The Student, The Cynic and The Tarot Court

One of my favorite wisecracks is “I’m a student of human nature . . . so of course I’m a cynic!” I believe that every individual has a private script (and many have a personal agenda) of some kind running at any given moment (they’re basically starring in their own movie, although I don’t think that’s exactly what Aleister Crowley meant when he said “Every Man and Woman is a Star”), whether or not they own up to it or even recognize it. Unless you’re a saint or otherwise above reproach (like the High Priestess) or a simpleton and clueless (like the Fool), overriding self-interest seems to be a reality of the human condition that is only theoretically curbed by social conventions such as the rule of law and the observance of entrenched customs. This is nowhere more apparent than in the political arena.

The court cards of the tarot can help decipher what other people are about for those who are puzzled by their actions (or who are just seeking someone else to blame for their troubles). I don’t think it was an accident that Pamela Colman Smith, a skilled theatrical designer as well as an illustrator, made so many of the court-card backgrounds look like stage scenery. The sixteen “actors” of the tarot court represent a compelling psychological and behavioral cross-section of humanity, especially as astutely sketched by Crowley in The Book of Thoth.

Considerable confusion surrounds the correct attribution and hierarchical order of the tarot royalty; neither S.L. “MacGregor” Mathers, “chief adept” of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn nor Crowley, his most accomplished and notorious protege, espoused an identical architecture but they were much more closely aligned with one another than they were with Arthur Edward Waite, an equally-famous Golden Dawn alumnus who reverted to the historical model of the Tarot de Marseille. But that is a murky subject best left for another essay.

In the Golden Dawn tarot curriculum (Liber T), Kings are described in general terms as “A force swift and violent in action, but whose effect soon passes away” (in the Golden Dawn system, Kings [sometimes called Knights] are mounted on steeds, not perched on thrones, and thus they are highly mobile and volatile); the seated Queens represent “A force steady and unshaken, but not rapid though enduring;” the Princes (supplanting the equestrian Knights and sometimes called Kings or Emperors) are borne in chariots and summarized as “An Emperor, whose effect is at once rapid (though not so swift as that of a King) and enduring (though not as steadfast as that of a Queen);” and the standing Princess (replacing the Pages) portray “A Queen of Queens, an Empress, whose effect combines those of the King, Queen and Prince. At once violent and permanent . . .” While these somewhat scrambled statements do proceed logically one from another, they aren’t of much use in practical reading situations.

Another unofficial Golden Dawn document describes the Kings as “Potential Power;” the Queens as “Brooding Power” (by which I assume is meant “contemplative”); the Princes as “Power in Action” and the Princesses as “Reception and Transmission” (suggesting the role of the medieval herald from which the idea of “Page as messenger” springs). Apart from the curious disparity in language (the Pages don’t wield “power” as such and “potential power” comes after “active power”), the meaning of these designations is not immediately obvious and requires some thought. I see it thus: in the Kings, power is held in abeyance through force of Will and only brought to bear when necessary; in the Queens, power is contemplative like a patient spider waiting to pounce on its prey; in the Knights power is freely exercised; in the Pages it is the power of communication to direct action. For the present purpose, I prefer to view the court cards as declarations of “initiative” at its various stages of development. In ascending order of application: in the Pages it is latent, only awaiting a triggering stimulus; in the Knights it is put to use in a headlong, “just do it” way; in the Queens it is quietly purposeful and prudent; in the Kings it is wisely administered in its execution.

The Pages represent the potential for advancement that exists in the preparatory phase of any initiative, before the seeker steps out in a definite direction (although they are standing still, their facing may indicate what is to come in that regard). They imply an idea or inspiration that has yet to take flight, but they are dependent on the cards coming immediately before and after to provide a “trigger” and a “target” for their launch. When appearing as the first card in a spread (and especially when reversed), they can be clueless or unmotivated, needing to be pulled reluctantly into action by ensuing circumstances rather than actively embracing forward movement. Any card a Page is facing in the spread can offer an opportunity they may fail to recognize as such due to their inexperience, while the card behind them is taken for granted and not given a second thought. Because they don’t relate directly to a single sign of the zodiac but instead to a whole quarter, they stand as a “thing apart” that signifies implied promise, much like the Aces and the Fool.

