Court Card Thumbnails: An Introduction

This brief introduction  sets the stage for a series of posts on the tarot court cards taken from material I developed for my “Tarot 101” beginner’s course last year.

The Structure of the Tarot: The Court Cards

The cards representing medieval royalty are some of the most difficult to interpret for beginners and experienced readers alike. The most useful way to approach them is to recognize that they usually assume one of three different modes of expression:

1) People other than the enquirer who have been, are or will be involved in the situation. This is often the most obvious place to start, simply because many people who want readings are seeking a mate, dealing with family or social issues, or eager to find someone upon whom to pin the blame for their problems. For this reason, the first question to be answered is to whom the card may refer in the life of the seeker. In the Golden Dawn system, Queens and Knights were almost always taken to show actual people, but in truth any of the court cards can fill this role. Kings can show a father, boss or role model, Queens a mother, sister or female confidante, Knights a male colleague or sibling, and Pages a child or young person of either sex; the possible variations are numerous, and the actual gender of the individual is often immaterial.

2) Personal attitudes or behaviors the seeker should adopt or avoid in dealing with the matter. The Kings are the most mature and deliberate, the Queens are contemplative and patient, the Knights are active and forceful, and the Pages are adaptable and versatile, although almost always immature.

3) Impersonal forces or energies that the seeker must contend with in successfully negotiating his or her circumstances. The Kings can show matters of authority, the Queens a nurturing environment, the Knights a strong impulse to act, and the Pages a learning opportunity or a message.

The Kings represent the element of Fire in their respective suit: self-assured, steady-burning, and a bit fierce; the Queens symbolize Water, benign and even-handed but implacable when riled; the Knights convey the mobility and expansiveness of Air; the Pages reflect the level-headed practicality of Earth. For example, the King of Wands is “Fire of Fire,” the most emphatic and motivated of the court cards, while the Page of Pentacles is “Earth of Earth,” the most pragmatic and least excitable. The Kings are potent, the Queens are thoughtful, the Knights are dynamic and the Pages are expressive and communicative.

To quote G.H. Soror Q.L. (Harriet Felkin) from The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic (©1984, Falcon Press, Phoenix, AZ):

“The four Honours of each suit taken in their most abstract sense may be interpreted as:

Potential Power is the King

Brooding Power is the Queen

Power in action is the Knight

Reception and Transmission is the Knave.”

There is an interesting footnote that should be touched on briefly. There is a great deal of confusion over why the Golden Dawn Kings and Crowley’s Thoth Knights are shown as mounted on horses and the Princes in those decks are borne in chariots, while in the Waite deck the Kings are seated on thrones and the Knights are mounted. The best answer seems to be that Waite’s court cards are more exoteric in expression and only attempt to show the hierarchical function of the members of a medieval court, while the Golden Dawn and Thoth courts attempt a more complex, esoteric depiction. (Apparently for reasons of secrecy, Waite chose to conceal what he knew very well about their deeper meaning.) Robert Wang, in The Qabalistic Tarot, offered the following explanations:

About the mounted Kings: “The Golden Dawn and Crowley cards symbolize the dynamic, outrushing pattern of this energy.” Both the Golden Dawn collaborative deck by Wang and Israel Regardie and the Thoth deck show these “Father-figures” as mounted on steeds to reflect the Yod force, the virile, generative Radix or “root” energy behind manifestation in its “development and completion” via the following court cards. As such, they represent “a force that is swift and violent in action, but  whose effect soon passes away.” (Think of the fleeting male contribution to the act of procreation, shorn of its human preoccupation with “fulfillment.”)

About the Princes: “The Princes are very complex cards in that they are wholly activated by the King and Queen. They have no motive power of their own, being pulled along in their chariots. They are the rulers of the Four Elements of the Qabalah. The Princes are the personified forces (Kings) brought into perfect balance” – that is, they are the personification of the impersonal creative urge that is inherent in the Kings – and are “the most refined aspects of the Personality; they are the Elemental Kings in ourselves.” It should be noted that the “Elemental Kings” are not the same as the “Supernal Kings” shown in the “King” cards, which are of an entirely higher order on the Qabalistic Tree of Life. Wang dismisses the Waite and Marseille version of these cards, saying “Generally, the Princes (Knights) in the Marseille and Waite decks are unexceptional, and need not be discussed.”

There have been attempts to equate the Thoth Knights with the Waite Knights, apparently based solely on the imagery, and the Thoth Princes with the Golden Dawn Kings but, going by Wang’s text and the reconstituted Golden Dawn deck, I think these are in error. Crowley himself didn’t help matters by saying: “Note that the Kings are now called Knights, and the Princes are now called Kings. This is unfortunate, and leads to confusion. Remember that the horsed figures refer to the Yod of Tetragrammaton and the charioted figures to the Vau.” Thus, he attempted to confirm the esoteric hierarchy of these cards according to their positions on the Tree.

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