Good and Bad in Tarot
Imagine asking the tarot to advise you on staying in your cushy but unappreciated corporate job or leaving to run your own business. Leave? Five of Coins: A disheveled woman wrapped in a ragged blanket holding out a begging bowl. Stay? Nine of Coins: An elegant woman in a silken gown, safe and comfortable in a walled garden. Easy choice! Or is it? As tarot readers, we default to certain standards of good and bad in tarot. But what if that’s not how the tarot works?
Tarot readers often refer to “good cards” as the cards that show ease, pleasure, support, and success. “Bad cards” include the traditional difficult tarot cards, or otherwise indicate conflict, defeat, stress, and sorrow. A reader who rises above the distinctions of good and bad in tarot while accepting the cards at face value will provide the deepest insights for themselves and their clients. Sometimes bad is good in tarot.
In the above example, the Five of Coins fell in the position of “practical advice.” The tarot advised this route. But could you choose it? Do you dare to walk the path the tarot recommends?
Two Misunderstandings of Good and Bad in Tarot
Understanding how good and bad in tarot works is one of the keys to creating accurate, useful tarot readings. It is easy to deviate from the road of accuracy in many directions! But the two we’ll examine today directly result from improper use of the concepts of good and bad in tarot reading.
The first is to deny that there is good and bad in tarot. Readers who follow this deviation always phrase everything as positive, assign constructive meanings for all the cards, and take a cheerleader approach to their client work. This feels good to the client in the moment, and might even be what they need. But if the real world places unanticipated difficulty in their path, their trust in the cards — and their reader — diminishes. They move on to a more honest reader, but still might remain less likely to trust the tarot in the future.
The second deviation is to recognize the negative, but define it as something to avoid. If difficult cards come up, readers who work in this style will generally propose a line of questioning to discover an alternate path that will avoid the difficulty. This is generally the recommended reading style for most professional tarot readers. I use this myself and it works well to avoid jams. However, just as with the “it’s all good” readers, it also is likely to produce inaccurate readings.
For instance, I had a client who had a difficulty with a relative. We asked the cards to propose the easiest way to resolve the difficulty. The cards clearly showed my client giving up and walking away from the problem. Fastest and easiest way to a solution. But I said to her, is this what you want? She said no. I recommended that we ask to see the most direct route to arrive at the outcome that she desired. The resulting cards were not easy, but they clearly stated a plan of attack that not only corroborated what she had previously considered, but also which, though challenging, would produce the final result she wanted.
When Bad is Good in Tarot
When dealing with good and bad in tarot, there is a third way. Recognize that not all the cards represent the easy path, but when they reveal a challenging path, know that the cards are encouraging you or your client down this route. Know the difficulties expressed by the cards, and learn to engage, confront, face, battle, experience, suffer, and embrace these challenges.
When This Works
I had an interesting case this week in which a client asked about a job situation. In the “practical advice” position of my favorite seven-card spread, she received the Five of Pentacles, a ragged woman holding out a begging bowl. She currently had a steady but demanding job and was trying to grow her own business on the side. I offered several interpretations. I’m sure other readers would have different ways of addressing the card!
The first was a standard “bad” interpretation: that her side hustle would never bring in her customary level of income. This provided a big-picture overview of the trajectory of her solopreneur business in comparison with her day job. The advice was, “don’t bother, it’s not worth it.” However, even if accurate, this creates a disappointing and uninspiring reading. And it’s too predictive without recourse for change.
The alternate interpretation addressed not the birds-eye view, but rather the detail in front of her, the next action step. Her self-employment was not yet bringing in enough money, which was the primary problem she needed to address. If I stuck to this interpretation, my next step would be to guide her through whatever questions it took to uncover how to increase this income.
However, there’s a third option: that the Five of Coins was well-intentioned advice from the cards. The cards advised her to embrace a considerably more limited budget. In this instance, I saw the cards as asking her to step into the qualities of the Five of Pentacles and try it on for size. She could make the side hussle work if she was willing to take a pay cut.
We explored some other options for her, including getting a different day job, with ambivalent results. But when we asked what the outcome would be if she stayed in her current position, one of the cards drawn was the Nine of Pentacles, a beautiful, sumptuously dressed woman in a walled, cultivated garden. It’s really hard to trade in your ball gown for a begging bowl! Staying put was certainly the easier route. Could she give this up to follow her dream?
When This Doesn’t Work
To get the most out of this technique, discern when pursuing the challenge of the bad card produces the better outcome. If the bad card itself is the outcome, I would be more likely to inquire about alternate options. Likewise, if the situation involves an imminent and dangerous threat and bad cards come up, I would advise getting out of danger rather than succumbing to it. In decision spreads, which explore two options side-by-side, I’ll most often steer my client toward the easier option.
Get the most out of your readings by asking a clear question and using positional spreads to give context to the card. Spread positions help you distinguish if the card’s energy is something to engage or avoid. For instance, difficult cards in the “advice” position frequently require us to plunge into them or clear up their indicated problem so we can achieve the desired outcome.
It might seem logical to embrace the good cards in a tarot reading. But understanding both good and bad in tarot helps us achieve more accurate readings. For many questions, taking the cards at face value, even when they’re challenging, is the most direct route to achieving our dreams. Have you ever embraced the path of a difficult card to achieve a hard-to-reach goal? Let us know how it worked out for you in the comments!
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.