Tweaking Your Chosen System(s)

There are a handful of questions that frequently arise for new tarot readers and less confident readers, such as the function of court cards and reversals. But when you add in whole new systems, these can multiply quickly, and tweaking your systems provides a convenient way to a) practice answering those questions for yourself, and b) build confidence in your use of those cards in that way. 

To help you do that for yourself, I’ll provide a few strategies I use to read certain cards, in this first example court cards, and you can use them, ignore them, or tweak them for yourself. The goal is not to tell you how to read court cards, but to help you think about how you’re using tarot systems for your own ends and in a way that helps you be a better tarot reader.

Court Cards

Each deck will have its own nuance to the court cards, but there are some common systems from which to work. 

  • For example, if I’m using a Smith-Waite/Rider style deck with Page, Knight, Queen, and King, then I will consider the hierarchy of the four court cards of each suit, with Page as the youngest and least experienced and king as the oldest and most experienced, typically without worrying about gender. They have additional characteristics beyond that, but that goes into the card meanings themselves. The structure of the cards—the system of meaning—is what I’m talking about here. I find the (admittedly patriarchal) system of the cards to be a useful schema that is built into their titles. 

  • In a Marseille deck, I might use the cards to indicate real people of varying ages and physical appearance and gender, along with less superficial traits. With a modern interpretation, such as the Tattoo Tarot, it’s easier to do because there’s a more modern set of characteristics associated with the cards, even though they’re unfortunately all still depicted with pale skin.

  • And then in a Thoth deck, I use the cards’ elemental titles (e.g., the Queen of Wands is “Water of Fire”) as a guiding force to their meanings, rather than any indication of age or gender.

But then each reading will warrant a different take than the default “system” I associate with a given deck. So if I’m doing a reading for a querent about their higher purpose using a Marseille deck, I’m not going to worry as much about the physical appearance of a third party represented by the court cards, and instead I’m going to focus on the way those cards can represent personal characteristics the querent embodies or the stages of their life, even though that isn’t how I would normally approach those cards in a Marseille deck.

Similarly, if I’m doing a traditional Golden Dawn spread, I’m more likely to treat the court cards as that spread dictates: the Knight will represent passing events, the Princess will represent ideas or concepts, and the Queen and Prince will represent actual people or personalities.

But there are times when I will mix and match meanings, such as with the elemental attributions I give to the Smith-Waite/Rider court cards. 

The elemental associations are found in the Golden Dawn’s Book T (don’t worry if you don’t know them; I describe them below). I have no idea when the book was written, but I suspect it was something with which Waite (creator of the Smith-Waite/Rider deck) would have been quite familiar given when its primary author died, and if he was not familiar with the book then he would probably not have been surprised by the ideas behind the court cards. Still, he goes in a different direction from the titles and descriptions given to the court cards in Book T in a way that aligns with the Marseille deck, particularly in terms of their titles (King, Queen, Knight, and Page). 

In Book T, the court cards have a consistent set of elemental attributions, and they also have noble titles: Knight, Queen, Prince, and Princess. There is an age quality and a familial relationship to the cards that isn’t worth getting too detailed about here, but the Knight is the father and the Queen is the mother. So if we compare the cards by age, we would see this system:






Thoth Tarot





This would align the King of the Smith-Waite/RIder system with the Knight of the Thoth system and the Knight of the Smith-Waite/Rider system with the Prince of the Thoth. That’s a common approach, and if you’re looking at age and gender in the court cards, I think it makes perfect sense. But if you want to tweak a system to work for you, I find it helpful to think through the why of what you’re doing. 

When I first learning about the elemental associations, I took the age mapping and used it for the elemental mapping assuming that if one worked the other would too. But I see now that they really aren’t related, at least not in a way that helps me understand the way that the cards’ elemental associations lead to insights about the cards.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the elemental associations, they are as follows (in the Thoth system):

  • Wands are fire, cups are water, swords are air, and discs are earth.

  • The order of elements follows this same “hierarchy” (it’s more nuanced in the Thoth system than in the Smith-Waite/Rider system), so the Knight is the “Fire of” his suit’s element, the Queen is the “Water of” her suit’s element, the Prince is the “Air of” his suit’s element, and the Princess is the “Earth of” her suit’s element. 

It’s a fun system in that it highlights the way that the Knight of Wands, the Queen of Cups, the Prince of Swords, and the Princess of Discs are all especially representative of their elements while the Knight of Cups, Queen of Wands, Prince of Discs, and Princess of Swords are much more conflicted and contradictory.

But if you want to bring these elemental associations into the Smith-Waite/Rider system, you’re setting the Knights on a collision course. Does it make sense that the old man seated on a massive slab of stone in the King of Swords is the “Fire of Air,” or put another way, the activity of thought? Meanwhile, the breakneck pace of the Knight of Swords is supposed to make you think about the thought of thoughts (the “Air of Air”)? I see the seated kings as the thinkers and decision makers, the delegators, and thus I tie them more clearly to air. The more virile and action-oriented and hard-riding knights as clearly Fire to me. 

Now, to be fair, I can make the case for the King being Fire and the Knight being Air, but it requires thinking about Fire (and thus Wands) as the will driving action rather than activity itself (action then becomes an earthy association in that the body completes the will), and it requires thinking about Air (and thus Swords) as more about movement and speed than about thoughts—either that or it requires me to think about the Knight of Swords as a card filled with anxiety (thinking about thinking causing the horse’s panic) rather than rash decisions. That might work for your style of reading, but it doesn’t work for me, at least not most of the time.

And that’s the key thing about tweaking a system for your own purposes, you get to look at what works and what doesn’t and you get to understand your own thought processes. You might, for example, decide that the elemental associations of the court cards has no place in the Smith-Waite/Rider, but chances are good that if you use multiple decks or systems, you’ll start to cull new strategies from each to use in the other. You’ll also start to unconsciously set expectations with your decks or for your readings that help you home in on the message that makes sense to provide. And if, for some reason, your intuition wants you to access the meaning of the Knight of Swords as about anxiety (and the cards don’t want to give you the 9 of Swords for whatever reason), then that meaning is there, ready for the unearthing. When you’re attuned to your intuition, you’ll be able to tell when there’s something going against your set intentions that needs to come out. For the insecure reader, it might feel like second-guessing, but if you’ve set those intentions for yourself and you’ve interrogated your own sets of meanings, then it will be easier to tell when a message is just a stray thought causing doubt and when it’s a buried intuitive hit that’s trying to claw its way out of a system you aren’t intending to use.