Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would not be surprised if this has been done before (and perhaps better), but this is my own spin on it.

In a previous essay I floated the idea that a reversed court card might exhibit the qualities of the preceding zodiacal sign more prominently than those of its primary astrological referent in the Golden Dawn’s Chaldean system of correspondences. If you are unfamiliar with this model, each court card has two-thirds of its presence superimposed on the first and second decans (ten-degree segments) of the main sign associated with its suit and one-third on the last decan of the previous sign (see the diagram below). I’ve never encountered an adequate explanation for why this was done, so those of us who use Golden-Dawn-based decks have to make as much sense of it as we can. In practice, I find that this dichotomy encourages intriguingly complex interpretation as befits the multifaceted nature of the human personality, but it can be profoundly difficult to discern the contrasting contributions of the dominant and recessive factors in “real-life” terms; even standard reversals don’t aid in sorting it out.

The premise I want to explore is that a court card’s dominant sign can take a step back when the card is reversed and allow the subordinate properties of the earlier sign to assume increased importance, bringing them into “high focus” as it were (an astrological term I borrowed). I already examined this speculative notion for the suit of Wands in my earlier study; here I will revisit and expand upon that, and then take a close look at the other three. I will be using the Thoth titles for this narrative: Knight (RWS King); Queen; Prince (RWS Knight) and Princess (RWS Page); I recognize that there isn’t an exact correlation between the two decks regarding court-card imagery (for instance, one has mounted knights and seated kings while the other has charioteers and mounted kings) but it’s close enough for most practical purposes.

I needed an analogy to illustrate it and “back to the future” was already taken, both by Hollywood and Alejandro Jodorowsky (in his case it was “backing into the future,” but he came close to my thinking). So I thought about it and realized that the Golden Dawn’s architecture for the court cards suggests the opposite of an iceberg. In nature, only a small portion of the mass of ice is exposed; the rest – the part that did in the Titanic – is invisible to the naked eye. By straddling two signs unequally, the court cards portray two-thirds of the personality as clearly visible “above the waterline” and one third as hidden in the depths. What I’m proposing is that reversal turns that perspective on its head and brings the clandestine fraction into full view, warts (or maybe barnacles) and all. In this paradigm, it doesn’t just modulate the upright meaning in typical fashion, it releases the “shadow side;” behaviors and attitudes that were uncharacteristic before now gain traction in the personality. This provides a rational way to decipher what is not at first blush an especially transparent blueprint for the “moral characteristics” (Aleister Crowley’s phrase) of each court card.

With that objective in mind, I move on to the card-by-card analysis:

The Knight of Wands covers the first two decans of Sagittarius, with the last third falling in the final decan of Scorpio. When upright, this Knight is forthright and dynamic, often driven by impulse and passion although with little staying power as might be assumed from the Moon and Mercury affiliations of the Sagittarius decans; he may not finish what he starts if something new and different distracts him. When this card is reversed, the residual Scorpio energy, steered by a debauched Venus, can emerge from the wings and grab the spotlight. Scorpio can be subtle and devious; it can insinuate its influence into the affairs of the Knight and nobody will be the wiser until it’s too late. The smug Sagittarian tendency to overplay its hand can be given a sinister twist by this reversal, and when in a position of power the potential for Machiavellian excess can be breathtaking.

The Queen of Wands is the Aries court card, parked in the Mars and Sun decans of that sign with one wheel in the last decan of Pisces. Combining the unalloyed assertiveness of Aries with the patient resolve of the Queen, she is known as imperious, implacable and intolerant of opposition, but reversal could bring the less ebullient Piscean ramifications to the forefront as her innate audacity takes a step back. I see a moderating potential in this assumption; however, the Pisces decan is also commanded by Mars, so there could still be some of this Queen’s overheated histrionics if not actual fireworks.

The Prince of Wands is predominantly Leonine, with two-thirds situated in the first and second decans of Leo and one-third in the last decan of Cancer. With Saturn and Jupiter punctuating his royal pretensions, he is convinced that he deserves the best of everything and doesn’t mind taking it if it isn’t immediately forthcoming. His “hidden” nature in Cancer, when surfaced through the accident of reversal, is fine with this youthful hubris since the Moon in the third decan is comfortably settled in its own sense of manifest destiny as the doyenne of Cardinal Water.

The Knight of Cups corresponds to the first two decans of Pisces and the last decan of Aquarius. I often think of this card as the “Dick Van Patten” of the tarot courts: “Mr. Nice Guy” when all is going well (although Saturn and Jupiter might contend for supremacy in his nature, the former has a leg up as the “Greater Benefic” and traditional ruler of Pisces). With reversal, all is definitely not going well; the Moon kicks in from Saturn-ruled Aquarius, where it is not the least bit comfortable, bringing some emotional aridity into the equation. Where he might have amiably let things ride before, the Knight now becomes petty and captiously peevish, showing the “iron fist in the velvet glove” that is the trademark of almost all monarchs.

The Queen of Cups occupies the first two decans of Cancer and the last decan of Gemini. Capricious Mercury and dissolute Venus in Cancer are kept well in hand by the Queen’s patient embrace; they are forces she can manage simply by the strength of her character. With reversal, the Sun rides up on the last wave of Gemini and challenges her equanimity. The implication is that she will have to come up with a good reason for her passive acceptance of the status quo, or alternatively embolden her deferential manner; it will no longer be sufficient to just coast on her gracious good will.

The Prince of Cups dominates the first two decans of Scorpio and the last decan of Libra. The Sun and Mars (the traditional ruler) in the Scorpio decans give this Prince his barely-restrained “pushy” disposition, which might best be described as “hydraulic” (the motive force of fluid under pressure) that builds internally until released to do its work. He may be secretive by nature but he doesn’t conceal it all that well in practice. When reversed, the qualities of Jupiter in Libra come to the fore. There is expansive grace and harmony in this combination, which could make this Prince even more dangerously disingenuous and superficially charming. It would be prudent to trust him even less than when he is upright.

The Knight of Swords holds down the first two decans of Gemini and the last decan of Taurus. In this case, the Gemini decans of Jupiter and Mars – a volatile pairing – give the Knight his keen, comprehensive intellect, which is penetrating and grants him his well-founded magisterial acumen. He does not suffer fools gladly and isn’t easily put off by appearances in the form of dissembling posers. When reversed, while he may have been inclined toward a wise impartiality before, the similarly judgmental Saturn in Taurus now imparts the tenacity of a bulldog. I wouldn’t want this uncompromising legal hound on the bench for my lawsuit.

The Queen of Swords is associated with the first two decans of Libra and the last decan of Virgo. Libra is the sign of Saturn’s exaltation, and Saturn in esoteric astrology is known as the “Great Teacher” and the “Taskmaster.” This Queen generally lives up to the hype, being even more meticulously hypercritical than the Knight and therefore a harsher judge. The Moon may make an ingratiating appearance in the first decan of Libra but Saturn in the second quickly dispels the illusion. In traditional cartomancy the Queen of Spades is considered the “widow” card, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to equate her with the female Black Widow spider that devours her mate. With its reversal, the Queen takes on the unstinting pragmatism of Mercury in Virgo; if there’s a “will” (the resolve of the Queen), there’s a “way” (the utilitarian savvy of Mercury).

The Prince of Swords oversees the first two decans of Aquarius and the last decan of Capricorn. While Aquarius was classically ruled by Saturn, there is no overt Saturn presence in this array (probably a good thing for social equity). Venus and Mercury are front-and-center in the Aquarius decans, and in this Air sign they are more unsentimental than they were in Cancer. This Prince is a technician (Aquarius is one of the three “scientific” signs of traditional astrology) and an astute tactician, although he may lack an explicit strategic goal. When this card is reversed, that sense of purpose comes into focus with the Sun in Capricorn. Now he is likely to be a “man on a mission,” which may not align with the high-minded humanitarian vision of Aquarius. He could be more a “process server” than a purveyor of the law, a capable functionary rather than a decision-maker.

The Knight of Disks applies to the first two decans of Virgo and the last decan of Leo. This Knight’s horsepower seems to be significantly underused in this agrarian sign unless it happens to be pulling a plow. We can point to the fecundating masculine force that presages the germination and growth of crops, but it comes across as a little flat in human terms. We might think of him as a rustic farmer, but large-scale farmers no longer get their hands dirty as this Knight prefers to do, so he might be an anachronism in these times of data-driven technology. You aren’t likely to meet him on a city street; try the hinterlands. With reversal, Mars in Leo gives him impotent dreams of being King of the World, not just the “back 40.” It reminds me of a shaggy Bert Lahr singing “If I Were King of the Forest.” It’s not going to make the Knight of Disks any more relevant in real-world terms.

The Queen of Disks belongs to the first two decans of Capricorn and the last decan of Sagittarius. This Queen exhibits an unflappable maternal presence, patient and unassuming to a fault. However, Jupiter and Mars in the Capricorn decans can imbue her with a spunk that belies her mild-mannered norm. If she is challenged by necessity to come up with an innovative solution, she will be up to the task. When reversed, the strict traditional philosophy of Saturn in Sagittarius imparts a harder edge to her magnanimous nature; she tightens up on the purse-strings and scrutinizes every little expenditure. I would take her for my tax accountant any day.

The Prince of Disks relates to the first two decans of Taurus and the last decan of Aries. He is the “handyman” of the court, a “fixer” of the first order. There is little he won’t attempt in practical matters, and even less chance of failure; dependability is his chief virtue. He “delivers the goods” with clockwork punctuality and faithfulness, as befits the elastic adaptability of Mercury and Moon in the Taurus decans (a sign not otherwise known for its flexibility). Reversal introduces the emergent influence of Venus in Aries, not the warmest of placement for the Planet of Love. The Prince is now prone to act more on impulse and desire than on a hard-headed assessment of his ability to perform; therefore, living up to expectations will be less of a sure thing, but that ad-hoc uncertainty could foster a more spontaneous and inspired result.

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