Fool’s Journey: Good Cards, Bad Cards

It’s very common, especially when you’re learning tarot, to see certain cards as ‘good’, meaning only happy things for the querent, and others as inherently ‘bad’, so that the sight of them is enough to totally freak you out.

Life's a bitch and then you die - the Ten of Swords from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Life’s a bitch and then you die: the Ten of Swords from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

I was doing tarot readings at an event a few weeks ago, and, as always happens, someone came up to me saying ‘I hope you’ve taken all the bad ones out!’  I asked him which cards he meant, and of course he said Death, The Tower, and the Ten of Swords.

I don’t buy this good cards/bad cards idea — it’s not compatible with my belief that there is a tarot card or combination of cards for every human experience. Life is not black and white, with only good experiences and bad experiences; things are obviously so much more complex that that! So too are tarot cards.

The most obvious ‘bad’ card is Death – and the card itself does little to dispel its bad reputation, usually depicting the grim reaper or some other skeletal mosterous thing. But as you probably already know, this card doesn’t actually mean ‘you’re going to die.’ It’s more about the death of the ego, the passing away of a part of yourself which you no longer need. Death enables you to say goodbye to outdated ways and allow yourself to be transformed into something new. Which is clearly awesome!

The cards below show some alternative takes on Death. In the Wildwood Tarot, this card is replaced by ‘The Journey’, whereas in the Shadowscapes, Death is a phoenix. In the Mary-el Tarot, the image is a wise old woman who I feel has been through many, many lives, deaths and rebirths:


Then there is The Tower. Tarot readers often refer to traumatic life events as ‘tower moments,’ and I’m certainly no stranger to these. The Tower represents a lightening-bolt moment when everything you thought was certain crumbles around you, leaving only rubble and dust behind. A tower moment could be a break-up, a job loss, any unexpected disaster. It can be terrifying, destabilising, completely unnerving… but in the passage of time, usually ends up liberating you in some way. The Tower represents the current status quo — it’s crumbling often indicates that it’s high time for a change, and if you’re not going to do something about it… something else will. So there you are, dazed and confused, standing in the rubble. As your head begins to clear, you realise you have a chance to rebuild things differently — to do things your way.

It's hard to put a positive spin on images like this...

It’s hard to put a positive spin on images like this…

Another dismal sight is the Ten of Swords, but honestly? It just cracks me up. Here is a person with TEN SWORDS in their back (seriously, how many does it take?) lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Talk about melodrama — this is so OTT it’s laughable. More and more as this card appears in my own readings, I come to see it as a sharp and humorous message. ‘Yes, Beth. Things are tricky right now. But for Christ’s sake get a freakin’ grip!’ And then I know it’s time to stop feeling like such a damn victim and drag myself up by the bootstraps. Lying their moaning won’t change anything, but look, there’s a sunrise on the horizon! In this way, the Ten of Swords is like a springboard; a much-needed kick up the bum to get off the sofa and do something.

The Five and the Eight of Cups are both sorrowful-looking cards, and both do suggest heartache. But again, they can bring a positive or welcome message. The Five of Cups acknowledges pain and says ‘it’s okay to feel this way’. I know I’ve been grateful for that gentle message at times, reassuring me that I don’t have to bounce right back from every emotional challenge. The Five of Cups allows you time to be with your sadness for a while, to truly experience and process what you’re going through.

Meanwhile, the Eight of Cups gives you permission to walk away from a challenging time. In a period of heartache and self-doubt it can be hard to make that final decision, but this card gently suggests that it might be wise to call it quits and gently walk away.

The Five of Cups from the Shadowscapes Tarot and the Eight of Cups from the Phantomwise Tarot

The Five of Cups from the Shadowscapes Tarot and the Eight of Cups from the Phantomwise Tarot

It works the other way too of course. Seemingly ‘positive’ cards can bring warnings or even a telling off, for example I often feel the Ten of Pentacles is reminding me not to miss the magic in life as I focus on building my business and home, whilst the Three of Cups once showed me how I was being suffocated within a close group of friends I had thought were supporting me. This isn’t about putting a positive spin on every card, it’s about understanding that things are never as simple as black and white, good and bad.

It’s so tempting to glance at the cards in a reading, not like the message you see, and hastily shuffle the cards back into the deck to try again. We all have our favourite cards… and those we prefer not to see in our readings, but the more I use tarot in my personal life, the more I learn to respect the message they bring me, to lean in and listen a little closer, rather than dismissing cards I think are irrelevant, ‘wrong,’ or just not what I was expecting.

Sun, sea and sex...not.

Sun, sea and sex…not.

