A year ago I started a series about court cards, then forgot to finish it. Couldn’t let it go. So here is part III of this revamped series! The last piece in this series discussed the pitfalls of reading court cards.
I researched queens for this piece.
Warrior queens. Rebel queens. Fictional queens. Many of the narratives of power and womanhood stood in reaction to or centered around manhood. They were warrior rebels because they retaliated or defended against patriarchal threats. They were queens, because somehow or another they carried the patriarchal torches reserved for kings.
Even in the case of queens from outside a colonial or western framework, the historical accounts were written from a colonial or western perspective. And what qualities might we expect to be worthy of reporting from that standpoint? Western-centric ones where a woman births, nurtures or quietly subverts. Or the opposite where a woman destroys, conquers, and is demonized by those who fear her.
These tales are the origin story for the Queens of the tarot court.
Traditionally, the depictions of the queens in the tarot will take these ‘feminine’ themes of mothering, seduction, etc., and build on them. This may suit some just fine. Take, for example, the growing trend in “female empowerment” or even metaphysical spaces of using the word goddess as a descriptor for femininity.
I can relate to this. Growing up, to combat the negative messages I was destined to receive about myself as a black girl in America; I was constantly told that I was a queen and to always remember this. If I didn’t have this counter-narrative at home, who knows what would have become of my self-worth.
That said, there are dark sides to claiming queendom and goddess language. Terms like “Yas, Queen!” was appropriated from Queer and POC spaces. Modern popular usage exists outside the context of fortifying disenfranchised folks. And outside of this context, these terms play into the idea that to be worthy or powerful something must be elevated, more than human. Often in a binary fashion that runs alongside gender norms.
Some of us don’t formulate queendom with those building blocks: birth, heterosexual seduction, cis femaleness. For the rest, this quote from Bronwyn Walls, the artist behind the Mesquite Tarot, sums it up best, “These characters are just not relatable in modern times.”
Ironically, learning the original associations strips the court cards of their older tropes and empowers us to form our own ungendered relationships with each of the ranks. Underneath those tropes are fundamental symbols that are substantially less gendered.
For example, the queens are associated with the Hebrew letter Mem. 1 This letter is derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for water or so says Wikipedia. What does water mean to you? What might it mean to ancient peoples living without the science and privileges that we do?
Water. As in primordial sludge. As in generative properties or processes. In other words: creation. One way to frame these queens is by pairing their association with Mem to each of their respective elements. When I say respective elements, I’m referring to the elements associated to each of the four suits of the queens. Wands are paired with fire, cups with water, swords with air, pentacles with earth. Here’s what that looks like:
Now we have the properties of water paired with each of the elements. This gives us a sense of the elemental flavors of the queen. Water can be said to be, among other things: Yin, receptive, developing, materializing, steady, enduring, slow. The queens are these water qualities paired with the respective elements of their suits and their qualities.
A note about Queens and Water:
For a good long while, I thought this meant that queens = water for the purposes of reading elemental dignities, a style of interpreting tarot that focuses primarily on the elemental associations of each card. This is NOT the case.
The pairings above are a reference point for learning the queens and have nothing to do with the elemental interpretation of the queens. This may be irrelevant for most of you. If that’s the case come back to this if you ever take up elemental dignities and save yourself years of hair pulling!
What can we do with this information?
We can use it to form personalized interpretations of the court cards. Rather than relying on other people’s interpretations of the courts, we can come to our own understanding using their associations, such as the elements.
The elements are referenced in all kinds of astrology, in alchemy, and in religions across countries and faiths; each with different associations. They have a history in all kinds of metaphysical writing and correspond to alphabets, planets, numbers, and lord knows what else. An exhaustive study of them would be daunting enough to require a support network and a lifetime of dedication. It’d probably be a worthy endeavor.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate a relationship with them without joining an order or subscribing to an ideology. Start small and build. Let’s take water for example. It has a list of characteristics, but let’s focus on one word for now – movement. In the world of elements, water and earth would be slow, air and fire would be fast.
Two words – fast and slow. This is enough to get the metaphorical wheels turning. What can we imagine that is fast and slow? Let’s use nature as a template to explore these two words. Here’s what that might look like:
I’m a visual thinker, so it helps to use an image to recall the feeling of a card. The Queen of Wands might feel like lava to me. What is lava-like? Profound, grand, inspirational, enticing, terrifying. Whatever I come up with will be entirely subjective and hence personal. If nature isn’t your thing, substitute your thing and spend some time thinking, “What does this queen feel like?”
Of course using only these two words, fast and slow, limits the interpretation. The more you learn about the symbols in the tarot, the more you can consciously assign your own meanings to the cards and test to see if they work in actual spreads.
That said, these two words alone are more useful than you might think. They’re the ones I return to again and again for the when or how of events in a reading. And timing is one of the most difficult things to determine in a reading. Speaking of timing…
Queens are also associated with the cardinal modality in astrology.
