2009 Tarot Study – Kings
How do they rule?
The King cards in the Tarot sometimes represent wisdom or mastery, and at other times a completion or culmination, the state of having achieved a zenith or post-zenith position in some area of life. A King can also mean carrying something to such a point of completion and expertise that one can go to the next level, perhaps go public with it, share one’s expertise, or achieve an expanded status beyond the personal. Whatever the King has achieved or gained, it’s not just for personal use or our own eyes anymore. The King may also be a person who’s considered an authority, or a professional, such as a doctor or lawyer. The King may be venerated as a sage. In relationship to one’s life as a whole they can indicate the past, age, retirement, ancestry, one’s family roots, or the roots of one’s profession or vocation.
I believe it’s important when considering the King cards to think about what a king is literally. Tarot is meant to be a system of symbols, not a literal representation of life, so we have to get to the symbolic meaning of the card in the context of a reading. That can be done with Tarot much the same way we work with dream images, through associations. What better way to begin to understand what the Kings can mean symbolically than to understand what a king is in reality? It requires some thought. After all, how many of us know a real-life king? We don’t think about them that often, at least here in the US. A king is someone from fairy tales read as children, or someone in a far country, removed from our everyday reality.
What is a King?
In the real world a king is a person who leads a nation, usually because of his ancestry, and sometimes due to a military victory or upheaval. But a Tarot King doesn’t always represent a male, just as the Tarot Queen doesn’t always indicate a female, so the real-life literal king we use to base our interpretation on can also be a queen. The real-life association could also be another kind of leader of a nation. In a democracy the leader is voted in due to past experience, capability, or performance on some plane that the majority of people recognize. In countries that still have monarchies, a king or queen is sometimes considered to be a figurehead, sometimes so much so that the king is in retirement, so to speak, even if accorded a position of honor with some responsibility for charitable work. In that case “retirement” doesn’t necessarily indicate leisure, but can in fact indicate lots of hard work. Perhaps he signs bills into law once they’re voted on by a legislature but has little influence aside from that. Real-life situations vary a great deal, but they tend to have a few things in common, the most important being influence and authority.
Traditionally one reached the status of king through ancestry or marriage, or past actions as a leader, and usually depended on others’ judgements of his past actions, as positive or negative in some exemplary way, in order to become or remain king.
King is not a position one attains on one’s own. Sometimes someone declares himself king, dictator, or emperor, but even then he is reliant on no one challenging him and succeeding in that challenge, and he relies on having a strong military or support system to help maintain his position. He rules by implicit trust, by implicit fear, or by something that requires most of his people to go along with him remaining in his position — again, through loyalty or fear. He is dependent on those he has authority over. If he’s a “good” king, he serves them as much as they serve him, he’s as loyal to his country as they are to him. If he’s a “bad” king he very likely fears them as much as they fear him, and there’s no loyalty gained except through fear, their fear of his authority and his fear of losing power.
So I begin to see the King in Tarot as representing not only attainment, but also some kind of power and control or very strong influence over others. This is based on the king’s history and/or popular opinion, and not necessarily on the king’s current capability, mastery, positive actions, or any kind of literal perfection.
Today in our culture an apt comparison might be a celebrity whose popularity confers influence over others, or a person whose monetary fortune confers such influence. The king as celebrity’s power and influence may reach beyond his personal ability or power, in the form of added on power from others and how they view him. Maybe he once had the qualities we see as mastery. He may even still possess them. But sometimes more influence or authority has been conferred on him than just what he’s earned on his own.
If we look at this as mastery, we have to view it more as the kind of mastery a guild master held in the past, rather than merely that of an expert. Today the power and influence of a king might be found in the head of a religious order, a syndicate, a corporation, a political organization, a cartel, or heir to a great fortune in industry or commerce. He wouldn’t be every celebrity, but he might be the celebrity who maintains his celebrity status so long or with such a widespread following that he can claim influence in other areas than that for which he’s best known. For instance the sports star who can effectively endorse products having nothing to do with sports long after he’s retired from his sport, or a talk show host who can affect the sales of a memoir written by a relatively unknown author.
