Understanding the Tarot Court by Mary K. Greer and Tom Little
Review by Joan Cole

Understanding the Tarot Court is the book I chose for the Tarot Study Group I facilitate when we were discussing court cards.  I like it because it accommodates those who like exercises, as well as those who like explanation, and even those who just want a dictionary of keywords.  It looks at the court cards in the context of cosmology, interpersonal dynamics, hierarchies, history, personality, correspondence systems, and designing a new deck.  In terms of writing style, the partnership between Mary Greer and Tom Tadfor Little is a good one, and I’d love to see it recur. 


In addition, the book contains practical tips for those newer to tarot that clear away some common areas of uncertainty.  For example, it offers an eleven step process for reading one card, understanding the “four modes” (courts, pips, trumps, and aces) in terms of Who?  What?  Why?  Where?, and hints on reading for others.

What does the book cover?

“In using this book you will establish a personal relationship with the court cards…This book works towards this goal by using established interpretive traditions as springboards for the imagination.  Learning the court cards with this book is as much about creative play and searching out person reactions to the cards as it is about studying established systems.”


The book meets its intended goal. Sections of explanation are followed up with exercises, guided visualizations, or custom spreads to provide the personal experience of the topic.  The following list comprises chapter contents:

One- The Many Faces of the Tarot Court – elements, suits and ranks, an overview of different systems in different decks, and significators.


Two – The Court Card Family – family dynamics, including a brief explanation of why the Golden Dawn (G.D.) (and thus, Thoth) court differs from standard tarot tradition (an explanation that got the facts straight).


Three – The Court in Society – history of tarot and historical perspectives of the courts (historical/mythical figures depicted), roles, and power issues.


Four – The Court Within – viewing the cards as facets of personality, through astrology, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Cattell’s 16PF, Jungian archetypes and personality structures, and reversed court cards


Five – Court Card Relationships – projection and the shadow, guides, teachers and mentors, and dialogues and relationships between cards when more than one court card appears in a reading.


Six – The Court and the Cosmos – Metaphysical views of the court: Neoplatonism, Neopagan cosmology, tarot correspondences, a mini-intro to Qabalah from the G.D. perspective, sub-elements, tattwas, elemental dignities, G.D. astrological correspondences, and Major Arcana numerically related to the court cards (via G.D. qabalah)


Seven – Bringing it all Together – various topics, including personality array, crafting your own set of keywords, and tips for figuring out “who is it anyway” in a reading,


Eight – Build Your Own Court – exercises and structural discussion to help designers of decks build their own court cards.


Nine – Court Card Interpretations – For each card : images from four different decks and keywords in eight areas.  I appreciated that Thoth was not one of the decks illustrated, as it allows people of different beliefs in how to correspond across decks to use this section.


Appendix A – Court Card Comparison Chart – “This chart assumes that the consort of the queen is fire and the companion of the page is air.  This is not necessarily the case…. See the footnote for a more complete explanation of the relationship between the Golden Dawn/Thoth and traditional decks.”


Appendix B – Myers-Briggs Court Card Comparison Chart


Appendix C – Golden Dawn Court Card Correspondences


Appendix D – Important Terms


Personally, my favorite section was probably Chapter Eight, since the concept of "building your own court card" is rarely discussed in books about tarot.  The cliché book’s form of discussing each card as an island and then tossing in a few custom spreads leads people embarking on design projects to think that they can come up with clever designs one by one without any concern for parallelism or interrelationships.  Decks built this way are so much less rich and deep than decks with multiple coordinated internal structures.  As they say,

“One of the things that makes the Tarot such a rich divination system is that it has an internal structure – in fact it has many internal structures.  No card exists in isolation, but rather as a part of a web of relationships with other cards… These connections are of great value in reading the cards, and a good deck design exploits them by using recurring symbolism and systematic parallelism and contrast between cards.”

I recommend this book, especially for those at an intermediate level in their tarot studies.  Rather than simply dumping a ready-made system of interpretation on the reader, it takes the reader through the process of building their own system of interpretation.

Postscript: What about the Thoth/RWS correspondence?

In a prior review of a different book on the subject of court cards, I had a real problem with how the Thoth court was described. I had no such problem with this book.  The Thoth system is summarized briefly but accurately, and the correspondence is explained from Thoth’s perspective (that Thoth Knight appears instead of the standard Knight, and Thoth Prince instead of the standard King).


“It is important to understand that the Thoth system differs from the Waite-Smith system not merely in the names of the court cards, but in the relationships among them.  There is no way to equate the cards from one system with those of the other so that they signify the same thing.”

Although I personally prefer not to make the generalization that “the consort of the queen is fire” and “the companion of the page is air”, as I see Knights as fire regardless of whether they appear as card 12 or 14 in the suit, this difference of opinion does not cause major problems in using the book as a whole. I appreciate that the assumption is clearly labeled and properly attributed.


Joan Cole is a stay-at-home mom and former geek.   She has been studying Tarot off and on since the early 1980's.  You can see her deck collection here.

Review © 2005 Joan Cole
Page © 2005 Diane Wilkes