Order In The Court


Do you think about the number of Minors, Majors, and Court Cards and thank the tarot goddesses and gods that there are only sixteen Court Cards? I know I did. Even today, after almost two decades of studying and reading tarot, I still cringed when Court Cards turned up in readings. Court Cards are usually considered among the most difficult cards to interpret. I can think of several reasons why this is true.

First, Kings and Queen, Knights and Pages, don’t really play relevant roles in our lives. Second, the card images usually don’t provide much help. They are vague images of someone sitting or standing, but not really doing anything. Third, traditionally (in fortune telling) they represented people based on skin, hair, and eye-color, gender, and age.

Later, astrological associations were included. Because the traditional appearance system didn’t include all combinations, it fell out of favor. The interpretations then evolved into a description of personalities and/or occupations. The collections of personality traits and occupations are so very long for each court card that it would take a significant amount of time to go over all the possibilities with a querent and finally identify who the card represents. In addition, many of the traits are shared among several of the court cards. For example, all of the Wands cards can be “warm, charismatic, and confident.”

Finding a Base Meaning

In writing a new edition of Tarot for Beginners, my challenge was to simplify card meanings, drilling down to the essence of each card’s meaning in a reading. Writing a line or two that sums up a card’s meaning and yet holds the seed of all possible meanings for that card was a challenge, particularly with the Court Cards.

Instead of lists of possible personalities or jobs, I focused on the role that the Court Card represents. The roles are not that of King, Queen, Knight, or Page in the traditional sense. Instead, they are roles that makes sense within the context of our modern lives and our usage of cards and, most importantly, they are the roles played that are directly affecting the situation described in the reading. In my book, Tarot for Beginners: A Practical Guide to Reading the Cards (released September 2010), the role of the Court Card is matched with the elemental description to create a core meaning. The core meaning is generic by design and is meant to be a way for a novice to remember a broader meaning.

Rank roles:
  • Pages are “one who observes.”
  • Knights are “one who acts.”
  • Queens are “one who develops and cares for.”
  • Kings are “one who has authority, makes decisions, or is a professional.”
Elemental description:
  • Wands: the realm of will, inspiration, and energy.
  • Cups: the realm of emotions, relationships, and art.
  • Swords: the realm of ideas, systems, or communication.
  • Pentacles: the realm of the physical world, resources, and finances.

Putting it Together

Here are the explanations of each rank for the suit of Wands.

Page of Wands

Page of Wands

Core meaning: One who observes in the realm of will, inspiration, and energy.

The Page of Wands is someone who has just discovered (or rediscovered) their sense of self, has experienced (or re-experienced) what inspires them, or has just learned (or relearned) what drives them, represented by the wand. They know what it is and have some idea of its power, but have not yet grasped all the ramifications. They are still getting used to the idea, playing out scenarios in their head, and imagining possibilities. This experience bestows a sense of power and self-determination. They may find this either freeing or frightening but more likely both.

Knight of Wands

Knight of Wands

Core meaning: One who acts in the realm of will, inspiration, or energy.

The Knight of Wands is someone whose actions in this situation are fired by their will. They have something very specific they want to achieve; they very much want to have their way and will stop at nothing to get it. The Knight is all hepped up and passionate about something and may heedlessly run roughshod over anyone in their way. If their will is in sync with the querent’s, it will help. If not, the querent could get run over. Such intensity is often not maintained for very long.

Queen of Wands

Queen of Wands

Core meaning: One who develops and cares for in the realm of will, inspiration, and energy.

The Queen of Wands is someone with a strong sense of self and wishes to inspire or help the querent. She understands the importance of personal power and strength of will. She can encourage the querent to boldness or force the querent into action. She is strong and confident and wants others to be, too, whether they want to be or not. The Queen of Wands is involved in this situation because it furthers or thwarts her will. If she were to give one piece of advice, it would be: Just do it.

King of Wands

King of Wands

Core meaning: One who has authority, makes decisions, or is a professional in the realm of will, inspiration, and energy.

The King of Wands is someone who has authority over the querent or in this situation and whose decisions or actions will affect the outcome. Like the Knight, his actions and decisions are guided by his will and his desire to attain what he wishes. Unlike the Knight, the King has broader influence; his actions will have a more significant impact on the situation. If a professional, he will be involved in areas such as entrepreneurship, advisor, politician, consultant, or charismatic religious/spiritual leader.

