A King is a King is . . . a Knight?

I’m going to tackle one of the most confusing and contentious issues in the annals of esoteric tarot: Samuel Liddell “Macgregor” Mathers tinkering with the traditional order of the court cards in his Golden Dawn instructional material, Liber T. At the heart of the issue is the assignment of the four  classical elements, and by extension the court cards of the four suits, to the four letters of the unutterable Hebrew holy name, typically euphemized as “Tetragrammaton” and expressed by the Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vau-He (actually written right-to-left).  The Yod is considered to represent elemental Fire, the first He relates to Water, the Vau to Air and the final He to Earth. I won’t go into the rich qabalistic foundation for the meaning of these letters, and will just quote Mathers’ text from both the table and the text of Liber T

From the table on Page 3:

The Knight of Wands is “The Lord of the Flame and Lighting: the King of the Spirits of Fire.” (Note that all of the mounted Knights represent the “fiery” dimension of their particular suit, so the Knight of Wands is “Fire of Fire,” the Knight of Cups is “Fire of Water,” etc. The Queens are the “Watery” part of the elemental power, the Princes the “Airy” part and the Princesses the “Earthy” part; thus each court card is an amalgam of the quality of the element and the character of the “royal personage.”)

From the text on Page 11:

“The Four Kings, or ‘Figures mounted on steeds,’ represent the Yodh forces of the Name in each Suit: the Radix, Father and commencement of Material Forces, a force in which all the others are implied, and of which they form the development and completion. A force swift and violent in its action, but whose effect soon passes away, and therefore symbolized by a Figure on a Steed riding swiftly, and clothed in complete Armour.”  This describes a “Warrior-King” of old, a Knight-Errant on a quest to raid the neighboring castle and carry home his bride, whom he then installs as his Queen. Thus the Knight settles into the role of “King,” but there is still no hint of the “administrator” in this portrayal. That would seem to be the purview of Air, not Fire.

Where things start to get murky is in the titles Mathers chose to give the Knight:  the use of the words “Lord” and King” only serve to complicate the picture since they invite a modern interpretation of what a ruling monarch should be: a lofty paragon who doesn’t get his hands dirty with the messy details of governance. In these post-imperial times, the regal “fires” have been banked and the quests put on the back burner in favor of audiences and fancy balls.

The Airy part of the element, attributed to the Vau in Tetragrammaton, is variously described as a “King” in the table and a “Prince” (as well as an “Emperor,” adding more confusion) in the text. Here is Mathers’ wording:

From the table on Page 3:

The King of Wands is “The Prince of the Chariot of Fire.”

From the text on Page 11:

“The Four Princes . . .  are Figures seated in Chariots, and thus borne forward. They represent the Vau Forces of the Name in each suit: the Mighty Son of the King and Queen, who realizes the influence of both scales of Force. A Prince, the son of a King and Queen, yet a Prince of Princes, and a King of Kings: an Emperor whose effect is at once rapid (though not so swift as that of the Queen) and enduring. It is, therefore, symbolized by a Figure borne in a Chariot, and clothed in Armour. Yet is his power vain and illusionary, unless set in Motion by his Father and Mother.” (Here the “Father” and “Mother” are assumed to be the Knight/Lord/King and the Queen of the table.)

It’s the terminology that gets all in a tangle. Early rulers were “warrior-kings,” tribal chieftains, strongmen who maintained their position through personal prowess and force of will. Once they “conquered through marriage” and there was no longer a need to go out campaigning against neighboring castles, they went “soft” and exchanged their steeds for thrones (as Mel Brooks always had his monarchs say, “It’s good to be the king.”) It seems to be this early, more aggressive archetype that Mathers was pressing into service in the table as the Yod of Tetragrammaton.The Prince/King in his more stable chariot – as an exemplar of less volatile Air – picks up the slack of rulership neglected by the Knight/King.