Because of their mobility, the Knights impart a sense of direction (again according to their facing) and a “trending” indication within the context of the reading. They are more about in-process aspects of the situation than about its beginning, unless they appear as the first card in the spread, in which case they suggest “champing at the bit” and being over-eager to “make a splash,” or perhaps they are just getting “out of the gate.” The card receiving their gaze in the spread can show “where they’re headed,” with the card at their back describing “where they’re coming from.” Consider them as agents of applied initiative or “power in action.” They are the least complex and ambiguous of the courts; what you see is usually what you get. Their relation to the mutable signs in the cartomantic system of Jonathan Dee makes a lot of sense to me.

The Queens are the matriarchal “soul of patience” and exude contemplative composure when in a good mood, echoing their archetypal role-model, the Empress; when in a foul mood (such as when reversed or ill-dignified by association with adjacent cards), they are not to be trifled with (and this applies to all of the Queens in one way or another). The latter condition reminds me of the old advertising slogan “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” (Somebody once amused me with the epithet “royal bitch” for the Empress — and by obvious extension the Queens — when out-of-sorts.) The Queens are securely enthroned, but I get the impression that the arrangement is less a staid symbol of their regency and more a launch-pad from which they can spring at the least provocation. Depending on mutual dignity, the card a Queen is facing in the spread can show the current object of her pleasure or displeasure, while the card she is looking away from may reflect something that has escaped her attention (at most a momentary lapse). Once again, their relation to the fixed signs strikes me as more justifiable in showing their enduring (and often stubborn) resolve than their Golden Dawn correspondence to the cardinal signs, the influence of which can be potent but fleeting in duration (which sounds more like the “too many irons in the fire” Kings to me.).

As titular “heads of state,” the Kings are the most overtly dignified of the group (but don’t tell the Queens that or they will withhold their stabilizing support as the “power behind the throne!”) I see them as reflecting the countervailing attributes of mercy and severity; they will stay their hand when it seems provident but will strike without hesitation or remorse when that seems more expedient (the temperamental “King’s Justice”). They are solidly seated on their thrones as befits their august presence (unless we’re talking Golden Dawn or Thoth horse-mounted “Knights”) and thus are pillars of patriarchal authority and administrative shrewdness. Standing in the footsteps of their archetypal superior, the Emperor, they might be considered provincial paragons of law-and-order, but without the redeeming “noblesse oblige.” The card a King is confronting in the spread can show where he feels it necessary to intervene, while the one opposite his regard may indicate what he considers beneath his dignity and unworthy of engagement (perhaps to his sorrow). Their association with the cardinal signs of the zodiac effectively conveys the aura of mastery that assumes they can do no wrong (think Louis XIV and the “Divine Right of Kings”). As such, they embody the confidence to make their own rules even if it means breaking with the past.

These expressions of manifest power are at least more comprehensible in human terms than the abstract “force-based” model described earlier. Much better, however, are the “moral characteristics” (his term) Crowley presents for the court cards. These I have found remarkably relevant for describing the human factors influencing a querent’s circumstances when they appear in a reading, whether in the form of other people the seeker must contend with or as attitudes and behaviors they themselves should either adopt or avoid. I once went to the trouble of wading with great care and determination through Part Three of Crowley’s tarot book, extracting every scrap of descriptive text (both keywords and phrases) I could find to explain the qualities of the court cards. I captured these in a single table along with basic astrological correspondences for each card from Sakoian and Acker’s The Astrologer’s Handbook. I first posted it back in July of 2017, but figured it would be a good time to bump it forward as a service to my newer followers. In my opinion, they prefigure the modern Jungian approach to tarot, something that I, as an action-and-event-oriented diviner, don’t pay a lot of attention to but I know many people do.

In addition, I also previously wrote a detailed essay on the attribution of the court cards to the Chaldean system of astrological decans that underlie the Golden Dawn’s classification scheme. This is a somewhat convoluted arrangement that gives each court card except the Princesses a “split personality” that may go a long way toward shedding light on why some people seem so schizophrenic.

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