How to read the card on the bottom of your deck

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.

To demonstrate:

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.

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  1. It makes so much sense to read the bottom card as what the reading is definitely not about because, unless you are doing a 78 card spread, it is not going to show up in your reading. I have used the bottom card as a shadow card, but not anymore!

    Jesse Sykes

  2. The Tarot Townhouse says:

    Yes!! the “definitely not about” bottom card!! Whenever I have peaked at the bottom of the pile I have often thought how far removed from the current situation it is but never give it further thought than that. Thanks for this post!!


  3. This is how I learned to see the bottom card (from a book when I was a teenager). I consider it an older way. If people want to know about shadows then they can do appropriate spreads for that.

  4. Arlain says:

    Since I started to read tarot I’ve always looked at the bottom card, it was just intuitively, but with the pass of time I’ve started to see that card as the “hidden message”, one that gives clarity and deep insight to the main reading.

  5. Alexandria Sehon says:

    This is wonderful! I have never even THOUGHT to read the card at the bottom of my deck after a draw. I plan to start this practice with my daily cards!

  6. I love to take a peek at the bottom card. I’ve often seen it as a “reinforcement” of the reading or in some cases a clue as to what’s happening on the “inside” that may not be visible on the outside. This could be a hidden motivation or some other such thing. Thanks for writing your post – I love the “this is not what this is about” concept. I’m going to work with that!

  7. Karen says:

    Yes! I sometimes use “not about” and occasionally “what is the title of this reading?”. I know it sounds weird, but they both work. I choose depending on circumstances, the reading, intuition, that sort of thing. It always adds so much.

  8. claxon says:

    Yessss, I didn’t know this was a common practice, and I’m happy to hear I’m not alone! I generally only read the bottom card when I notice it, but I think about it as what I’m “furthest from”–because it’s the card furthest from the possibility of having been pulled. “Definitely not about” is a slightly different take, though, and I’m going to give it a try sometime.

  9. I *love* this idea. It never occurred to me to try this out, so I’m just agog at the brilliance of it. The what-is-this-not-about/furthest away from the issue interpretation really resonates with me, but I’m delighted by the other ways to interpret. Really opens up the daily reading for me — which I often find stymieing.

  10. Mel says:

    I kind of use the bottom card as the future, if I follow the advice or meaning of the drawn card, this future might be possible or developing…. 🙂

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