A couple of weeks ago I went on holiday to Spain. Emma and I drew cards the night before — mine was the Three of Swords. I was gutted. Heartbreak? On holiday? Dammit, that was not what I wanted. Then each day in Spain during my daily draw, the seeming ‘negativity’ continued. Poor health, mental overwhelm, bah, it was heavy stuff… and I really felt it! Eventually I did a full reading to find out what was going on. It turned out the holiday wasn’t so much about sun, sea and sex as I’d hoped, but about allowing myself space to undergo a fairly profound series of realisations that I’d been resisting for a long time. Once I understood what the cards were trying to tell me and allowed the process to take place, things took a turn for the better.

What about you? Have you ever been taken aback by the ‘negative’ message of an old friend, shocked by how such a friendly card could be so cruel? Or have you gradually come to realise that something sad or scary is actually strengthening you or setting you free? Which are your ‘favourite’ cards, and which ones make you want to shuffle again?

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Beth Maiden is a tarot reader and writer based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales. She has two cats, a hot builder girlfriend, far too many tarot decks and not enough coffee cups. She's really into bread, the colour red, camping and brand new notebooks. She'd love to cut your hair, read your cards or hang out with you on her blog, Little Red Tarot!

Beth has written 111 articles for us.


    • Aw man, me too. I emailed the artist about it years ago but she was busy writing her novel… it’s out now, she needs to get back on the tarot waggon!

      • I love the Night Circus. It’s one of my go-to books, and I have it on audio because Jim Dale reads it. That’s the artist, yeah? Erin Morgenstern? I’ll feel quite silly if it’s not, but hey, I still love the Night Circus.

        • Yeah that’s the one! I actually haven’t read it but the proximity of the name to Nights at the Circus got me very excited… Ooh goody, got my next book lines up :-)

  1. Funny timing. I drew the Ten of Swords this morning for my Daily Reading but my deck gives a very different message than the one with a person with ten swords in their back.
    The Nigel Jackson deck shows ruins in a desert with storms covering the land. It reminds me a lot of The Tower, but it has a very different vibe. Whereas The Tower often foretells a change in current circumstances, the Ten of Swords displays the passage of time. Nothing is permanent and trying to hold onto the past can trap you and destroy you in a different way.
    There might be interesting things to pick through and reasons to visit(the card shows some interesting artifacts that I’m sure would look lovely in a museum), but staying there is a bad idea. It’s a good reminder.

    • Wow, what an interesting card – just looked it up. There’s definitely something here about being proactive and not getting stuck in the desert where things are turning to dust…

  2. The Star is my favorite card to draw, but the High Priestess is a close second. I’ve also had a pretty positive relationship with the 2 of pentacles. I also really really want to get the World in Art Noveau as a back piece!

  3. This series of posts has finally prompted me to make an account here so I can actually comment. So, yay!

    Death has always actually been one of my favorite cards. It meshes with my most functional, productive mindset, which is always one that prioritizes reexamining what’s there (mentally, emotionally, or more concretely in my life) and pruning away what is no longer useful. I’ve been through a lot of shifts in my life that concept really speaks to. So I tend to see it as an affirmation far more often than any of the more negative meanings.

    The Queen of Swords is another one I love; she’s most often “my” card, and reminders to emulate her are always encouraging to me.

    The Seven of Swords is one of my least favorite; it’s more or less the negation of the Queen. It usually means procrastination, for me, and as a grad student, that’s not a good thing. Other least favorites are the Hierophant (while I’m all about education and commitment, I don’t like the rigidity or the religious connotations) and all of the Pentacles court cards except the Page.

    • Yay, Dae!

      I’m 100% with you on the Queen of Swords – she’s my hero. I imagine her and the Queen of Wands are like on-off lovers and best friends and make a lot of magic together.

      Yeah the Seven of Swords is a tricky one. I like your ‘procrastination’ interpretation – I often experience it as a thief of my mental energy – like wasting time on someone who doesn’t deserve it (if that doesn’t sound like the harshest statement ever!)…or a reminder that my stocks are running low and I’m allowing them to be stolen.

  4. I needed this today. I’ve been turning up a lot of more “negative” cards in my daily readings that are showing general themes of financial insecurity, plus general instability and uncertainty. Five of Pentacles is the card I’m meditating on for tomorrow, and my cards for today and yesterday were the reversed Page of Pentacles and the reversed Moon.

    I feel like the Moon could be interpreted as a negative card, but from the moment I first learned about the Major Arcana, I felt drawn to that card. I like to see it as a signal to get in touch with my imagination.