The king is in a position in which one can do good or evil to a greater degree than the ordinary person can. It’s a position where one is conferred trust not necessarily earned or deserved, and power not necessarily executed responsibly.
In the case of a real king, his subjects think they have to trust the king, and quite often they do. How else can they deal with him? Rebellion carries consequences. If they don’t agree with him, if they think he’s wrong, if they consider rebelling against his authority, they have to measure what’s gained from a rebellion, against both the chances that it will succeed and against the dangers of failure. They have to consider that if they overthrow the king someone else may take his place. Will they be better or worse? The King controls to a significant degree whether people experience heaven or hell on earth, in the part of their lives under his dominion.
There are greater and lesser degrees of kingship in our modern world. Some kings affect everyone to some degree, as do the kings of commerce or industry, or the current government leader. Other kings have smaller dominions, but are every bit as influential over those in their dominions. Think of the school principal, the judge, the supervisor, and the parent. These are all kings to a greater or lesser degree. They all carry authority of a position in addition to their personal qualifications. Many have enough power and security to hold their positions even if they carry them out poorly, even if they wreak a certain amount of havoc in the lives of those they control. They’re also in a position to do greater good than would be possible if they didn’t hold their position as king.
Interpreting the Kings
When I look at the Tarot Kings now, in relation to their suits, I need, in addition to other interpretations, to look at who is king in what portion of my life and why do I allow them that power? In whose life and in what way do I hold the position of king, and why? I also need to look at this on a completely internal basis and ask myself, what part of me rules other parts of me, and why? Are these rulers absolute? Are they benign or harmful in some way?
Who or what is king in my emotional or creative life?
In my intellectual life or in my communications?
In my physical life — my body, home, property and financial status?
In my unconscious, intuitive, or spiritual life?
Now the kings in my life begin to reveal themselves to me more clearly. I think it’s important here not to confuse someone’s status as king somewhere in our lives with the person as an individual. I don’t see the court cards as representing specific people so much as they represent the various roles that we and others play in life.
If I’m viewing the king as internal, a role one aspect of my personality plays in my life, how much control, how much personal power, do I allow myself, and where? Where have I given power away? Where do I want another aspect of my self to gain some power back in my life? How can I achieve balance?
I can view this externally in similar ways. Do I allow someone the role of king anywhere in my life that’s causing me problems? Do I have an undue amount of influence over others and their lives? How am I managing that? Does it cause me to take on more responsibility than I want or can handle, and why do they allow it? Is that best for them? Or are they refusing to take responsibility for their life?
The Tarot Kings represent mastery, and not just our mastery of a skill or area of knowledge, but also the mastery of authority over our lives and the lives of others. They reveal to us where we’re masters of our own lives and others’ lives, and where we depend on others’ mastery in order to live our lives.
Whether we see ourselves as the kings in our lives or we see others as such, the Tarot Kings also help reveal how well those kings are performing, ruling, and working for or against the greater good — of the individual, the family, the organization.
What follows are some descriptions of cards I studied during the course of this two-week Kings study.
Druid Craft Tarot
I think the artist, Will Worthington, has done a brilliant job with the expressions on the faces of his court characters in this deck, they reflect the nature of the cards so well. This deck can be found reviewed here, and you can see more images and reviews here.
The King of Wands in the Druid Craft Tarot is seated in the sun, on a warm summer day. His expression appears intent on an entertainment, an argument, or perhaps a fierce passionate interest. His chair is carved with rams’ heads, signifying the sign of Aries, and his cloak is decorated with two salamanders, each biting its own tail. His shield, though at rest and seen from the side, clearly resembles the solar disk. He holds a staff or spear, one end resting on the ground. It’s so long that we can’t see the other end. He is self-contained, yet ready for action or heated engagement. The word “fiery” fits this King very well.
