successes or failure will depend on your actions, you struggle to figure out which actions even lead to the desired outcome…all while you still have to keep him alive as you figure it out. And shower. And eat. And pay rent. And, you know, be a person. It was big and life changing and scary, but I would not want it any other way. I named him for the Greek Titan God of the Sun, Helios, and like his namesake, my whole world revolves around him. I love him, but WOW is parenthood uncomfortable. From the pregnancy pains before his birth to the crying and pooping, and feeding, and clothing afterward, everything in my life has irreparably changed. Moreover, my whole identity has shifted, because whatever I was before, I am a mother now. It is not all of who I am, but i was forced to recalibrate my life as I added it to the roster, and right now it is one of the more predominant aspects of my life.  

Now that is some Tower energy for you. But I don’t want to mislead you. Also encompassed by the energy of this card are sudden car accidents, the sudden diagnosis of a terminal illness, suddenly losing a high paying job you structured your whole life around…not to mention a global pandemic! So yeah, it is not all cute baby smiles, don’t get me wrong. But it’s never just always bad, bad, bad, period. Nothing ever is. 

Now let us look at The Star. Usually, she depicts a light in the darkness, calmness, bursts of inspiration and creativity, wishes fulfilled, good omens, and hope. Some readers will go so far as to say that she is always positive in a reading, in the same way that The Tower is always negative, regardless of her position. Now, if you were going to read The Tower as always negative, then yeah, I would read The Star as always positive to provide the counterweight in that interpretive style. However, as I have said with The Tower, I prefer the words uncomfortable vs. comfortable for these two cards, so let us move forward with this perspective.

First, the concept of hope, which is one of the Star’s most commonly attributed meanings, is not unanimously or intrinsically positive. There are several spiritual, physiological, and ideological schools of thought that propose that hope is negative. It distracts us from accepting the present, which perpetuates more suffering when we fight ourselves, our thoughts, our realities, or when our hopes are not fulfilled. Even if this concept is not something you personally resonate with, I think we can all agree that false or delusional hope is ultimately a bad way to go. It may seem to be the more comfortable option when compared to the initial steps of recognizing and accepting the harsh reality of the present moment. There are plenty of potential examples, which run the gamut from EXs distracted from finding new and healthier relationships because they are so fixated on the “hope” that they can regain or repair their old ones, to patients who prolong seeking medical care for their illnesses because they “hope” for the best, and refuse to consider the worst. The hope represented in these examples perpetuates misery but seems more comfortable than accepting harsh reality and moving on. Perhaps this is why The Star comes after The Tower, but before The Moon, which precedes The Sun. We need the destructive catalyst of The Tower, the painful hope of The Star, the anxiety and uncertainty of The Moon, so that we can come out the other end and bask in the contentment of The Sun. Of course, The Star has many comfortable and positive applications. She offers creativity, rejuvenation, serenity, and inspiration. A chance to reflect and regather ourselves after the harsh collapse of The Tower. Also encompassed by the energy of this card are mindful moments of rest and recovery, love and support from others, a burst of creativity and inspiration, and yes, those rare and wonderful moments when our wishes seem to be fulfilled miraculously. 

Nevertheless, just as The Tower’s uncomfortable destruction can pave the way for positivity and growth, The Star’s protective comfort can hinder and prevent us from truly healing and yield negative results. It is all a matter of context.
As a reader, you will be responsible for forging a connection with your cards and allowing them to help you accept, perceive, and predict reality. However, accepting and loving them for both their positive and negative aspects is fundamentally necessary for your spiritual growth if you are to use tarot as an interpretative and meditative tool. Your deck accepts you as you are, for both your darkness and your light. It does not shy away from either. In turn, I do not think it is too much for us to accept both aspects from the cards in our deck. 

Many blessings, light and love.

 -Alexandria

 


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  • Aakanksha on

    Nice and very informative blog! I don’t know anything about tarot and spirituality but this post was very well thought out and i got to learn so much about the cards. I hope you continue doing these blog posts! Also your art is brilliant!


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