A Crash Course on Court Cards

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Court cards. You know what they're good at? Staring contests. When a court card (or several!) shows up in a reading, it's awkward because it seems nearly impossible to break the ice with the royals. *cue Lorde*

In this post, you will learn about a simple framework based on creative storytelling and characterization that will help you get to know the royal members of tarot. I am going to heavily personify the many aspects and intersectionalities of the court cards so it will seem like I am introducing a group of people and their cultures, so just a heads up in case you get confused!

Working with Court Card's Base Element: The Elemental Kingdoms

Where are these people from? Every court card has a base element. This is their home suit, or their primary element. In this post, I will refer to their home suit as "kingdoms", since we are talking about the royalties of tarot.

Suit of Wands = Fire Kingdom
Suit of Swords = Air Kingdom
Suit of Cups = Water Kingdom
Suit of Pentacles = Earth Kingdom

Each suit represents a kingdom. Think of each kingdom as a separate nationality or culture, and each culture has a different set of values and things they care about over others. For example, in real life, North American culture puts more emphasis on individualization, independence and the pursuit of personal success, while Asian culture tends to put more emphasis on tradition, family structures, and familial piety. The court cards are the same way. Depending on which kingdom they are from, they are going to be affected by their kingdom's cultural values.

Here's is a quick look at their "cultural" differences:

People from the Fire Kingdom (Suit of Wands) care about the pursuit of desire. They feel the most alive when they are actively pursuing their desire. They are people of action. They are passionate about going on an adventure or a quest. Most of the time, they aren't working towards a prize at the end or for a specific goal. They do something simply because they enjoy the experience, and simply because they want to.

People from the Air Kingdom (Suit of Swords) care about the pursuit of order. They like to "put things in their rightful places", and they hate to be on the wrong side of the argument. They will oppose anything that is against their logic and their ideas, and will sometimes put themselves (or other people) in harm's way (ranging from a bruised ego to sacrificing their own lives for a cause) to protect their idea of "how things are supposed to be".

People from the Water Kingdom (Suit of Cups) care about the pursuit of emotional and social fulfillment. They care a lot about their fellow humans because of their empathy. They invest a lot of time and energy and heart into building good relationships with others, pleasing others and maintaining social bonds. They feel alive and validated when they are emotionally and socially connected to someone or something.

People from the Earth Kingdom (Suit of Pentacles) care about sustainability. They invest their time and energy in the pursuit of establishing and securing themselves a place in the world. This could mean becoming an active and valued member of their family or community (reputation), accumulating resources (wealth), and/or taking care of themselves to make sure they can perform at their optimal condition (health). They will do some or all of the above to make sure they are able to "sustain" their own existence.

Court Cards & Their Roles

On top of where they're from, what do they do? Within each kingdom, there are 4 royal members. The King, The Queen, The Knight, and The Page. In my video, I addressed the Knights and the Pages as Princes and Princesses, but I decided to stick with the traditional roles in this post to focus more on the traditional structure of tarot.

On top of their elemental "culture" based on which kingdom they are from, each member of the court card will have specific agendas and concerns as well based on their role. The things that the Kings will care about will be different from what the Pages will care about, because their roles are different.

The King's primary concern is government, and his primary function is to rule.
The Queen's primary concern is welfare, and her primary function is to nurture.
The Knight's primary concern is validation, and her primary function is to express.
The Page's primary concern is education, and her primary function it so to grow.

Like I mentioned in my video, you can also consider the court cards as a royal family unit. Instead of Knights, we have the Princes (off to yet another gallant quest to prove himself worthy to his people). Instead of Pages, we have the Princesses (the queen-to-be, and is developing herself to become queen). Another useful framework to look at the court cards is to view them as a modern nuclear family unit (father, mother, son, and daughter). If you choose to perceive court cards through this lens, consider the roles of each individual and how they function in a family setting. E.g. The mother is associated with child-rearing and the home,while the father is associated with being the "breadwinner" and the protection of the home. The associations may be gender stereotypes and may no longer apply to the diversity of modern family structures, but they are still useful when you are trying to contextualize the court cards in a more relatable setting.

