When most people first begin to study the tarot, the court cards can be especially challenging to understand and interpret. Laid out on the table, they frequently just sort of sit there, offering little in the way of explanation or inspiration. I once heard them referred to by another reader as “folks on thrones,” and that’s a pretty apt description when you compare them to other cards, such as the number or “pip” cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. In contrast to these often dramatic, action-oriented cards, the courts can seem downright impenetrable.
Fortunately, there are a few different approaches you can take to the court cards which can aid you in unlocking their meanings in the moment. In this post, I’ll share a few which have worked for me.
First, a disclaimer
Before I jump into the meat of this post, I should make it clear that I don’t believe the cards of the tarot have strict, fixed meanings. Rather, cards take on meanings in the context of a reading, and those meanings directly relate to the question being asked and the circumstances surrounding it. This goes for the court cards as well. While there are some general ideas we can associate with particular cards, and while we can look at the so-called “traditional” meanings of each for inspiration, the ultimate answer as to what a card means can only be known when we know what question is being asked.
That said, here are a few ways which can help you read with the court cards.
Court cards are people
In my experience, whenever a court card comes up in a reading, it almost always refers to a specific person in the querent’s life. Unlike the major cards (which usually point to abstractions, archetypes, or Big Forces beyond our control), or the numbered minor cards (which usually indicate situations or actions), the courts are literal, concrete individuals.
I recognize that some readers tend to think of the court cards as sometimes representing attitudes, or certain broad personality traits, but almost never find this approach to be useful. Once in a while, I will see a pair of court cards together which seem to indicate that the querent is undergoing either a significant change in their thinking, or needs to shift from one attitude to another, but this is relatively rare. And it’s usually so obvious that I don’t bother looking for it until it jumps out at me.
So in nearly every case, the court cards are people. That means our real task when dealing with them is to figure out who they represent.
Appearance doesn’t matter
In over thirty years of working with the Tarot, I’m pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of times the physical appearance of a court card bore anything but the most superficial resemblance to the person they indicated. Hair color? Eye color? Skin tone? I’ve never found any of them to be reliable indicators, so I avoid such attributions entirely and suggest you do the same.
Gender doesn’t matter (usually)
Our present understanding of gender is different and more nuanced than it was when decks such as the Rider-Waite-Smith were first put together. Because of this, trying to apply the rigid gender binary often expressed in the court cards to the people around us is challenging, if not entirely doomed to fail. You’re far better off trying to sort out the courts using the techniques I describe in the following sections.
That said, it’s not always nor entirely wrong to consider the genders presented on the court cards, and to then compare and contrast them with the genders presented by the people involved in the situation.
Again, don’t hold too closely to thoughts like “Well, this card is a King, and so we’re definitely looking for someone who presents as male.” Rather, just sort of keep them in mind, especially in those situations where you have narrowed things down and know that a court has to represent one of two people. In such cases, sometimes gender presentation can be the deciding factor, but I’d still proceed with caution if a court card’s gender was somehow my only clue.
Age, authority, and seniority
What ages are represented by which court cards can also be an area prone to confusion, usually because we tend to think of “age” as a number of years. The tarot, however, is much more symbolic than this simple calculation. In the context of a tarot reading, “age” is much better understood as being about authority and seniority.
A King is usually the person with the most authority in the situation. They are large and in charge, and usually have the power to either uphold the status quo, or change it entirely. In terms of seniority, they are usually well-accomplished, secure in their position, and at little risk of “being dethroned.” In questions about the workplace, a King tends to represent the boss, maybe even in the Big Boss. In questions about school, a King could either be a teacher, or perhaps the dean. In questions about family life, it’s usually a parent, or other well-respected (and usually obeyed) elder. Sometimes it can refer to a dominant or controlling partner or spouse, but keep in mind that a King doesn’t have to be a “tyrant,” so be cautious about jumping to conclusions.
Queens, on the other hand, tend to have slightly less authority and seniority than the Kings. They often have similar levels of responsibility, but are less free to make big, sweeping changes. Or, if they do have the same sort of agency that a King would have, they might only be able to exercise their power in a narrower context. In the workplace, this would be a middle-manager or perhaps a department head. In the classroom, a Queen might be an assistant teacher, or perhaps a student who does the bulk of the work and management in any group project. In the family, Queens often represent older siblings who watch out for their younger siblings, or other similar caregivers. Yes, they can sometimes point to a more passive partner in a relationship, but don’t rush to this conclusion, and be especially sure you aren’t assigning someone the role of “passive partner” due to social stereotyping.
