The Courts Out of Their Elements

It must be terribly confusing to be the Knight of Pentacles. Or, for that matter, the Queen of Wands. Or the King of Cups.

One of the first tactics you learn when you’re starting to tackle the big, scary Court Cards is that they can be understood as a confluence of elemental energies. Each rank within the Tarot Court is assigned to an element: Pages to Earth, Knights to Air, Queens to Water, and Kings to Fire.* This ordering is, itself, based on the hierarchy of the four elemental worlds in Kabbalah.

The idea, then, is that you can better understand the individual nature of each Court Card by thinking of the way its rank-element manifests in its suit-element. In other words, the Page of Wands is the “Earthy part of Fire”; it’s the way that the energies of Earth manifest in the world of Fire. (In the case of this specific example, that can mean impulsivity, awakening sexuality or spirituality, a certain degree of bull-headedness, etc.)


Following this idea along, then, there are four cards which, respectively, represent the purest form of their elements. The Page of Pentacles is the Earthy part of Earth. In many ways, she is the purest expression of the elemental energy of the suit of Pentacles, rivaled only by the Ace. She is also the purest incarnation of the elemental Pages, the most pagelike Page of the four. When someone asks me to explain what the Pages are all about, I always find myself starting with the Page of Pentacles and then showing how her qualities manifest differently when affected by the other suits.

The same can be said for the Knight of Swords, the Airy part of Air. And for the Queen of Cups, and the King of Wands. These four cards are, to my mind, the truest form of the Tarot Court, each one bundling up all of the raw elemental energy of its suit and rank. The King is not just the King of Wands, he is the King of Kings,** and the King of all Tarot. He is the KING, in giant flaming letters writ across the sky.

So we have our KING, and our QUEEN and KNIGHT and PAGE, and together they form a sort of super-Court that transcends the four individual suit-Courts and expresses all the raw archetypal chutzpah of the Tarot COURT.***  This, I think, is a valuable enough insight in its own right, and I actually apply this principle quite a bit when I read. These four cards are linked to each other in a very special way. If I see the KING, KNIGHT, and PAGE, but am missing the QUEEN, then it’s significant to me that all of the elements except for Water are present in force.

But the Tarot super-Court is not actually the reason I started writing this post. Because as a mirror image to the super-Court, composed of cards that are fully dignified in their elements, we have an infra-Court composed of cards that are elementally weak.

goon meet
Oxymoron (n.): A person who buys Oxi-clean.



Take, for example, the King of Cups. Kings, we know, are Fire, and Cups are water, so the King of Cups ought to be the “Fiery part of Water”. But Fire and Water do not like each other. They don’t mix. Fire in Water gets extinguished. So when we have a card whose nature is expressed as Fire-in-Water, it’s very hard not to feel like that card is a (figuratively) walking contradiction.

I often wonder what it must be like to shuttle around inside the King of Cups’s head, to feel those two elemental energies constantly at war with each other. The end result of that war is a tenuous peace treaty that’s actually quite beautiful (with the King of Cups in particular, we see a tremendous outpouring of compassion, goodwill, and sincerity), but–to quote President Snow from the Hunger Games trilogy–that peace is hard fought and sorely won. The King of Cups has to work to assert his personal identity.

The same goes for the Queen of Wands, the Knight of Pentacles, and the Page of Swords. These four cards are, in a way, much more human than the super-Court. Their personalities are a product of inner conflict and self-doubt in a messy, human way that the sweeping archetypes of the Tarot COURT will never be able to understand. The infra-Court is no less powerful, no less a part of the cosmic order-o’-78 than the super-Court, but these four cards have something beautifully vulnerable about them, and it makes them more relatable. If you have a problem and you want it solved, you go to the King of Wands. If you have a problem and you want someone to understand what you’re going through, you go to the King of Cups.

So, what’s the point of this post?

Embedded within the sixteen Court Cards of the Tarot, in addition to the Courts of the four suits, I see two additional courts that stretch across the suits. One is a Court of elemental strength, and the other a Court of elemental striving. And these are two very basic messages that I often find myself delivering to querents: “You are strong” or “You are becoming strong”. Often, we look to Tarot as a mirror of our inner selves, and often we do so when we feel weakest. I think it’s important and helpful to see not only the power cards, but also the cards that are out of their elements–the cards that struggle to control the forces around and within them. It humanizes Tarot.

Humans are messy, complicated, contradictory creatures, and we need to be able to see all of our messiness in Tarot readings for those readings to be helpful. Elementally ill-dignified cards are, by their nature, some of the messiest, and for that, I think they are some of the most important cards in the entire pack.

*Well, in the RWS system. In the original Golden Dawn system, according to S. L. MacGregor Mathers’ Book T, the hierarchy of the Courts wasn’t King-Queen-Knight-Page, it was Knight-Queen-King-Knave. (Although the Knave was also called the Princess.) Crowley took the Golden Dawn’s system and adapted for the Thoth deck as Knight-Queen-Prince-Princess. So in GD or Thoth-based decks, the cards titled “Knight” are at the top of the hierarchy and are linked to fire–the equivalent of the RWS King.

Golden Dawn       –       RWS      –       Thoth       –       Element
Knight                             King                Knight               Fire
Queen                              Queen             Queen               Water
King                                 Knight             Prince               Air
Knave/Princess            Page                 Princess           Earth

**Artaxerxes, anyone?

***Yes, I’m aware of just how annoying the rampant caps-lock is. This is the kind of thing that makes me roll my eyes and stick a Tarot book back on the shelf when I’m browsing through a bookstore. But in my defense, the words I’m working with are already capitalized, so unless I talk about the KIng and the COurt (which, frankly, is even more annoying) or use excessive italicization to convey my point, I have no other way of signifying that I’m talking about an über-King and an über-Court.

One thought on “The Courts Out of Their Elements

  1. Frankly, I find it very hard to understand this concept of “Earthy part of Water”, “Fiery part of Earth”, I never really understood it. I know several books use it, but I just can’t wrap my head around and transform into practical exemples ! It confuses me more than anything (sigh).

    In any case, what I really wanted to say was : Alejandro Jodorowsky (TdM) also places – if I’m not mistaken, it was a long time ago – the Knight on the top and it makes much sense in his book The Way of Tarot. If I recall it correctly (sorry I’m paraphrasing I don’t remember the exact words) the Knights are the shift, the uncomfortable nag we get when we have achieved perfection, they exist to “disturb” the stable and set in motion the forces that we need to break whats set and begin a new cycle.

    Anyways awesome post as always ! 😀


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