Characterizing Court Cards based on Where They're From and the Role They Play

To flesh out the character of a particular court card, you simply have to combine their various concerns and functions according to their base element and their class. Take a look at the following examples:

Let's take a look at Knight of Wands. As a member of the Fire Kingdom (Suit of Wands), he is concerned about the pursuit of his desires. Playing the role of a Knight, he seeks to validate and express his identity. How does he validate and express his identity? He does this in a "fire" fashion, which is through action. As long as he is doing what he loves, he feels validated. As long as he is doing something that excites him and allows him to feel like he is engaged with some kind of action, he feels validated. Unlike the other knights, Knight of Wands isn't pursing a goal or seeking a reward. He acts because he wants to act and you can say that he quests just for the sake of questing. He doesn't care about the glory or potential marriage that comes after slaying a dragon and rescuing a princess. As long as he gets to slay a dragon and rescue that princess, he's quite happy to be doing just that.

If you apply this attitude to a more contemporary setting, Knight of Wands will be somebody who pursues something simply because he enjoys pursing it. If he's an artist, he makes art because he enjoys the process of creating and expressing his visions. Lacking the sensitivity of Knight of Cups, the practicality of Knight of Pentacles, and the righteousness of the Knight of Swords--Knight of Wands doesn't really care about making a living, winning somebody over with his art, or fighting for a cause. He does something simply because he wants to. On the contrary, if making money is something he's currently interested in, he will give it his all and enjoys the experience of rolling in the dough. If he feels like winning somebody over will give him the thrills and the adrenaline rush, he does it because he wants to.  Knight of Wands is a free spirit, chasing his whims, one after another.


You can also do this the other way around; you don't necessarily have to begin with their kingdoms or where they're from. Let's take a look at Queen of Swords, for example. As Queen, her primary concern is the welfare of her people, and her function is to nurture. As a member of the Air Kingdom (Suit of Swords), she is mainly concerned with order and logic. Therefore, she nurtures her people by pointing out what they are doing wrong or correcting illogical actions that serve nobody, even when doing so will hurt your feelings. It's not that she doesn't care about how you feel; it's just that she cannot continue to see you making the mistakes that you do because in her mind, it doesn't make sense. It is illogical to continue to act this way. Therefore, she must "right" it and restore order. And she does this by exposing your wrongs and persuading you to do things her way.

For example, if you go to a Queen of Swords type person for break-up advice, she will be the one handing you some tough love. She will most likely say something like, "Well, it is wrong for you to indulge in your boyfriend's dishonesty and pretend that everything is going to be okay." She will tell you this because it doesn't make sense to her. What your boyfriend is doing isn't right and must not be tolerated. Allowing yourself to suffer isn't right and must not be tolerated. It is of utmost importance for anybody to do the right thing at any given time.

Putting 2 and 2 Together

With this framework, you will be able to understand and characterize the court cards in a fun and creative way. For the rest of the court cards, you simply have to follow the "formula" and create fun, memorable characters based on the individual court card's elemental association as well as their roles. In this post, I have simplified these associations so that it is easy to combine. Feel free to dig deeper and apply your own understanding of each element and role to "create" your own set of unique characters.

Of course, there's a Worksheet!

What's a Fables Den tarot post without a worksheet!? So of course there is a worksheet. Woooot! The following worksheet will help you keep track of your personal associations of the elements and the roles, allowing you to combine different personalities and attributes together so that you can flesh out each court card through some studious imagining.


More Resources

If you are interested in reading more about viewing court cards through the lens of storytelling as well as cultivating an intuitive tarot practice, check out my e-book: Tarot Beginnings: An Introduction to the Story and Study of Tarot.