The Knights have far less authority and seniority than either the Kings or Queens. They may be tasked with making certain day-to-day decisions, or be responsible for handling some critical details, but they have relatively little power to make big changes to the overall strategy. Still, Knights have what we might call “youthful energy” if we want to use an age-based metaphor. They tend to be productive, being the “boots on the ground.” More than any of the other court cards, Knights tend to represent your peers. In the workplace, Knights are usually coworkers. In school, your fellow classmates. In the family, brothers, sisters, cousins, etc. are all possible candidates for Knighthood.
Finally, we come to the Pages. A Page has the least amount of authority or seniority in the situation. They’re at the bottom of the organizational chart, and often almost completely at the mercy of others. At work, the Page is the unpaid intern. In school, they’re the new kid who can’t find their locker. In the family, Pages usually represent young children, or those family members who never seem to “grow up”. A Page could also represent a brand new parent who feels entirely unprepared for the responsibility ahead of them.
As you can see, we do find the idea of age represented in the court cards, but there’s a lot more nuance here than the number of years a person has been alive. A parent might be a King if they run a “tight ship,” set the rules, and expect them to be obeyed. Or, they could be more Knight-like, seeking to be the “cool parent” and treating their children more like friends, without bothering to set or enforce many rules at all.
I should also point out again that context matters. A person could be a King at home, a Knight at work, and a Page in school, which might be the case for a forty-year-old parent who decides to take some college classes because they feel their career has stagnated.
Elements, temperaments, and complexion
In most readings, I find that I can sort out who a court card represents just by looking at the situation and considering the relative authority/seniority of the parties involved. However, when it still isn’t clear, I usually start to lean into those “traditional” meanings which have accrued over the years. In particular, I consider the elements associated with the suit and rank of the card, and how they relate to what some call the temperament or complexion of the individual.
In this section, I’m going to try to give you the basics of this method of interpretation, but I’m not going to write up a detailed, one-size-fits-all meaning for each of the sixteen court cards. As I wrote way back at the beginning, I don’t think such a thing would be all that useful. Rather, I would like to present the idea of using the elements and temperaments as a way to think about the courts. Consider this technique and the meanings which fall out of it as a kind of “ice-breaker” when you’re sitting at the table and the court cards don’t seem to be talking to you.
The Four Elements
The four classical elements in Western esotericism are fire, water, air, and earth. In case you aren’t familiar with them and their general attributes, I’ll run through a very bare-bones description of each of them.
Fire tends to be associated with things that are expansive, fast, radiant, and extroverted or prone to action. It tends to resist changes or challenges which are imposed upon it. It is associated with bursts energy, ambition, and getting things started.
Water tends be characterized as receptive, malleable or moldable, and introverted. It’s associated with deeply-felt emotions and dreams. Love and relationship matters are sometimes considered water’s domain.
Air is considered to be expansive like fire, and just as dynamic, but it’s also adaptable and responds to changes and challenges more easily. It’s often associated with mental acuity, reasoning, or knowledge. It is also sometimes associated with the pain and suffering which knowledge or hard-earned experience can bring.
Earth is introverted like water, but less malleable and more static and stationary. It resists change, but also has a steadiness which can help sustain it when faced with challenges. It’s often associated with practical, material things.
These four elements are found all throughout what we usually call the “Western esoteric tradition,” so of course they make an appearance in the tarot literature. Each element is assigned to one of the four suits of the Minor Arcana. While there are several different ways of connecting an element to a suit, this is the most common arrangement:
Now, in each of these four suits, we have four court cards which bear the ranks you’re familiar with: King, Queen, Knight, and Page. Each of these ranks is also often assigned to one of the four elements, like so:
Again, opinions as to which element goes with which card differ. You might notice some tarot authors and readers assign the King to the element of fire, and the Knight to the element of air. There are a number of complicated reasons for this, but suffice it to say that in most of the literature on the tarot written in the last hundred or so years, you’ll find the Knight associated most closely with the ideas of action and initiating things. As such, attributing it to the element of fire tends to make the most sense in this technique.
