2. Beginner's Kabbalah: The Court Cards


Last time we covered the basic structure of the Tree of Life and its relationship with the four worlds, and how they correspond to Tarot. As promised, although belated, it is time to go into the murky world of the Court cards, and how they're connected to what we're doing here. I'll be alluding to the material presented previously, but won't repeat myself, since that's dull to read.

For many, these cards are the oddities of Tarot, since they seem almost superfluous. Understanding these cards is difficult, in my opinion mainly because they are among the most complex and multi-faceted cards in the entire deck. Whether they represent people or influences, they mirror actual people with good qualities and bad ones. Unlike the attributions in other cards which all seem to point in the same general direction, in the Courts each captures a different side of a complicated person. Just as you can't define a person just by one facet of their personalities, so is it with these cards. The upside of this is that they are also infinitely flexible and highly useful.

Still, although I still don't fully understand them, Kabbalah gives me a certain framework with which to approach them. I'll give you the "rules" but I can't actually tell you what to do with them, and I highly recommend you actually do the work of analyzing them for yourselves according to their attributions. I will eventually get into the descriptions in Book T, the Book of Thoth, etc., but by the end it will be possible through reverse engineering to better understand why those books say what they do. I'll be working mainly through Aleister Crowley's Book of Thoth, since his system of approaching these cards is by far the most sophisticated, yet once mastered it is also the most comprehensive, is relatively easy to understand, and gives you a really good idea of what the Courts are all about. I will not be dealing with intuition, the Meyers-Briggs, Jung or any of the later additions added to Tarot later on. This is the real deal, it works if you apply yourself but gives precious little if you don't, and there are no short cuts!

There are two stages to analyzing a Court: the Kabbalistic and the astrological. Of course, there are many, many other attributions that help get a handle on the Courts and I'll mention them occasionally, but I'll list my sources at the end, and you will be able to continue your studies. In the next installment I'll discuss how to look at the Trumps and Minors according to the same stages, but let it be said briefly that while in those cards it can be easy to "fudge" and use either one or the other, in the Courts both tools are essential. This is because these cards tend to be a bit murky in any case, and each method gives only a partial picture. Another reason for this is because the different attributions don't harmonize. Fire of Fire is not, as one would expect, Aries, the most pronounced fire sign, but something quite different. This is not arbitrary, but vitally important, since it shows an attempt to resolve the many opposing characteristics that exist in everyone (no one is "just" flamingly creative). Don't take any one part of this essay on its own, since the material builds on itself, one thing is connected to the others and each attribution taken solely on its own is rather inaccurate and wrong (just like in the people these cards are meant to represent). The Knights are not necessarily aggressive and masculine, they simply have those sides to them, they manifest their elements aggressively. Simplistic "dark haired man" kinds of meanings for the Courts really don't do them justice, and are rendered almost completely useless because of this.

Courts are actually really fun, and where Kabbalah is at its most creative, colorful and all about the subjective experience.

One last warning for those of you coming from a Waite background: Waite does not present the true attributions and ordering of the Courts in the PKT, for whatever reasons. This is important because the Courts work harmoniously as part of a bigger system on which esoteric Tarot is built. Once you know the system, Waite is jarring and what he did becomes more glaring. What follows is the original GD system, greatly embellished upon and slightly modified by Crowley (and with my own hubris and mistakes). I won't be making many comparisons, but basically Waite King=Prince, and Waite Page=Princess. As we shall see, the difference isn't just in the names.

Okay, let's get started. As we discussed last time, four is a very important number for us, since it is the number of letters in the Tetragrammaton, and from that, the holy name of God is represented in its "fourness" in the four worlds, elements, directions, quadrants and importantly for us, in the four Courts. These cards show in visual form the forces that move each of the elements, the way that these forces manifest and how the elements perpetuate themselves. When looking at these cards, think if them as telling a (rather incestuous) story and that story serves as a template for everything that comes after. This story also reflects on both the Trumps and Minors in a big way.

"Once upon a time, a young and dashing Knight fell in love with a beautiful Queen, he won her in battle, and they got married. On their wedding night, they did what newlyweds are apt to do, after which the Knight turned around and fell asleep, snoring loudly, his arduous task being done (although maybe they also cuddled). The Queen couldn't sleep, since she knew she had a lot of work ahead of her; she was pregnant, and with twins, no less.

