Tarot - Robert von Heeren

The Court Cards of the Rider-Waite Tarot

The human embodiment of the four worlds of manifestation


King of Wands
Illustrations from the Giant Rider-Waite Tarot Deck
reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA.
Copyright ©1971 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. Further reproduction prohibited.
The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck® is a
registered trademark of U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
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The 16 court cards complement the 40 minor arcana and form the third and final column of the Tarot. While the 22 major arcana focus on the inner, subjective path of experience and initiation of man, the 16 court cards represent on the one hand types of personality and on the other hand manifestations of the four elements and tarot series of beads, cups, swords and pentacles. Why 16 court cards of all things? Again, as with the 40 minor arcana, reference was made to the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life: the four Kabbalistic worlds or levels. On the long path of manifestation of any idea, according to Kabbalistic tradition, every creative impulse passes through four different stages of development:

These four worlds are called: Atziluth, B(e)riah, Jetzirah and Assiah. The four elements fire, water, air and earth, as well as the four magic tools staffs, cups, swords and pentacles are assigned to them in that order. And the ten Kabbalistic Sephira are also divided among these four levels of manifestation.

In connection with the court cards of the Tarot, it looks like this:

The 16 court cards, of course, also symbolize the medieval court and thus a hierarchy that we may not be able to relate to much today. Waite, however, did not see such hierarchies one-sidedly dictatorial from "above" to "below". He also interpreted them in the opposite direction, which is indicated in the case of the minor arcana (in the case of III of the coins he points directly to it) as well as in the case of the court cards. For the reverse path through the four Kabbalistic worlds corresponds to the perspective of man: we all live in the material-physical world of Malkuth. From there we begin (like a magician) the ascent via the spiritual understanding (Jetzirah), to the deeper soul-emotional internalizing (Beriah) up to the goal of the perfect fusion with the original idea and inspiration (Atziluth). And this according to element and initial situation in four fundamentally different ways! This fourfold division can be taken also as a metaphor for archetypal character forms of the human being and personified manifestation levels of the four elements. From the combination of the four kabbalistic worlds with the four court ranks of the four elements and magic tools finally the 16 court card manifestations result.

It is similar to the 40 minor arcana, which with the four series describe the fourfold expression of the Tree of Life. The 16 court cards illuminate with the fourfold worlds of manifestation just another facet of the Tree of Life. For example, the King of Wands stands for double fire (Atziluth is a fire plane + wands are fire symbols), thus the most abstract principle of manifestation. Of all court cards, he is in closest contact with the unfathomable source of inspiration (Atziluth), which is why he is shown only in profile from the side. Translated into character qualities: especially intuitive, enigmatic, unpredictable, creative, etc. In contrast, the Page/Jack of Pentacles corresponds to Malkuth in Earth, that is, Earth in Earth: he is the most "grounded" of all court cards - which is also expressed in the representation.

Thus, the 16 court cards complete the picture of life and human development that the Tarot draws. Together with the 22 major arcana, the 40 minor arcana and the 16 court cards, the 78 tarot cards make up the Wheel of Life. The word "Tarot" contains "Rota" = Wheel - from which one can also form Taro and Tora, see X. Wheel of Fortune, the card stands not simply for fate, chance (or good or bad luck), but also for the cycles of life with its many ups and downs and so in a way for the Tarot itself ...

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