The Four Temperaments
Alright, so we’ve talked about the elements and how they relate to the court cards. Next, we need to talk about the elements and how they relate to people. That’s where the idea of temperaments and complexion come into play.
Each of the four elements is associated with one of four temperaments. These temperaments are part of how people in the ancient world (and some magicians today) understood the physical and psychological makeup of people. Each person is thought to incorporate all four of the temperaments, in varying degrees. Taken together, the balance and proportion of the temperaments makes up the total complexion of the person.
The four temperaments are assigned to the four elements as follows:
You’ve probably seen the names of these temperaments before, or words which are similar, such as “melancholy.” Just so we’re on the same page, though, let me give you a brief explanation of what they mean for us here.
The choleric temperament appears as rapid action, enthusiasm, and bold energy. It’s ambitious, courageous, and never flinches when faced with a challenge. There can also be a bit of aggression here, or even violence in the right (or wrong) circumstances. There’s an emphasis here on doing as opposed to planning. There is also a tendency to change one’s mind. People who are predominately choleric don’t so much lose their enthusiasm for things, but rather they find new things to be enthusiastic about.
The phlegmatic temperament is associated with reserved and sensitive personalities, as well as strong emotions, though their natural reservation means these emotions are not always openly expressed. They are adaptable to the point where they may seem almost too subjective, inconsistent, or sometimes passive to the point where others might call them lazy. They favor feelings and emotions over reason and logic.
The sanguine temperament most commonly manifests as an active, dynamic personality. Spontaneous, enthusiastic, but also able to adapt to changing circumstances. There’s a versatility and quick-thinking nature to the sanguine temperament which makes them not only good students, but also excellent communicators who can socialize with almost anyone. This can also sometimes lead to a lack of organization, or perhaps make the individual a bit superficial, or else lead them to not work as hard as they perhaps should.
Lastly, we have the melancholic temperament. These individuals tend to be reserved and reflective, but also quite firm to the point of stubbornness. Their emotions tend to be more moderated in their expression, and they usually focus on more “practical” concerns. Others can sometimes see them as cold, distant, or unengaged, but this is not often correct. The melancholic focuses on what is objective and useful. Sometimes, though, this can result in someone a bit “cold hearted.”
Still with me? Great. Trust me, this is easier than you think it is.
So now we have the four elements, the four temperaments, four suits, and four ranks. How do we put them all together? Well, if we remember that each of the court cards always represents a specific person, and we remember that each person has a complexion made up of their relative temperaments, we start to see this system in action.
The primary temperament of a court card comes from their suit. This primary temperament is moderated or augmented by the secondary temperament which comes from its rank. To be clear, the temperament of the suit always takes center stage, but it is adjusted or balanced by the temperament of the card’s rank.
For example, the primary temperament of the Queen of Wands is choleric, because Wands is associated with fire. The secondary temperament of the Queen of Wands is phlegmatic, because Queens are associated with water. Therefore, we say that the Queen of Wands has a complexion which is primarily choleric, yet moderated by the phlegmatic temperament.
To show you what I mean and how to apply it, here’s one way to think about the complexions of the four court cards belonging to the suit of Wands. Note how we take the primary temperament associated with the suit, and then we blend it with the secondary temperament which we get from the card’s rank. This blending of temperaments gives us the overall complexion of the court card and the individual it represents.
The King of Wands is choleric and sanguine. Intense, filled with energy and enthusiasm, yet there’s a tendency toward sociability and adaptability which moderates what might otherwise be an impatient or “graceless” person. This adaptability, though, can sometimes lead to inconstancy and an inability to stick to the task at hand when they get frustrated.
The Queen of Wands is choleric and phlegmatic. The phlegmatic nature tends to moderate the Wands’ choleric inclination to impulsiveness and its need for action. That said, this combination of opposites can sometimes lead to intense emotions and dramatic shifts in mood.
The Knight of Wands is choleric with choleric on top. Impatient, impulsive, and lacking in social graces sometimes to the point of hostility and rudeness. When faced with a challenge, their reaction is immediate, intense, and may even come off as aggressive, violent, or cruel. They often lack staying power, though, and can sometimes be found by following the trail of incomplete projects they leave behind.
The Page of Wands is choleric and melancholic. More constant and able to stick to what they started, there can also be a tendency to hold grudges for long periods of time. They don’t tend to let things go, even when they should.
