The Court Cards on the Tree of Life: A Personal Perspective

As I re-read Isabel Kliegman’s generally excellent book, The Tarot and the Tree of Life, I’m reminded why I never found her radical recasting of the tarot court cards on the Tree to be particularly convincing. To be fair, she did warn the reader that her views are entirely personal and should in no way be taken as the only correct position. Her subject was the proper attribution of the court cards to the four olams — or worlds — of the Tree. Conventional wisdom holds that the masterful Kings sit at the top of the royal hierarchy and must therefore be assigned to the realm of Atziluth, the spiritual or archetypal world at the apex of the Tree, while the contemplative Queens reside in the cerebral, creative domain of Briah, the mobile Knights/Princes fit best in the pliable, formative province of Yetzirah and the unevolved Pages/Princesses obviously inhabit the earthly “kingdom” of Assiah and its sole sephira, concrete Malkuth.

I agree with Kliegman that this arrangement is not entirely satisfactory, but I won’t go as far as she did in turning it completely on its head such that the Kings now dwell at the bottom in the “kingdom” of Malkuth, while the Pages ascend to the crown of the Tree in order to receive the “Word of God” fresh from its source, with the Knights and Queens devolving sequentially from there. The only point I accept without reservation is that the Knights belong in Briah because they represent the “seed idea” that inseminates the Queens, who then “conceive” in Yetzirah, but my reasoning relies more upon the esoteric tradition that regards the Knights as an expression of elemental Air and the world of Briah — second only to the Fire of Atziluth in sublimity — as similarly airy. (For the record, some writers place Water in Briah, but I see it as a matter of decreasing fluidity and penetrability as one comes down the Tree.)

Before I move on to the Golden Dawn model that I find superior for my own purposes, I want to spend some time talking about the operation of the court cards in the olams. Atziluth represents a preconscious state of formless potential that is “above it all” and plays no active part in human cognition, just as the Kings have little in common with the “small folk.” Briah denotes the only slightly less subtle “mental” world of superconscious speculation exemplified by the mobility of the Knights, while the role of Yetzirah encompasses the subconscious acts of imagination and intuition typical of the emotional Queens that conjure up three-dimensional mock-ups from the preliminary blueprints, after which those unfettered flights of fancy are objectified and consciously “grounded” by the Pages via practical execution on the physical plane.

If we think of the Kings as representing the urge to take an action consistent with their suit, the Knights as sketching the outlines of a conceptual plan, the Queens as putting visionary “meat on the bone” of the skeletal concept and the Pages as “bringing home the bacon” in mundane terms, we have a reasonable approximation of the function of the four court cards on the Tree. We could also say that the Kings (Fire) and Knights (Air) project their fecundating masculine energy down the Tree into the waiting “receptacle” of the Queens (Water), who in turn give birth to the Pages (Earth) in preparation for a new cycle of becoming. (Note that this analogy departs from the typical “Fire, Water, Air and Earth” sequence familiar to tarot enthusiasts.) Put another way, the Kings “decree,” the Knights “execute,” the Queens “mediate” and the Pages “adapt.”

The Golden Dawn’s design pinned the court cards to four of the individual sephiroth rather than inclusively to the four qabalistic worlds. The Kings occupy the sephira of Chockmah, the sphere of the archetypal Father; the Queens are assigned to the dominion of Binah, that of the archetypal Mother; The Knights or Princes belong to Tiphareth, realm of the archetypal Son; and the Pages or Princesses symbolize the archetypal Daughter in the kingdom of Malkuth. The Princes and Princesses are thus the “issue” of the marriage of the King and Queen and their agents in the field of manifestation below the Abyss. While this is a coherent paradigm, I must admit that it does very little for me in the course of practical divination compared to the attribution of the ten numbered minor cards to the ten sephiroth of the Tree and the related concept of the “Descent of Spirit into Matter” from Kether to Malkuth, as so ably delineated by Aleister Crowley in The Book of Thoth. His description of the “moral characteristics” of the court cards also serve me much better than the Tree of Life derivations.

Another Golden Dawn construct is the “Tree of Life in Three Dimensions,” which agrees more closely with Kliegman’s model. In it the four Princesses are placed around the North Pole (the tarot being a Northern Hemisphere invention), such that each one occupies a quadrant of space. They are considered to be the “thrones” of the Aces from which the elemental forces spring forth at the beginning of their “descent into matter.” As such, the Princesses actively promote the emergence of the noumenal Universe rather than simply receiving the influx of cosmic essence; they are “in-spirited” by their contact with a higher power and in turn distribute that spiritual energy as conduits for the development of their suits. In the design shown below, the Kings, Queens and Princes are “ecliptical” rather than “polar” in that they relate to the 36 decans of the Chaldean zodiac, with the Queens being predominately cardinal, the Princes fixed and the Kings (GD and Thoth Knights) mutable. This is an arrangement that, as an astrologer, I’m not entirely comfortable with since the patient Queens seem more fixed than cardinal, the seasoned Kings typify the paragon of cardinal prowess and the fresh-faced Princes exude youthful mutability. It’s notable that the Princesses “find their center” at 15 degrees of the fixed signs, in the domain of their counterpart, the Princes, an alignment that I don’t think is accidental since they form a pair on the two-dimensional Tree.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at

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