Light and Shadow: How to sort the courts part 1.1 – people, roles, & perspective

court cards PDA year ago I started a series about court cards, then forgot to finish it. Couldn’t let it go. So here goes attempt two. Feel free to call me out if I forgot to finish again!

When you’re driving, it can seem like you’re the only person in the world.

Sometimes you even forget yourself and end up at destinations not remembering how you got there. Other times, you are very aware of the other people on the road even though they are relatively far away and even though you cannot speak to each other.

As soon as you need permission from another driver to proceed, as soon as you need cooperation, it becomes clear how much your reality interacts with that of others. Such is the role of the court cards in the Tarot. They describe the context in which we relate to ourselves and other people.

The court cards can be tense because they deal with all things ‘people’ in the tarot.

If you read tarot, the court cards will at some point confound or maybe even trigger you. Because court cards depict members of the royal court or royal family. They reflect social hierarchy in the purest sense – the most traditional gender roles and familial structures.

They remind us of the oppression that goes along with these structures. The person who’s relied on community instead of blood family might have a particularly rocky relationship with these cards. As well as the tarot reader from cultures that center around communities instead of the nuclear family.

court cards PD

Because the court cards feature western/colonial societal structures, they call to mind all the isms and phobias that result with hierarchy – ageism, sexism, racism, etc. All the things born from hierarchical exchanges between humans in a Eurocentric world, all the results of the combination between people and power.

The formation of families, rather than communities, creates hierarchies of which people are worthy and deserving of our attention, protection and devotion.
Caleb Luna via BGD


The glass window and the reflective mirror

It’s no wonder these cards are difficult to interpret. Reading them correctly demands an awareness of our relationships to socializing, social structures, and norms. It demands a mastery of our own perspective. Our view of the courts will counterpoint our view of the world. It will either be as through glass window or through a mirror. Either we see out at the world, or we see into it through ourselves.

court cards PD

The glass worldview is a literal view.

With the glass worldview, we are separate from the world, and we view it outside of us. From this vantage point, we see the courts as actual people. Persons who enrage us, who help us, who take advantage of us, and that we can blame. Individuals in their own separate world with their own secret thoughts. We might feel locked out. We might seek the tarot as a key to this other world and ask questions accordingly:

What does so-and-so think about…?
Why did so-and-so…?
Will so-and-so…?

This way of reading the courts unlocks them as actions, travel, kinds of work, specific time periods and people. Even if we don’t generally take this literal stance with the tarot, depending on your style of reading, they may have a mind of their own and refer to this kind of specifics. And as long as we are open to messages with this level of detail, we will receive them. Of course, everyone is at choice in how they use tarot cards. Knowing what you believe the tarot do helps determine how to interpret them.

court cards PD

The mirror worldview is not literal.

It presupposes that we as beings are not separate from the world. There is nothing outside of us to view as we are all things. From this place, the courts just like anything else in the world – the art we make, a conversation we have, devastation we experience – all things are reflections of us.

The court cards might represent the parts of ourselves that are awakened or dormant, the parts of ourselves left over from the past influenced by people close to us, the people we feel like we need to be, our projections on others.

We might seek the tarot as a reflection of our inner world and ask questions about who and how to be.

So just how do you know which way to read them?

The answer is personal. Some may always read the courts as literal people or actions; others as guideposts for internal workings. I’m pretty greedy – I straddle the two, leaning into my intuition to know which interpretations are most relevant. The tarot is nothing if it’s not about choices. What do the court cards say to you? Find your own answers with a consistent tarot practice.

This series will not decide for you.

Just as any tarot reader worth their salt won’t take responsibility for your decisions. This series will not decide exactly how to work with the courts for you.  This series will not make court cards easy. Well, I mean, it might, but that’s not my intent. It will not make an intensive study of the esoteric roots of court cards. (<– This may end up not being true actually…) At least, that is not my intention.

This series will sort the courts.

As in, into piles, somewhat systematically (attention-willing, no promises) by elements, energetics, and “isms.” We’ll discuss the elemental, astrological, and qabalistic associations of the court cards so that you have options in your practice.

So that you can choose rather than panic the next time you pull one of these suckers. And so that, if you subvert the oppressive structures with your interpretations and depictions of the courts, you can do so relative to the esoteric framework if you choose.