The King of Cups appears to be daydreaming. A sensitive man, he gazes into the distance by the seashore as if remembering past voyages or fishing trips, or as if longing for a loved one far away in distance or time. A fish leaps out of the water and a crab, signifying the sign of Cancer, sits on a rock at his feet. His dog lounges behind him, beside a harp. The landscape behind him is green and lush. The sky has a cloudy cast that makes me think of those blustery cloudy days that make us want to linger in the warmth of good company or to seek a solitude in which the cool wind pushes our thoughts ever inward toward our unconscious or into psychic, otherworld awareness.
The King of Swords appears thoughtful, or perhaps calculating, weighing something in his mind. He’s clearly in his mind, yet also clearly intent on something that has outward implications. He sits with his chair balanced on what appears to be an airy mountain height beyond which one can see across a valley where a river flows. The clouds appear windswept. There’s no sign of an astrological correspondence, but I want to say this is a Libra card, as everything about it appears to seek balance. Since the other signs indicated by the Kings in this deck are also cardinal signs, I’m going to stick with that assumption.
I like that the Cups and Swords Kings in this deck seem to blend air and water, since it’s often a toss up to me, with Tarot in general, which element either suit represents. Even with the elements themselves, so often one seems to arise from the other or be absorbed back into it. Moisture always seems to be combining with air again, or air to be releasing water back onto the earth. Indeed, most waterborne life can’t survive in a body of water that isn’t sufficiently aerated, and air without any moisture can be just as unfriendly an environment. Both elements are rare in their pure forms in our world, for the two elements seem to want to combine.
The King of Pentacles differs from the other Kings in two distinct ways. First he’s indoors, his legs covered by a blanket, while the others are outdoors wearing tartan plaid pants, indicating to me that the season in this card is winter. Second, he doesn’t hold any emblem of the suit he represents, while the others do, each bearing a cup, a sword, or a staff in one hand. The lone pentacle in evidence here is seen only partially, carved into the back of this King’s chair, which is adorned with holly. There’s also a partially visible disk, to one side, carved with oak leaves and acorns. Still, surround as he is with the comforts of home and hearth, with a boar roasting on a spit, and a look on his face of comfort, common sense, and practicality, this King is easy to see as earthy. His foot rests on a carving of a goat, signifying the sign of Capricorn. He appears to be playing the gracious host, inviting us to stay for supper.
Golden Tarot of the Renaissance: Estensi Tarot
I could write volumes about each of these decks that I’m using for this study. The Estensi Tarot fascinates me because it draws on a centuries old major arcana dating back to around 1470 (16 of the 22 original majors were preserved as well as one court card). A completed major and minor arcana was designed recently by Girordano Berti, based on the remaining cards of the original Tarot and artwork of the same era as the majors — in particular some of the allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. All have been given the same gold foil backgrounds as the original majors. I’m not familiar enough with the era to understand some of the imagery, and some of it is downright violent and graphic in nature, though I imagine it’s meant to symbolize concepts such as betrayal, impotence, and other qualities of character and human nature. It’s a departure from any other Tarot deck I’ve seen. You can see some of the source artwork here. This deck’s majors were also previously incorrectly referred to as the Charles VI Tarot because of a past error made in dating the relic sheet of cards.
Each King in the Estensi Tarot is seated on a raised bench, chair, or plinth, and each holds up the emblem of his respective suit. Three of them look young to be kings, while the fourth is elderly and appears to be weary, ill, sleepy or dazed. None of these Kings wear crowns.
The King of Wands holds a small guitar-like musical instrument in one hand and a raised staff in the other with a snake coiled in a spiral around it. He wears a hat that looks like a big green squash with a tan brim. He could be a teenager, and he seems a bit effeminate. The bench he sits upon could be a big kettledrum.
The King of Cups is the elderly gentleman, who wears no hat, only a faded purple robe that could be a nightshirt. He holds his lidded cup in front of him, and he looks weary, almost as if he wished it held coffee.
