Establishing a Framework for the Court Cards

Part of the reason that tarot has endured these last 500 years is that it reflects life as fully as we can experience it, mirroring our day-to-day existence complete with its events and relationships and work and joys and sorrows and philosophical quandaries and spiritual questions and so on. If we think of the deck in three parts (pips, courts, and trumps), it’s helpful to give some structure to better understand how they relate to each other within this framework. Perhaps the best analogy to help understand each in reference to the whole is the theatre: the trumps as the set – the larger setting with overarching collective conditions such as climate or weather which give a sense of the more archetypal issues at play; the pips as the scenes, with their individual circumstances and actions and dialogue; and the courts as the cast, their different characters influencing and animating and personifying the scenes portrayed.

As such, the courts are without doubt the most complex part of the tarot. Are they the querent? Parts of the querent? Other people? Qualities to embody? Adding to their complexity is that they can be any and all of the above. Confounding this further are the many various ways or systems in which they can be named and categorized and compartmentalized. Are they ages, astrological signs (and if so, which?), personality types (again, there is no agreement on which is which!), or something else, entirely?

I still have the notes from my first tarot class, where I sat in Regina Russell’s Tea Room in the early 90s, learning how Wand courts are fire signs, very fair in their complexion, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Pentacles, on the other hand, are earth signs with “a sallow or swarthy complexion and dark hair & eyes.” This is a more traditional method of reading courts, carried over from a time when if women didn’t bear children, it was only because they were unable (reversed Queen of Swords). Granted, this was 30 years ago and the tea room had its roots in playing card cartomancy, but the examples show how meanings evolve over time as cultural shifts alter our lens. It also shows that no reading method is wrong. The teacher of this class was an amazingly good reader, and the meanings that she used for her cards reflected info back to her in the way that she chose and made sense for her to translate.

I, personally, abandoned the complexion and hair color method ages ago, and even the astrological assignments. Sure, Wands are fiery and Cups are emotional and so on, so they do correlate to the properties of fire signs and water signs, respectively; but sun sign alone is such a limited determinant of our persona within the scope of an entire chart, is it not? But let’s give it a fair shake, shall we? There are 12 astrological signs and 16 court cards. Well, okay, we can assign another property to one of the ranks. The four pages can be the four seasons. Or, wait- should that be the kings? Let’s worry about that later.

The signs are divided into 3 qualities: cardinal, mutable, and fixed; so we can assign each to a court rank. Cardinal is active, assertive, and initiatory, so that would be knights, right? Or maybe pages. Mutable is adaptive and flowing, so obviously the queens. But it’s also exploratory and evolving what already exists, which is pagey… Fixed is stable with a clear purpose, but determined and stubborn. Sounds like kings? Could be knights. To gain a little clarity, I consulted three different sources and got… three different allocations.

Hmmm. Well, then let’s look at how the ranks are correlated with the elemental systems that so many use. Each suit represents an element, but many assign each court rank an element, too. The only one that remains consistent through the various perspectives is queens as water. So, for example, the Queen of Pentacles would be water of earth. Its opposite would be earth of water (Cups), but which court rank is associated with earth? Many say the pages. So, Page of Cups? But aren’t pages messengers, curious, and learning? Wouldn’t that be more airy? Air of Water? Knights are definitely action-oriented, so they’re fire, right? Oh- Golden Dawn system uses air for knights.

Let’s put the esoteric lens away for a bit, in favor of a much simpler approach. Many readers use ages, as in a family. Pages are children, knights are adolescents, and queens and kings are established adults respective to their gender. This, too, feels a whole lot of outdated, right? Are women not strong leaders? Should we continue the thinking that men do not go in the ‘soft and nurturing’ category? Gender is evolving and now widely understood to be more fluid than the binary of X and Y. OK, so we could use more yin or receptive qualities for queens and more yang or outward qualities for kings. But what about those who don’t have kids or teens in their lives? And if there are kids, why not elders? Surely there is a better, more universal way.

Wait- there are 16 court cards and 16 personality types! It’s genderless, it’s ageless… Eureka! OK, lets examine this: there are four Jungian functions, which fit neatly into the four suits as

Wands = Intuitive (creative, imagines possibilities)

Cups = Feeling (empathetic, values harmony and how their actions affect others)

Swords = Thinking (logical, seeks justice and objective truth)

Pentacles = Sensing (practical, experiences the world through the five senses)

And then we have Introverted / Extraverted, which can easily be correlated to the more introspective Pages and Queens as Is and Knights and Kings as the more outward Es. Simple.

Finally, Perceiving (more adaptive, con-committal, and spontaneous) and Judging (prefers detailed, set plans and deadlines) easily correspond to the more exploratory Pages and Knights as Ps and the more established Queens & Kings as Js. So, let’s plug them in on a grid with the suits and functions going across the top, and the ranks with I/E and P/J going down the left column. Most of the resulting personality types describe the popular court descriptions to a T! ENTJ as King of Wands is spot on – right down to the more complexed aspects of narcissism and dictatorial style of leadership. And you can’t get a better description of the Page of Cups than a write-up on INFP. The Wands and Swords Pages could be switched. Same for those Knights …and there really isn’t any good fit for the Knight of Pentacles, least of all his assigned ESFP (which is the Performer!). Queen of Wands as INTJ? Meh. Not really. The thing is, if you do a web search for “tarot court cards personality types,” you’ll get almost as many variations on the type assignments as there are search results. Don’t get me wrong – if you find one that works for you, super!

I’m enjoying a little light-hearted poke at all of these methods as I chronicle my own journey; but seriously, all systems are valid — especially if they work for the reader using them. Still, let’s just scrap all of them for now and build one from scratch that makes sense with the conventional meanings. I would actually keep the Jungian functions as how they approach their worlds, simply because they augment the elemental descriptives. So, as they pertain to the court cards,

Wands correspond to our inner fire and the ways in which this is expressed through our identities. NT types are creative and imagine possibilities.

Cups correspond with the inner realm of the psyche and how we relate to others. NF types are empathetic, valuing harmony and how their actions affect others.

Swords correspond with the conscious, rational mind and its belief systems. ST types are logical, seeking justice and objective truth.

Pentacles correspond with the material world and the senses that we as spirits use to navigate it. SF types are practical, establishing security and experiencing the world through the five senses.

Under the influence of their suits, the court ranks can then be viewed as:

Pages strive to understand their elements. Eager to learn but only just starting the journey, they explore their realm with the curiosity and innocence of a child. As such, they can also represent the parts of us holding childhood memories and wounds.

Knights take action, moving through the world with the intent of their element. As warriors, they can also represent the parts of us protecting against fear and shame by distracting us through impulsive and/or inappropriate behaviors.

Queens nurture the magic of the suit within, reflecting it outward. In their nurturing roles, queens may represent the parts of us that manage the environment for our more vulnerable parts.

Kings exercise maturity and leadership. Possessing a certain level of mastery in the element and sharing it with the community, kings often indicate that it’s time to share our gifts with others. As internal parts, they may represent managers securing the environment for our more vulnerable parts.

With that framework in mind, let’s begin to explore them each individually….

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