Helping or harming? Understanding the Knights in tarot

When folks sign up for my mailing list, I ask them to share with me their biggest tarot challenge. Earlier this week, I received the following answer:

The Knights of every suit stump me all the time.

So. let’s talk about the Knights!

What always stuck in my mind was shared by Joan Bunnings in Learning the Tarot. She talks about the Knights representing a dual kind of energy, which can be helpful, or it can be harmful. Going further, Bunning presents both a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ set of keywords for each knight – something she doesn’t do for any other card. You can view these on this cheat-sheet!

A knight can bring in a much-needed energy that helps a situation…or they can be too much, and even cause damage. I love how, in the more detailed card descriptions, Bunnings asks for each knight: “is this energy helping, or hurting?”

Imagine that knights are like the stereotypical ‘teenagers’ of the tarot.

Whatever the energy of their suit, they’re massively into it and are learning how to handle it. Just about. Like a teenager, they’re not brilliant at moderating or restraining themselves, and they’re not great at subtlety, either. They haven’t got a handle on it all yet, and they’re not mature with it. What they do have is energy and enthusiasm! So they’ve got this full-on, go-for-it kind of approach to the essence of their suit.

The Slow Holler Tarot calls the knights ‘Travellers’, which for me really captures the dynamic energy of these characters. The Collective Tarot calls them ‘Apprentices’, highlighting the way these cards are in the early stages of learning how to handle their suits.

I like both of these re-names, but I also like the traditional ‘Knight’, because it has swagger and bravado, and I enjoy the way they’re so often depicted on horseback. The manner in which they’re holding the emblem of their suits in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck also tells you plenty about the energy of the card.

The Knight of Wands can bring a big brash burst of energy and get things moving, which may be just what your situation needs. A big fireball of passion and ego can really shake things up. Look at how she’s holding that wand aloft, it’s attention grabbing and intentional. The Knight of Wands can also represent someone being way too full-on, allowing their ego to take up all the space, or someone who is so excited about their own ideas, they’ve forgotten to listen to anybody else.

The Knight of Cups, typically seen as a hopeless romantic, can represent dedication to a spiritual or emotional goal, making a solid commitment to a relationship, focusing all of your emotional energy in one place. This can be immensely healing. It can also be impractical, and totally unhelpful…not to mention obsessive or scary in the extreme. The way she’s gazing into their cup, as though she can’t see anything else, like that cup is just everything, she hasn’t even noticed that they’ve come to a river and her horse has stopped. Her dedication to the suit of cups and all those *feelings* has ground things to a halt, and that stillness may be very welcome, or it may indicate being emotionally stuck.

The Knight of Pentacles (my fave) is a character who gets their head down and gets on with the task in hand. This card can represent hard work and dedication, and a willingness to see the job through, when all else are distracted. But with that comes the potential for being boring, stubborn, and isolating themselves in pursuit of this one goal. It’s great to be dedicated and committed, and it’s a rare and wonderful thing to find a person who will see a thing through. Like the Knight of Cups, this knight holds his pentacle with reverence, but here if feels a little more like a guide – he’s holding it that bit higher and the way the horse is standing still makes it feel as though he is deliberately pausing, maybe to plan his next steps. It feels very intentional to me. But the Pentacles teach us about balance and the importance of a well-rounded community life – something the Knight hasn’t gotten to grips with yet.

The Knight of Swords is always ready to proclaim the truth (as they see it, at least!), leaping to others’ defence, fighting injustice here, there and everywhere. That’s a great energy to have around when everyone else seems to be keeping their mouth closed – we need more people who will speak up for what they believe in, right? But hang on… has she actually got her facts straight? And what’s driving her – a desire for social justice, or a chip on her own shoulder? More than anything, I see the Knight of Swords show up for folks who are hung-up on some small detail from the past, obsessing over an old wound. It’s a very ‘in your own head’ card, and it encourages us to take a breath, check our motivations, lower that sword and think things through a little more carefully. Or, when this energy is actually needed, it can say ‘shout it out! See what comes out’. It might be time to take a risk and stop overthinking.

For me, understanding the knights stems from understanding the suit itself.

If you can take that core energy – the earthy hardworking pentacles, the passionate, inspired wands, the heart-led cups or the clear-cut swords – and place it in the hands of someone who will amplify it, almost to a comic degree, you’re getting close. Imagine the ways you could go just a little bit OTT with that suit. Then ask yourself, as Bunnings does: “is this Knight’s energy helping, or hurting?” I’m not saying this system explains each card completely, but it offers a helpful framework for getting our heads around the energy of the four knights.

How about you? How do you interpret these four cards?

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  1. This makes a lot of sense. For me, the concepts of “climbing mount stupid” and “yellow belt syndrome” are really helpful in understanding the knights’ energy–they know just enough to get themselves in trouble. A yellow belt in a martial art is when you know enough to think you’re a badass but not enough to know you shouldn’t actually go looking for trouble, and that reminds me a lot of the knights. On one hand, they’re really enthusiastic about their suit’s energy and its realm of influence, but they don’t have the good judgement to stay out of trouble.

    • Beth says:

      Ha – that’s a neat way of summing up this energy. It’s powerful and it has the potential to become something really great…but right now it can also be a liability!

  2. Michelle says:

    Historically, a knight is a man, not a teen. A Page would logically be a teen, at least to me. That said, there will always be duality, and it’s doubtful a knight would be perfect, so it seems logical they would be subject to the same human frailtys as everyone else, so thanks for pointing that out. I would think the same would apply to the Page, Queen, and King as well, and for the same reasons.
    Thanks again!

    • Beth says:

      Thanks Michelle! I don’t really see pages and knights as ‘being’ any specific age (or gender), but I find imagining them as curious, open-minded children and then enthusiastic, unruly teens helps me imagine how they’re holding the energy of their suit. And yeah – super flawed! And sometimes that’s just lovable! (I really have a soft spot for the knights.)

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