A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. January's Theme: "Our Relationship with Earth"
Volume 3 Issue 2 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Elemental Metaphors: A Key to the Courts
with Jeannette Roth
Of all the card "groups" within the tarot, the court cards are arguably the most puzzling. The major arcana, which attract the vast majority of attention in the literature, are chock-full of archetypal images and concepts which seem to naturally "resonate" with our psyches. And the minor arcana "pip" cards, with their pleasingly "round" complement of ten cards per suit, fit all sorts of intuitively-comfortable systems, from the numerological to the astrological to the cabalistic.
But the courts - ah, the courts! Sixteen in all, extending each suit by four cards, yet still in many ways separate from their numbered companions. So often, authors on the subject of tarot seem to include only the sparsest amount of information on the court cards, reducing them to a series of cliché physical characteristics, as if these cards never had anything more to show us than "dark, mysterious strangers" or "fair-haired, blued-eyed youths" who will suddenly make an appearance in our lives.
Of course, it is not true that all books and writings on the subject of tarot ignore or "short-change" the court cards. In fact, two noteworthy books - Understanding the Tarot Court by Mary Greer and Tom Little, and The Tarot Court Cards: Archetypal Patterns of Relationship in the Minor Arcana by Kate Warwick-Smith - work to focus some much-needed attention and discussion specifically on the courts. But the fact remains much of the literature to which novice tarot students are exposed still provides a woefully inadequate introduction to the subject of the court cards, presenting readers instead with cliché, stereotyped "laundry lists" of divinatory meanings at best, and confusing or worthless information at worst.
Where Do They "Fit"?
As alluded to previously, the problem seems to lie, at least in part, in the fact that the courts do not appear to have a natural, isomorphic "fit" with other psychological, metaphysical, or esoteric systems which are familiar to most of us. Yet in order to increase our understanding in one area, we generally must "ground" it in another. To put it another way: we cannot approach the unknown without a starting point in the "known".
At the heart of tarot lies metaphor. Its symbols and correspondences present familiar concepts which become springboards to the unfamiliar. Yet while different decks may (or may not) present symbolic panoramas within their court illustrations, even those which offer abundant, precisely-selected symbols may be of minimal use to us. With their "humanized" names, it is frequently the people who draw the majority of our attention when we enter the "courts" of tarot, and not the settings in which they reside. Where are the metaphors that will take us beyond the stereotypes, and truly help us to understand what these characters can show us in readings or meditation?
The system I will attempt to present here is not original - although I will not claim it is necessarily "faithful" to how the subject is approached in established esoteric doctrines. It is an elemental-based method of interacting correspondences, intended to provide readers and students with a way to plumb more "depth" out of the courts, and to enhance intuition through the use of some common, well-understood metaphors. There are two dimensions to this approach - suit and rank - which define how each court card may be understood, in order to provide true insight into a situation or even into ourselves. But underneath it all lies some of the simplest and most primal concepts of our "psychological vocabularies".
The Alchemical Elements - the Building Blocks of Understanding
While modern science has measured and described the physical world in ways our Medieval ancestors could not even imagine, the old "alchemical elements" of earth, air, fire, and water still resonate within our psyches as symbolically valid. These are the essentials, without which life could not exist: fire to warm us, water to slake our thirst, air to breathe, and earth which provides the basic materials for food and shelter. Deny us access to any one of these, and we die.
Is it any wonder, then, that we see these symbols time and time again in tarot? We innately understand their significance; even our common, daily language demonstrates how we naturally extrapolate metaphorical meaning from them. Phrases like "he's on fire!", "wishy-washy", "a breath of fresh air", and "down-to-earth" evoke sophisticated constellations of ideas with a paucity of words.
Standing alone, each element provides us with a wide range of meaningful associations which we can use in tarot readings and meditations. Combine them, and we encounter a wealth of possibilities that carry metaphor to whole new levels.
