Court Cards in the Tarot
by Bonnie Cehovet
Who are these people, and why are they popping up in my readings! Those were some of my first thoughts as a newly hatched reader. I had a distinctly adversarial relationship with the Court Cards, and had no real clue what to do with them, other than to try to quietly tiptoe past them. That worked, in a fashion. I missed a lot of the content in those first readings, but I did learn to work with each and every one of the other cards, including the more difficult (for me) cards from the Major Arcana.
Then I connected with some really good material: the Tarot Court Cards information in Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone's Tarot Tips; Mary K. Greer's information on the Myers-Briggs system of personality types and the Tarot Court Cards (I originally found this on her personal site, which is no longer available); Kate Warwick-Smith's "The Tarot Court Cards - Archetypal Patterns of Relationship in the Minor Arcana"; and Understanding the Tarot Court, by Mary K. Greer and Tom Little.
What is the purpose of the Court Cards?
The Tarot Court Cards serve several purposes, one of which is that they can be used as a tool to determine a significator, the card that is sometimes used to represent the Seeker in a reading. (Please note: All readers do not necessarily use significators.) In general, Pages are seen as children of both sexes, Knights are seen as young adults of both sexes, Queens are seen as mature and/or married women, while Kings are seen as mature and/or married men. The suit can be identified by the Seeker's Zodiac sign (Wands are comprised of Leo, Aries, and Sagittarius; Cups are comprised of Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio; Swords are comprised of Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius; Pentacles are comprised of Taurus, Capricorn, and Virgo), or by the physical characteristics attributed to each suit: Wands - blond to red hair, with blue to hazel eyes; Cups - light brown hair, blue, brown or hazel eyes; Swords - brown hair, brown eyes; Pentacles - brunette or black hair, blue or hazel eyes. (Taken from "Understanding the Tarot Court", By Mary K. Greer and Tom Little.)
How do the Court Cards function in a reading?
In "The Tarot Court Cards - Archetypal Patterns of Relationship in the Minor Arcana", Kate Warwick-Smith defines the following four ways in which the Court Cards function within a reading: (1) as an environmental influence; (2) as representing a person in the Seeker's life; (3) as representing the Seeker's inner potential and talents, capacities, and psychological state; (4) as relating to spirituality: the Qabalah, astrology, I Ching, and other spiritual traditions. In her book, Warwick-Smith presents a fifth method of interpreting the Court Cards, and that is in identifying the Seeker's network of supportive relationships, through the archetypes of supporter, detractor, resource, and challenge.
Examples of Court Cards exhibiting an environmental influence can be seen in Court Cards coming from the French publisher Grimaud (publishers of the first edition of the Tarot of Marseilles in 1748). Warwick-Smith cites Bill Butler in his book "Dictionary of the Tarot" as presenting Court Card interpretations that described an external influence, or a societal or cosmic force arising from an individual's environment, but not being attached to any one particular person.
Court Cards seen as a type of person in the Seeker's life can be traced to the writing of Etteilla, although Warwick-Smith indicates that they may have evolved during as early as the 1400's, when the Court Cards in playing cards were depicted as a specific ruler. Etteilla's Court Card descriptions were largely based on personality characteristics, physical characteristics, age, and occupation.
Court Cards as inner potential and talent evolved from work in the 19th century done by the Golden Dawn, and from the work of Sigmund Freud. The psychological movement was important in that it emphasized the individual, and what it was that made him different from everyone else. Something that we still see strongly in the Court Cards is the work of Jung, and his classifications of thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuition.
Court Cards seen in a spiritual dimension refer to the evolving connection between astrological, elemental, mystical, and Qabalistic symbolism, the Hebrew letters and the cards. The Court Cards have also been linked to Enochian Magic and angelic beings.
How the Court Cards are traditionally portrayed?
Now we have seen a little of the history behind the development of the Court Cards. Generally speaking, they are seen as a family: father, mother, son, and daughter. In some systems, the son (the Knight) takes the place of the father (the King). In recent years there has been a movement to take the portrayal of the Court Cards away from the literal "court" imagery of the more traditional cards into a more modern setting. I may be in a minority here, but I am perfectly comfortable with the traditional court setting and garb.
However they are portrayed in our personal deck of choice, what do we do with these sneaky people when they edge into a reading? I treated them gently, for a very long time, until I fully understood how to interpret the other cards in the deck. I think that this is what many readers may do. But, at some point in time, we do have to talk to them! As with anything, understanding the Court Cards, and developing the ability to interpret them, comes from study (establishing a foundational meaning for the card), intuition (what the card says to the individual reader in a particular situation), and practice. In this way, they become a part of us, and we don't have to think about what they are in a reading, the meaning flows intuitively through us.
Court Cards as part of the story
Remember that each reading is an unfolding story about some aspect of the Seeker's life. What is your first impression of the card? What symbols draw your eye? What colors stand out? If you do interactive, or dialogue style readings, ask the Seeker what their impression of the card is, and where it might fit into their life. What symbols and colors are they drawn to? Ask the Seeker if the Court Card in question reminds them of someone in their life. Do they see this person as supportive, or do they see this person as being an obstacle? This would be the outer level of the Court Card.
On the inner level, does the Seeker see the Court Card as an aspect of themselves? Is this energy within them - a skill or a talent that they can use as a personal resource? Is this something that they need to develop? Is the Court Card in question representing a fear that is holding them back?
Look at the number of Court Cards appearing in any one reading. What positions do they fall in? Are they more involved with the past, the present, or the future? Which cards may be facing each other, and what does that energy look like?
What happens when a Court Card comes up reversed? It can be seen as an attribute that is not being acknowledged, or that has not been developed. It can also indicate support that is needed but not available at the time of the reading to the Seeker. It can also be the negative side of the positive attributes of the card.
