The World with its four elements we see;Doreen Valiente, The Tarot Trumps
Within, a naked Goddess dances free.
The water and the wind, the earth and the fire,
All That which doth beyond them all aspire.
LAST week’s article explored the concept of elemental dignities. Our focus was on how such dignities affect cards’ ability to function via MacGregor Mathers’ triads.
Here we turn our focus to the sixteen court cards.
The Court Cards
Within each suit is to be found four cards known variously as les honneurs, the royal arcana and the face or court cards. We will utilise the latter and also the Harris-Crowley Thoth Tarot, which titles the court cards Princess, Prince, Queen and Knight*.
As indicated by their titles, the fortune-teller reads the court cards as people. Unless appointed as the significator, their presence in a reading indicates the involvement of a second party. The current trend of seeing court cards as situations or facets has no real basis in traditional practice. However, the prince and princess cards have been interpreted as movement and thoughts, respectively.
Different methods of interpretation of court cards exist. Contemporary practice often sees the sixteen court cards as generic profiles, e.g. the Queen of Wands is an energetic, self-assured person noted for her attractiveness and cheerfulness (Bunning, 2007). Such vignettes are caricatures and owe more to random stereotypes than the cards themselves.
The above method has never made sense to me. Instead, each card is a person connected to the querent by suit, e.g., the cups are friends, lovers and family members. It is the adjacent cards which confer the character of the court card.
Despite its simplicity, I have seldom found it lacking. However, from time to time, a court card can appear in a draw where such an identification is questionable. For example, you might see the Queen of Disks in the position of what to do. Of course, it might be you need to procure her services. However, if this can be discounted, then one must consider the Queen as a model of behaviour or action.
That is where temperament becomes applicable.
Fire, earth, air and water are present in all things but at different proportions.
On an external level, we can say both Maya Angelou’s verses and Chanel No. 5 are “air.” The combativeness of a boxing match, as well as the lighter used with your cigarettes, is “fire.” The forty-pip (or numbered) cards align most closely with such visible demonstrations.
Temperament refers to the elements when expressed as both character and also physiogomy. The court cards, of both the tarot and playing-cards, can be understood in terms of the elements functioning as personality.
When discussed in terms of a person’s character, the individual element is commonly given specific names: choleric (fire), phlegmatic (water), sanguine (air) and melancholic (earth). It is, however, essential to note that choleric is fire and melancholic is earth. A watery person is phlegmatic and a sanguine character is airy.
When I first started blogging, I used these terms; several of my readers and other writers, however, felt they were confusing and too archaic. More recently, such terminology has seen an upsurge in use.
Discerning a person’s temperament is best measured through their birth chart or their palm. The precise astrological method of calculating an individual’s temperament exists in several variations. It is not, however, connected to either sun signs or the element with the most planets present.
Below is the natal chart of the Scottish actor Richard Madden. As we are talking cards, and not the stars, I will not go into too much detail:
Richard Madden (Krishnamurti)
Madden is a very balanced sanguine.
He has Cancer rising, a water (cold and wet) sign. Its ruler, the Moon, is in Libra which an air (hot and humid) sign and the Sun is also in the sanguine quadrant (spring). The Moon is in her second quarter (choleric, hot and dry) and squaring both Venus and the ascendant. The heat modifies the coldness of Cancer – producing a sanguine temperament and complexion.
Madden has the classical sanguine features, but with a Venus filter. Venus is conjunct the ascendant and in a tight square with Moon. Interestingly, he has a good head of hair (Venus) but with a distinctive white (Moon) streak.
Let us look at another chart.
Lena Zavaroni had a melancholic-sanguine (60/40) temperament. Although Leo (fire) rises, the Sun (in the melancholic quarter) is in fall in Libra (air). The Moon is in Taurus (earth) and full (earth). The dryness is thus reinforced but the heat cooled.
Here is her birth chart:
Lena Zavaroni (Krishnamurti)
The opposing qualities (earth-air) can be hard to reconcile and do result in a predisposition to depression and internalisation of anger. But it does grant talent, work ethic and perfectionism. She was said to be a good impressionist/mimic which is not uncommon with melancholiacs. Physically, the person is often short to average height and thin with thick hair and sharp features.
