There are a lot of opinions on what to do with those cards in a deck.
The ones you dread to pull. They might be cards that represent drastic change, like the Tower, or are just confusing, like the Eight of Wands. Perhaps you find yourself in a cycle of pulling the Three of Swords again and again, or the only major arcana card that comes your way is the Devil. If we’re using tarot as a tool of healing, what do the cards that we dislike the most mean on our path of wellness and self-care?
I think they’re an invitation to make friends.
Don’t worry – this isn’t an excuse to have crappy boundaries in your spiritual work. Quite the opposite. You see, when I’m looking for advice or insight into a situation, I don’t turn to people I don’t trust or dislike. The same applies for me in tarot. My tarot is a collection of allies, a landscape of support, and a magickal tool of self-care. I don’t have any room for distrust in my deck.
I first started paying attention to cards that I didn’t like after reading Jessica Macbeth’s guidebook to Brian Froud’s deck The Fairy Oracle. She suggested flipping through the deck, pulling out the card you liked the most and the one you like the least, and writing about both of them (hello, journal therapy). It’s a fantastic exercise and a great way to get to know a new deck or get to know a familiar deck in a different way.
I also want to note before we proceed into the work of befriending every card in your deck, that you are 100% empowered to remove triggering cards from your deck. Tarot shouldn’t add unnecessary hardship to your spiritual path – it’s meant to challenge us at times, but not hurt us.
Finding your favorite and least liked cards
To begin, choose a deck to work with. Find a time and space that reduces distractions in your environment so that you are able to pay attention to the sensations in your being that arise throughout this exercise. I like to start by shuffling the cards a couple of times to wake up their energy and to begin to focus my intention of learning something about myself and where I am in my life.
Then turn the deck over and start to look at each card, one by one, searching for your least and best liked cards. There’s no definition of what the best or worst card in a deck is – that’s for you to determine. I try not to think of the card meanings as I flip through the deck but to simply pay attention to the reaction in my body as I look at each one. I move through the cards relatively quickly and place ones that have a reaction for good or bad into two piles. I then search through these two piles for my final two cards which evoke the strongest reaction from within me. I don’t, at this point, try and name or analyze what I might be feeling – I just observe and make a choice.
Favorite cards don’t have to match up with the card that you find the most aesthetically pleasing or has the ‘best’ meaning. Your favorite card is the one that you’re most happily drawn to and, just like with your least liked card, this may change over time. So you’re not trying to choose your one and only favorite card forever – you’re just tuning into this moment in your life.
In the same way, your least favorite card doesn’t have to be the one that you find boring or doesn’t match up with your artistic tastes. It’s the card that you have the strongest repellence to. It might really surprise you what card that is. If you’re feeling a lot of resistance internally, trying to talk yourself out of your choice, than that card is probably the one to choose.
The power of a magickal ally
Your favorite (or ally) card is a reflection of many things including the powers at play in your life, your inherent gifts, and what it is you desire. I did this exercise with the Tarot of the Crone and both cards that I chose were a surprise to me. The Three of Wands was my favorite card. I’m not one to choose wands as favorite cards often, but this one drew me in. As I sat with the Three of Wands, it became increasingly apparent why I was attracted to it – I’m in an rather dynamic time in my life where a lot of energy is coming to the surface after a long fallow period. New endeavors have come about through the years of study and work I’ve already done, and that’s a pretty traditional Three of Wands interpretation.
However, it was the symbols of the cards that I reacted to – the dancing snakes of energy, the cauldron of transformation, and the flames of inspiration. These are all things that I want to bring into my life making this card feel like a powerful magickal ally to work with.
Making friends with your shadow
My least favorite (or shadow) card was not the one I expected. I did try to talk myself out of the choice (which is why I knew it was the card to choose). How could it be, that I, a lunar witch and teacher of moon-based herbalism, would find myself choosing the Moon card as my least favorite one in a deck? The Moon card in the Tarot of the Crone is intense. The card directly embodies the aspects of the Moon which are unsettling to social contracts and ‘civilized’ agreements of behavior. It’s the wild eyes and unapologetic depth of feeling – of not knowing what lies beneath but diving under and reveling in it.