When the children were born, it could be seen that the Prince was a product of his parents, and was the integration of both their qualities. The poor Princess, however, may as well have been adopted, she was so different from everyone else in the castle. The Prince was sent forth to rule the best part of the kingdom in his parents' name, while the Princess was exiled to some hell on earth (Flushing, N.Y., probably).

Being separated, the twins grew to be very different people, but the Prince still had nagging doubts about the Princess. He desperately wanted to see her. For her part, she also missed him, although she may not have realized it. It was only through years of therapy that she managed to understand that he was, indeed, the man for her. Once she realized that, she perceived how much he longed for her, so much that he was willing to give up his life for her. So, having been won over by the ardours of his love, the Princess agreed to marry her Prince.

On their wedding night, they did what newlyweds are apt to do..."

In this story, we have a description of how each Court acts and manifests in a basic and fundamental way. This is mainly tied to their placement in the Tetragrammaton and the element each card is attributed to, and is the first thread of meaning we glean from the card. This does not necessarily refer to the character of the card, but how it uses its power.

The Dying God In order to understand the Courts at all, it is vital to comprehend the significance of the above story. That story holds within it the root of Western culture, the thinking of its people, and also relates to human history over the past 5000 years. Crowley goes into this at length, and he discusses a few things that are irrelevant to us, but I'll try to summarize it. In olden times, people believed that all life came from the Sun, that it fertilized the earth and made it grow and blossom. In this dynamic, the ancients saw the pageant of human sexuality. Without the male, the woman stayed barren and without the female, the male would have no fulfillment (except for his right hand). The Sun was the Father and the Earth was the Mother.

However, in the cyclicity of the seasons the ancients saw another, terrifying truth. Every year the sun seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer in winter, in effect dying. It would give no warmth, nothing grew, and the land was hard, cold and barren. When Spring came, the sun came back to life, and once again fertilized the Mother. This process of death and rebirth was not confined only to the seasons, but in everything else, as well. Flesh that lay on the ground would rot, and from that rot came new life. After the phallus was satisfied, it seemed to die and lose its potency. In order to appease the god who loved the earth so much he was willing to die for it, people began to emulate it. Through suffering and self-sacrifice it would be possible to resurrect the Sun and ensure that it would not die forever.

Solar gods and heroes exist in many stories and cultures. Joseph, wearing the technicolor coat of many colors, was thrown in a pit by his twelve brothers, a not-so-veiled parable about the sun being killed by the zodiac. Moses, narrowly escaping death by being placed in the symbolic womb of the river. Osiris is perhaps the most classic and prototypical version of this story. Greek myths abound with dying gods, most blatantly perhaps in the story of Persephone, but also in others like Achilles being dipped in the Styx. Jesus, of course, is perhaps the best example of the dying god, since his story is both a sophistication and a simplification of the idea. These stories all deal with death and regeneration and also betray a terror and obsession with death.

Now, how that digression relates to the Courts is that they show how the elements perform the same drama of life, death and regeneration over and over, and that this is the way that they renew themselves. The Father mates with the Mother, and the product of that union is the Sun (Son). The Son descends into the earth to wed the Daughter, who then rises as his consort to become Queen. In order to be "saved" one must metaphorically marry Jesus. In the case of Golden Dawn doctrine, we have the same idea, only it isn't Jesus but the Holy Guardian Angel, and only after Knowledge and Conversation with the HGA can one reach one's true potential and essence. The idea is not Christian, but is well illustrated by Christianity.

It is not only in mythology that this story exists, but in almost every narrative, and it is a means by which we define our values. For more on this, I recommend reading Joseph Campbell. While there are some flaws with the "monomyth" theory, the important thing to remember is whether you accept it or not, those old Golden Dawn occultists did accept it, and so their work may be better understood looking at it through those eyes.

So that's why the Courts exist, to tell that vitally important story for each of the four elements. I literally cannot overstate how important this cycle is for the Courts, so this is worth your time researching it until you get it. This is confusing, and it doesn't matter if you don't get it right away, but try to get it eventually.