    I also love the way the Death card is interpreted in the Shadowscapes deck. I’m rather fond of that card, too. When it comes up in my readings, it’s always signified a good change for me–and lately, it’s been related to my coming out journey.

    • Oh wow Rebecca, that is so incredible about Death and the phoenix and coming out – I just welled up reading that!

  5. I used to be terrified of the Tower and I pulled it all. the damn. time. It was like it was after me! Later, I realized that I would have done well to heed it’s warning and we’ve actually become friends. It helps that the art in my new deck (Shadowscapes) is a lot less intimidating than my old deck (X/199). The Death card doesn’t worry me so much for the same reason; the phoenix really emphasizes that this is a death before rebirth. Even my Ten of Swords is a lot gentler than the norm.

    The Devil, on the other hand, sends me running for the hills. The art is creepy and the symbolism of addiction and being chained down… Brr. I usually take it as a warning. (I have a very addictive personality.) The Three of Swords, too. If I see that one, I usually end up doing a whole extra reading to clarify what it means for me.

    • Yeah that Shadowscapes Devil is super-creepy. But I love how that little key *right there* says ‘YOU can take the power out of this right now’.

      The Three of Swords is upsetting, but also kinda amazing – to me it says ‘you’re scarred, but you’re not falling apart’.

      Check out this version in the Secret Tarot:

      I find that picture so romantic and strong. Somehow it feels like love against all odds?

  6. The 5 of Cups has actually always been one of my favorite cards. During a difficult year of my life, it came up in almost every reading, reminding me that there were also really good things happening in my life. For me, it feels like my deck is gently saying, “Look, Lor, you’re focusing on these bad things, and those are definitely real, but if you just turn around and look, you’ll see that there are good things happening too.” It feels so warm to me that I didn’t realize it was generally seen as a negative card.

    • I agree Lor – and I think it’s significant that in so many decks it’s two cups that are still standing, representing the possibility of love in the person’s life, despite what they have lost.

      • Yes! I’d never thought of it quite that way! One of the bad/good things happening that year when the 5 always came up was that my partner was on another continent. The 5 would remind me that she’s wonderful and that I loved her, and that that’s why I was missing her and it was hard, but that I should focus on that awesomeness and love. I never really connected the number of standing cups with the two of us, though.

        • I’d never really thought about the two standing cups, either… even if the situation isn’t about love, the image is still like, ‘look, you’ve got so much over here it overflowed this first cup! it needs two to hold it!’

  7. I’m super late to the party with this post, but I still have to comment because I really like the idea of the 10 of swords being so much doom-drama that it actually circles around to being silly. Because it is sort of silly.

    Sometimes I read this card as being about something I need to stab til it’s dead, metaphorically speaking, which can also be melodramatic. Get out all the swords! Stab it so it can’t come back! Like in vampire movies when they stake the vamp and then cut off its head and then stuff it with garlic and then burn everything while the sun rises.

  8. The Ten of Swords recently came up in a reading my roommate did for a mutual friend and I actually comforted her with the “drama queen” Ten of Swords interpretation. It actually even made more sense in the context of the reading than the usual “doom and gloom, hitting rock bottom.”

  9. Ten of swords, to me, is a scream to “get the message!”
    It reminds me of a situation I had a few years ago – there was a small company I wanted to approach who I hoped would want to work with me. I sent them a letter which ended up going missing in the post and never arrived. I sent another and it was returned to me as the envelope had torn & the letter had fallen out so that didn’t reach them either. I phoned them many times & the person I needed to speak to was always out. Finally I secured a meeting with them, everything went great but they just never really followed it up. I felt a bit shit but what can ya do? Then a friend of mine approached them, got a meeting with ease and they signed her up that day… really happy for her and all that but, a little bit gutted! What was wrong with me?
    I caught up with my friend a few months later & asked her how she was getting on – turns out the company I had *so* desperately wanted to work with had really screwed her over. They’d made her sign a contract she couldn’t get out of, ripped her off, just basically they were very naughty people!
    Wow… Seemed I’d had a lucky escape. It kind of made me laugh looking back, it was like the universe kept putting ‘swords’ through all my attempts to contact them but I just couldn’t see it & kept going again; I can just imagine a higher being sat on a cloud somewhere totally face-palming every time I tried another way!

    So that’s what I think of the ten of swords… Is there something that just ain’t happening? Like, to the extent that it’s comically avoiding you? It’s probably time to give it up as a bad job, maybe it would’nt have been what you thought it was in the end anyway?

    • Ha! I love this Kate. The swords are often about clear communication, but the ten…? Not so much. This is such a great interpretation! It’s like the card was saying ‘seriously, that company will [figuratively!] kill you…’

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