Choleric, Phlegmatic, Sanguine and Melancholic
We have already discussed the formation and qualities of the elements in the previous article. I would recommend familiarising yourself with the qualities and their attributes before reading on. Suffice it to say the temperaments can be understood in the same manner.
Let us now briefly consider the four temperaments.
The choleric temperament has the qualities of heat and dryness, resulting in dynamic forcefulness that is both unaccommodating and imposing. Cholerics fire-up quickly, which can manifest as both impulsivity and decisiveness. Better suited to goal-centred activities, they do not respond well to detail or study.
With their dryness reinforced by heat, the choleric will find it hard to capitulate or be deterred by obstacles. That rigidity makes both great defenders but also bullies and vindictive opponents. Sometimes said to be ambitious, it is more the idea of beating opponents and love of competition that is the primary motivation. They are insensitive and lack grace.
Physically, defined and muscular with short to average height. Can be hairy with coarse, hot skin.
A phlegmatic temperament generates a dense (cold) malleabile (wet) character. Phlegmatics are introverted and prioritise their sense of security highly. However, owing to the presence of moisture, a phlegmatic’s sense of self-preservation allows them to adapt to situations that can sometimes be seen as either inconstancy or overly conciliatory.
With their inherent coldness, phlegmatics display frugality and conservativism. They are patient. There is a preference to keep life simple and avoidance of too many commitments. Their negative traits are indecisiveness and miserliness.
Physically, phlegmatics are short to average height. Their frame is soft, doughy and round with inclination to weight gain. The skin is often pallid.
Sanguines have a zest for life and display much enthusiasm and sociability. Their innate heat gives them an energetic drive and dynamism. However, the moisture tempers the combativeness of the choleric, making them adaptable and curious.
On the negative side, sanguines can suffer from a lack of concentration and restlessness (their focus evaporates). It can make them both lazy and superficial. Sanguines have strong emotional responses, but seldom hold grudges. That is because they express themselves easily (it all comes out in the wash!) and are drawn to different mediums and platforms of communication and expression. That is why they are such gossips!
Physically, sanguines have good, clear complexions and skin tone with a robust build but are not inclined to obesity. They are of average height or taller.
Combining coldness with dryness, a melancholic has focused and saturnine character. This union of qualities allow those of this temperament a penetrating mind, one given to deep understanding and reflection. Both prudent and patient they are the great thinkers of the world (they are very good diviners).
Melancholics are perseverant and will work at something until it mastered or delivered to the highest standard. Their understated manner can see them underestimated and also isolated. The negative side of this temperament is that they can be both distrusting and unforgiving. It can be hard to read melancholiacs, and they seldom confide in people.
Physically, melancholics are of medium height or less. Their build is inclined to be lean with little body mass, and their skin is dry. Straight hair but little on the body.
The Temperaments of the Court
The four court cards of each suit correspond to the temperament associated with that suit. For example, cups are phlegmatic, and the swords are of the sanguine temperament.
However, like most people, individual court cards can be seen as having a secondary temperament.
Just as each suit is associated with one element, so is each rank:
- The four Knights are choleric.
- The four Queens are phlegmatic.
- The four Princes are sanguine.
- The four Princesses are melancholic.
Thus, the Knight of Cups is a choleric-phlegmatic. The combination of rank and suit is why some sources refer to court cards as the Water of Earth (Queen of Disks) or Air of Fire (Prince of Wands).
In terms of interpretation, I see the rank as akin to manner. John Frawley has described manner as
…the outward polish put over the temperament, the veil through which the temperament speaks(Frawley, 2001).
Consequently, the Knight of Cups expresses his phlegmatic nature (suit) in a choleric way (rank).