There can be a shadow side to every card, including the Court Cards. In "The Tarot Court Cards", Warwick-Smith advises using the positive qualities of another Court Card to dispel the shadow of another Court Card. She presents several very usable charts that show the challenge in each of the Court Cards, as well as the supporter and resource roles within each Court Card.
Meditation with the Court Cards
Meditating with the Court Cards is also a very valuable practice. It allows you to become familiar with the energy of the card, and allows you to call in this energy as an allie when needed. It is also helpful when attempting to resolve shadow issues with any particular card. This can come up in unexpected ways: I once dealt with the shadow side of the Hermit, which is one of my birth cards, when I was working with a deck in which the Hermit was portrayed as a female. I had an instant block to accepting that, and the visualization/meditation that I worked with was quite a breakthrough for me.
Court Cards as the "Who" in the Seeker's life
Another way of working with the Court Cards is to go through them and pick out the card that you think represents how people see you. Then go back, and pick out the card that represents how you see yourself, or how you want to be seen. What do you see in each of these cards? What are the similarities? What are the differences? What actions can you take to present yourself as you wish to be seen?
In a reading, the Court Cards answer the "Who" of the reading. (The Minor Arcana describe the "What", or the actions taking place around the Seeker; the Major Arcana answer the spiritual question of "Why".) To this end, in their book "Understanding the Tarot Court", Mary K. Greer and Tom Little state that the single most powerful way of viewing the Court Cards is as facets of human personality: as behaviors, temperaments, emotions, and mental attitudes. Astrology is one way of defining these personal attributes. Another manner of defining them is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This system places each individual in one category or the other of four personality axes: Extroverted/Introverted (E/I); Intuitive/Sensing (N/S); Thinking/Feeling (T/F); and Judging/Perceiving (J/P). There is an excellent chart in this book that defines each of the sixteen Court Cards as to Personality Types.
Kings in general are seen as active decision makers, while Queens are receptive in nature, nurturing and supportive. Knights carry a youthful energy, and have the reputation of at times not thinking before they act. Pages carry a somewhat childlike naivet?bout them, and are not afraid to venture forth on missions of discovery. They are quick to turn around, smile, and invite us to join them!
Sample readings with the Court Cards
So, for a moment, let us join the Tarot Court Cards. I am going to go through a couple of sample readings, and see where they take us. The first reading is a simple three card, Past/Present/Future spread. The question is a very general one: "What do I need to know on this day?" The deck that I am using is the Morgan Greer - you might want to lay this spread out with your own deck, and see what interpretations come to you.
The Hanged Man - Seven of Pentacles - Queen of Cups
1. Past - The Hanged Man
2. Present - Seven of Wands
3. Future - Queen of Cups
The Seeker needs to know that that past for them is not past ... yet. They need some resolution here. They need to go back as far into the past as it takes to reach the issue that is binding them in the present, the issue that is at the foundation of their present dilemma. What sacrifices did they feel that they made that they are not happy with? The Seeker needs to take another look at this particular time in their past, and they need to look with fresh eyes.
What this has led to in the present is that they feel that they need to take a stand about something in their life. They are assured success, but that success will come at a price.
If no action were to be taken, their future would lie with the Queen of Cups. In the Morgan Greer Tarot she faces to the left, to the past, indicating that some of the baggage from the Seeker's past will be taken into their future, unless they work to resolve it. Why is this Queen looking into her past? What did the Seeker not nurture in their past? What did they allow to happen that did not have to happen? Were they overly protective of someone? Were they too lazy to take any action?
These three cards indicate a point of transition for the Seeker. They are being put on notice that unless they pay attention, and bring resolution to some past issue, that it will indeed cloud their future. The Queen could be someone in their life, or she could be an aspect of themselves. this could also be the "mother's voice" (and opinions!) that we all carry with us.
Let's take this same thought into the Elemental Spread. This time, our question will be: "Who am I at this point in time?"
Three of Wands
Page of Pentacles ----- Queen of Pentacles
Ten of Cups
1. East/Spirit - Queen of Pentacles
2. South/Physical - Ten of Cups
3. West/Emotional - Page of Pentacles
4. North/Mental - Three of Wands
Spiritually, the Seeker carries the energy of the Queen of Pentacles. This Queen is an earthy, generous woman, with the best interest of the Seeker at heart. She gifts the Seeker with intelligence, and the ability to maintain a thriving spiritual nature. In her hands she holds the symbol of her suit. this Queen faces the left, or the past.
Physically, the Seeker carries the energy of the Ten of Cups. They have good health, and are appreciative of it. They are contented, and center their lives around their family.
Emotionally, the Seeker carries the energy of the Page of Pentacles. This youthful Page is a scholar and a messenger. This Page brings joy and pride to those around them. They face the right, or the future, and they hold the symbol of their suit in their hands.
Mentally, the Seeker carries the energy of the Three of Wands. They have the ability to work with others, are successful, and have a solid vision of what the future holds for them.
Note that the Queen of Pentacles and the Page of Pentacles are facing each other. The Seeker, on the emotional level, is offering help and guidance to their spiritual side, to the spiritual quest that they are on.
The people of the Tarot Court Cards are the people that inhabit our lives - they are the members of our personal community, or "village", and have many lessons for us. They can support us, they can guide us, and sometimes they can become our shadows - if we allow them to. As we learn how to interact with them, they provide us with a first rate tool for personal growth.
Bibliography: Greer, Mary K. & Tom Little. Understanding the Tarot Court. Llewellyn Publications, 2004.
Warwick-Smith, Kate. The Tarot Court Cards. Destiny Books. 2003. November 2005
© Bonnie Cehovet
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.