The Wooden Tarot: Court of Plumes

Plumes Courts





This is part of an ongoing series in which I write about my interpretations of the cards in A.L. Swartz’s Wooden Tarot. You can find the other posts here.

Page of Plumes

The head and shoulders of a bird with an extra eye appear above two crossed arrows. From the arrows dangle three cocoons, and along the length of one of them crawls a caterpillar. The silhouettes of four birds can be seen in the distance.

So this is the only bird in the courts I haven’t been able to ID. It looks like some sort of Kingbird to me, but I can’t get it down to the species. It has the look of being modeled after a real bird, though. As with all of the other Pages, the Page of Plumes is diminutive in comparison to the rest of the courts. Kingbirds and flycatchers can range from the very tiny to the decent-sized (for passerine birds, that is) but nowhere the size of the other birds in this court.

I don’t think I have ever seen a Kingbird in person, but let’s check out the description of it over at All About Birds. First, these birds are aggressive toward competitors and predators. When they hunt, they are still most of the time, and then swift and decisive, snatching large insects out of the air, “which they take back to the perch, beat into submission, and swallow whole.” The crossed arrows can also symbolize conflict. Vigilance, decisiveness, and aggression are keys here.

But then what to do about the caterpillar and cocoons? I love the added layer of interpretation. While the Knight, Queen, and King of Plumes all feature butterflies, echoing the appearance of butterflies on the royal regalia of the King and Queen of Swords in the Smith-Waite deck, this Page isn’t quite as developed. While they embody the cool detachment and aggression of the Court of Swords, they also represent nascent ideas. The Page may be swift and bright, but they are also somewhat intellectually mature. They might enjoy playing with ideas and debating for the sake of debate, but they haven’t figured out how to make those ideas into a reality.

Keys: playing around with ideas; arguing for argument’s sake; precociousness; cleverness; a bright young person who may think they know better than everyone; working well with ideas in the abstract

Reversed: basically the same as upright, but with added conceit; someone who may get themselves into a dangerous situation because they think they know more than they actually do

Knight of Plumes

The head of a four-eyed Great Egret (Great White Heron, for those who live in Europe) emerges from behind an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly. The Egret holds an arrow in its bill.

I love seeing egrets. Their presence is imposing and unmistakable both while standing and in flight. When they are in breeding plumage, the males grow beautiful long, whispy feathers on their back (used as decorative feathers in ladies’ hats for many years, unfortunately) and the skin on their face turns lime green. These birds have the showiness and style that becomes a Knight.

Great Egrets stand motionless in the water, waiting for frogs or fish to swim by. Then they snatch them out of the water at lightning speed. In a sense, the Knight of Plumes hunts very much in the same way that the Page does: with stillness and patience, waiting for the right moment to strike. While the more traditional image of the Knight of Swords is of someone charging into battle, this card shows us someone whose aggression and action is calculated and contained.

As for the butterfly, like many butterflies, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails can engage in mimicry. The caterpillars imitate bird droppings, and the adults can mimic poisonous butterflies. This, then, suggests that we may need to be wary of the Knight of Plumes–they could apply their genius to making the world better or to selling snake oil.

Keys: intellectual prowess–especially on display (if the Page is an undergraduate, the Knight is in grad school); cooly considering all options, but acting quickly and irrevocably once a course of action has been settled upon.

Reversed: snobbery; intellectual deception; arrogance; choosing and acting on a plan, and clinging to it even when things go awry; someone refusing to admit they are wrong

Queen of Plumes

The head of a four-eyed Victoria Crowned Pigeon appears from behind clouds. The moon rises above it, and below is a large, blue butterfly. Two crescent moons, with points facing outward, flank a feather/arrow with the point facing down.

As for the crescent moons on the King and Queen cards, I’ve got to say: I’m stumped. I understand everything else about these cards, but why the moons??? I’ll just just have to move on without figuring it out.

The Victoria Crowned Pigeon is the largest pigeon in the world–it’s almost as big as a turkey. Having looked up this bird’s behavior and watched many YouTube videos of it (which you should do, because this bird is amazing) I’m tending to think that we should be relying more on the bird’s appearance than its life history to figure out its relevance to the card.

