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Tarot Cards: The Royal Court in Residence

This article was written by Janina Renée
posted under Tarot

About a fifth of the cards in a standard Tarot deck are court cards, and these are commonly used to designate personalities. An individual Tarot user will often relate to one of the court cards more than the others, and use that one as his or her stand-in or “significator” in different card spread contexts. However, because we have to be many different things to different people over the course of our lives—and even over the course of a day—we also find ourselves acting through various sub-personalities, and so experience additional court card types as facets of our larger selves. By applying special card search techniques to the Tarot court, we can gain insight into how we express and manage these sub-personalities.

However, before getting into those techniques, it is interesting to note how we, as everyday people, use kings and queens to represent ourselves in Tarot readings that address our mundane concerns, as well as our more sublime spiritual strivings. It’s a little ironic, because when we look at the historical and social position of royalty and nobility, they lived—and continue to live—in a rarified world of privilege and power that the average person can’t begin to imagine. (Because some of the earliest Tarot decks were commissioned by members of the Italian nobility, as well as illustrious merchant princes, that world of privilege and power was probably not so difficult for them to imagine.) So, one may ask, by what right may commoners assume these royal personas? In response, one can point to the psychology of archetypes, as royal figures are active in the psyche.

One reason that children love to hear fairy tales centered on princes and princesses is they are able to identify with them, because young peoples’ egos are apt to be inflated. There is a natural tendency for children to feel that everything centers on them, though of course as they mature, their self-esteem will come to be more premised on their character, accomplishments, and service to others. However, in their early years, that inflation is necessary to the growth and survival of their sense of selfhood. That’s why, although a number of egalitarian-minded folklorists have assembled collections of fairy tales that replace the princes and princesses with heroic, self-reliant proletarians, those efforts have never caught on. Those stories don’t capture children’s imaginations very well, because they don’t have the same archetypal potency. The archetypes of the Prince and Princess are, of course, the darlings of the archetypes of the King and Queen, which are important organizing principles in the psyche. This is made more explicit in languages such as German: even though a word like “Königstochter” (king’s daughter) is more of a mouthful, and less delicate and elegant than the Latinate “princesse,” having that word “king” in there underscores that child’s closeness to that King in the Psyche, and in Sacred Space.

Simply put, the Inner King relates to a person’s executive function, and sets real world goals, while the Inner Queen nurtures a person’s dreams. Without their guidance and inner governance, a person lacks protective structures and a sense of possibility, causing him or her to drift and flounder. The four pairs of kings and queens of the Tarot reveal different areas of life where this self mastery is actualized and asserted in the other world. The pages denote new learning situations that help develop the qualities of their suits, while the knights go out into the world to carry out their kings’ and queens’ instructions in an active, hands-on sort of way.

So, to try some card search techniques using the Tarot court, a simple thing you can do is shuffle and cut the deck, and then search for whichever court card (or other card) you regularly use as your significator, after posing a basic question such as, “Please tell me something about my significator.” When you have located your significator in the deck, note whether it is upright or reversed. An upright card indicates you are able to enjoy a fairly free flow of self-expression—that is, you are able to be yourself. We are always strongest in our own power when we can be ourselves. If reversed, circumstances may be pressuring you to tone down your self-expression. However, reversals also change the direction your significator is gazing (and sometimes moving) toward, so, if the figure in the card serving as your significator normally looks toward the right, the direction of the future, but is now looking to the left, things from the past may be currently commanding more of your attention. Next, look to the cards that are flanking your significator, as they provide clues as to what sort of situations and experiences are influencing your self-presentation. If one of those flanking cards should also happen to be a court card, that could be a sub-personality that is influencing your development. If your significator and the figure in the other card are positioned in such a way that they meet each other’s gaze, the process of integrating these differing personalities may be going fairly well; however, if they are back-to-back, there may be problems with parts of your psyche that aren’t willing to work in cooperation.

