Tarot: An Elementary Technique for Interpreting Court Cards

Court Cards!  Here we see a Page, a Knight, a Queen, and a King, courtesy of the Navigators Tarot of the Mystic SEA -- your deck will contain equivalent versions of these, and the rest of the Court Cards.
Court Cards! Here we see a Page, a Knight, a Queen, and a King, courtesy of the Navigators Tarot of the Mystic SEA — your deck will contain equivalent versions of these, and the rest of the Court Cards.

It’s a pretty well-known fact among Tarot types that the Court Cards – that would be the Pages (or Princesses), Knights (/Princes), Queens, and Kings – are generally seen as being pretty much the trickiest cards to interpret in the entire deck. One school of thought holds that they always represent real people. Another says that they stand for parts of the person who’s the subject of the reading. Yet another viewpoint has it that the Court Cards can just as easily represent larger and less personal entities, including corporations, governmental bodies, or even more vague forces loose in the world. So then what’s a novice Tarot reader to believe here, and how do you go about analyzing these cards when they appear in a reading…?

The Four Elements: clockwise from the upper left, we have Water, Fire, Air, and Earth.
The Four Elements: clockwise from the upper left, we have Water, Fire, Air, and Earth.

One extremely helpful method involves the use of the Four Classic Elements. There are two levels of elemental associations to keep track of here, but with a small amount of memorization, this is absolutely doable.

First, a quick primer on the Four Elements themselves:

Element

Meaning

Fire

The Spiritual: passion, courage, impulse, willpower

Water

The Emotional: feelings, dreams, the subconscious, compassion, love

Air

The Mental: language, ideas, communication, symbols, rationality

Earth

The Physical: the body, health, career, home, family, finances

The four Aces from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot expertly capture the symbols of the four Suits: from L-R, that would be Pentacles, Cups, Swords, and Wands.
The four Aces from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot expertly capture the symbols of the four Suits: from L-R, that would be Pentacles, Cups, Swords, and Wands.

Next, you’ll need to learn which of the four Suits correspond with which of the Elements. And a brief note of caution: not everyone agrees on the breakdown here! The following table presents the elemental associations of the four Suits as I first learned them, and this array is the most commonly embraced one among Tarot enthusiasts out there…but if it doesn’t feel right, then you should adopt a schematic that does resonate well for you. Here’s the basic blueprint:

Element

Corresponding Suit

Fire

Wands (also called Staffs, Rods, Batons, and in standard playing card decks: Clubs)

Water

Cups (also Chalices, Grails, Cauldrons, Vessels, and in playing cards: Hearts)

Air

Swords (also Knives, Daggers, Blades, and in playing cards: Spades)

Earth

Pentacles or Disks (also Coins, Stones, and in playing cards: Diamonds)

The most common variation of the above would be the viewpoint that sees Swords representing the Fire Element, with Wands standing for Air. If that (or any other) alternative division appeals to you, then by all means, run with it. Just try to stay consistent when applying this overall concept, though, as inconsistency will really impair your evolution as a reader…

Finally, there’s the last level of elemental correspondences to master, which is the Court Card “ranks” and their associated Elements:

Element

Corresponding Court Card Rank

Fire

Kings (somewhat confusingly called Knights in the influential Thoth deck)

Water

Queens

Air

Knights (also at times known as Princes)

Earth

Pages (sometimes called Princesses, or Knaves in modern decks)

So, this is all great stuff, but how exactly do you go about making use of all of this in the practical sense…?

Try this example on for size: let’s look at, say, the King of Cups. You may have stumbled across people referring to this card as “Fire of Water.” This designation comes from exactly the elemental correspondences listed in the tables above. Taking it one piece at a time, you’ll see that as baffling as such terms may seem at first, they’re actually pretty easy to untangle…

Start out by realizing that any such string of elemental lingo is naming the cards in a two-fold manner: Court Card rank, followed by Suit. In this example, we’re looking at the King of Cups, right? A quick glance at the tables illustrates that the Kings are associated with Fire, and the Suit of Cups is represented by Water.

King of Cups —> King (= Fire) of Cups (= Water) —> Fire of Water

The Knave (= Page or Princess) of Wands from the Tarot of Metamorphosis is an outstanding significator of this "Court Cards as Elements" notion, rendering "Earth of Fire" in the form of a humanoid composed of molten lava...
The Knave (= Page or Princess) of Wands from the Tarot of Metamorphosis is an outstanding significator of this “Court Cards as Elements” notion, rendering “Earth of Fire” in the form of a humanoid composed of molten lava…

Similarly, the Queen of Swords would be Water of Air…the Knight of Pentacles is Air of Earth…the Page of Wands is Earth of Fire…and so on, all through the Court Cards.

All of which makes for some weighty-sounding jargon that non-Tarot people might find semi-impressive. But again – how do you apply this in a reading?

Let’s return to the King of Cups… To repeat, we’re looking at Fire of Water in this card. This means that we’re dealing with a person, an aspect of a person, some other entity, or even a less focused force that serves as a bridge between Fire Element business and Water Element affairs. Take another look at the very first table in this post for a quick refresher on what each Element signifies…

The King of Cups is then someone or something that embodies Fire attributes (The Spiritual: passion, courage, impulse, willpower) and deals in Water realms (The Emotional: feelings, dreams, the subconscious, compassion, love).

Start looking at possible combinations of keywords drawn from those tables. We may be looking at, say, a person or entity geared toward bringing passion into the emotional sphere of life – this could be the stereotypical “Lover,” or perhaps a matchmaker. It could also be someone or something inclined to apply willpower to the dreamscape: maybe we’re talking about someone focused on such pursuits as lucid dreaming, astral travel, and/or out-of-body experiences. We might even be dealing with someone who bears courage into the realm of the subconscious – this might be a psychotherapist, a shamanic practitioner, or a priest-figure of some sort. Dreamer and Mystic archetypes are often flagged as King of Cups types, and this is because these sorts are designed to channel emotional (= Cups/Water) energy in ways that are in line with the wordless impulse (= Wands/Fire).

All of the Court Cards can be deconstructed down into these elemental component-parts. It’s obviously wise to go beyond just this relatively simple system when learning this tricky subset of the Tarot deck, but this should provide a comparatively easy-to-learn starting point for anyone feeling confounded by the Court Cards. A bit of practice, and even these sometimes frustrating cards can become…elementary…

5 comments

  1. I always thought that the RWS Kings were Air. Vickie set me straight in today’s Meetup and your blog does as well. I’m going to have to fix my thinking of court cards. Thank you

    • Like I was saying over on FB, I definitely also do see other people taking up the view that Kings = Air and Knights = Fire…I just find that the reverse feels “more right” to me, that’s all. Didn’t you also say that you’ve seen people assign Earth to the Kings? I’ve never seen that one!

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