Both male and female pigeons have the crown, which is one of the most fantastic bird crests I have ever seen. Beautiful achievements of the mind are on full display here. While traditionally the Queen of Swords is about sadness (Waite says the card signifies “female troubles”…which are??) I see more intellectual confidence and grace here. This card reminds me of the many amazing female professors I have had in undergrad and graduate school–women who are beautiful, gracious, and intimidatingly smart, and who can ask the one question or point out the one flaw that makes your intellectual facade crumble if they want to. Most of the time, though, they won’t want to do that–they will want to support you in your intellectual endeavors as long as you are earnest. But they will not suffer mansplaining fools gladly.

Keys: effortless intellectual achievement; displaying the intellect with grace and graciousness; helping others think through problems or express themselves intellectually; protecting oneself or others from intellectual condescension or belittlement

Reversed: showing off intellectually in an egotistical manner; using the intellect in a way that doesn’t benefit the community; refusing to help others or give them the benefit of the doubt if they don’t know something; being harsh and judgmental about what other may not know

King of Plumes

The head of a four-eyed Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier) appears from behind clouds. The sun rises behind it, with a Monarch butterfly flying upward. Below the vulture, two crescent moons with their points facing inward flank a feather with an arrowhead, the point of which is facing up.

Let’s start with the Bearded Vulture, because its characteristics speak volumes about what the King of Plumes means in this deck. This is a fascinating bird, distributed across high altitudes in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. These are huge birds, 3-4 feet tall with wingspans of 7-9 feet. What makes this bird particularly special is its habit of eating bones. Yes, bones. Most of its diet is made up of bone marrow. It waits until other animals have picked a carcass clean and then it retrieves the bones. But since some bones are too big to swallow, it flies up to great heights and drops them on rocks to break them. Its stomach acid has a pH of 1, meaning that it can digest bones easily.

So what does this mean for the King of Plumes? The King is detached–instead of getting into intellectual tussles, they like to watch things play out before making their move. They have the ability to crack tough problems, and use creativity to do so. They are a large, imposing presence. They’re not in the habit of throwing their weight around, but when they do, it will be noticed. There may be an acidic quality to the King of Plumes, which may allow them to digest hard truths and make good choices for the sake of others, or they may be harsh to be around.

The other aspects of the card point to its position as an active card within an active suit. The sun rises on the King of Plumes, as it does on all kings. The butterflies that appear in these court cards are a nod to the butterflies that appear on the crown of the Queen of Swords and the throne of the King of Swords in the Waite-Smith deck. Monarch, here, is of course a pun on King, but it’s also worth remembering that Monarch butterflies are beautiful but poisonous to many animals, again showing the potentially dangerous nature of the King.

Finally, the inwardly turned crescents and the feather/arrow that faces up shows the active energy of this suit–the drawing of energy in and up, rather than downward and outward, as in the Queen.

Keys: intellectual detachment; being an impartial judge; considering all your options; digesting a lot of information; solving problems creatively; powerful intellectual prowess

Reversed: aloofness; using the intellect to intimidate others; adhering to just the facts/the letter of the law, even if it is hurtful to others; using logic/intelligence to justify something that is acidic and poisonous, or using the intellect in an acidic or poisonous way

The Difficult Conversations Spread

difficult conversationsDifficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, is a book I’d recommend to anyone. My copy has a thing on the front that says “New York Times Business Bestseller” and it’s categorized in “Psychology/Business” on the back, but I’m glad I didn’t let the association with business culture get in the way of reading this book, because it’s truly applicable from the most professional situation to the most personal one.

The authors’ argument is that difficult conversations–those that are difficult to broach or that trigger us emotionally–have three layers to them: the facts, the feelings, and the identity. If someone leaves a comment on my blog saying, “This post was poorly written,” three things are going on: the post itself (the fact), how I feel about being criticized (how I feel), and what part of my identity is being threatened by the criticism. If I am clinging to an identity of being a good writer or a smart person, I may feel defensive or angry–or I may do the opposite and give into despair: “I’m not a good writer after all.” I may respond by arguing about the facts–“This IS a good post, you just didn’t read it carefully!”–when what’s really important, and what are motivating 99% of my response to the comment, are my feelings and threatened sense of identity.

Now imagine a situation where it’s more complex: firing someone, breaking up with someone, telling a tenant that you’re selling the property and they’ll need to move, telling your parents you were sexually abused by a relative 20 years after it happened. Feelings and “identity-quakes” are going to be flying around and this book gives much great advice on handling them.