Test drive

Arriving at these core meanings took weeks of agonizing over pages and pages of possible meanings for the cards. It seems such a responsibility to be someone’s very first introduction to the tarot, to lay a solid foundation with plenty of room to grow.

There is still time to revise the manuscript, so I continue to work with these meanings in my readings. And if you, my colleagues and fellow tarot lovers, cared to take them out for a test drive and report back, I would be very grateful. I’d also love to hear how you would condense court card meanings down to something simple and effective, yet easy enough to not overwhelm a complete beginner.

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Karmic Bitch-slap Tarot Spread
The Elemental Dignities Dictionary – Three Card Combinations

Comments

  1. It’s been an awesome experience working with Barbara, she’s a warm and genuine woman. Her Tarot CV reads like a celebrity who’s who – she’s written books, articles and even secured manuscripts such as the awesome Complete Tarot Reader by Teresa Michelson, when she worked full time for Llewellyn. Currently, she’s their Tarot blogger and is updating her own previously published book, Tarot for Beginners, published by Llewellyn in 2010 – a must read for all Tarot lovers and students.

    Barbara has created and shaped a great technique for Tarot lovers and students of all levels to help with their understanding of the ever elusive Tarot Court Cards. I wish I’d had this technique in my Tarot toolkit when I was first learning, but hey, this is the Tarot Court – I’ll still be adding it to my Tarot toolkit ;)

    Thank you, Barbara, for sharing your wisdom and knowledge – I, for one, really appreciate it :)

  2. If this is any indication of what is to come, I can’t wait to buy the book! So many of my tarot students have trouble with those pesky court cards – but this simplified method not only makes sense and lays a foundation – it also creates room for creative interpretation. Awesome!!!

  3. I just had some free time to do some reading tonight, and I am so glad that I did! I just re-stumbled on this from Twitter! I truly enjoyed the writing and court interps, plus I am SO in need of a new Tarot book on my shelf! :o) Thank you Barbara and Catherine!

  4. Catherine, you are too kind :-)

    Theresa, I’m really looking forward to your feedback on the book; I hope it does prove useful to your students.

    Suzi, glad you enjoyed the post. Don’t you just love Twitter? :-)

  5. I totally agree with you Babs, that no matter how long one has been doing tarot, those Court Cards always induce an “oh no” feeling. I do tend to think of those Pages as the messengers of their suit and are somewhat immature, while the Knights rush off and deliver them, in that teenage sort of way the Queen does tend to assimilate the message and adds some of that water element to it, while that King has learnt to master it.

    This was a wonderful post and I shall look out for your book.

    • Thanks, Helen! The way you describe the courts is exactly how I learned, too! It is useful and I like it, but I had a hard time explaining that to beginners. Layers and layers of interest and meaning…that’s why tarot keeps us all so interested forever :-)

      PS I loved your blog post on the Boho Gothic Devil card.

  6. I really enjoy working with the courts, despite the frustration they pose sometimes (or maybe BECAUSE of it!) This way of looking at them is very helpful and will definitely help me to sort them out, especially when answering questions about creativity. I find that area really confusing – am I supposed to DO something? THINK something? MAKE with my hands? INTUIT? HELP! :)

    • Submerina, thank you for the kind words. Maybe you should write an article about the courts, as mostly I think it is people who don’t like them that write these articles. I’d love to hear from the other end of the spectrum.

      I cannot believe I haven’t run into your blog before. I’ll have to spend some time there, as your current post was very intriguing.

      • Thank you for your kind words, Barbara! I guess I just keep thinking that I’m too “tarot young” to be able to have any real sort of opinion on the inner workings of the cards, but writing it out is definitely a way of learning and gaining insight. I’m probably going to find myself in a place where the Courts _do_ start to confuse me, as I learn more and more about their roles, the double-elements etc. and then eventually come to understand them on a whole deeper level but for now, ignorance is bliss :P

        The only one who really displeases me is the King of Pents. We do NOT jive. There is something about him that makes me go ballistic, ergo, I assume I have some serious issues that need uncovering in this field! It is only through understanding everything he represents that I’m going to figure that one out. I predict much cursing and throwing if tantrums in that little project ;)

        • Ha! I understand about not jiving with a card. For me it is the High Priestess. And in fact I wrote about it just this week (see my last blog entry). She drives me absolutely nuts!

          But the King of Pents, him I adore! But I love all the pents more than any others. I think of him as Bilbo Baggins. I hope you can make your peace with him :-) It’s sure to be an interesting journey!

