Wednesday 9 November 2011

Caitlín Matthews | Wildwood Court Cards | Part 1

by Caitlín Matthews 

Many of us working with the tarot find it hard to cope with more than one court card at a time.  For example, this morning I did a 9-card reading that had a staggering 6 court cards in it. How do you know when courts are supposed to be people and when they are events, or could they be pointers to personal traits within the querent?  If you get a King, does it only signify a man? Or could it be a woman or a process you are going through?  Arrggh! For some people, just one court card in a spread can bring up anxiety and lack of confidence.

Most tarot books have acres of words about the Major Arcana, much less about the Minor Arcana and almost nothing on the Court Cards, so it’s not surprising that we sometimes find them a little intimidating.  It’s like being huddled into a room with a group of people you feel you don’t know very well and made to make polite conversation. 

But when we play a card game, the court cards are the most important ones to have in your hand! When the playing card deck was assimilated with the 22 tarot cards into a 78 tarot card pack, the courts suddenly had a little less prominence.

Nowadays, Court Cards are often drawn as significators, to represent the client or issue in a reading, but this is not their only function.  This practice of assigning personalities to the courts arises from playing card divination practice, when King of Hearts or Queen of Diamonds might be chosen to represent the querent.

This is how the standard Golden Dawn breakdown of personality types arose, where age and colouring of client defined the chosen card, so that a fair haired, young man might be a Page of Wands and a dark-haired older woman would be a Queen of Pentacles. In this system children would be Pages and adolescents Knights.  However, we now live in a world that has moved away from such narrow stereotyping of sex, age, class or race. So what if I’m a transsexual Asian American? 

With the Wildwood Courts, the opportunity to range beyond such narrow definitions is clearly offered to us because each of the courts is an animal.  Now, if you don’t watch David Attenborough programmes that often, this might be a problem as you might be ignorant of the mysterious life of eels or the extraordinary dancing of stoats, but don’t despair! Soon you will familiarize yourself with the Wildwood Courts in ways you never thought possible, because you will be doing it your way.  

The profile of the Wildwood Courts enables us to pass beyond customary tarot stereotyping and to touch another dimension because animals have their wisdom.  We each have animal ancestry: consider your fingernails, your hair, the scales of your skin to see their trace in your own body.  Animals also have a strong collective consciousness which our modern individual consciousness has begun to erode, yet animal instinct is what keeps us alive in times of stress or danger.  In the Wildwood Tarot, each animal has its association with a time of year, allowing us to tap the wisdom and opportunities of the season.

Tarot writers speak of court cards in terms of human characteristics by means of Myers Briggs Personality types or archetypes, astrology, chakras and heaven knows what else, but such esoteric or technical labels can distance you from getting to know the cards because you are operating under someone else’s system.  I mean, you don’t meet a handsome guy in a bar and immediately try to assign him a psychological profile, do you? Not unless you are an obsessive tagger with an agenda.  

Tagging or pigeon-holing Courts can also fall into a problem I come across frequently in my shamanic practice. After I’ve found someone’s spirit ally or power animal, people often ask ‘what are crows good for?’ or ‘what do salmon mean?’ This is a very insulting question to  spirit animals.  If we ask ‘what do gardeners mean?’ Or ‘what are Africans good for?’ we immediately see why.  The significance of a person or animal is all about context and familiarity: so we need to start there.

You usually get to know someone best by being with them and observing the way they slowly reveal parts of themselves when in your company; the best way to do that is by reading with the court cards.  The King of Stones will show you a different side of himself when he is paired with III The Green Woman, than when he is squashed between II The Seer and V The Ancestor in a reading;  when he shows up next to 3 Vessels, there is something else to discover about him. Get these cards out and see what you find.

Remember, there are no court card personalities with whom you are unfamiliar.  You have met them all at one point or another:  you just need to recognize and make the connections between the card images and your own experience.  Once you have made them your own, you will remember them with confidence.  You don’t have to use the LWB (Little White Book) accompanying any tarot to learn about Court Cards.

Get out each court card in turn, over a period of weeks and meditate with the images.  Without recourse to any tarot books, feel what each one is like.  If you have time to go deeper, then step through into the scene with the animal and introduce yourself  to it, treating it exactly as if it were a new acquaintance: what happens?  How do you feel in its presence?  What do you now understand? What comes back to you? Write down your impressions as a diary entry.  Repeat the visit until you build up a rapport and a greater understanding of  each animal.  What features in the scene do you particularly notice?  What is your reaction to the animal?  How do they respond to you? Ask the animal for a story or myth about itself.

Shuffle your issue into the cards. With the pack face down, turn over the first Major, Minor and Court card that you come to. 

Read each card like this:  

Minor: The situation that is going on right now.
Court:  The person you become in this situation.
Major:  The wisdom that resides in the situation.

After reading these, go down through the pack until you find the next Court Card.  This represents the person you can become when you heed the wisdom of the situation.

Coming in Part 2 - more exclusive court card exercises from Caitlín Matthews!

copyright:  Caitlín Matthews 2011


  1. Caitlìn, a fantastic post! Thank you! Blessings to you and John!

  2. I'm new to Tarot and I'm finding the 'becoming and changing' court spread very intuitive. One question: do I keep turning cards over until I reveal a major, and then continue turning cards over until I get a minor, and then lastly a court? Cheers. :)

  3. Keep going down your shuffled pack until you come to the next card of Court, Major, Minor, and keeping digging down to find the final Court - its always the NEXT one you come to, so no choosing!


  4. Thanks Caitlin! And I'm not cheating, I swear. ;) I'm finding the court spread one system very intuitive; as I go deeper into the deck to find the next major/minor/court, I feel like I'm pushing aside branches to go deeper into the forest, until I find the branch (card) that reveals a clue to the issue.