The court cards of the tarot can be an elusive enigma for beginners. Nineteenth-century descriptions of the courts as defining the physical characteristics of people who may appear in a situation didn’t help by encouraging the “tall, dark stranger” mode of fortune-telling prediction that has since fallen out of favor. The context of a particular question may not even admit the active involvement of another person (although stranger things have happened, often when we least expect it). Modern thinking on the subject is much more inclusive, allowing for psychological and circumstantial factors to replace purely corporeal assumptions. The following thumbnails are necessarily brief, and will be fleshed out later in the card-specific sections.
The Structure of the Tarot: The Court Cards
The cards representing medieval royalty are some of the most difficult to interpret for both beginners and experienced readers alike. The most useful way to approach them is to recognize that they usually signify one of three different modes of expression:
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 asked 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 paternal 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 since traditional roles are no longer as immutable as they once were. If the querent doesn’t acknowledge the likelihood of a personal encounter or intervention of some kind in the matter at hand, the reader should move on to the next possibility.
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. This is often the most effective gambit for the reader since the modern pastime of critical self-analysis has bestowed a matrix of psychological reference points on nearly everyone. If the question is of a more impersonal nature (for example, a business matter), the last option is to consider broader circumstantial influences.
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, normally placid 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. The RWS system doesn’t make overt use of these elemental attributes; the esoteric sources mentioned earlier ( the Book of Thoth and Liber T) are the best place to find them when the student is ready to explore further.
One word of advice: pay no attention to the age brackets assigned to the court cards by A.E. Waite in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Despite the transparent disavowal of the images in his own deck, he chose to describe the bearded, immobile Kings as “males under 45,” and the clean-shaven, animated Knights as “males over 45.” They didn’t have caffeine-laced energy drinks in his time, so this looks suspicious to me. Unless it was a veiled allusion to the Golden Dawn principles described below, it looks like one of his gratuitous attempts at obfuscation to frustrate the idly curious layman. In my own practice, the rule-of-thumb is that Kings and Queens represent mature individuals over 45; Knights show men or women in the physical prime of life, 25-45; and Pages indicate immature people of either sex under 25. I’ve started working with the notion that, since there are six male and female variations across four court-card types, the Wands and Cups (“red” suits) identify male Knights and Pages, and the Swords and Pentacles (“black” suits) indicate the female exponent of those entities.
A final caveat on court-card titles. As long as the student stays within the confines of the RWS paradigm, the appellations King, Queen, Knight and Page will suffice provided it is understood that, despite the obvious biological orientation of the figures on the cards, this arrangement may not be gender-exclusive in practice. The Tarot de Marseille decks pretty much employ the same model, although the Page may be titled Knave or Valet. Once the line is crossed into Golden Dawn territory, the picture gets much hazier; the esoteric masters saw fit to substitute King, Queen, Prince and Princess (and sometimes Knight, Queen, King and Princess) which alleviates some of the gender imbalance, but they also embarked on a convoluted semantic tangent regarding which male figure is mounted and which is borne in a chariot, a wrinkle that has caused much mass confusion over the intervening decades. The Thoth deck, in attempting to further clarify this distinction, offered Knight, Queen, Prince and Princess, with the idea that the mounted Knight assumes all of the virile characteristics of the old King. These are deep waters indeed for the neophyte, which I’ve explored in previous posts on the subject; enter at your own risk.