How to sort the courts part 2: Foundational layers

A year ago I started a series about court cards, then forgot to finish it. Couldn’t let it go. So here is part II of this revamped series!

Often tarot readers either shy away from the court cards and the discomfort they can cause.

Recognizing the structures as a part of their daily lives, they lean into normative social structures to help remember the interpretations of the cards. Which way we go depends entirely on our worldview and biases.

The last piece in this series talked about the court cards’ ties to royal courts of antiquity, the cards’ referencing of traditional family structures and gender norms, and the challenge they can pose because of the oppressive associations with those structures.

But the risk of being triggered isn’t the only tricky part about the court cards…

Traditional interpretations of these cards will vary dependant on the source.  This can muddy the waters a bit. We don’t always remember what we learned where and it’s not always clear what has influenced the authors of the tarot materials we consume.

Rather than do an exhaustive study of every source ever for court card information, I’m going to limit the scope of this piece to sources that I’ve relied on or that I happen to be curious about as of writing this series. You’ll find, primarily, references to the Golden Dawn system with a smidge of other things. I’ll try to cite anything for clarity’s sake. I’ll start with something I included in the last piece.

court cards

Remember this table?

You won’t find these associations anywhere else because I made them up. Not only that, I made them up for that particular piece. They are informed by my experiences with books, classes, and study but I’d still file them as intuitive interpretations. Especially since I might change them or never use them in a reading depending on, you guessed it, my intuition.

This is not uncommon. Many people make up or customize their interpretations of the court cards. Lots of the sources from the beginning of my tarot studies did this and you’ll find that this practice is still common. Sometimes these interpretations are guided entirely by what feels right to the tarot reader, sometimes by the art in the deck, and sometimes by the traditional symbolism.

This can get ambiguous pretty quickly.

Let’s take a common interpretation as an example: Some folks will say that the pages signify youthfulness, naivete or inexperience. If you were to inquire about where this comes from, depending who you ask, you might hear that it has something to do with the Hermetic Order of th Golden Dawn, the order from the 19th/early 20th century that is most responsible for the popularity of the Tarot today. They’d say that this was the traditional interpretation.

But is it? Or something else altogether?

If you were to take a peek at Book “T” by Mathers, one of oldest, if not the oldest reference on tarot according to the Golden Dawn tradition, you would find this to say about “the four Princesses,” known to us as the pages:

[The four princesses] are the Knaves of the Tarot Pack; The Four Princesses or figures of Amazons, standing firmly of themselves: neither riding upon Horses, nor seated upon Thrones, nor borne in Chariots… a Princess powerful and terrible: a Queen of Queens — an Empress — whose effect combines those of the King, Queen, and Prince… yet her power existeth not, save by reason of the others: and then indeed it is mighty and terrible materially, and is the Throne of the Forces of the Spirit.

Woe unto whomsoever shall make war upon her, when thus established! 1

The part about power in the end, “yet her power existeth not, save by reason of the others: and then indeed it is mighty and terrible materially,“ may be referencing that the page still relies on others to fully realize their power. But still, this card doesn’t sound like the lost soul that many make this rank out to be.

It sounds here more aligned with its expression as raw potential and makes the connection between this rank and the Aces a little clearer. The text isn’t really nebulous either. Even as it’s written here, all fancy and archaic.

court cards

Kenner writes on page 197 of in Tarot and Astrology, “Pages, the students and messengers of the tarot, are the physical personifications of fire, earth, air, and water, untempered by other elemental influences.” 2 She references the court system here since pages were youths in the royal court that studied to become knights.

Do either of these sound like the first assertion about pages?

Here we have an interpretation held to be traditional with an assumption built into its framework. So why do some folks insist on the somewhat ageist interpretation of the pages? Because it’s easier for some to remember the card this way.

The more academic layers are harder to link to personality traits, the things we use to identify people and modes of thinking in a tarot reading. And even if you were up to the challenge of memorizing all these layers like a full-on tarot geek (I see you out there!) you still might run into some issues because…

Even quality sources don’t agree

Let’s take for example the question of which court card comes first. Which would you say? Kings, queens, knights? Queens, knights, kings? (Let’s leave pages out of this for now since we see from above that they are obviously made of different stuff than the rest of the ranks.)

Lon Milo Duquette says, on page 172 of his book about understanding Crowley’s Thoth deck, that queens would rule over cardinal signs, the signs that initiate their respective zodiac seasons. He places the kings as rulers of fixed signs and knights of mutable signs. 3

Elizabeth Hazel on page of 23 of Tarot Decoded says that queens are again cardinal, but knights fixed and kings mutable. 4 Still, other books attribute the cardinal to the kings. It seems it would depend on your metaphysical lineage or specific associations with each rank. I go with the Amberstones over at the for the order of the court card ranks. It agrees with Duquette’s book and it made the most sense to me.

Associations are layers of the court card web we weave

Closer to the beginning of my tarot studies, I started in ‘98 or so, I figured out there were tarot correspondences. Of course, we all dabble with them at first. It’s how we learn the associations of each suit, wands with passion or spirituality, cups with emotions, swords with thoughts, pentacles with money and the material.

Some of us learned that the numbers on the cards correlated to numerology. And that each of the suits corresponded to elements, cups with water, wands with fire, swords with air and pentacles with earth. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that the planets, zodiac signs and decans, and celestial quadrants had their role in tarot as well.

Why associations are (mostly) our friends

Associations lend themselves to startling details – a day of the week, an attitude, a physical symptom. That said, I’ve encountered intuitive readers who can pick out this level of detail as well. For me, it’s much easier to read literal details when I consult associations.