Elemental Correspondences of the Tarot Suits
Four suits, four elements. The assignment of fire, water, air, and earth to the suits of the minor arcana is fundamental to most interpretational systems, and a concept which is usually familiar even to those who are relative beginners in the world of tarot. The most common pairing is: wands = fire, cups = water, swords = air, pentacles = earth. But other associations are not without their adherents; the most common variation is perhaps the reversal of wands and swords, such that wands = air and swords = fire. For purposes of the present discussion, however, it does not matter which element is assigned to which suit. What is important is, as with the "pip" cards, the assignment should guide us in our understanding of the underlying qualities of the court cards within each suit.
Elemental Correspondences of the Court Cards
Less well known than the elemental correspondences of the suits is the elemental correspondences of the court cards themselves. These correspondences are based on the cards' "ranks", and are independent from the cards' suit associations. The top "ranked" card - traditionally the King, but often renamed in a variety of ways within modern packs - is associated with fire. The next highest-ranking card - the Queen, in traditional decks - is assigned to water. Continuing on down the line, the Knights or Princes are aligned with air, and the Pages or Princesses with earth. The result: each court card is described by two elements its suit element, and its rank element interacting to produce a multifaceted description of the characteristics of the card, even if the deck being used offers little in the way of useful or meaningful court symbolism.
Building the Metaphor
The elemental associations of suit and rank are simple enough to grasp, but the question remains: how do we use them? One useful method for understanding the interaction of these two otherwise separate dimensions is to say the element of the rank acts upon the element of the suit - and then to use our already-established knowledge of the metaphors to interpret the resulting meaning.
For example, in a system where wands = fire, we would imagine the King of Pentacles as fire acting upon earth, and the Page (or Princess) of Wands as earth acting upon fire. In other words: what might happen to the already-established suit element when the rank element is introduced into its "environment"?
To illustrate, let's carry the example further. For the King of Pentacles, we begin with the Pentacle "earth", and then add in the King's "fire". What happens when fire (or heat) is applied to earth? Perhaps a barren desert will be created. Or perhaps the fire will clear away a dead growth cluttering the land, making it possible for new life to spring forth. These concepts naturally lead to figurative idea-chains which could easily describe people, situations, or lessons which apply to the question at hand.
On the flip side, we have the Page of Wands. Here, we begin with the wands' fire, and then add the Page's earth. What happens now? Apply enough earth, and the fire is smothered - a desirable result if the fire was out of control, yet an unhappy outcome if the fire was newly kindled and not allowed to serve its purpose before it was extinguished. This could describe someone with an overbearing personality, or perhaps an undertaking that was (rightly or wrongly) denied the opportunity to be brought to fruition. It is not difficult to extend the example and imagine a variety of other metaphorical possibilities, coloured by the context in which the court card appears.
Using this approach, four of the court cards describe elements interacting with themselves. The Queen of Cups, for example, becomes water acting upon water. In these cases, we are observing the element in its "purest" form, but possibly also pushed to its extreme. Therefore, one of the ideas associated with the Queen of Cups might be "flood", whereas the Page of Pentacles (earth acting upon earth) might evoke associations such as "landslide" or "burial". Once established, the metaphors become the "known" basis by which we can finally begin to approach the unacknowledged or "unknown".
There is no "right" or "wrong" process for interpreting the tarot court cards - or any tarot card, for that matter. It is more important to have a foundation upon which understanding can be built. For those who have found the tarot courts to be either too shallow or too enigmatic - or both - the construction of meaningful metaphor through interacting elemental associations provides one approach to opening up a wide range of interpretations. As the court cards comprise approximately one-fifth of the total cards of the tarot, it seems only fitting we should wish to find a way to fully explore the 20% of tarot's wisdom that they contribute to our studies.
Jeannette Roth has been collecting and studying tarot decks for over 20 years, and has presented lectures on topics related to tarot evolution and imagery around the midwestern U.S. for nearly 15 years. She is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden, which maintains the largest publicly-accessible database of 20th and 21st century tarot and cartomantic decks in the world.
Feel free to check out Tarot Garden's auctions on eBay!
Feel free to check out Tarot Garden's auctions on eBay!
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