This post includes a worksheet. Get it here!
The court cards in many decks may look like royalty, but don’t be fooled by their fancy exterior! The courts are just like us; full of depth, imperfection and potential. Whether you’re new to tarot or have been practicing for sometime, it probably isn't news to you that the court cards can be one of the more challenging aspects of the deck to master. I too found myself scratching my head at times when these cards would show their face in a spread. Because of this, I needed to formulate a way to break down each character to help me distinguish who they are and how they relate to each other and myself.
I will start by saying that exercises to help learn the courts are plentiful. You can use some of the guidelines I’ll present here or do some additional research and come up with other options. I'm not inventing a new concept here, just providing my perspective.
Because I am a fairly visual learner, the first thing I needed to do was prepare a chart that I could fill out. I have created one very similar to this which you can download and use for your own studies. It's a two pager so the first page will provide a how-to while the second page contains a blank chart that you can fill out yourself.
If you get a chance to look at the chart on page two, you will see that I have divided the court characters by type and suit and then assigned elemental keywords and energetic keywords to each box. This will help, if nothing else, to create a very baseline understanding of the energy and element underlining each character. So the Queen of Wands, for example, would translate to “nurtured ambition” by the definitions above. This is not about ambition being out of control or muted, this is about ambition being embraced and accepted for what it is. Think about this in terms of how it relates to the Queen of Wands and you’ll begin to understand how each of these small descriptions can be useful in your readings.
Before we start boxing in our courts, I do want to note that when it comes to describing a literal person, gender isn't always implied by the card. You can pull a King for a woman or a Knight for a female. For me, it's more about the attributes of the card and less about the ascribed or imagined gender. This is especially true with the Page who often feels quite gender neutral and obviously childlike. Again, it's one of those things you will need to work through to determine what makes most sense for you. My rule of thumb is to focus on traits over gender or physical appearance but that's just me!
Empty boxes are actually full of opportunities. There are loads of ways you can tackle this next piece but essentially what you want to do, is come up with a list of consistent criteria with which you will evaluate each character. A good starting place, especially for the novice, is to go with 2 keywords; 1 negative and 1 positive. For example, the Queen of Swords might read “Intelligent” and “Cold”. Once you've done this, or instead of doing this, you will begin to select other criteria and work your way through each box to describe it through the lens of the character you’re working with. Let’s say you select the criteria of “profession”. Now go through each box and think to yourself, “what profession or area of study might this character participate in?” The Knight of Wands may be a rock star in your eyes for his exuberance, creativity and passion. The resourceful and eager Page of Pentacles might be your archetypal paperboy/girl. Use your imagination, mediate on the cards and let your deck’s imagery guide you. There are no wrong answers! This is an exercise to help you not test you! Below are other criteria or associations you may find useful to start with.
Alternate Card Association: What other tarot card do their dominant traits remind you of?
In Relationships: What are they like in love? What would their ideal date activity be?
Age Range: Typically Kings/Queens are older or matured, Knights are adults in the 20 to 40 range and still establishing themselves while Pages are often children or childlike individuals.
At a Party: What would they each be doing at a party? You could also do business meeting or any other sort of gathering, but I like the idea of a party because it is the sort of thing that anyone could be involved in regardless or age or occupation.
Celebrity (or other personal) Association: Who does this person remind you of? It can be a celebrity, character in a movie or book, or even someone you know!
Myers Briggs: 16 personality types and 16 courts, coincidence?
Astrological Association: We already know the element associated with each court, this can help guide what sign you feel would be best suited for each character.
How You Would Relate: What about each court card reminds you of yourself? How are they different? Would you get along if you knew each other in real life?
Once you begin breaking down the courts in this way, you can really see how their character begins to build. Some people get very creative with these exercises and will write entire scenes on how the 4 knights, for example, may interact if they were getting together for a beer after work. Think about this interaction in your mind and pay attention to the actions of each; how are they similar and how do they differ? The Knight of Wands brings a certain level of energy to the room. He probably can’t sit still long enough to finish a drink! On the other hand, his drinking could get totally out of control and before you know it, he’s getting thrown out of the bar! Of course, the Knight of Swords will be there to swiftly come to his defense, talk the owner down and convince the bar to let him back in. The Knight of Cups barely even noticed any of this had gone down because he was too busy swooning over the pretty girl a couple tables over. The Knight of Pentacles at this point is feeling like the evening has gotten a bit out of hand and decides to head out. He has to be at work early tomorrow after all and he wants to make sure he gets a good night’s sleep!
That’s a pretty short and terrible story, but you can see how once we've established a narrative, each court card finds its place within that narrative, based on the description that's been assigned to them.
The other nice thing with a chart like this is that it’s very easy to go back and make amendments. You’ll find, as I did, that the more you work with your cards, the greater possibility that your ideas about certain ones will evolve. As you learn and deepen in your studies, some court cards may take on additional meanings for you and you will want to adapt your cheat-chart to reflect this. With tarot, we're constantly learning. Having a living, breathing document that you can change and add to on a whim is the perfect way to honour all the ways in which you are growing and coming to understand your cards better.
One last thought before we close. The court cards are much like family (functional or not!) and in every family, there are members you love, members you like and members you’d rather not show up to holiday dinners. In any event, they are with you for the long haul, so isn't it best that we all just get along?
Have fun getting to know your new friends!