What follows are short descriptions of the Courts as relating to their elemental placements, and how their positions on the Tree of Life affect them. The Court cards are superimposed on the Tree of Life thus:

Knight: Chochma Queen: Binah Prince: Tiphareth Princess: Malkuth

Yod, Fire, Chochma, Knight: This is the highest creative power. The element is in its most manly form, thrusting forward with all the creative, active energy of fire. Chochma is symbolic of the phallus and the line, and in all this manliness there is something almost primitive and primal. There is no discipline here, only bluster. Chochma is the first movement of the universe, all the energy in one punch, and together with the seed and point of Yod, this gives us something rather overwhelming, yet transient at the same time. The Knight is a warrior in bed, but once it's done he becomes a noodle, and falls asleep. The Knight is on his horse, befitting a man of action.

Heh, Water, Binah, Queen: The Queen is the tempering and stabilizing complement to the Knight. She takes what he gives, incubates it, forms it and then gives birth to it. There is calculation here, and the power to discern and to discriminate. Just as Binah is Chochma's end-point, the Knight and Queen are inseperable, since one cannot find fulfillment without the other. The Knight is the kingdom and the raw energy while it is the Queen who orders and regulates it. As the force of stability, the Queen is seated on her throne.

Vau, Air, Tiphareth, Prince: The Princes are the combined products of both their parents, and so show a more balanced and perhaps temperate tendency. Since he is attributed to intellectual Air, he is the published manifestation of their love, he is the thought that is the result of the urge of the Knight and the receptivity of the Queen. Because of this, he is less transient than his father and more flexible than his mother. The Hebrew letter Vau means Hook, and in this case the hook connects the ideas of the Supernal triangle with the real world below. He is what connects us to divinity. By his death, we are redeemed, and we, the Princesses, become the Queen. More than the other Courts, the world he belongs to has great bearing on his character. He is the best, idealized version of his element, for better or worse. As he is the product of union, he is seated on a chariot.

Heh, Earth, Malkuth, Princess: For us, the Princesses are the most important, since they are us. We are on the receiving end of creation, the very bottom, the lowest of the low. However, we are also the most important, since all of creation is there for us to enjoy, provided we wake up and learn how. We are the sleeping Princess who awakes only with a kiss from her Prince, and through which we rise to ever greater heights. The act of "becoming one" with the HGA is to discover our true will and potential, our essence. The Princess is also traditionally known as the "throne of the Ace;" although we are at the bottom of the Tree of Life, we have the potential to unite, ultimately, with Keter. "Throne of the Ace" also means that while the Ace is complete unmanifest potential, the Princesses hold in their laps the final fruition of that potential.

Why are the Princes on Chariots?

That's a very good question I'm glad I asked! As we said before, the Princes' essence is that they are the product of union, tied very closely to their parents. Now, the obvious (or perhaps not so obvious) place to look for chariots is... in the Chariot. The Princes are, ironically, on chariots for the same reason that the Chariot is what it is. The Chariot is attributed to the letter Chet, meaning enclosure or fence, and is the path connecting Binah and Geburah. Now, as said previously, Binah the Queen is the authority that orders and regulates the limitless power of Chochma. Binah is the shell of the universe, that holds Chochma inside it. The Chariot illustrates this by Binah sending that influence of union down to Geburah. How this is done is simple: the chariot is the enclosure while the charioteer is the male element of Chochma. Some attribute the Chariot to the Holy Grail, and that is also an apt symbol. The Cup holds the blood-essence of God. Of course, the Holy Grail is also a highly sexual symbol, and in many Grail legends the end of the quest is to thrust a spear into the goblet, the symbolism of which should be obvious. The union that causes the Chariot is the same union that causes the Princes. For each animus there is the appropriate anima. So, the Chariot is, in a way, a distant relative of the Royal family, maybe a deranged but wealthy uncle.

The Court cards as they relate to the Four elements

Here is where things begin to interact with one another. As we saw previously, each of the four worlds of Kabbalah is attributed to one of the four elements, and the courts are also attributed to the same elements. This system is what allows for movement and interaction, it is what shakes things up and gets them moving. So, to reiterate the four worlds (see my first essay for a more in-depth explanation):

Atziluth, Fire, Wands, Knights: This is the conceptual world, where all things exist in potential. The first seed and spark. This world refers to actions, to movement, to the process of creation.