An exception to this is physical characteristics. If you take a look in Book “T” you’d find a table with the visual characteristics associated with the courts. This list is echoed in other books on tarot and these characteristics don’t make any kind of sense.

Astrological associations help with this, supplying a breadth of information about people, including possible appearance and style, based on their birth charts. To me, it makes more sense to say someone will have hair like a Leo than to say a Queen of Swords will have gray eyes.

court cards

What are the glass and the mirror?!

Throughout the series, you’ll hear me talk about glass and mirrors. I’m using these terms as an interpretive framework to distinguish between a literal and outwardly focused style of reading and a less or nonliteral inwardly focused style of reading.

The glass is literal.

It’s the glass of a window, separating the tarot reader or querent from the events, people, or topics represented in the cards. Separateness can be comforting. Especially for the person who doesn’t have the privilege of turning their attention away from the most mundane matters in life – basic security for example.

Many people come to tarot assuming that this is the only kind of reading that can be done. A reading of this type has the potential to be comforting to those who aren’t as familiar with tarot. It can serve as fast common ground and can be highly entertaining for everybody.

There is also the risk, for a tarot reader or querent to lose touch with personal responsibility and the vastness of potentiality with this style of reading. Once basic needs are met and a person can express desires outside of security, it becomes less realistic to presume to predict their future with absolute certainty.  

court cards

A mirror is nonliteral.

Reflective in nature, this style of reading acknowledges the connection of the querent to everyone and everything that happens in their life. This style especially serves the person who prioritizes discovery of unconsciousness for the purpose of increasing choice.

There’s a potential for a lot of empowerment in a style that redirects the attention from reaction and avoidance to acceptance and choice. That said, often a reading like this uncovers patterns that may not be apparent to the querent and can have implications that go beyond entertainment. Not everyone is comfortable looking at mirrors.

There is also the risk that a person uses this style of reading to spiritually bypass – to deny or overshadow the parts of themselves they view as less acceptable. You see this in the person who asks “what serves my highest good?” when what they really want to know is whether anything will come of that new person they just met.

Even while it’s healthy to acknowledge responsibility, an attitude of absolute responsibility can lead to a lack of acceptance of reality.  It can also deny the realities inherent in participating in a hierarchical society that influences access to privilege dependent on where its member rank.

court cards

It doesn’t have to be an either or choice

I dabble in both of these. Which one depends largely on who I’m reading. But there’s something to be said for recognizing your strength, preference, or worldview as a tarot reader and then doing those kinds of readings. When these worldviews don’t match, it might work out if there is the willingness on at least one side of the table to step onto the other side.

Ever have a querent point to a court card and say “oh I know who THAT is,” when you were just about to discuss the part of them that it represents? Or have a querent say a court card refers to a trait of their own when you’re quite certain it refers to someone they know? When your ideas about tarot don’t match, sometimes it’s best to just not do the reading.

To wrap up…

We started with the pitfalls of reading court cards s and how it’s fine to customize our own interpretations. We talked about the ambiguity of various sources. We discussed associations as useful tools and also some of their limitations. We ended talking about the glass interpretation versus the mirror. So, this is the structure and these are the terms I’ll use. And maybe I’ll throw in more tables. The next time around, I’ll talk about, you guessed it, the Queens. Stay tuned!

court cards

What about the court cards just didn’t sit well with you?

What are your most awkward court card moments?

Share in the comments or use #difficultcards.

Keep in touch


Featured Deck: The Mary El Tarot, Schiffer Publishing

Works Cited:

1 Duquette, Lon Milo. Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. Weiser, 2003.

2 Kenner, Corrine. Tarot and Astrology: Enhance Your Readings with the Wisdom of the Zodiac. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2011.

3 Hazel, Elizabeth. Tarot Decoded: Understanding and Using Dignities and Correspondences. Weiser, 2004.

4 Regardie, Israel, and MacGregor Mathers. “Book “T”.” The Golden Dawn: A Complete Course in Practical Ceremonial Magic: Four Volumes in One: The Original Account of the Teachings, Rites, and Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Stella Matutina). Llewellyn Publications, 1997.


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  1. Lydia says:

    Siobhan,thank you for this; I love your style, the mix of scholarship and intuition, and the fact that your voice shines through in the writing. I learnt a lot and am looking forward to your future columns.

    • Siobhan says:

      Court cards are hard for me to write about and hence hard to judge if the writing will be helpful. Thank you SO much for your feedback, Lydia!

  2. kshanexx says:

    this is hands-down the best thing i’ve ever read about court cards. i’ve never really felt a connection to them because for me they’re somewhere between the suits and the majors and just kind of intimidating and nebulous. i’ve never managed to form a personal relationship with them as i have with most of the other cards. thanks so much for sharing!

    • Siobhan says:

      Yay! Glad you liked it, kshanexx! I agree abt the courts. Pretty nebulous. Even when you know more abt them they get nebulous for new reasons. The struggle!

    • Siobhan says:

      I’m glad, Hazel! I have a lot fun making these tables although I’ll be the first to admit I’m hit or miss at tables. *lookssheepish

  3. Abbie Plouff says:

    I’m loving this series. I find that I get stuck with the Courts when they obviously represent a person who isn’t the querent – I don’t like to read predictively, but sometimes it creeps in to a reading.

    One of the ways I’ve been reading courts lately is as a sort of invitation to the querent to step into a certain role. Say, the page of wands comes up. In a reading, I might say that this is an invitation for the querent to embody the page of wands – to get curious about their passions, try new things, initiate new creative or work projects, etc. Of course, when more than one court card shows up this changes things a bit.

    On to your next installment for me! This is fascinating.

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