Authority, power, and balance: the Kings in tarot

Editor’s Note: If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article explains how to use the spread. You can visit Sarah’s website here. –efc

By Sarah Taylor

We complete our journey through the minor arcana with the final complement of court cards: that of the Kings.

King of Wands and King of Cups - RWS Tarot deck.
King of Wands and King of Cups from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck. Click on the image for a larger version.

I sum up the Kings with the words “authority, power and balance” because, as a group, I feel that the Kings have finally managed to get to grips with the qualities of their suit in a way that is focused without being obsessive, commanding without being tyrannical.

The Kings are the masculine counterparts to the feminine aspects described by the Queens, and this relationship is important enough to be explored in its own article at a later date. For now, however, let’s take a look at this, the final cohort in each of the four suits.

[Note: much of the writing below is taken and adapted from earlier articles on the Kings.]

King of Wands

I look at the King of Wands, and the man is practically on fire with creative energy, or life force.

He sits at an angle that isn’t quite in profile (although his face is) and he is ready for action: his arms — right one forward, holding his Wand, left one back, elbow crooked — convey movement, as if he is striding purposefully towards something that is out of the picture to the left. His face is set, brow furrowed, focused intently on the same point. It is as if the throne on which he sits cannot contain him. Nor does it want to. Nearly the whole picture abets his demeanour.

Wands are associated with fire, and it is apparent everywhere in the picture. The King’s hair (or hair-covering, I can’t quite decide) glows red, topped with a gold crown fashioned into flames that lick upwards. These flames are repeated on his cuffs, while his robe echoes his flame-coloured head.

His yellow cloak drapes fluidly around him — there are few sharp angles to this figure, just as fire is organic and in constant motion — and upon it are printed black salamanders. There are salamanders on the back of his throne too, as well as two lion-like figures. My first thought about the lions is that they could be a reference to Leo, which is ruled by the Sun. Salamanders are also closely associated with fire, and a line in Wikipedia describes their symbolism thus:

“The salamander became a symbol of enduring faith which triumphs over the fires of passion.”

This makes sense to me as I look at the green coverlet around the King’s neck; his soft, green shoes; and the green of the leaves sprouting from the Wand. For this King is a man of passion and action — but his fiery nature is tempered by the wisdom that he has acquired through learning to ground that nature. His feet are green. This is significant. They are what prevent him from leaping forward hot-headedly. His coverlet balances the green on his feet. He radiates verve, and yet he has a handle on it.

There is a saying that fire is a good servant, but a bad master. The King understands that if he relinquishes his authority to the passion that fuels him, then he is of little use to anyone. And the message that he might be bringing us in this instance is: neither are we. Fire can be channelled with great effect, or it can rage unchecked and consume everything in its path. Perhaps it is about knowing how to work with it, and how to take precautions. Perhaps the King embodies the idea of responsibility: that when we own our power and our experiences, we are not consumed by the agenda of someone, or something, else.

It is a fine balance, and we are kingly indeed when we walk the line between inferno and damp squib.

Finally, my eye is drawn to the small, black salamander that stands at the ready at the King’s feet. A reminder, maybe, that this energy is not to be feared — which can be just as destructive. Rather, it can be a highly creative partner and companion when it is allowed to roam free, while under no illusions as to who it is that ultimately calls the shots.

King of Cups

I love the balance of colours in the King of Cups: the blue and yellow of his garb reflected in the rolling waves, the punctuations of red on his cloak, his crown, and in the ship behind him to his left. The fish-scale shoes that appear beneath his robe render him almost amphibious — much like the fish jumping out of the waves, which seems to be breathing the air.

Like the King of Swords — and unlike the King of Wands and King of Pentacles — there is a certain austerity about how he chooses to present himself to the world. There is no sense of showiness. Given that the King of Cups rules the emotions, then perhaps we can infer from this that the King is not one to indulge in needless displays of emotion.

The King’s throne rises out of the waves, solid and enduring as if it is firmly anchored in the seabed. He embodies the collective emotional experiences of the preceding Cups cards — from love to nostalgia, heartbreak to joy. He knows and understands the depths of the emotional currents that lie around him, and yet — like the Queen — remains distinct from them. He has assumed authority over his feelings and his life. But this is not a hard-hearted authority: his posture is one of openness and has a certain relaxed air to it. He doesn’t grasp the accoutrements of his rule — the simple, unadorned Cup, the equally unassuming sceptre — but rests them on his knee and the arm of his throne respectively. There is nothing that needs controlling or fighting. The card speaks of a sense of ease. The waves are in motion — there is no stagnation here — but they are supportive of the life on and under them: the fish can swim freely, the ship is in full sail.