In preparing for a difficult conversation, tarot can help us, too, because it provides what we–who are so often identified with our identities and who act from our feelings–need: perspective. They get us out of the temporary feelings and thoughts of the moment and give us a space to see what we might be missing otherwise.

I mean, in approaching a difficult conversation you could just ask “what should I say?” and pull three cards, but working with an advanced model for how to think about this will make the tarot spread all the more effective.

The Spread

1. What happened: the facts of the situation. This is important because, as we all know but tend to forget when we’re reacting strongly to a situation, is that every story has at least two sides. Don’t assume that your story is the only story or that you know what the story even is. (An argument about, say, carpet vs. hardwood floors could really, in fact, be an argument in which one person is trying to get the other person to demonstrate commitment, while the other person has no clue about this and simply doesn’t have a preference for either carpet or hardwood floors!)

2. How do I feel about this situation? Seems like a stupid question to ask the tarot, but I find it to be one of the most illuminating. Sometimes the answer is not what you expect, but even when it is, it’s wonderful to see your feelings mirrored in the cards.

3. What identity or sense of self is being threatened, challenged, or changed by this situation? This is the big one. We carry around so many identities without even knowing it, and defend them not even knowing what we are doing. If someone says that I said something racist, I may argue with them about whether or not it’s a racist phrase or that it wasn’t racist because I didn’t intend to use it that way. I may go ballistic, research the history of the use of the phrase/word, or just shut that person out of my life. But what I didn’t know was that my entire response was motivated by feeling that my identity as a good person was threatened.

4. What is my goal in having this conversation? In Difficult Conversations, the authors ask you to think about this. What exactly is the goal? To tell the other person that they’re wrong or chew them out? To express your feelings? To come to an understanding? Before you even begin a conversation, it’s important to know what your motives are–because sometimes the conversation isn’t even worth having in the first place if all you want to do is chew someone out or complain to them about a situation that can’t be fixed.

5. What really needs to be said? Here we’re at the meat of it. What do you really need to say? What is your truth?

6. What is true but doesn’t need to be said? Telling a person that you want to break up with them because you don’t feel emotionally compatible is legit. Also telling them that you think their art is shitty is unnecessary. Sometimes things are true, but that doesn’t meant they need to be said.

7. What is the most important thing to keep in mind? I think of this as much of a how question as a what question. Think of this card as the lighthouse beacon for when the conversation begins to get off track. Sometimes this card will match up with #4–your goal. Sometimes it will be at odds with your goal, in which case you may need to reevaluate your purpose in having this conversation in the first place. You could even use this card as a talisman–bring it to the conversation or wear or carry something that reminds you of it.

dc spread edit.jpg

Here is a sample of this spread that I did recently. I got into an argument with a friend based on issues we’ve had before and now feel that I need to go back and talk about things. I won’t go into the details, but I’ll briefly run through each card.

  1. What happened? Mother of Swords, RX. I lost my temper, let my emotions get in the way of the facts. I was projecting my identity onto the situation.
  2. How do I feel? 10 of Wands, RX. Hell yes. Burnt out, exhausted, tired of having the same argument over and over.
  3. What part of my identity is being challenged? Mother of Cups. This one is funny because both the Mother of Cups and the Daughter of Cups are my significators. My sense of myself as a patient, compassionate person is being challenged.
  4. What is my goal in having this conversation? Five of Pentacles, RX. To undo pain and feelings of misunderstanding/isolation.
  5. What needs to be said? Four of Swords, RX. Some things that should have been said a long time ago, but weren’t. I need to stop covering things over and tell them my truth. These things need to be actionable.
  6. What is true that doesn’t need to be said? Daughter of Cups, RX. I don’t need to bring all my emotional immaturities upfront. I don’t need to go over in detail every time I was annoyed or upset. This is not about emotional venting.
  7. What is the most important thing to keep in mind? The Empress. That my goal is healing and I have it within me to do this.

Wow! I was very impressed with these when I turned them over. So much clarity here.

If you feel moved to use this spread, please comment and tell me how it went! And also consider picking up a copy of Difficult Conversations if you have some especially difficult conversations you need to have, or you have to have these kinds of conversations fairly often.*


* I bought this book with my own money and am recommending it based on my own experience.