Court cards are killer, there’s no way around it.
Every tarot reader hates court cards because they’re nearly impossible to read. If you pull one or two, you can find a way to make them make sense, but when you pull five in a single reading (as I have done many, many times) you can’t help but wonder what the hell to do with them.
Traditionally, we see court cards as the people in our lives, and less often roles we play in life. But these ways of reading them can quickly become muddled and feel forced. Maybe the King of Swords reminds you a little of your father, but why would he come up in a reading about your career? And maybe the Page of Pentacles points to your life as a student, but what does it mean when you’re trying to find love?
But when we view court cards through the archetypal or depth psychological lens, they can take us so much deeper. We can read them as the developing sides of our personalities, or even as our inner complexes.
This is something we explore in depth in the Archetypal Tarot School, but I want to give you a short preview of this approach to the courts, focusing on their role as complexes.
Complexes are one of the most complicated pieces of depth psychology, and one of the most essential to understanding ourselves. Jung identifies complexes as, “psychic entities that have escaped from control of consciousness and split off from it, to lead a separate existence in the dark sphere of the psyche, whence they may at any time hinder or help the conscious performance.”
Therefore there are two experiences of ourselves happening at once—our ego perspective and the behavior of the complex. In the example of the classic inferiority complex, we are aware that we are capable, but simultaneously feel inept. Or in a money complex perhaps we may know that we are financially stable, but also panicked about losing everything. Or if the complex manifests in our romantic life, perhaps we love our partner deeply, but at the same time they disgust us.
The complex is, essentially, a distinct face of our personality with its own desires, fears, and behaviors. And we all have complexes. Some are worse than others, but no one is exempt. Our goal is always to understand, accept, and integrate. And this is where bringing in the tarot can be so useful.
When we pull a court card, we may be given a name and face for our complexes. Maybe the King of Pentacles points to a complex who’s so obsessed with mastery you work yourself to exhaustion. Maybe the Page of Cups points to a somewhat unrealistic dreamer who keeps sabotaging your clarity and decision-making. The court cards can help us identify, name, and get to know our complexes so we can bring them back into our control.
So I want to give you an abridged introduction to the technique I teach my students to work with court cards and complexes, and we’re going to use the example of the Knight of Cups.
1. Notice the behaviors that belong to the card.
So first, obviously, you need to pull a court card. Maybe you do this in a larger reading, or maybe you wait until one naturally comes up in a daily or weekly draw.
But the first step is to check in with what parts of you feel Knight of Cups-y. Maybe you become hyper emotional at work. Or maybe you imagine falling in love with everyone you meet. Using your established knowledge of the card, and your own intuitive connection to it, note the behaviors and impulses that feel like they belong more to the court card than your true self.
This is the work of identifying the complex, so go slow and be curious.
2. Name the complex.
Now that you are beginning to see the pattern, it’s time to create some separation between you and it, so that you can eventually build a conscious relationship. So one of the best practices to illuminate and distance ourselves from our complexes is simply to name them. Maybe you call it the “Knight of Cups”, or maybe it’s something a little different, like the “Wounded Hero Complex” maybe you call it “Sensitive Steve”. Whatever feels right to you.
Now, anytime the complex seems to get activated and you recognize the behaviors you noted in Step 1, you can acknowledge it’s the Knight of Cups acting out. When you want to whine that your partner doesn’t love you enough or crawl into a hole because your friend didn’t understand why you’re upset, remind yourself that the Knight of Cups has entered the room.
3. Understand & integrate.
This is a tricky bit of the process, and one that will probably bring up a lot of resistance. Because complexes are living sides of our personality, they will resist having to explore their original wound. But this is an essential step.
Now we want to challenge the complex a little bit. What is the Knight of Cups so afraid of? Not being loved? Being seen as selfish? Begin a dialogue with this part of you and ask it what it wants, what it comes from, and how you can become allies.
This part takes time, so don’t expect to figure it all out in one day, week, or (in some cases) year. And please also note that complexes constellated around traumas absolutely require a dedicated therapeutic setting. To bring those memories or experiences back to the surface can be very dangerous. Please be cautious.
But it is only by doing this work that we can, slowly, integrate the complex and bring it back into the personality. And the tarot is such a brilliant tool for establishing our deeper connection with ourselves.