The Knight of Cups will be blatant and forceful (choleric) in expressing how he feels and to ensure he is not bound to someone or something (phlegmatic). He will respond quickly (choleric) to his feelings (phlegmatic), but will not sustain them. He is motivated (choleric) by outside stimulus (phlegmatic). Due to imbalance, interpersonal relations will be difficult in formal situations (career).
Of course, this combination is considered undignified. Fire and water are inimical to each other. Each suit has one undignified court card (opposing elements), and one extremely dignified (same elements) card.
The Mundane Cross
In February 2019, I performed a reading for a seeker who desired a resolution to a family conflict. The querent’s son from her first marriage was getting married in the summer. However, he had refused to invite the Queen of Cups’ husband. To add salt to the wound, the son had asked his father’s partner to attend.
For such questions, I use a draw based on the classical tableaus that I refer to as the Mundane Cross. I gave it this name after using it for quite sometime, as when laid on a reading mat, it reminded me of the earth glyph.
The diagram below indicates how it is to be laid out:
04 – 01 – 05
The vertical line is read from the bottom upwards and describe the evolution of the situation. Thus cards two are three relate to the past and future, respectively. The horizontal axis is the present moment. However, the fourth card describes the challenge, obstruction or unhelpful influences and actions undertaken. In contrast, the fifth card is the opposite. As intimated above, it is essentially the mechanics found with the thirty-two card tableaus outlined by Minetta, &c.
The cards as they fell:
At the centre of the Cross, we see XIV – Art. Above and below are the 5 of Cups and 5 of Wands, respectively. Two fives indicate worry, which fits and drives the Queen onwards. Being cards of water and fire, respectively, both are inimical to each other.
Yet, as Art, the Queen of Cups attempts to unite these opposing energies in the alchemical solvent, vitriol. The discord kindles the fire beneath Art’s cauldron, firing her actions (Five of Wands). But the solvent will prove inadequate, dissolving into a solution of dismay and regret (Five of Cups).
The trouble manifests in the form of the Prince of Cups (Air of Water). On the one hand, it is the son who has engineered the present situation. His impulsive drive (air) to preserve his own needs (water) have discounted anyone else and their feelings. However, the Prince advises the Queen avoids such action as emotional manipulation or conceding.
Her solution comes in the form of the Hierophant. Whereas the Queen cannot unite the opposing forces at play, she can appeal to the Hierophant. The Hierophant is the gatekeeper and mediates between the upper and lower worlds. He can offer the appropriate mediation neutrally, but in a firm and just manner which should prick the conscience of the Prince.
I did not hear from the Queen for sometime. In the eleventh hour the Prince had a change of heart after the wedding rehearsal.
Bunning, J. (2007). Queen of Wands. [online] Learntarot.com. Available at: http://learntarot.com/wqn.htm [Accessed 20 Jan. 2020].
Crowley, A. (1976). The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians. New York: Weiser.
Frawley, J. (2001). The Real Astrology. 1st ed. London: Apprentice, p.180.
Hildegarde de Bingen. (2007). Les causes et les remèdes. Grenoble: J. Millon.
Peach, E. (1988). Tarot for Tomorrow. 1st ed. Wellingborough: Aquarian Press.
Waite, A. (1977). The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. New York: Samuel Weiser.
Richard Madden. Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D.
Lena Zavaroni. [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D.
Astrological Charts: Delphic Oracle.
Throughout this article, we have utilised the Harris-Crowley cards. I chose this deck because the suit associations are familiar to most cartomantes. The elemental associations within each rank are also accepted.
Despite its ubiquitous presence, the Smith-Waite tarot does not necessarily conform to these associations. Unfortunately, we cannot ascertain Waite’s intentions from his text. It would seem natural that Smith-Waite’s Kings are Harris-Crowley’s Knights. However, when explaining the Celtic Cross, Waite states that a Knight should be chosen to signify a man, aged 40 or above, and a King for one under that age. Whether this is one of several typing errors, we cannot know. Certainly, Colman-Smith’s illustrations of the four knights are more choleric than the kings. However, it cannot be ruled out that Waite was employing what Robert Cochrane described as “grey magic.” Such actions are in keeping with Waite’s known behaviours.