Understanding the Tarot Court by Mary K. Greer and Tom Tadfor Little
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

There are some books that you know will be wonderful, sight unseen. The next Harry Potter book, for instance. Another book in that stellar "must-order-in-advance" category for me was the new book on court cards by Tom Little and Mary Greer--I started recommending it to my students as soon as I heard it was going to be published--and that was several years ago!

It was not because I knew a book about Court Cards was not merely a concept whose time had come, but was long past its time...like month-old laundry or week-old fish. The key was that, when it was finally written, it wouldn't stink, but instead offer a fresh breeze of illumination to those who long had "court card issues." And who better to write such a book than my favorite tarot writer/innovator (Mary K. Greer) and the man whose Secret Fan Club I have long been President (Tom Little). There was not a trace of doubt in my mind that this book was going to be a classic.

I received this book a few months before publication and, upon first glance, was almost too infatuated with it to review it properly. It reminded me of my favorite tarot book of all time (Tarot for Your Self by Mary K. Greer--what a coinkidinky), with its plethora of exercises and range of perspectives (historical, creative, Golden Dawn, psychological, and neopagan...and that's just for starters!).

I see the tarot in the way I perceive the Constitution--a living, breathing document that evolves and grows for me as I evolve and grow. And this book completely reflects that concept--it allows you to know the court cards like you know your relatives and closest friends--intimately, with an understanding of their talents and gifts--and their warts and peccadilloes.

While I read the book from cover-to-cover a while ago, I knew it would be unfair to review a workbook unless I also completed the exercises for myself. While time-consuming, I have to say this particular homework was both fun and enlightening. Each one offered a new perspective or deeper insight into the card or cards I explored.

The book begins with the excellent advice of using a journal to record the exercises and impressions you receive as you go through its pages.  You are then assigned the job of finding your first significator, which may indeed change as you work your way through the book. Basics such as the rank and suits/elements are then provided -- and then the fun begins.  You go to a beach party and meet some court cards on the sand--in your mind. You view how other authors and artists perceive the court cards and how to work with significators. In every case, you are given the freedom of choice to discover what most resonates with you; you are never dictated to as to the "proper" way of working with these cards.  Instead, the authors present a panoply of possibilities from which you can choose, ranging from traditional approaches to their own innovations.

In fact, Little and Greer are the perfect individuals to write a court card book, precisely because they're steeped in the historical roots of the tarot, as well as Golden Dawn and other traditions, yet they are not imprisoned by them.  Far from it. Traditionalists might find the book frightening precisely because there is so much choice and no negative judgments as to what each querent might find appealing or useful. The information is all there, but the reader is the ultimate arbiter as to what he or she chooses to fully absorb and retain.

In this book, you are introduced to the concept of court card families, how the court cards have evolved through history, specific information on Waite and Crowley and how their courts are similar and how they differ. Astrological, qabalistic, and Myers-Briggs correspondences to the court cards are explored, as well as their shadow aspects and potential as inner teachers. There are even a few exercises that don't necessarily utilize the court cards, such as the Values Inventory and the abbreviated Tree of Life spread. There is also an exercise on building your own tarot court, based on your own interests and beliefs. Finally, at the back of the book, detailed information on each court card is provided, within the framework of the following categories:

                                            typical roles, masks, subpersonalities
                                            personality styles and values
                                            stresses, problems, weaknesses
                                            sample occupations
                                            events, situations, activities
                                            traditional meanings
                                            traditional reversed meanings

If you've been paying attention, you know why these interpretations are placed at the end of the book. The authors want you to explore and find your own definitions of these cards before providing you with theirs, precisely because their goal is not to indoctrinate you, but free you to create an authentic, intimate relationship with your court cards. If you do even half of the exercises in this book, those relationships will indeed be formed and support you in all your tarot readings to come.


A Numerical Analysis of the Court Cards

The Tarot cards can be seen as a model of coming to "know ourselves" -- an admonition written on the gate of the Oracle at Delphi.  Since numbers so often form the inner structure of the Tarot, we can turn to them in our attempt to better understand the court cards.  There are no individual numbers associated with the court cards, but there are a total of sixteen of them.  We shall see if a significance can be found for this.

The sixteenth major arcana card is the Tower, which is also known as the House of God, Tower of Destruction, and the Great Liberator.  This is the card that liberates us from the structures and forms that keep us from perceiving our true selves.  In it, the lightning bolt of truth destroys all false boundaries and beliefs.  And the structures, boundaries, and beliefs that are destroyed in this card are, of course, the roles each of us play in our daily lives.  These roles are the masks we hide behind.  They are the fences and walls we build to keep us, and others, from the realization of who we really are.  They form our "identity," or that which makes us different from others. These enclosing walls protect us from the unknown; thus we nest down in a structure of false security, false because these personality structures -- ones like those you've listed earlier in this book -- are not who you really are. You are not the walls around you, but rather the multiform spirit that resides within.

Thus, the Tower exemplifies the idea that the court cards reflect the personality roles we play, the masks we hide behind, and the towering forms we've crystallized into, which must ultimately be destroyed if we are to awaken to who we really are. The Tower stresses the impermanence of worldly position and rank and the false sense of importance and pride of achievement in which we cloak ourselves. We are truly liberated when we have no more roles to play; when our infinite possibilities are no longer limited.

Now, if we add one plus six, we get seven, and perhaps the seventh trump card can tell us something more about the essential nature of these sixteen court cards.

Seven is the number of the Chariot, also known as Victory or Mastery.  The vehicle pictured on the card represents our own personal temple from which our power flows into our daily experience.  A work on Tarot called Jewels of the Wise explains how we have built vehicles or enclosures to imprison our inner subconscious self.  These are enclosures within which we cultivate who we are and develop our various masteries in our daily life.  (10)

The lunar masks on the charioteer's shoulders and the duality and mixed characteristics of the sphinxes show that we wear the masks to pose our own riddle to the sphinx's question, "Who am I?"  The zodiacal belt suggests that we wear these masks of personality as long as time and space bind us.

Our individual vehicle is the enclosure in which we cultivate ourselves.  The court cards are therefore the ways in which we gain mastery and perfect ourselves. They are the developmental steps we take to discover our own identity.  Like the Chariot, the court cards show us how to develop control over our physical environment, how to harness our personal resources toward a purpose, and how to use our skills and abilities to move instinctively through the challenges presented in the minor arcana number cards.  The court cards depict us, the querents, on a journey of self-development.  As the Bhagavad Gita says, "The Self is the rider in the chariot of the body, of which the senses are horses and the mind the reins."  We are the self within an ever-changing vehicle consisting of social and developmental roles.

And, thus, we see how we develop and perfect our personality structure, and then, as in the Tower, go through a process of breaking down all that is false in that structure, only to slowly build it up again.  We may discover our restructured personalities are still not who we really are.  And so we continue until we have burned away all the forms that keep us from mirroring truth and perfection.  Then, we too can see our reflection in the Holy Grail as pictured in the Thoth Chariot card.

Read an interview with Tom Tadfor Little, co-author of Understanding the Tarot Court, here.

Read an earlier interview with Mary K. Greer, co-author of Understanding the Tarot Court, here.

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

Review and page 2004 Diane Wilkes