The King of Swords appears to be in his twenties and sits proud and erect, his sword held upright in one hand in a more ceremonial than threatening grip. He at least looks as if he means business and is an adult. He wears a hat that is almost crown shaped, but isn’t a crown.
The King of Pentacles is the youngest looking yet. He wears no hat, and doesn’t wear the long robes the others did, but brown leggings or trousers and a short gold tunic. He holds a coin in one upraised hand and in the other hand he grasps what appears to be a spindly sapling with no leaves but with three arrows or spears branching from the top of it. His bench is ornate, with scrollwork and a mythical beast as decorations.
None of the Estensi Tarot’s Kings appears too carried away with his power. The only one who seems to want to attempt to look regal is the King of Swords. What wisdom there may be in these Kings isn’t revealed in their faces.
The Crystal Tarot
This deck by Elisabetta Trevisan is stunning, inspired according to the little white book (LWB) by the work of Gustav Klimt. Reviews and images can be found here and here. The artwork is like stained glass, and it’s full of warmth and light. I wrote a post some time back about the Four lions in the Crystal Tarot.
The Kings in the Crystal Tarot are definitely kings. They all wear crowns and appear to be people of regal stature, maturity, and authority. They inspire confidence, even the King of Wands who appears to be either napping or meditating in his throne at his countryside palace, while his lion keeps watch. The balcony wall beside him is decorated with the symbols for Aries, Sagittarius, and Leo — the Fire signs. The King’s cloak is woven with solar disk shapes, and there are small lights flickering in the tree beside his balcony, which overlooks planted fields nearing harvest.
The King of Cups reminds us that in the Crystal Tarot the Cups represent the Air element, as the meditative King here cradles a scepter with a butterfly at its tip in one hand and holds the handle of what appears to be a garden hoe in the other. He stands beside a cup shaped fountain in a garden beside a view of a windswept sky. Air is emphasized in this scene, with the fountain aerating water, while the wind blows, and the King stands ready to aerate the soil in his garden with his hoe.
The King of Swords dwells in an aquatic scene, where he stands on a crescent moon surrounded by water. He appears to stand in the middle of a river, and his sword, pointed downward, separates two fish in the water at his feet, reminding me of the symbol for Pisces.
The King of Pentacles sits upon a throne on a rocky mountaintop, and he’s the oldest King in this deck, with a wavy white beard. He sits as rigid and immobile as the stones around him, but he also appears strong, solid, and dependable.
Both the Crystal Tarot and the Estensi Tarot are Lo Scarabeo decks, and I’m always a little disappointed that they never have real companion books. Especially with these two decks, though for different reasons, I wish I knew more about the creators’ thoughts regarding their decks. But the positive side to that is that I come to these cards with no preconceived notions about them from a book, only the images and my experience with Tarot to influence me in interpreting readings with them.
The other two decks I used for my Kings study are the Golden Tarot by Kat Black and the Haindl Tarot by Hermann Haindl. I wish I’d had more time to spend on these Kings, because they’re also spectacular decks, each with a unique theme, particularly the Haindl for its court cards. But I’ll get into these two decks in more detail in future studies.
If you’d like to purchase any of these five decks, please visit the links below.
Purchase Tarot Decks:
Druid Craft Tarot
This deck comes with a comprehensive and very nicely written companion book. The interpretations given in the book are, I’ve found, amazingly and intuitively accurate.
Golden Tarot of the Renaissance: Estensi Tarot
Comes with only an LWB and there is no larger companion book to be had.
Comes with only an LWB and there is no larger companion book to be had.
Golden Tarot by Kat Black
The LWB with this is neither little nor white, and is actually a miniature companion book worth reading. One thing I love about it is that it gives source information for the artwork the images were collaged from, most of it dating from the 13th to 15th centuries.
There are two fine companion books available separately, one for the major arcana and one for the minor arcana, both written by Rachel Pollack.
Also recommended (books):
Today begins my one-week study of the Hierophant….
Copyright © 2009 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved.