The Court Cards: A Paradigm Shift

There is a premise in Liber T, the tarot canon of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, that relates the court cards to the exercise of worldly “power” in its various forms. The Kings represent “Potential Power;” the Queens convey “Brooding Power;” the Knights (or Princes) wield “Power in Action;” and the Pages (or Princesses) reflect “Reception and Transmission.” I’ve always found this paradigm to be only partially satisfactory since it doesn’t exhibit an ascending linearity of force from the least organized to the most profound; instead, it is “top-down” in operation, implying that the Kings toss off ill-considered mandates; the Queens dwell on them as if they’re gospel and try to make sense of them; the Knights act impulsively (and perhaps prematurely) on them; and the Pages faithfully but indiscriminately disseminate news of the Knights’ faits accompli in a “garbage in/garbage out” manner. It strikes me as a dysfunctional (but perhaps historically credible) expression of royal power.

Yesterday while reading Paul Marteau I came up with a new model (his assertions are stated in the leading quotes): the Valets (Pages/Princess) display “preparation to act” but no progress; the Knights suggest “propagation” (the initial stimulus to germinate and grow – we might term it “incipient action”); the Queens stand for “incubation” of the Knights’ embryonic initiatives for presentation to the Kings (call it “imminent action” or “action under advisement”); and the Kings indicate “directed action” (but the fact that they’re seated could mean that they oversee the action of others at their behest). This seems to provide a more rational progression than that proposed by the Golden Dawn and is more in line with other assumptions applied to the court cards.

I draw a lot of my inspiration from the “posture” of the figures on the cards. The Valets are standing still and contemplating a step forward but have yet to take it; their modern personification as “Pages” and the Golden Dawn’s epigram are probably where they get their reputation as “messengers.” In keeping with the “preparatory” theme of this card, the youthful nature of the individuals has them cast as “students” in modern interpretation, still learning the qualities of their suit or element. They are inexperienced and cannot be counted on to be focused and forceful in action; in the past they might have been viewed as “squires” to the Knights, trusted with only the most menial tasks.

The horse-mounted Knights are the soul of unmitigated action, without “malice (or even benevolence) aforethought;” they imply “act first, think later.” The Knights can come across as restless “pushers,” never content to remain idle and just let things come to them if there is perceived advantage to be had by advancing the agenda. In the Golden Dawn system, the mounted figures are described as showing someone or something “coming or going” in a situation, depending on which way they are facing in a spread. (It’s immaterial for this purpose whether they are called “Knights” or “Kings,” since the operative principle is one of movement, not hierarchical position.)

The seated Queens exemplify patience, either of the gracious, forbearing kind or the cagey “spider-and-fly” variety; as the power behind the throne they could be “hatching” the King’s next campaign. While they can all be envisioned as “sitting on an egg,” their motives for bringing it into the world might be different: the Queen of Wands wants admirers, lackeys, handmaidens and “whipping boys;” the Queen of Cups is hoping for a “friend;” the Queen of Swords could be pondering one of Monty Python’s “scientific experiments,” and the Queen of Pentacles is seeking a financially well-off “caregiver” for later in life (my mother, a quintessential Virgo, thought this way about her nine children but it didn’t work out for her).

The Kings sit in judgment; their “potential power” lies in deciding on any given day whether to be merciful or stern since both are within their authority and entirely at their whim. The King might be considered the original “Teflon Man;” he epitomizes the business aphorism “Shit rolls downhill.” Mel Brooks was fond of having his cinematic monarchs proclaim “It’s good to be the king!” The Kings have mastered their element and know how to put it to work through intermediaries for maximum benefit, for themselves first and incidentally for the kingdom if they are savvy rulers who want to keep their heads.

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