Court Personality Types: History and Humors

4 humors people types

{This is an Intermediate Level Tarot mini-class}


Robert Place (most famously known as a legendary astrologer, and is also a master Tarot card reader) said, ‘the entire Tarot deck is a quincunx’.  What he meant was the four minor suits are related to the material world of the four directions, four seasons, and four elements that surround the sacred center illustrated by the 22 trumps. 

The four minor suits were a complete game deck that existed before the Tarot was created. The creators of the Tarot simply added the fifth suit (the Major Arcana) to this deck. The suit symbols – coins, swords, cups, and wands –  are still in use in parts of Italy, North Africa, and in Spanish-speaking countries for what we know of as common playing cards, and they are the ancestors of the French suit symbols, which are also used in English-speaking countries and much of Europe.

Traditionally, the pip cards in the Tarot, which are numbered 1-10, carried only depictions. The suit symbol repeated per the card’s number like modern playing cards.  In the game, the feminine suits – coins and cups- were ranked Ace high to ten low, and the masculine suits – swords and wands – were ranked Ace low to ten high.

Divinatory meanings could only be determined by the numerological symbolism of the first ten integers combined with associations with each suit symbol.  

Pictures were first added to the cards by Pamela Coleman-Smith as an aid for divination for the Waite-Smith deck (aka the Rider-Waite deck) in 1910.  Her images were inspired by channeled images relayed to her by Waite.  The only historical precedent she had to draw on to assist was the 15th century Sola Busca deck which includes figures interacting with the suit symbols.  Smith’s deck set a precedence for modern Tarot decks and to this day is the standard for Tarot image reference.

The four Royal cards in each minor suit of the Tarot rank above the ten pips and they rank as they would have in late medieval society.  The lowest status person in the Tarot Court we call the Page.  In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a page referred to the person in his first stage of training to become a Knight.  The son of a noble person would become a Page at age 7 or 8 and would serve a woman or man of higher rank. Then, at age 15 or 16 he would become an apprentice to a knight, and his title would change to Squire. The first Royal court card serves a knight and is usually illustrated with a younger male or androgynous figure.  The Page serves the knight, the knight serves the Queen (in full chivalrous style), and the Queen serves the King, for purposes of Tarot card interaction.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the four suits were seen as depicting the four classes of society.  Connections were commonly made to the four elements, which is demonstrated in the masculine and feminine designations of the suits.  The four-fold division of society is common to all Indo-European cultures, and is basic to Plato’s division of society in his Republic.  In Medieval culture, each class was seen as striving for the virtue embodied by the class above it; peasants strove to attain the temperance of the merchants; the merchants strove to attain the fortitude of the nobles; the nobles strove to attain the judiciousness of the clergy; and the clergy strove to attain the divine virtue of prudence (and royalty).

Speaking of the clergy, and as an exercise is learning in keeping with our theme of fours, consider that the New Testament of the Bible has four Evangelists (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John); there are four virtues ( prudence, strength, temperance, and justice); four animals depicted on the World Card (the human, Eagle, Lion, and Bull); Four elements (fire, air, water and earth); four directions (north, east, south, and west); many table games are designed for four players.  You might be able to think of even more incidences where groups of four are the norm.  And, you might choose to amuse yourself by attributing tarot court personality elements to some of these to reinforce what you learn here.

Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, mapped the human consciousness and divided it into four different personality functions and personality types.  These types and functions can be related to the four Tarot (or playing card) suits and are invaluable in interpreting the cards for divination.

Jung’s four personality types/ functions represent abilities or talents each person has.  As applied to the Tarot Court these types/function are depicted in varying degrees of presentment or mastery. 

At birth, we are each imbued with strengths and weaknesses in each of these four functions. Everyone tends to use their ‘strong suit’ to solve problems and are at a disadvantage when their weak suit is what a given situation might demand. These functions can be classified as ‘introverted’, looking within for direction; or ‘extroverted’, looking to others for direction.

Jung proposed that throughout life, if an individual matures, he or she will develop more functions and become more versatile in his or her capabilities.  This maturing is what Jung calls the ‘process of individuation’, a progression toward psychic wholeness that he equated to the Hero’s Journey. If an individual can develop all four functions, then the fifth element of the True Self is attained, which is likened to the experience of the Anima Mundi, divine spirit or ‘Christ Within’.  


The ancient Greeks developed a theory of four qualities -hot, cold, dry, and moist- each of which related to two of the four elements.  This allowed the Greeks to equate the elements to the seasons. During this time western medicine was also in its infancy and this four fold association method also lent itself to associations with four bodily liquids or juices, called humors.

The Four Humors are:  

  • Black Bile
  • Yellow Bile
  • Blood
  • Phlegm

The four humors, black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, represented different qualities: while black bile was cold and dry and yellow bile was hot and dry, blood was hot and wet and phlegm was cold and wet .  Given these combinations, the humors could be matched onto the four seasons, the four elements, and – and here’s the mental health bit – four different emotional characteristcs. The ancient names for these humor – melancholic (black bile), choleric (yellow bile), sanguine (blood), and phlegmatic (phlegm) – represented different temperaments, and still do.  Melancholic people are despondent and gloomy. Choleric people are bad-tempered. Sanguine people are courageous, hopeful, and amorous. Phlegmatic people are calm, cool, and unemotional.¹

The humors remained part of medical theory through the Renaissance and their balance was deemed necessary for health and good temperament.  These humors were also associated with qualities of personality. Though these principles or theories are not overtly recognized in modern medical practice, their influence is subtly present, making itself most evident in diagnosis and treatment plans, especially more holistic treatment plans. 

Most of us are more familiar with humor references in literature and character description. For example: We commonly refer to someone as ‘being in good humor’ or ‘holding their temper’ ( a reference to a mix of liquids). Both of these references originally meant that the four humors were in balance.  

On the other hand, today when say someone is depressed, we might say they are feeling melancholic (meaning they have too much black bile) or they are ‘rosy cheeked,’ meaning he or she has an abundance of blood, the sanguine humor).  In fact, we often look at someone’s complexion, a word that originally meant ‘combination’, to determine his or her health or mood, (‘red with anger’; ‘white with fear’).

In the Renaissance, the humors were an important part of the people’s worldview, and the knowledge of them can give us insight into the people who created ‘the people’ of the Tarot. Connect the colors found on court cards for indications of personality type being represented by the author / artist of your deck.

That ends the Court Personality Types mini- lesson.  There is an extended audio version that includes keywords, if you would like to learn more about this important subject.  Also, there are more ways to decode Court card personality types by using the Element of the suit represented and Elemental Dignity of the Court card in combination with other cards in your spread.  Those subjects are covered in other Metaphysics Lessons, so check the Tarot Lessons class list for more information.

 1) Psychology Today

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