Everything written here will be an amalgamation of books and websites read, classes taken, and experiences garnered in my tarot practice. What I write may match your learning or it might not. I invite genuine interest in shared learning about court cards in the comments – court card methods, links to your relevant court card pieces, and authentic questions.

If you are uncomfortable reading what another tarot reader has learned about court cards because it’s different than what you’ve learned, I’ll just go right ahead and send you some love in advance.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

If I were to sketch out the rough associations with court cards it might look like this:

Court
Action
Role

Queen

creates

muse

King

stabilizes

guardian, ally

Knight

acts/goes

activist

Page

reveals

student, networker

This table focuses on some of the most basic associations of the cards. There’s debate about which court serves as the “creator.” I’m one of those that go with the queen. There’s esoteric reasoning for this breakdown which I will address in future posts.

court cards

If I were to add the less than palatable characteristics of the courts, it might look like this:

Court
Action
Role
Shadow Action
Shadow Role
Queen creates intuitive
muse
obscures resentful
caretaker
King stabilizes stable
guardian
controls

entitled
oppressor

Knight

acts/goes

inspired
activist
reacts impulsive
destroyer
Page reveals curious
student

ignores

oblivious
child

To understand the courts, especially their negative attributes, we often lean into the oppressive social structures with which they were initially associated. To memorize the meaning of the Queen we call up everything we know about femininity, including misogynistic/heteropatriarchal associations with passivity, inferiority, or irrationality or things from the cisgendered model relative to birthing and mothering. We think of the Kings and Knights as either leaders, saviors, or poster boys for toxic masculinity. We associate youthful innocence and ignorance with the pages.

Many of us have way more examples in our lives of the competitive and devaluing nuclear family model than that of cooperative and nonnormative community patterns. This is often reflected in the art of tarot courts. You’d need a lot of patience reading through old texts like Book T by Mathers because the writing is filled with outdated models for everything from gender to energy.

Of course, this is rapidly changing for the better with many indie decks (and even some traditionally published!)  throwing out the familial/royalty models for the courts and reinventing the “people part” of the tarot. This is a double edged sword for me personally, as I find myself unconsciously looking for esoteric symbolism at the core of a deck and if I don’t find it, I’ll sometimes hesitate to give that deck a go.

I dream of decks that honor esoteric roots while also either subverting normalized roles and acknowledging that oppressive hierarchies exist (for now) or incorporating nonwestern/noncolonial standards for community. Until I see that, lean I shall on the old tropes, but with consciousness. Because painful as it can be to sit with, these courts with their implied isms reflect our current reality.

We started in this post with a basic framework for the courts. The associations in the tables above might feel familiar even if they have a different spin. In the following posts (which I WILL write!) We’ll discuss the why behind some of these associations starting with the elements.

court cards PD

Show me your fam on Twitter! Use #difficultcards to share pictures of courts that represent your family – chosen or blood. You can also share in the comments! Or…

Who are you today?
Which court card captures your essence or actions today?

Share which card and why in the comments or use #difficultcards.

Keep in touch

Join the Bits & Bobs List!

Friendly, weekly-ish emails from Beth with tarot tips and ideas, news, and other good stuff. (Including cat pictures.)

Powered by ConvertKit

6 comments

  1. Francie says:

    I love this! I totally get stuck in the hierarchical nature of the court cards (so much so that I find it difficult to engage with them at all), and it makes so much sense to be like, this does suck but it’s the reality of all of our social relationships in the world as it is, so let’s engage with that rather than pretending it’s not happening. Thank you so much for writing this and I’m looking forward to hearing more!

    • Siobhan says:

      I can identify with that difficulty with the courts, especially lately. But in my life, if I were to disengage from everything that irked or angered me, I’d be checked out of most things and for good. I actually think even if humans faced none of the social problems we currently face, we would get creative and manifest new and arbitrary hierarchies with which to torment each other. It does help to use the rest of the associations for the courts. It doesn’t have to be solely based on the heirarchy. Thankfully, t’s just one nuance to choose from.

  2. Lovely post, Siobhan! I like your take on the Courts representing outdated hierarchy and hence giving us loads of ‘isms’. And I adore the challenge to represent our fam (in one way or another) with Court cards. I know which I’d pick for my Dad – King of Cups from the Housewives Tarot. Otherwise, I shall have to think on that :D

    • Siobhan says:

      Thank you! High praise from you, chloamccracken. :D Funny how sometimes not only do we know which card fits the person but also which deck. *chuckles

Add your comments...