Briah, Water, Cups, Queens: This is the world that gives structure and discernment, as do the Queens themselves. Water is endlessly receptive, and so this world refers to feelings and emotions. Being human, nothing is wholly intellectual, but always has some emotions attatched.

Yetzirah, Air, Swords, Princes: This refers to the actual intellect, the planning stage after the potential of Wands and the emotions of Cups intermingle. We now have a mental picture of the end result, and with the Sword can "sever" ourselves from turmoil in order to achieve ends. This world is deceptive, since it thinks it is all that exists, which explains somewhat the pride of the Princes.

Assiah, Earth, Discs, Princesses: Malkuth is where things achieve fruition, both the beginning and end of the Great Work. This is where the entire Tree of Life drains down to where we are now (the "real" world). The Princesses are among the most interesting and important of the Courts, since in many ways they relate to us and our inherent potential. We are the ones who ultimately marry the Prince who represents our Higher Self, the "best version" of us and play in the Courts' pageant. The Princesses are also said to be the "thrones of the Aces." This obscure definition has troubled many over time, and I will get to it later but for now let it be said that while we are the lowest of the low, we also have the potential of the very highest (man created in God's image).

Four Courts times Four Worlds equals Sixteen

The above may seem obvious, but now it is time to see just how the elements are brought forward in each of the cards. Now, as I said before, it is very difficult, if not well-nigh impossible, to get a clear picture of these cards looking at them from one angle. However, this is the part people seem to remember most, since it lacks the complexity of astrology or Kabbalah (even though it is based on both). "Element of element" doesn't give us a lot, but it is an important part of the overall picture. The elements show us how the energy of the Suit is wielded by each figure. You will ultimately have to work it out for yourself, using the formulae. All this may sound all theoretical and up in the air, but I hope to make a point by the end of it.

Now, it is outside the scope of this essay, but you might want to take a refresher on your understanding of the four elements, how they behave and react to each other, and how they mix. Using that knowledge, resolve what "air of fire" or "earth of air" bring to mind. Intimate knowledge of the elements, which translates to understanding the four Kabbalistic worlds is vital in one's understanding of esoteric Tarot. Always, wherever you turn, you will see the "rule of four" repeating itself. Now if all this sounds theoretical and up in the air, that's because we are only looking at half a picture. The full identity of the Courts is revealed by their astrological attributions. After that, I'll give a few examples on how to work with the cards, assimilate all this knowledge and actually make use of it.

Still, although this should be obvious by now, as we have seen the four worlds correspond to the four elements and so do the four Courts. While the Queen of Wands could be said to be "water of fire," there is no actual water there. The water refers to how the fire is used, and in the case of the Queen, it is used inwardly, perhaps even introspectively. This does not mean the Queen herself is introsepctive, only that she uses her fire in such a fashion. Same goes forthe other elements. Air, for example, symbolizes the mind, so Air of Earth could be a person who is practical and turns his powers of thought to real end results. You will ultimately have to work all this out for yourselves, but it is far easier to do it in conjunction with the astrological attributions, so don't sweat it if you don't automatically know what kind of person a "water of air" is. Going step by step and using the rules, the Courts open up in very, very exciting ways, it's like meeting 16 infinitely complex people.

I have removed the essay dealing with the Courts and astrology in hopes of improving it. Hopefully I succeeded, and the new thread can be found here:

Court Cards and Astrology

Ruby Jewel

Great Info

It is truly amazing how much information you have transmitted here. Thanks. The idea that water signs tend to alcohol and drugs is interesting. I relate that to the "dreamy" aspect of seeing the world in a watery way. In particular, Pisceans (the two fish) tend to see their world like a fish underwater might, and so they are particularly prone to the dreamy world of alcohol and drugs.


A Dissenting View

The fundamental Western bardic myth is indeed the birth of twins, but not brother-and-sister (for that, we have the actual historical character Myrddin the Wild, the second or later ‘Merlin’, whose twin sister was married to the King of Strathclyde). It is, rather, the birth (at each winter solstice) of the twin gods of the year—waxing year (increase of days, the oak king) and waning year (decrease of days, the holly king)—who are rival suitors of the moon or Great Goddess.