The cardinal modality is about initiation and beginnings. The cardinal zodiac signs are the signs that occur at the start of each of the seasons: Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn. Each queen can be said to correspond to each of these cardinal signs. Here’s what that looks like:
If you happen to know about astrology or at the minimum know some characteristics of each of the signs, you now have a frame of reference for the personality traits that correspond to each of the queens. If you don’t know a little about each sign, hopefully, this has piqued your interest, and maybe this is an excuse to learn.
What can we do with this information?
We can explore the queens through their corresponding signs. Asking ourselves questions like, “What might it be like to have dinner with each of these queens?” Which queen is most likely to be late and why? How would they sit? How would each of them dress? Personally, I’m not sure what a Queen of Pentacles would dress like, but I have ideas about Capricorns. Not to say that every Queen of Pentacles is a Capricorn, mind you.
The modern queen is an average of everyday traits.
You may be a Libra, but do you act like one every day? Dress like one? Maybe not. Maybe you were influenced by your Cancer guardian growing up. Maybe you have a prevalence of earthy planets in your chart. All the court cards can do when representing people, in all their complicated glory, is to speak to the averages of the traits of those people.
We can use traditional associations to build our court language as mentioned above or, for a more intuitive approach, we can engage custom associations which we create, or we can engage the art directly. Each deck will utilize various symbols to communicate the message of a card, and for the visual among us, this may be enough of a springboard.
There are esoteric symbols with links to planets and zodiac signs. There are positional symbols: looking right to the future or left to the past, standing, sitting, turned away. Certain clothing, or lack thereof, can suggest different things.
The sparser decks, such as the French Marseille, will demand an eye for tiny details, i.e.: how many petals were on that flower? What color was that boot? Smith-Waite decks with lots of symbols will reveal themselves in waves as you assign meanings to the symbols or unlock their intended meaning based on study. Modern decks will demand flexibility as they tend to throw out convention in favor of letting the reader build their own divinatory language.
Case study of a modern queen.
I could feel the evilness flowing through my body and waiting, pent up, to rush off my tongue if I tried to open my mouth. I clamped my teeth shut, I’d hold it in. If it escaped, wouldn’t it flood the world and all the innocent people?
– I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
I was curled up on the bed in the spare room at my grandmother’s house when I first read these words. I was deep in chapter 12 of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I’d reached a wall of incomprehension. I asked some adults about that scene with the mattress and the blood-stained underwear hidden underneath. At nine I was too young to understand what happened in that chapter. Could it refer to periods? My grandmother, who’d never read the book, thought so.
I didn’t understand until I saw an interview with Maya talking about her life and it finally hit me. That book is an autobiography. It’s easy to forget because it doesn’t sound like your usual memoir. It’s too… otherworldly.
In chapter 12, she’s describing trauma, guilt, and the subsequent years of self-imposed muteness. As a very young girl, she thought she was to blame for the death of her abuser because of the family members that killed them on her behalf. At nine I was not equipped to understand this book.
Maya’s story reminded me of the Queen of Swords.
Imagine a moral code so disciplined that if you felt you violated it, you stopped speaking for a decade. It’s uncommon. More than that, it’s unreal. And because of its extreme nature, it makes for an illustrative example of the energy of the Queen of Swords.
This queen reigns thought, moral code, boundaries, and speech. It helps me to remember young Maya wandering in a library, losing herself in books, all those words she collected, all the words she didn’t speak. I relate this to the card, and I can tap into the memory at any time, of what it means to thoroughly master the word and tongue.
The story matters to me because, like Maya, I am a poet. Because I’ve also experienced trauma. Because I’ve found reasons to lock up my voice and throw away the key. Because I too have had to find the key and speak again. The story is more than a mnemonic to me; it’s personally potent. Find your own stories, feelings, people, forces. What is potent for you?
I could just as well have tapped into my love of auditory experience and used snippets of her poems to anchor different aspects of the queen, one for each. It doesn’t stop there. You can use movement, fabric, gestures, dances. As you work with these cards, ask yourself, what will anchor the queen in your memory? What best represents the everyday traits, those averages? The matters of art and spirit incarnate?
The point isn’t to get locked into a paradigm unless you want. It’s time to write new origin stories.
To wrap up
We talked in this piece about origin stories for the traditional queens of the tarot court. We talked about various associations of the queens, and how we might use this information to form personalized and alternative interpretations of the cards. We closed with an example of selecting a story to use as a mnemonic device and rewriting our stories of the queens.
I’d love to hear, what would best anchor the queens in your memory? Do you prefer the auditory? Kinesthetic? Poetic? Answer in the comments, link me on your blog post, or as always use #difficultcards.
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Featured Deck: The Playing Marseille, by Ryan Edwards, Inset 2017
1 Amberstone, Wald, and Ruth Amberstone. “Pain-Free Astrology.” Tarotschool.com. The Tarot School, 2006.