The “Powers” of the Court Cards

In The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, Israel Reagrdie published a version of the “tarot papers” of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, collectively titled Liber T, that has additional content – some inserted by Regardie, apparently from the Whare Ra Temple documents, some written by his publisher Christopher Hyatt, and some generated by members of the Order other than Macgregor Mathers (whose motto appears as author of the original material). Of most interest here is a brief, curious set of statements in an “unofficial” addendum written by G.H. Soror Q.L (Harriet Felkin) about the figurative “powers” of the four Honours – Kings, Queens, Knights and Knaves. This is oddly placed at the beginning of a section titled “Description of the Tarot Trumps,” and it is set forth as presenting the court cards “in their most abstract sense.”

This is slender evidence upon which to base a detailed discussion, but I’ll give it a try. First, I want to mention one thing: it isn’t clear from the hierarchy of Felkin’s “Honours” that she was on the same page as Mathers regarding the whole Knight/King/Prince business. For my purpose – since  I accept the argument that the horse-mounted Knight represents the fiery, creative principle of the tarot court (the Yod of Tetragrammatron) and the chariot-borne King/Prince the airy, executive aspect (the Vau) – I will assume that Mathers’ ordering of Knight-as-King, Queen, King-as-Prince and Knave-as-Princess aligns with Felkin’s Knight, Queen, King and Knave.

“Potential Power is the King
Brooding Power is the Queen
Power in action is the Knight
Reception and Transmission is the Knave.”

Taken as the more rational and judicious male member of the court, the King (as Prince) is borne by a chariot, a platform similar to a moving throne from which he delivers his royal decrees in a well-reasoned manner. Being subject to deliberation as a precursor to action, his power is held in abeyance more than that of the impulsive Knight, which is why I consider it to be more “potential” than “kinetic” in essence. It is the even-handed justice of the scepter and not the peremptory stroke of the headsman’s sword.

The Queen is the one I’m least sure about in this arrangement. “Brooding” implies a kind of dour, distracted funk, something I’ve never associated with the Queens as a group. If I translate that term into “contemplative, persistent and patient,” I think I can understand the point. Elsewhere, Mathers describes the Queens as “A force steady and unshaken, but not rapid though enduring,” qualities symbolized by her throne and armor. Seated on thrones, the Queens are in no hurry to pass judgment and are willing to hear all sides; their role is to preserve and conserve, not to “push the envelope.” I sometimes think of them as “the King’s (Knight’s) conscience.” In the RWS deck, two of them do look a bit pensive bordering on “brooding.” (The Queen of Wands, on the other hand,  just looks skeptical and the Queen of Swords reminds me of Judge Judy Sheindlin boring in on the hapless target of her ire.)

The Knight is the “mover and shaker” of the group. He is the one for whom the aphorism “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” was invented; he is prone to act first and think about it later. His mode of locomotion is all “forward” with no “reverse,” and he would rather be out campaigning than holding court. He is the “fecundator” to the Queen’s “germinator;” his Will is his hallmark and exercising it is his prerogative in an authoritative, “might makes right” display of creative force. In a more constructive sense, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” would be a fairer motto to pin on him.

The attributes of the Knave seem to relate to the idea of a herald or “messenger.” Typically male, he is a go-between for the passing of information around the court, making him a kind of “handler” for the distributed power of the upper echelon. There isn’t a lot to latch onto here; another paragraph written by Mathers fleshes out the kernel of meaning in Felkin’s observation:

“Princes and Queens shew almost always actual men and women connected with the matter. But the Kings (Knights) sometime represent coming or going of a matter, according as they face. The Princesses shew opinions, thoughts, ideas, either in harmony with or opposed to, the subject.”

This is an archaic set of assumptions that belies modern usage, but the characteristics of the Princesses/Knaves make it clear that we are in the slippery realm of  mental maneuvering rather than the land of fully-realized personalities and events. A Princess is like a wayward guest and not an entrenched member of the household; she may whisper one thing in the host’s ear and deliver an entirely different message to the “lady of the house.” Like Hermes, she is mercurial and quixotic rather than draconian (she is, after all, a somewhat callow youth), and her appearance is a harbinger of restless energies afoot in the matter. (Pardon me, I’m just trying to be “abstract” here.) Her influence is more conditional than reliable, and there is always room for a second opinion.

A last word on the combined expression of the court cards in a reading. In a section titled “Brief Meanings of 22 Keys,” Mathers addressed what is known as a “preponderance” of three or more cards of a single denomination in a spread. Of the court cards, he noted:

“A Majority of Court
Society, meetings of many persons.”

This is a useful rule of thumb, but I wouldn’t take it to the bank in every situation.

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