It’s a card which confronts behavior of mine that is rooted in survival, including the careful hiding of the depths at which I feel in order not to overwhelm others. It’s behavior that I’m working to honor and release, so I can adopt new pathways of relating to myself and others. Even as I write this, with the Moon card gazing at me, it’s strong edge is beginning to soften and I’m starting to see it less as a creature to fear and, instead, as a part of me to re-member and befriend.
Because that’s the secret – these shadow cards show us parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden away or forget about because their reintegration can feel so difficult or unwanted. Since we’re making the choice, though, of which cards to name as ally and shadow, I trust my ability to only choose those cards and parts of myself I’m ready to call home.
I encourage you to trust yourself the same way when doing this practice.
Healing allies, healing shadows
Making these cards part of your healing work can start with some journaling about each card. You can be free flowing about it or use the following questions about each card to help you write:
What is it that I like the most about my ally card?
What do I not like about my ally card?
What is it that I like the least about my shadow card?
What do I like about my shadow card?
What does my ally or shadow card tell me about myself?
What guidance is my ally or shadow card offering me?
If one of your cards belongs to the minor arcana, you might choose to work with herbs or essences associated with that suit. Keeping the cards on your altar and incorporating them into any meditative work can also be very powerful. Also, it’s important to note that it’s not about sticking to interpretations you might read in a book to tell you what these cards mean – the focus should be more on asking yourself what you feel when you look at each card and what lies beneath those feelings.
Befriending the cards in your deck is a great exercise to figure out where you’re at in your life and to begin naming what you want more of, as well as what needs releasing. You might even choose to do this exercise once a year. I like the time of gloaming between Samhain and Yule, which is when I tend to do a lot of inner work and recalibration of my magick and purpose (all while drinking a lot of hot tea and wearing oversized sweaters). This practice of meeting the cards which scare us along with the ones that bring us delight, again and again through the years, is what befriending all of the cards in your deck looks like. As in the rest of our lives, our relationships, identities, needs, fears, and desires shift and change – with tarot we get to practice adapting to and understanding our feelings within those changes.
If this is all sounding very much like shadow work, you’re right, and if you haven’t explored shadow work and tarot yet, I highly recommend it. Tango’s column Composting Consciousness incorporates a lot of shadow work, Abbie talks about the runes and shadow work, while Siobhan’s Light & Shadow series talks all about the cards we try to avoid, and Asali provides powerful ritual work for the shadow.
Finally, a note about making decisions and the resistance to narrowing down our choices:
Now, we are a diverse and many-opinioned community, and I’m certainly not interested in telling you what you must do (ugh, boring). If, however, you struggle to choose just one card that you like the most and only one card that you like the least, I invite you to examine that struggle.
Do you worry that if you choose only one favorite card it means you’re missing out on the gifts of other cards you like? Or that there is a ‘right’ card to choose that’ll show how spiritually evolved you are (i.e. I don’t fear the Tower! I’m a level twelve Atlantean Priestx of the Isis Temple of Elfdom!)? Or you can make up a thousand reasons why you have to have two favorite cards and three cards you dislike?
Magickal and healing work bring us back to the same wisdom again and again – release that which is no longer needed and focus your will on that which really matters in your life. Small actions such as choosing only one card are ways of practicing our willpower, focusing our intentions, and speaking clearly to the universe within and around us about what we want.
I would love to know what ally and shadow cards you chose in the comments below and if you’ve incorporated them into your healing practice. The next part of our series will explore body-based tarot spreads which are some of my absolute favorite spreads when it comes to healing work.
Deck featured: Tarot of the Crone
Alexis J. Cunningfolk (she/they) is an intersectional herbalist, witch, and weaver of remedies at Worts + Cunning Apothecary.