  7. I have needed to use a host of strategies to interpret court cards creatively, since they definitely don’t evoke the sort of ‘gut reaction’ that a 6 of Wands or 10 of Swords does.

    I like your way of interpreting, its very intuitive to relate such archetypal roles of each member of the court in a way that is general enough to relate to modern life. Its clever and fast for readings, and I may try it next time I find myself glaring at a court card in my spreads!

    It may be conventional, but I have always had a lot of success relating the elements directly, and treating court cards as combinations of two elements with an emphasis on the suit; I can certainly relate the roles you assign above elementally as well, but I wonder if you also enjoy combining the elements so directly? Do you think that its too difficult in a book for beginners to offer those more abstract assignations?

    Thank you again!

    • Lionel,

      I have tried to employ and teach the elemental combos (The queen of wands is the watery aspect of fire, etc.). Intellectually, I get it, I really do. But the practical application and concrete examples are where I get stuck. I think you hit it on the head when you say “too difficult in a book for beginners to offer those more abstract assignations.” People who know tarot very well sometimes forget what it is like to have reference point for things that we take for granted, such as the elements.

      PS I like your fast exercise in your current blog post. I recently wrote an article about techniques to break a tarot rut. One of the techniques included a fast exercise (not like yours, but the point is the quick reaction). Fun and useful!

      • Barbara, Thank you for your thoughtful reply!

        In fact today I had a cool experience which challenged my quick reading skills, and I utilized the technique in this article as a helper. In a coffee shop a friendly stranger began pulling cards rapidly, and I very quickly summarized them a reading – They pulled 4 court cards immediately! She and I were both impressed with what I came up with in only a few seconds.

        I could write pages on how it went, but in the end it was fantastically successful, and magically easy to produce. One tweak I made was that the Kings’ role were to set broader goals, while Knights dealt with immediate decisions – The difference between which city to move to and which road to take there, I guess. Similar to your roles as described, if not the same with a different voice.

        Very cool technique, I’m exploring it my study already – Thank you :)

        • Lionel, wow, I love the immediate application and feedback :-)

          I like the idea of Kings setting broader goals. To be honest, it was the Kings’ role that I am least satisfied with in my technique. It seems far too passive. Incorporating the idea of “fast-moving” (which I always do with the knights) in decision making is quite brilliant.

          I am going to see how much I can build on your idea of the court cards and the practice of decision making. Perhaps we could co-author an article :-) While I’m raking leaves today, I’ll think about the Pages and Queens and set them into the decision making template.

          Thank you! Keep me posted.

  8. How interesting. Liable to “ride roughshod over anyone” who doesn’t share their goal is precisely how I describe the Kn of Wands to clients :)

  9. Hi Barbara,

    thank you very much for sharing your splendid approach to the court cards – I will add this to my “template of meanings”! (I know this feeling oh so well when courts show up in a reading: “No, please – not a court member, please…! Who is this? A person involved? A consultants facet of personality?”)

    That´s why I tried myself to create short “formulas” to condense their meanings lately… As you did, I paired elements and lines of their characteristic action to put words in the court members mouths.
    • The King (control) of Rods (will, power, motivation, sex): “I´m willing to put my power into action.”
    • The Queen (feeling) of Rods: “I´m feeling what I want to do and follow my motivations.”
    • The Knight (fighting, enforcing) of Rods: “I´m planning my actions and fight for my goals.”
    • The Page (learning, realizing) of Rods: “I´m just realizing my will, my motivation – see what keeps me moving.”

    My translation might be a little clumsy… But I´m sure you got an idea of it. Letting the courts explain their character of behaviour themselves worked nicely for me.
    Now I will add your perspective and test it.

    Warm wishes,

    Phine

    • Phine,

      I love your formulas! They do make sense and nicely encompass the generally accepted interpretations. Do let me know how it goes when you blend in my perspectives. I really do want to know how it works for others.

  10. This is an awesome article on helping to understand the court cards. Thank you! I am looking forward to reading about all the rest of these pesky guys/gals in your book. They are a trouble spot for me so I need all the help I can gather. THANK YOU!

    • Joanne, thank you for your kind words. They sure can be pesky. Best to not let them intimidate you. :-)

  11. Beautifully well put Barbara. This is very closely reminiscent of the structure I’ve laboriously promoted for some time now. I think we must be joined beyond this realm. A test drive would most definitely not be necessary, as I am certain that you have nailed it. Your book shall be promptly whisked to the top of my, “must buy,” list.

