Light & Shadow: Sorting the court cards part 1

The Light & Shadow series. The cards that scare or intimidate us. And some that are only difficult in certain contexts. The purpose of the next few posts in this series will be to explore the ever-elusive court cards. The more angles we have to approach the courts, the more empowered we are to shed ideas about these cards that no longer serve.

Last fall I wrote a piece for the Samhain Tarot blog hop.

A tarot blog hop is a train of blogs all writing about a single topic. The topic was communing, communicating and commemorating with loved ones who have crossed in honor of Samhain. I wrote about a spread I created meant to converse with a loved one that had passed.

That reading was the first time I experienced mediumship through tarot. I heard my loved one loud and clear. Through the cards and clairaudiently as well. I experienced more emotion than I had expected during that spread. Also, I was called out and in intimate detail. During the hop, I was unsure how to write about such a personal experience, so I left out a lot of the details. This reading highlights an experience which I believe is not uncommon: I doubted my interpretation of the court cards.

The message was crystal clear:

Jumper Card  – Queen of Cups
What else can I do to honor their legacy – 2 of Wands
Message through the Veil – King of Swords

The first card identified the person with whom I spoke. The second card says, in this case, “take action” or “act now.” The third card identifies the person the action involves.

Call your grandfather.

I wasn’t ready.

Not for this level of clarity in the reading, not to talk about the experience on my blog, not to listen to the message. So I told myself, I must have the wrong interpretation. Certainly, the cards meant something else. I’m much more likely to doubt court card interpretations when I read for myself and especially with messages I’m not ready to hear.

Court cards wear a lot of hats. They can mean anything from people to actions to time periods. Sometimes we doubt our interpretations because of these complexities. Sometimes we know exactly what they mean, and we doubt them anyway. Because we aren’t ready. Not ready to hear things like “he will never see things your way,” “they will never leave her,” “this is still unresolved.” It doesn’t make things any easier that these cards are often the poster cards for all manner of conformity in gender expression and familial structure.

What if we treat the courts like a closet full of messy stuff?

The clothes that don’t fit, the toys you don’t play with anymore, the ripped costumes, the shoes that need polish and the kit you’d use to shine them. The first thing you’d do with that closet, if you had the time and space, was pull everything out and take a look. Then you could organize what you need and chuck the rest.

The courts need an overhaul from time to time. An examination. It’s worth it because even though there’s a chance of feeling triggered, boxed in, or confused with these cards, there is also the potential for precise messages about people, personalities, and solutions. Court cards can show us who and how to be.

The next few posts in the Light & Shadow series will be one part geekery, with elemental and astrological analysis, charts, and interpersonal spreads; one part story – yours and mine. Hopefully, by the end, we’ll have gotten a little beyond (or beneath) the gender-binary tropes of the courts so that we might work with and deepen our relationships to these cards.

This week I began a client reading as I always do.

I warmed water for tea and neti. I lit incense. I put on the ok-for-readings music and gathered my things on my yoga mat, the place where I write email readings. I asked myself, Who do I need to be to be most of service to the querent? I reached for a single card from the face down Margarete Petersen Tarot.

I love the cardstock, shape, and weight of these cards. But none of these things are the reason I hesitated while picking a card. I felt the compulsion to pull a second card. So much so, that it distracted me mid-pull. The intuition speaks faster than the tongue. Before I could even form the question I felt the answer, the second question would be ‘how.’

Who and how do I need to be to be of the most service?

As usual, the first card was a court card. In the past, that first card has been a major, but usually, it’s always a court. And so, because of this reading process, one of the first things I encounter every time I read for a client is a court card. Adding a second card allowed me to consider their elemental interaction. Two cards allowed me to see a court card in action. Not just a personality but actions and intent as well. It struck me that there are other times when I could use direction for who and how to be.

I decided to do this card pull before writing this post.

Who and how do I need to be to be of the most service?


As usual, the first card is a court. And just like my recent client reading, the second was a major card. These two compliment each other as archetypes, elementally, and even visually. As I continue this series I’ll explain what I mean about how court cards can interact with each other and also other cards.

Father Flame

Keeper of purpose. Generous and warm spirit. Emperor energy –  structure, authority and leadership. In this version of the King of Wands we see a leopard, a box shape, inside the box: a strong-looking statue, and throughout the card: the impression of flames.

Some of this card’s interpretation follows naturally from the associations of the King of Wands. Fire relates to spirituality, willpower, and motivation. Flames are warm and sustaining. Fires are active and fast. The father archetype isn’t too far from the Emperor. (Hence the natural archetypal compliment to the Empress.)

