First published on Autostraddle.
I recently started doing something different in my tarot practice.
I’ve been drawing daily cards for most of this year (usually but not strictly in the morning) and lately, I’ve been adding a second card into the mix. Not simply the next card in the pile, or even a shuffle-again-draw-again card, but instead, turning my deck over to check out the card on the bottom of the pile.
It’s a well-established practice, and tarot readers check out the card on the bottom or back of their deck for various reasons. Some might call it the ‘shadow card’, others, the ‘base’ or ‘foundation card’. For some, it’s a way to begin a tarot reading, setting the tone or establishing the focus of the reading. For other folks, the card on the bottom of the deck provides a ’secret message’, an additional and invaluable piece of advice, often something that is hidden. Bridget at Biddy Tarot explains that “the bottom card alludes to the hidden aspects that are influencing the situation at hand and gives deep insight into the subconscious mind of the client.” Another common idea is to use the bottom card to round off the reading with a final word.
I read it differently. When a friend and I were first learning tarot, we’d lay out the Celtic Cross spread, then peek at the card on the bottom of the remaining deck, saying “it’s not about this…”. I forget whether this was a practice my friend made up, something from a book, or picked up elsewhere, but it’s stuck, and lately, I’ve been bringing it into my daily draw.
I’m finding that this ‘not about’ approach really helps me to dig deeper into those daily cards.
It’s so tempting – especially as an experienced reader – to merely glance at the card, briefly summarising it with a known reading, a few keywords. But the card on the bottom of the deck nudges me to think more carefully and often challenges my preconceptions.
This morning, I drew the Two of Swords. I sat there frowning for a few moments, taking in the incredibly defensive image of a woman, blindfolded, holding aloft two freshly-sharpened swords. “Holding something back,” I quickly thought to myself. I’m used to seeing cards about withdrawal, having spent much of my winter alone. I have a nagging sense of overdue ‘shadow work’, the weight of a few unresolved issues that I’m repeatedly putting off.
I picked up my deck and turned it over: the King of Cups.
What does this add to my reading? I see this King as someone who is emotionally aloof, in control of their feelings, someone who’s done a lot of work on themselves, and who processes their emotions with a lot of logic, within carefully-created structures.
I notice the subtle visual symmetries in the cards: both are night-time scenes, both characters seem withdrawn. The upward sweep of the King’s throne seems to reflect one of the first cards curving swords.
Maybe I need to stop overthinking this ‘shadow work’ of mine. This King, in negative, is making me think that it’s time to relax a little and to be at peace with my emotional blindfold. Thinking so much about ‘doing the work’ and endlessly trying to figure out ways of structuring and dealing with my unfinished business is probably not doing me any favours. Knowing that this reading is ‘not about’ the King of Cups gives me a sense of relief – like the card removes a deadline, lifts the pressure I feel to deal with my shit and get everything sorted out.
Now I can come back to the Two of Swords with a feeling of trust. I can trust that change is happening behind the scenes, behind that blindfold, and that it’s safe to gradually lower those swords of logic and really allow myself to feel what I feel, with honesty, and without pressure to achieve any particular stage or goal.
I love how the ‘bottom card’ – whether read according to my ‘not about’ approach or using any of the ideas suggested above – prods me out of my comfort zone and challenges me to look at my daily cards in new ways.
So now I’m curious: does anyone else read ‘bottom cards’?
If so, what’s your approach? How and when do you use these cards? Let us know in the comments!
Cards shown in this piece are from the Dreaming Way Tarot by Rome Choi and Kwon Shina.
I’m a 30-something writer, artist, tarot reader, and perpetual explorer of the space between thought, feeling, and action.
I believe that spirituality and ritual are for everybody. I’m about the journey, in all of its messy, non-linear, chaotic iterations. I am excited by anticapitalist business and living with my whole entire self present. I use tarot cards to bring forth hidden truth, and ritual to affirm my commitment, over and over, to my ever-shifting path.