Marseilles Courts - General comments


In the earlier thread on 'Names on French playing cards', and with regards to the Courts, ihcoyc mentions that there is a tradition which assigns names to each of the court cards - names which, for the most part, have been lost (to most of us at any case).

Compare this to what we would understand by the qualities exemplified by these 'kings': Churchill, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Gorbachov; or these Queens: Mother Theresa, Kennedy-Onnasis, Blavatski; or these 'knights': Steiner, Einstein, Jung; or these 'princesses': Princess Di, Marilyn Monroe - I have only written some who come to mind, without implying much.

It is not, after all, the individuals we are here considering, but their iconic caricatures (Jungians may have written 'archetypes'). If in addition to having an indeterminate representation of a king, its title was 'Churchill', then, to be sure, the qualities apprehended through this appellation would be - though no less broad - far clearer for many. I am not, it may be useful to add, suggesting that we name the cards thus, only that the tradition of naming the courts, such as those mentioned in the earlier thread, makes both pedagogical and mnemonic sense.

Yet, it also constrains, and it would be better to suggest, for example, that the King of Cups has the ability to move a nation, as Churchill or JF Kennedy were able to - and as was Hitler! Here, names may be useful in assisting to determine characterological traits of the cards as variously exemplified in those individuals.

For myself, I suppose I also do something similar with regards to the MBTI (Cf the much earlier thread in Using Tarot Cards: Choosing a Significator). Elemental, physiological or astrological correlations also likewise prompt for insight into the cards. Each of these methods, however, remain, as do the naming, mnemonic aides. In my opinion, we should remain mindful of this lest the cards' indeterminate icons become fixated with a peculiar hue imposed by the particular 'system' at hand (to give yet another example: earth of earth, &c.).

So what of the Courts - is there rhyme or reason for their number and suit division?

One of the most likely provenance of the Courts is their relationship to a fourfold chess-like game - yet, another possibility presents itself.

If we assume - with fair reason, that each of the suits represents a station, 'caste' or 'class' in life, then for each of these there is a metaphorical King, Queen, Knight and Page aspect. The King of Fools, or the Knight of Savages, or the Queen of Merchants, or the Page of Milkmaids, would all be appellations which, though not literally true, would be so symbolically or metaphorically - and easily so understood today as well as in times gone by.

But enough for this long post - and to yet another thread to begin the Courts!


My understanding is that originally, there were three court cards, and they were all military figures: the King, the Knight, and the Page/Jack/Knave. These are the court cards of the Spanish non-Tarot decks with Latin pips.

The name of the lowest court card is itself interesting, and seems to vary from one language to another. The Italian name, fante, preserves some of the original military significance, meaning "footsoldier." To make him a valet seems to alter the meaning somewhat, as does "knave." Originally, then, we had three branches of military service represented in the courts: the officer corps, the cavalry, and the infantry. They do resemble the chess pieces, which were themselves modeled after an army, of course. [My understanding is that the Vizier became the Bishop, though, and that the Knights were separate. At least, this is my recollection of the rules for Arab-rules chess.]

The Queen is the interloper, the later addition. Her addition changed the dynamic of the courts from a military hierarchy to a household. The king and queen were the couple; the knight, their eldest son and heir, and the valet their servant.

I tend myself to identify the courts with celebrities and historical figures who call to mind some of their characteristics. The Queen of Swords is Greta Garbo, for me; the King of Clubs is Harry Truman.


Do you think the 'kabal' behind the tarot was thinking about the fourfold fomula of YHVH when creating the four court cards?


...and Karnak :)

I did not think when I used the word 'kabal', but the synchronicities are either just that 'synchronicity', or else there was an intentional allignment with the Qabalah. [22, 4, 10]. One thing I have learnt about the qabalah,( & magick) is that synchronicity is a definate player.

I only have one very old deck, it's called 'Ancient Italian', is this a Marseilles style deck?


This site on the history of card games backs me up for the claim that Queens were added to the deck, which originally contained Kings, Knights, and Knaves. A bibliography is provided there. The International Playing Card Society's history site also mentions the descent of the earliest European cards from Arab cards, which had Kings, Knights, and Knaves, but lacked the Queen.

I suspect the Knight was dropped by the French card makers because he was much harder to draw in the picture frame provided than the King, Queen, and Knave. The French cards became the international standard because they were cheap and easy to make; the cards could be produced from stencils, and individual woodcuts were no longer needed for pip cards.


AmounrA said:
I only have one very old deck, it's called 'Ancient Italian', is this a Marseilles style deck?
The Ancient Italian Tarot from Lo Scarabeo is not really a Tarot de Marseilles --- the court cards are different, and for example the Fante di Denari will not have an extra coin at his feet, and is captioned like the rest. It is, however, thoroughly founded on Marseilles symbolism in the Majors. It is one of my favourite traditional decks of all time. (I love the facial expression on the Strength card.)