The Gaze of the King

An exercise:

This is a simple question and at one level the answer is very similar as well: do the court cards in your tarot deck look towards, or away from, the ruler?

Pull out a deck and follow along.

Here’s a court in order:

the “Budapest Tarot” reproduced by Tarot Sheet Revival

Now, in this order, you’ll see that everything is a bit odd because the king is looking forwards, and thus not at anyone. But just consider the king as the head of the court, and position the others before him, in any order really.

In this example, you can see that the knight looks at the king, but no one else does.

It makes sense for a knight to check in with their ruler, right? Of course, other knights will not be looking at their kings: does that mean they’re incompetent, unruly, or simply busy?

You’ll notice I’m asking a lot of open-ended questions here. This is an exercise, so you’ll want to answer these questions for yourself with your deck.

Personality

There are a number of spreads you can find online to “get to know” your deck and I don’t disapprove of those. But you should ultimately work to get to know the entire deck, rather than what we could describe as the deck’s “first impression.” This is a great way to start thinking about the court cards in your deck; the courts are notoriously difficult for many people, and I found them so myself for a good long while. You could always build a web for your deck too, of course. But this gets you into the way the entire court works together (or doesn’t).

Let’s continue here by looking at the court I’ve posted above. The queen doesn’t look at the king, and neither does the page (or valet or varlet or knave or whatever we’re calling her). However, I don’t get the same impression from both: the queen is ensconced just as the king is, on a throne or seat of some kind, though the king’s is stone and part of the building while the queen’s looks more decorative. It would make sense to think that they’re looking the same direction because they’re interested in the same things.

However, the page could be read as avoiding the king’s eye, or at least uninterested in him: she’s outdoors; the grass isn’t as high as it is in the knight’s card but it’s growing about her feet. Is she trying to plant the coin, or simply deciding what to spend it on?

The courts are, as one might imagine, portraits of four different noble ruling houses, kingdoms ruled, we might continue to imagine, by the Emperor trump. Each house or kingdom works differently. Some are slow. Some are fast. Some focus on agriculture and some on warfare. But internally, they will have their own “politics,” their own ebb and flow of power, trust, alliances, and enmities.

So, we get a narrative: the king decrees, the queen supports that decree, the knight turns to look at them to make sure he’s following orders correctly, and the page is the person on the ground doing the actual work, and doesn’t really need to know what the stock market’s doing to know how to plant a tree.

You can do this over and over, and you can even pick different point of view characters: what does it mean, for instance, that the queen looks over the entire court and now the king is looking away?

Readings

This is all well and good, but we should ask how this helps practically. “Getting to know my deck” is, I would say, a pretty nice practical effect, but it helps in other ways too. First, most obviously, following the gaze of a card, court or trump, is always an important practice. Setting the king up as a POV character simply helps with practice, since it’s easier to make a story.

Some methods of reading, such as the Golden Dawn’s, count cards out from a significator chosen from the courts, and the count goes in the direction of the gaze. Many Lenormand readers will do the same in tableaux.

However, these narratives we tell ourselves when we’re studying our decks both reinforce our preexisting ideas and they can embed themselves in our readings later. Imagine a tableau of cards with the king of coins in the upper left. The entire reading becomes his demesne, because he looks not only to the right but also down somewhat, from an elevated position.

Exercise

I called this an exercise for a reason: this post isn’t telling you about a structural design or a history of card meaning. It’s not even really interpreting a set of cards. It really is an exercise, a practice technique, something useful for flexing those muscles and getting to know one’s deck. Consider plotting out how the four separate courts of your deck interact with your king. If you use Golden Dawn attributions, consider seeing especially where the princess is, because she is the court card that makes the suit element manifest and connects to the following suit.

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