Because as busy people we have to wear many hats, we probably act out qualities of all sixteen court cards at different times. Therefore, as a variation of the above technique, you could pose a question like, “Please tell me something about my current mode of self-expression.” Shuffle and cut, then thumb through your deck until you come to the first court card, and that will tell you something about what sort of character you may be modeling right now. If the first court card should happen to be your usual significator, then again, this is a good time to be yourself. If it’s some other card, then it’s likely that your present circumstances require you to act out a different role. If the card is reversed, it may denote a situation where you have to assume a role that you don’t feel very confident about, and so you may be performing your tasks less skillfully. Also look to the flanking cards, the direction of the gaze, of movement, etc. for further amplification.

Because we are integrating a number of different personas at any given time, we can also expand the card search technique to look in on the larger court. I call this the “royal court in residence,” based on the historical practice of kings, queens, and other members of the royal family to make royal progresses, visiting all of their castles, as well as the homes of other members of the nobility. Even today, Queen Elizabeth spends different parts of the year at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral, Holyrood House, etc. Whenever she stays at a different place, they fly her standard to show that she is “in residence.” To identify who is staying in your castle, simply pose a request like, “Please show me the royal court in residence,” then shuffle and do a card search as before, but this time, go through your deck to find the first four court cards that come up. There is a great deal of information that you can gain from the four-card spread that results. In addition to the principles already mentioned, here are a few more pointers:

  • In the most idealized situation, you would have a balanced grouping of a king, queen, knight, and page; if this is not the case, it just shifts the balance to emphasize some functions over others.

  • If your four cards are pretty well distributed among the Pentacles, Cups, Wands, and Swords, you are active in diverse departments of your life. On the other hand, a preponderance of the Pentacles court shows you focused on material concerns, Swords are more focused on conflicts and causes, Wands on projects, and Cups on the life of your emotions.

  • If your normal significator is present, this again bodes well for being able to be yourself. However, if not present, this just means that he or she is acting as host to all the other characters, and the focus is on their needs, activities, and functions.

  • If you get a lot of pages in your reading—especially if there is no king or queen, or any kings or queens are reversed—there could be a question as to whether any adults are in charge right now. Otherwise, this could simply mean that you’ve got a lot of learning going on, in many different areas.

  • A preponderance of knights? Busy, busy, busy. You can expect to expend a great deal of energy.

  • A spread that is weighted with kings would indicate that you are doing some major foundation building. Multiple queens could mean that you are simultaneously exploring different lifestyle possibilities.

  • An interesting case is where you get a graphically divided reading, where the first two court card figures are facing inward toward each other, and the next two court card figures are also facing each other. Two sets of two could represent Conscious (the pair on the right) and Unconscious (the pair on the left) functions.

  • In some cases, when you go through the deck, you may decide to pull out the Emperor or Empress, should they be among the first four royal figures to come up. As a High King and High Queen, they would indicate that the things you are doing to structure your life will have major, long-term effects that are also significant to your spiritual development. If you get the Emperor and a king, or the Empress and a queen, the king or queen would probably represent the area of mastery where you are best expressing the Emperor or Empress energies.

If you prefer an even more in-depth reading, you can expand the court card search technique: when you go through the deck to pick out the first four court cards, pull the cards that are flanking them as well, to consider how these cards shed additional light on the court cards’ meanings. That can give you a spread with four rows of three. If some court cards come up beside each other, this will modify the layout slightly; you will want to pay special attention to how those cards relate to each other, and how the flanking cards pertain to those cards as a duo.

Remember, too, that because our inner worlds are often mirrored in the outer world, different court card personality traits that we are working on developing will often surface in other people who become active in our lives. So, as you are looking over the royal court in residence, you can be thinking about the people you know who also model these personality styles. Observers of royalty can discern which family members and courtiers are closed to Queen Elizabeth by noting who else is present when she appears on her balcony to greet the public. Who is standing on your balcony?

Janina Renée
Janina Renée is a scholar of folklore, psychology, medical anthropology, the material culture of magic, ritual studies, history, and literature. Her books include Tarot Spells, Tarot Your Everyday Guide (winner of 2001 Coalition of Visionary...  Read more


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