“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
– Joseph Campbell
Yes, it’s true: some of the cards in a tarot deck are “scary”. Death! The Devil! The 10 of Swords, usually shown as a man impaled by – literally – 10 swords in his back, with blood everywhere! Yikes, it’s no wonder people avoid using tarot when they know these upsetting images are just the flip of a card away.
I recently spoke with someone who was curious about tarot, and they admitted their reluctance to use it because of these scary cards. They wanted to know: how do I handle it when these cards come up in my readings for myself and others? How do I assure people that these negative cards don’t mean something awful is going to happen?
The first thing I say is that I don’t use tarot for fortune telling. I repeat: the images on the cards do not predict the future, good or bad. Tarot is best used as a means for developing intuition and awakening to the source of truth and wisdom within myself and those I work with. It allows us to look more deeply at the HERE and NOW, so that we can create our own future. This is the power of tarot.
Nonetheless, I admit: depending on the deck you are using, there are at least a dozen negative cards, and a few of them can even be upsetting to look at. So, why use tarot when it means inevitably seeing these images sometimes? Who needs that negativity in their lives, and what benefit is there in being exposed to them?
The purpose of this post is to help you get over any fear you have of pulling negative cards when you work with tarot. If you are curious about tarot and feel that it might have some benefit for your awakening, do not allow the obstacle of “scary” cards to get in your way. Perhaps like me, you will come to see the scary cards as the best cards in the deck.
Yes, some cards look pretty and happy, and others are admittedly alarming. But always remember there are NO “good” or “bad” cards. Every one of tarot’s 78 cards has a positive and negative expression, regardless of its appearance. Although your initial reaction to any card will be generally positive or negative, the other side is where the true gift of tarot lies. Here is where you get to see the greater truth of every situation shown on the cards, and in your life.
The “negative” and “positive” are two sides of the same coin, whether we’re looking at a tarot card or any part of life. When you flip over a positive card, there is a shadowy negative side. And every time you pull one of those scary cards, there is a positive side too. This is one of the greatest benefits of using tarot: it gives you the opportunity to always see the bright side of a challenge and warns you of potential negatives when everything looks rosy and perfect.
Let’s look at an example. Tarot’s card “Death” is #13 among its major arcanum (also known as trump cards). Most decks illustrate the Death card with a Grim Reaper and other symbols for the end of life. Its natural to be taken aback when this card comes up in a reading; its title and imagery obviously referring to one of the great fears most people have in their lives.
Tarot is a symbolic language; the images are not to be taken literally. The Death card looks scary but does not mean actual death. Instead consider what “death” represents, symbolically? Many cards in the tarot deck relate to change, but Death is a BIG change, a metamorphosis or personal transformation of some kind. By looking at the card symbolically we take much of the sting out of the image.
Even a symbolic death is likely to be scary, however. It is the true ending of something. It may be something within ourselves: a limiting belief, an outworn attitude, some value that we refuse to let go of. Otherwise it may be the death of some aspect of our lives, like a relationship, job, or a part of our lifestyle, and the time has come to let it go. None of these things are actual deaths of course, but they all are likely to be scary because we don’t know what is on the other side. That is what makes it “Death”, in the archetypal – or symbolic – sense.
Let’s look at the tremendous upside. Death brings rebirth. When something does die we clear the way for something brand new: a new way of living or seeing the world, or a new relationship, job, or some other metamorphic change. We would not be able to experience the rebirth without the death. It’s only in letting go of that which is ready to die that the rebirth can begin.
This is a vital lesson we are reminded of every time the Death card comes up in a reading: change is part of life. We all cling to outworn beliefs, attitudes, values, relationships, and other parts of our lives and ourselves because we fear letting them go. Once we face the fear, and courageously let go of the things that are ready to die, we allow for new life. It’s a profound and universal lesson, and one that we easily forget in the busyness of our lives. What a blessing to be reminded of this every so often, in the form of a “scary” looking card.
As you see, Death is one of the most positive cards in the deck! Appreciating each of the “scary” cards in the tarot deck works in a similar way. Each of them gives us a golden opportunity to look at some aspect of ourselves and our lives that is ready to be addressed.
When confronted with a scary card, remember:
- Do not think of it as predicting the future. You create your future.
- Look at the card symbolically, not literally.
- Know there is a positive side to every negative card (and situation in your life)
- Seek that positive side when working with tarot and gain tremendous insight and power.
Let’s take a moment to look at it the other way. As I mentioned earlier, all 78 cards of tarot have a positive and negative expression, regardless of their appearance.
Let’s take, for example, the 9 of Cups. I often describe this as the “wish come true” card, getting what you wanted and receiving great pleasure from it. Not surprisingly, no one complains about getting this card. When I draw the 9 of Cups for myself I first consider the blessings in my life, what I really want, and what makes me most happy. What could be negative about that? Think for a moment.
We’ve heard the phrase, “be careful what you wish for because you might get it.” Sometimes, once our wish comes true we find it unsatisfying, or it stunts our growth, spoils us, makes us selfish, or encourages us to overindulge. What makes us most happy may come at the expense of others’ happiness or well-being. Back when I drank there was nothing I wanted more than another drink. But it was not what was best for me.
Another example for the negative expression of the 9 of Cups is winning the lottery. For many this is the ultimate fantasy. Surely, suddenly coming into 10 million dollars would make life perfect! Yet for many who win the lottery, their lives become surprisingly tragic in the years that follow. All that money and freedom can lead to too much of a good thing; many get carried away and experience tragic results of their wish coming true.
This isn’t meant to be a downer. It’s just a reminder that all aspects of life have built in its positive and negative expression. Remembering this gives us all kinds of insight and power over our lives. All the other “happy” cards in the deck have their own corresponding negative side that invites us to remove our rose-colored glasses and see the bigger picture.
If you are seeking a new tool for developing your intuition and awakening to the truth within you, tarot is a perfect choice. However, how likely are you to use it if you have to be on constant alert for cards portending certain doom? Who needs that?
I’ve heard some people say there are distinctly negative and positive cards, but I can’t disagree more strongly. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it’s the negative cards that almost always bring the greatest insights and growth. The “shock” of the negative image awakens our intuition to see something that is ready to change. It is cleansing and cathartic if we choose it to be.
There’s a negative to every positive, and an upside to every downside. Tarot works as such an effective awakening tool because it helps us to understand this fundamental truth. It then dissolves the boundaries between the good and bad events of our lives, and the positive and shadow parts of our own personalities. Tarot merges duality and opens our third eye. We see and understand from a place of greater understanding and wisdom. We are freed of unconscious fears and take full ownership and control of every aspect of ourselves and our lives. The scary parts of ourselves and our lives are brought to light and we are empowered and set free.
But this is only possible when we are willing to face those scary cards. When we become willing to face them and understand deep down that there is an upside to every negative in life, then we are ready to awaken to the divine truth locked deep down inside of ourselves.
Photo of cave by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash
Images of cards are of the Morgan-Greer Tarot, US Games Systems, Inc.