None of this was first in my mind when I saw this card. My first thought was of Leo. It’s the zodiac sign associated with this court card. Father of Flame might be many things and match up with any of the fire-element zodiac signs. But Leo is more precise.

Court cards without the conformism

Leo, in of itself, carries none of the conformism of words like father or king. The zodiac association of this court brings the specificity of astrology to its interpretation while making gender irrelevant. Rather than the King of Wands ending as the Father of Flame, it can expand to include fixed fire. Where fixed is the astrological modality associated with kings according to some tarotists. (YMMV)

When I think of Leo, I think of my hair. It’s kinky and left to its own devices it easily becomes a mane. A mane is like a crown – something that sets someone apart or draws attention. They take center stage. They are symbols of extroversion. I have a Leo rising. Leo looks like enthusiasm, infectiousness, charisma. A childlike quality that is also magnetic. Folks want to be friends with Leo or join their team.

I could be a biased astrophiliac, but this sounds way more detailed than the characteristics of a Father of Flames. Astrology tells you what kind of flames. That said, Leo will not be my first thought whenever I see this card. It was, in this case, because of the new moon in Leo this week. The astroclimate affects my interpretation to a degree. But even when I don’t think Leo, I always think “fixed fire.”

Who & How

You can give the mini-spread above a go by asking: who and how do I need to be? You can try it at the beginning of the day, before writing, before an interview, before scheduling your week or month. You can separate the court cards in order to pull a court card first or pull at random and see what comes up. Use it however serves.


This post was inspired, in part, by the piece I wrote for this year’s Lammas tarot blog hop. You can check it out at the link. It includes a discussion of court cards and a different version of the chart above.

How do you determine which way to interpret a court card?
What is the most challenging thing about court cards?
What is the most exciting?
Comment below, or tweet me @siobhansmirror with #difficultcards

Featured decks: Centennial Smith – Waite US Games 2013

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  1. Beth says:

    Whoosh…this is brilliant. Court cards are almost universally found to be the trickiest – I certainly struggle with them more than any others. I love the idea of applying the lens of astrological modalities to find/frame interpretations. Even the way you described interpreting the Father of Flames here was just so illuminating and has given me loads to think about. Thanks Siobhan!

    • They’re a handful aren’t they?! The court struggle is real. I hope this series serves. (And I not-so-secretly hope to learn more about these cards in the comments.)

  2. Victoria says:

    Hi Siobhan, thanks so much for this – I’m really excited for this series! Like many I also struggle with the court cards; not only the seeming rigidity of their gender expression but also the fact that they are oft held to represent an actual IRL human, and I just can’t seem to relate to that! But I was very interested to read about your Samhain spread – when a court card appears that relates to a person in your life, you just *know*. Even if you don’t really want to know 😉

    When they come up I try not to get bogged down in the archetypes and instead use their energetic expression, and using astro to access this makes so much more sense to me. I’ve recently found myself using this method here and there for other cards that don’t seem to click in a spread, too. It’s like an expansive shorthand (if that’s not an oxymoron).

    I just tried your two-card pull without separating the courts out, and sure enough, up popped the Mother of Cups (in the ‘how’ position). Lots of food for thought for me today – thank you again!

    • “they are oft held to represent an actual IRL human, and I just can’t seem to relate to that…” <-This. I totally can relate to this not relating. I always felt like the courts easily become this huge smokescreen where it's easier and more comfortable to focus on other people than the things they bring up within us.

      Also, ISN'T IT WEIRD HOW THE COURTS TURN UP FIRST? It feels like a straight up conversation with the deck. "oh they're asking a who question, better send a court card and be super literal." Wild!

  3. I really appreciate the complexity and nuance you bring to tarot interpretation. You never assume we, the readers, are too dense to follow you, and you always add something useful to my tarot repertoire.

    Also, thank you for the idea of interpreting court cards in line with astrology! That’s super helpful to me. 🙂

  4. syrens says:

    The court cards are very rarely IRL Humans when they show up in my readings. (Sometimes they are – if I’m reading about a specific person, and a particular card both shows up consistently AND is actually a lot like the IRL person in question, then yeah. But not usually). I like the thought of the Queen of Cups as “cardinal water”, as home-coming; the page (and maybe the knight, too) as mutable.

    I tried this. The “who and how” pull.
    I asked “Who and how do I need to be in order to open myself up the way I want and need to?”
    The page of water and the queen of earth fell out of the deck almost as soon as I started shuffling.
    Apt. Very apt.

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