That being said, there is something to the contrast between the Queen and King in this suit. The Queen of Cups is more closely associated with the rippling waves around her, which move towards her feet and which are reproduced on her clothing. This, I feel, is the difference between the feminine and masculine expressions of Cups energy — one more engaged, the other detached. Both are experienced by everyone, and it seems that in the case of this royal couple there is something to be said about the incorporation of both. In this way, the King and Queen work together to create balance. (I will be exploring the relationship between the four Kings and Queens in a later article.) The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

King of Swords

King of Swords and King of Pentacles - RWS Tarot deck.
King of Swords and King of Pentacles from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck. Click on the image for a larger version.

Butterflies. They seem anomalous next to the overt sense of ‘hardness’ of the King — his chiselled jaw, set smilelessly. But if we look closer, his demeanour is not as rigid as we might think. He sits at a slight angle, his legs seem to be relaxed. He holds up his sword, but unlike the Queen’s, which rests bolt upright on the arm of her throne, in the King it is held fully in his hand, slightly at an angle. Two birds fly above the clouds to his left. The trees behind him might be wind-blasted, but the ground on which he rests his feet is made up of red earth, sand, grass.

I feel a real sense of paradox here — the square jaw next to the soft, red folds of his cowl; the steely blue-white planes of his sword next to the undulating expanse of his tunic — both reminiscent of the sky that frames him. The gravitas of his expression — the lion denoting healing and strength on his crown — and the receptive presence of the moons. The beauty and symmetry of butterfly wings carved from stone — not trapping them but rather capturing their symbolism in something enduring, which gives them a further symmetry to their form.

The King represents the ‘middle path’. He is the way of transformation — the intermediary between pure thought and the grounded nature of what it is to be human — to put thought into action, to experience thought working actively with the principles of creativity and love rather than simply its being a concept. His feet rest on the earth — his clothing is a combination of earth and sky. He is the horizon where they meet. He is the simultaneous liberation and mastery of thought. This is where the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.

King of Pentacles

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser.” [King James 2000 Bible]

The King of Pentacles holds in him the full expression of the Pentacles suit. He knows the workings of the physical world, and understands that true riches are only possible when the material and natural worlds are balanced. Look how the grapes on his robes seem to spill over into leaf and fruit around him. His castle lies to one side of him, more vines lie to the other, and a range of mountains that would dwarf everything stretch blue-grey in the background.

Moreover, the King may be adorned in flora, but he is also, at heart, a warrior: a single, steel-clad foot emerges from the folds in his gown and is placed, quite deliberately, upon the stone head of a bull. He has authority over his realm — yet there is no sword in sight. Rather, he rules with the authority conferred on him by the pentacle that he supports on his left knee. There is a sense of conscious responsibility: the King knows that he can wield his authority in powerful ways, but his gaze remains on the pentacle. He doesn’t clasp it, but merely steadies it in place: he knows how fine the line is between claiming something as his own, and working in co-operation with it.

The King of Pentacles is a wise and generous benefactor who has learned to live in balance with the natural and material worlds, knowing as he does that all things are interrelated, and that true power comes from his connection to spirit. In his hands he holds a sceptre and a pentacle; he is aware of his stewardship of, and responsibility to, them. He is reverent of, and fully accountable for, what he holds, but is not in awe of it and therefore has full access to its gifts.

As such, I see the King of Pentacles as the embodiment of the ‘true vine’. The grapes that grow at his feet and adorn his gown are healthy and abundant, and symbolic of this idea of a man who is both authentic and connected to a power that transcends his worldly mandate.

4 thoughts on “Authority, power, and balance: the Kings in tarot”

  1. I noticed the scepters, but never noticed that it was the passive elements, earth and water, that carried them. That is an interesting observation. I notice they are both resting the base of their scepter on the arm of their thrones, another passive symbol. The King of Wands has what appears to be a Lotus Wand. I’m not quite sure what that King of Pentacles scepter is. It’s fairly traditional to have a scepter with a sphere at the top, but that one seems to be disproportionate.

    As you’ve gone through the Court, I’ve noticed that all of the characters have some definite relationship with the symbol of their suit. But the Kings seem to embody their symbol more strongly and more effortlessly than any other members of the court.

  2. Interestingly too — something I’ve just noticed — that the two Kings with the obviously phallic symbols of Wand and Sword do not carry anything in addition to them; whereas the Kings of Pentacles and Cups — to me both feminine symbols — ‘offset’ them with sceptres.

  3. One thing I always notice about the King of Swords is the tilt of his sword, as he holds it close to his body. Compare it to the RWS Justice card, the figure holds the sword straight up, at arm’s length. The sword of Justice is balanced vertically (like the scale in his other hand) but it must take considerable strength to hold it out in front, brandishing it as a symbol that can cut equally either way.
    Now the KS sword though, is held close to his body, almost casually. But that is deceptive, it must take considerable torque to hold the sword in that unbalanced position. The King has a strong arm, and the sword will definitely cut one way and not the other. That is his decision, the result of his mental faculties, the discrimination and discernment of the suit of Air.

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