The first suggestion you will see for how to read court cards is to read them as literal people in your or the querent's life. Some readers even go so far as to say that a court card can identify a person down to their eye color! Now, if the querent notes that one of the court cards looks like somebody specific in their life, that is definitely something to pay attention to (I once had a querent look at the Page of Swords and exclaim, "That's my ex!"). If it occurs naturally (and it does), that's one cool permutation of a court card. But the truth is, that could happen for any character on any tarot card. I find trying to read court cards as specific people can feel cumbersome, and removes a lot of subtlety from the reading process.
Still, the court cards feel unique from the rest of the Minor Arcana; they seem to have somewhat more independent personalities. I really like Daily Tarot Girl's method for getting to know the court card, treating them as their own unique actors in the deck. She isn't necessarily saying they always correlate to a real-life human, but they do seem more like fleshed-out characters than the rest of the Minor Arcana. I think her exercises are absolutely wonderful if you are just starting to get to know the court cards.
When I started to devise my own approach to the court cards, I was drawn to the idea of each position referring to a level of maturity; that is to say, Pages are children, Knights are youths, Queens are adults, and Kings are old and wise. Aside from the implications about gender, this was a good starting point for me. I decided that, for me, each court card spoke to a step in our journey of relating to the world (much the way the Major Arcana describe our path through life). Pages are just starting their journeys; Knights have more confidence, Kings are ready to make decisions, and Queens see the process as a whole (my Queens outrank my Kings).
So what does that mean for reading the cards? Well, it means knowing the domains of each suit, so that you can see what each court card presides over. For me, it made sense for me to give each court card a motto, and I am not the first person to hear the court cards speak in first person! You will find, within a spread, that each court card may have a lot more to say, but these mottos are a good starting point.
I've grouped them below by court level instead of by suit; this way, you can see what I mean by the progression in our personal story. We start out relating to the world as a new, wondrous thing; we gain confidence, begin to act upon the world and shape it, and ultimately gain a perspective of our experience as only a piece of a larger whole. Our paths are not linear, either; we can return to a Page chapter of our lives many times, or we may feel like a Knight in one domain and a Queen in the other.
- Cups: I have innocent trust in the validity of my emotions.
- Pentacles: I approach the physical world with fascination and wonder.
- Wands: My enthusiasm leads to uninhibited, spontaneous action.
- Swords: I am eager to learn everything about anything!
- Cups: I have confidence that my emotional compass will point the right way.
- Pentacles: I have faith that consistent hard work will bring reward.
- Wands: I strive to experience life in the fullest!
- Swords: My intellect will lead me to success.
- Cups: I balance my emotions when making decisions.
- Pentacles: Success comes through hard work and reasonable expectations.
- Wands: Passion, tempered by experience, guides my decision-making.
- Swords: I use logic to come to just decisions.
- Cups: I have the intuitive ability to understand the important role of emotions throughout our lives.
- Pentacles: Hard work is most noble when it serves not only your house, but your community.
- Wands: Passion promotes growth, in our communities and ourselves.
- Swords: Wisdom comes from the ability to evaluate experience rationally.
A Note On Gender
I could write a whole blog post on the fuckery that is gender representation in traditional tarot; I'm not ignorant that my beloved Universal Waite-Smith features exclusively hetero-cis-normative folks (though I do my best to expand my interpretation of those characters). When reading court cards, I remove gender as much as my colonized mind can. That is to say, any individual court card is not tied to a specific gender, but rather speaks to a potentially universal experience.
This is all well and good, but what we need is better representation on tarot cards. I am completely over the moon for decks like the Numinous Tarot, which features not only non-binary, non-cis folks (kings with boobs! queens with beards!), but does a great job of featuring people of color, too. In other words, this deck actually looks like real the people in my life. And if you're not already reading Cassandra Snow's Queering the Tarot, you should; it's a series of essays at Little Red Tarot that brings a queer lens to tarot card meanings, ultimately helping to shape a more inclusive and accurate practice of tarot.
Does this approach to court cards resonate with you? Are there other approaches you prefer? How do you incorporate (or extract) the power of gender in your tarot practice? Let us know!