Putting it all together
Let’s say we’re reading for a client. He’s a recently-divorced, middle-aged father who is finding it difficult to balance his changing family situation with beginning to date again. His ex-wife has primary custody of their two children, while our client sees them every other weekend. Our client admits that he does a decent job of coordinating his work schedule such that he can attend school and extra-curricular functions whenever possible, though this isn’t always easy. He wants to know what he can do to be both a supportive and attentive father, as well as give him the best chance for a loving and stable relationship.
We throw the cards, and see the Queen of Swords come up. Who might this card represent? In this case, most likely the client.
Our client is someone who still has authority and responsibility, though not as much authority and power as the King (which is likely his ex-wife, since she has full custody, and he seems to be prioritizing the family side of the situation over the dating side). He’s also clearly adapting himself to his new situation, attempting to reach out and socialize, and is looking for a plan or ideas he can use to meet his needs—all very airy and sanguine. And his desire to be a “supportive and attentive” father, while also looking for a “loving” relationship reveal just enough watery, phlegmatic energy to make the Queen even more appropriate.
It’s also possible to guess at which court cards wouldn’t be good fits for our client. He’s not using aggressive language or describing an inflamed situation, so Wands are probably not appropriate. Similarly, we’re not getting a ton of “feeling” words, so the phlegmatic Cups are out—he’s primarily air and Swords, as mentioned above. And while he’s not totally in control of the situation, he does have enough agency to change his schedule around and look for solutions, so he’s definitely not a “helpless” Page.
But, let’s take another card, such as the King of Cups. Would this fit our client better? Worse? The Queen of Swords is a sanguine and phlegmatic card, and the King of Cups also has the phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments. How are they similar? How are they different?
On choosing a significator
Some tarot readers (and some tarot spreads) make use of the court cards as “significators.” That is, at the beginning of a reading, the tarot reader will in some way choose one of the court cards to represent the querent they’re reading for and lay it down on the table before shuffling and throwing the rest of the cards.
There are a number of ways in which tarot readers will choose significators, most of which involve personal appearance, gender presentation, and age. It should be obvious at this point why I think such methods are…less than ideal.
So let’s talk about another way to choose a significator, and how it can be used.
First, I almost never lay down a significator at the start of the reading. Even when I use a tarot spread such as the Celtic Cross, I keep all the cards in the deck, let them all be shuffled together, and begin laying them out.
However, I do ask myself which court card most likely represents the person I’m reading for, using the techniques and methods I’ve already described. If I decide that the querent is the Queen of Swords in the situation, I’ll make a mental note of that fact and proceed with the reading.
So why do I choose a significator, but then not bother to lay it out on the table beforehand? Simple. If the querent’s significator shows up in the spread, I consider that to be extremely significant (pun very much intended).
Let’s say I’m doing a Celtic Cross spread, and the querent’s card comes up in the “Crossing” position. This tells me the querent is likely getting in their own way. If it shows up in the “Recent Past” position, they may be living in the past themselves, or otherwise be left behind as events are moving on without them.
In a similar vein, if the querent’s card doesn’t appear in such a spread, that can sometimes be an indicator that the querent doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of agency in the situation, or perhaps they aren’t truly invested in it yet. To be honest, though, I don’t think the lack of a significator is nearly as meaningful as its presence. There are seventy-eight cards in the deck, after all, and even in the Celtic Cross we’re only drawing ten of them.
Go forth and make friends
The real secret to getting to know the court cards is to treat them like what they are: people. Get to know them through reading for yourself and others, using the techniques I described above. If you keep in mind that every court card you come across represents an actual, literal person in the situation, and that your task is to figure out which person that is, interpreting the court cards becomes much easier.
One way to help you build this understanding is to look to the people around you and ask which court card best represents them. Keep in mind, though, that people will be represented by different court cards depending on the situation or circumstances surrounding them. Like I wrote above, a person might be a King of Cups at home with their family, a Knight of Swords at work, and a Page of Pentacles at the community college they just enrolled in.
By working through the material with simple exercises like this, you’ll quickly improve your understanding of the court cards and begin to build a meaningful relationship with each of them.
Have fun with your new friends!
If you would like a Tarot or natal astrology reading, please visit my Consultations page. I would be happy to help.