    Love and Light,
    Bulal

    • Bulal, as I like to say, “great minds and all that.” :-) I would like to hear more about your structure. Is it detailed on your website? I’ll have to poke around there more.

  12. I am always very drawn to articles which try to explain how the tarot court cards work in a reading. A very simple method I often use, if appropriate, is to simply look at the figures (using RWS) and at what they are doing, how they are feeling and even the expression on their faces and apply that to the reading. For example, the King of Cups always looks to me to be unsure of himself, he is all at sea and seems detached and disconnected from reality. He may be responsible and compassionate but having to make decisions and be in authority sometimes conflicts with his watery element and he seems to me to be uncomfortable with his role. He certainly seems to look ill at ease by the expression on his face.
    A very interesting article Barbara and greatly appreciated – anything that helps with these court cards is wonderful! Thank you.

    • Lori, I know what you mean about the King of Cups, particularly in the RWS version. It is true that you can glean meaning from expressions and actions on the court cards. Although in some decks, the differences between the court cards are so subtle that it can be frustrating for beginners.

      Thank you for your kind words. If the article helps at all with understanding or by inspiring people to develop new or different templates (as Lionel mentions in his comment), then I’ll be very happy.

  13. Utterly delightful discussion, Barbara! I couldn’t be more pleased with the resources here at Tarot Elements, Catherine!

    • Craig, thank you! I agree about the resources at Tarot Elements. It has been one of my go-to sites for a while now and has very much helped invigorate my practice. Catherine, you do us all such a great service…and you do it beautifully.

  14. Barbara and Catherine:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am just at the starting point of learning the Tarot cards using the “Easy Tarot Handbook” by Josephine Ellershaw with the “Gilded Tarot Deck” by Ciro Marchetti. I will keep your article Barbara, so that I may refer to it to add to my learning. Anything, to make learning easier is great! I was on Amazon and found this website here through them; so this is my first time on this site. This is a treasure trove & I thank you Catherine for the site.

    • Hi Margaret – thank you for such a lovely comment. I have the Gilded Tarot and the book by Josephine Ellershaw – it’s a nice book and not too heavy, it will be of great help to you, though I wouldn’t try that big spread at the back of the book just yet!

      The Joan Bunning book is also great for beginners and you can download her course for free. I pretty much have the whole thing printed out, in folders and often refer back to it. If there’s anything I can help you with at anytime, please just drop me a line :)

    • Margaret, you will find much on this site to help and inspire you! Explore and enjoy!

      I hope you are enjoying the Gilded Tarot; I have a very soft spot for that deck. And l like Josephine’s down-to-earth manner. That big spread is big! It might be overwhelming, but at some point, when you feel up to it, give it try! I actually really like it. Plus you can incorporate ideas from Catherine’s work…elemental dignities and such (read her articles on her Signature Spread).

      People in the tarot community are really friendly and helpful. You can “meet” them on twitter or facebook or various forums. Have fun!

      Barbara

  15. Teresa Michelsen
    10 November, 2009 - 5:39 am

    This is definitely the way I have come to view/work with court cards, although I also like the dual-element approach. Rather than people or personality traits, this methods allows you to differentiate among the ranks by what they do. My keywords are slightly different, for example Pages = learning, Queens = nurturing but otherwise very similar approach. Folks on CompTarot are finding this more intuitive than many other approaches we’ve discussed, and I’ve recommended your excellent blog to their reading pleasure :)

    • Hi Teresa – thank you for such a great comment, I’m sure Barbara will be delighted that you both see things the same way with regard to Court Cards. I like your assignment of the Pages=learning, as the beginning of the Court Cards, and as in life, learning is usually the first thing we do in anything new in our lives. And yes, the lovely queens, nurturing and protecting also I feel, shelter too.

      Thank you for recommending my Tarot blog to CompTarot – I shall take that as a huge compliment and let this silly grin sit on my face all day :D

    • Hi Teresa! Nice to see you :-)
      Do you remember sometime this summer when we talked about court cards and you shared your thoughts and class materials? This is what I was working on! “Observing” and “learning” are kind of similar, but observing is more passive, I think.

      Thanks for the recommend!

  16. This is probably one of the best posts that I have ever seen on Court Cards. I am definitely going to refer my students to it. :)

    Storm

    • Wow, Storm, that’s so nice of you! Thanks =)

      I enjoy your radio show (I download and listen after the fact)!

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