Agatha Christi’s elderly detective, Miss Marple, solves crimes by recognizing, in the suspects, personality characteristics like those of people in her village whose quirks and foibles she knows so well. It was a tremendous breakthrough when I realized that if I was to know the cards of the Tarot court, they must become, for me, the well-known inhabitants of my own small village. I needed to know what kinds of cars each knight drives, what the pages are studying, what the queens desire, and what the kings dictate. Some drink too much, some are avaricious, others jealous, and each has their own kindnesses. When I walked into a sitting room or a beach party, I needed to know who I wanted to spend time with and who I wanted to avoid. I worked out who was attracted to whom and in what way. I explored their talents and their weaknesses. I ferreted out their family/suit dynamics, recognizing where the families were dysfunctional and where they were strong. Eventually, I met with those I had formerly avoided, and got to know their stories and what they had to teach me. When writing the earlier Complete Book of Tarot Reversals, I learned that, when reversed, the court cards didn’t become evil or malicious as the old books claimed. Instead, I found that they turned up in situations where their natural talents were not being nurtured and supported but, rather, were denied and thwarted, or unrecognized and unappreciated. Thus, they were either acting out or languishing. The person who makes my work environment unpleasant may be totally different if, instead, she were able to work in her garden all day.
I’ve come to fondly appreciate all the manifestations of the court cards, both for their variety (even within a single court figure) and for what they have to teach me. Just as for Agatha Christi, the mystery writer, the village has to exist first and foremost within each of us.
The book Understanding the Tarot Court emerged out of a short-lived but exciting email discussion group moderated by Tom Little. We began by exploring the court cards of what’s known as the antique tarot decks, decks based on French and Italian models from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. One of our first tasks was to describe the families depicted in each suit, and we were amazed at how rich with detail these became. We intimately knew these “people” and how they related to each other, even though our stories differed.
In 1981 I spoke at one of the first Tarot conferences before several hundred people gathered at the Unitarian Church in San Francisco. Wanting to challenge myself, I had picked the court cards as my topic. I approached them as roles, masks, and subpersonalities of the self. Instead of a single significator, I asked, “what if we have sixteen cards that signify us?” From this viewpoint, everyone we encounter, when depicted in a Tarot reading, can be seen as a projection of some aspect of ourselves. According to Jungian psychology, whether in the guise of child, wise elder, flamboyant showoff, belligerent antagonist, or artistic dreamer, a projected quality (be it bright or dark) is unconsciously attributed to someone else, while denying it in oneself. One of our tasks is to reclaim these powers. By owning these powers within ourselves, we simultaneously make room for the other person to express the full range of themselves.
Most of us have not only a personal significator, but we know which card signifies those personalities closest to our own. But, if we see them this way all the time, then we only see a piece of who they are. As I got to know my then-husband, he began appearing as more than one court card. Upon first meeting, he was an intellectual Knight of Swords (a Gemini), but rapidly grew into the King. Over the years he manifested as a wide variety of court cards (including page and queen), and I discovered I could often predict his mood, attitude, and how specifically to relate to him from the court card appearing in readings involving him. In our shifting dynamics, we became the whole village—mother, father, child, lover, and challenger to each other. I also came to recognize my own parents in many different guises, and could see how and where these parts of themselves influenced me.
Most of all, I now know that when several court cards appear in a reading they represent different parts of me—each with a different agenda, different styles and needs, and a will to make me their own. Sometimes I have to leave an old self behind, other times I have to balance the needs of many, making deals, negotiating benefits, and, hopefully, turning them into a team. All in all, I’ve found that if I listen respectfully to their advice, they only have my good in mind. They are wise advisors (if each limited to their own sphere of expertise), these members of my village, and I am grateful for having found a way, through the Tarot, to get to know them better.