What precludes basing a theory of court cards on Crowley (who was a charlatan, since he claimed knowledge he did not have, as when he failed [in 777] to correlate D-dalet-door with oak, Celtic D-duir [as in durmast]) is the fact that originally they were King-Queen-Knight-Knave (as in Tarot of Marseilles), not Knight-Queen-Prince-Princess. The reason there are three males and one female has to do with original placement of the twelve ‘simples’ (their original unjumbled order derivable from Celtic bardic lore, coeval with Hebrew tradition and branched from the same ancient trunk), easily confirmable in most cases by their shapes in square Hebrew (starting at aries-the-head): samekh-tsaddi-cheyt-vav-ayin-qof-teyt-heh-zayin-yod-lamedh-nun. In this arrangement, vav occurs on the outer or passive side of the wheel of man and represents the Queen, whilst heh and yod occur on the inner or active side, yod being (presumably) the King, the two hehs of the Name being Knight and Knave.

I realize this ‘dissenting view’ will probably pass unheeded, but I thought I would at least hint to readers of this thread that though Crowley’s cards are beautiful as art, his view is hardly the last word. [Tradition concerning the Name has decayed to the point where moderns actually seem unaware that originally yod-heh was the male part and vav-heh the female part: heck, vav in old Hebrew pictures a breast pouring forth milk! (being the sign cancer-the-breasts) hardly a male symbol, as current interpretation implies.]


I think that trying to demonstrate that something as obscure (and unheard of) as the Ogham alphabet somehow influencing or even pre-cursing ( ?) Hebrew in a thread about BEGINNERS Kabbalah is counter-productive to the threads intention.


......I realize this ‘dissenting view’ will probably pass unheeded, but I thought I would at least hint to readers of this thread that though Crowley’s cards are beautiful as art, his view is hardly the last word. [Tradition concerning the Name has decayed to the point where moderns actually seem unaware that originally yod-heh was the male part and vav-heh the female part: heck, vav in old Hebrew pictures a breast pouring forth milk! (being the sign cancer-the-breasts) hardly a male symbol, as current interpretation implies.]
Breasts secreting milk are actually projective and therefore masculine. The classical Elements are more related to functionality than biological gender.


And there are two types of these classical elements as defined by function of 'active and passive' or male and female; two of each ; fire and air : water and earth, active : passive, Male : Female. Two males, two females . In the courts, if anything the Thoth deck (and others similar) has restored the balance.

One could even say , Knight and Queen : Prince and Princess , Active : Passive, in that the Queen is 'male' or active as she 'gives' to the Princess (who receives). In other aspects (the more obvious) they alternate K Q P Pss : male female male female.

Since in hermetic tarot decks the Courts show elemental permutations it seems quiet unbalanced to attribute the courts to 3 males and 1 female.


I'm really enjoying these lessons. When can we expect the next installment?


I'm really enjoying these lessons. When can we expect the next installment?

What is easy to answer, it'll be about practical work with the Majors. When, on the other hand... is a far more difficult question. :)


Could you suggest a site or source for understanding why Waite switched the elemental associations (and, to a lesser importance, the names) of the Knight and the Prince? Coming from a background of having learned on RWS and having not much more than a basic understanding of what Kabbalah is, it makes more 'sense' to me for Knight/King to be air and Prince/Knight to be fire. My own simplistic understanding of the courts is something like: The King has an idea of an action he wants to take place. The Queen moderates that idea and makes it into something feasible. The Knight goes out and carries out the action. The Knave observes the action and reports back to the King how things played out. Things repeat, et cetera. I can't say I'm particularly concerned with historical accuracy, so this works well enough for me.


Well, the shortest and simplest answer is that he didn't. In the deck itself, these cards are done correctly. It is only in the PKT that he lied about the order of the Courts. This was probably done in order to protect Golden Dawn secrets.

As for further reading about this, I don't know of anything that deals with this specifically. Crowley deals with the story of the Courts at length, but I have paraphrased him somewhat here. There is a certain logic as to why things are as they are. Read the two tutorials I wrote and you'll be able to work out the answer.