So do we believe the “Knight-Queen-King-Knave” arrangement according to the table, or the “King-Queen-Prince-Princess” model per the text? (I think the Queen and her daughter are just sitting back and watching this drama with bemused smiles.) If our only purpose is to correctly populate the Name, I agree with the Knight as the fiery Yod at the top of the pecking order as shown in the table, and the King (aka Prince or Emperor) as the Air of Vau; I just wish Mathers hadn’t complicated the situation by using alternate designations in the text. (In his compilation of Mathers’ material, The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, Israel Regardie sought to rectify this apparent discrepancy by making the table align with the text.)

The ultimate question is, must we see the leader of this courtly parade as a magisterial administrator? That doesn’t seem to be the intention of either Liber T or The Book of Thoth, although Waite and Smith certainly give that impression in the RWS images of august figures seated on thrones. For Aleister Crowley’s part, in his 1912 publication of a “tweaked” Liber T he included a footnote to this dilemma:  “Note that the Kings are now called Knights, and the Princes are now called Kings. This is unfortunate, and leads to confusion; the Princes may be called Emperors without harm.” (Now who is confusing whom?) “Remember only that the horsed figures refer to the Yod of Tetragrammaton, the charioted figures to the Vau.”

It seems that as long as we stick with Yod/horse-mounted, He/enthroned, Vau/”charioted” and He final/standing we will meet the spirit of the original no matter how we title them. The Knight in the table and the King in the text seem to be interchangeable, as do the the King in the table and the Prince in the text. I’m inclined to do what Crowley did and get rid of “King” completely because of the confusion, put the Knight first and the Prince third, and stay with Queen and Princess. There doesn’t appear to be any reliable road-map for navigating this thicket, although the descriptions of the types of “force” implied by each court card do help a little (‘swift and violent,” “not rapid though enduring,” “even less rapid but enduring, while also dependent on parents” “violent and permanent, and even more dependent on family”). Calling the King a “youthful warrior” seems to be ill-considered since it’s the mode of transport that symbolizes the swiftness, not necessarily the King himself. As long as we stay clear of Waite in all of this, we will be OK. As an aside, if I were to create a deck, I think I would just title them “Lord,” “Lady,” Prince” and “Princess.”

In the final analysis, though, I believe a different solution presents itself, and it only takes a shift in perspective. Just mentally place the lofty titles first in the table and the card names second and it looks like this:

The King of the Spirits of Fire; Lord of the Flame and Lightning
Knight of Wands/Fire of Fire/King of the Salamanders

The Queen of the Thrones of Flame
Queen of Wands/Water of Fire/Queen of the Salamanders

The Prince of the Chariot of Fire
King of Wands/Air of Fire/Prince and Emperor of Salamanders

The Princess of the Shining Flame; the Rose of the Palace of Fire
Knave of Wands/Earth of Fire/Princess and Empress of Salamanders

It seems to sort itself out rather neatly then, since the card title becomes secondary to the more esoteric one as it is in the text. If Mathers had said “The Four Kings, or ‘Figures mounted on steeds’ (also called Knights in the old packs) represent the Yodh forces of the Name in each suit” it would have hung together much better. (I did in fact find them correlated on Page 47 of the Mathers/Felkin Liber T – but, curiously, not in the mammoth Regardie “brick.” Did Regardie scrub it or did Benebell Wen put it in?) Then all one has to understand is the business about “Knight as the Father, Queen as the Mother, Prince as the Son and Princess as the Daughter.” Whether it was intentional or not (and I know at least one writer who thinks it wasn’t), it looks like Mathers elevated the old medieval idea of the subordinate Knight to a more exalted role (which Waite chose not to do). Crowley did a better job of explaining the reasoning for this in the Book of Thoth, even if his mythology does get a little arcane.

By the way, the Liber T description of the “forces” makes their interrelationship seem like a dysfunctional family: the impatient, ill-tempered father, the long-suffering, passive-aggressive mother, the none-too-swift “slacker” big brother and the bratty little sister.

For reference purposes, Benebell Wen has the original Mathers/Felkin Liber T document on her excellent web site.


One thought on “A King is a King is . . . a Knight?

  1. Pingback: Tarot 101, My Way – Court Cards: A Brief Introduction | Parsifal's Wheel Tarot & Astrology

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