Looking through a typical tarot deck, you find that human characters in the cards are distinguished by many different kinds of headwear. Tarot artists are limited by how much detail they can fit into such small illustrations, but by drawing people with different hats, crowns, helmets, and other head coverings, they concisely convey information about the individual portrayed. Tied in with the symbolic conflation of hat, head, and mind, headgear says something about different states of consciousness or ego states. Because we use hats metonymically to describe the roles we play, (as when we speak of a person who "is wearing many hats"), if you are doing a tarot spread for yourself, cards portraying a variety of hats can indicate different personas that you've been trying on, or your need to be many things to many people. As head coverings also signal social status, the headgear in tarot illustrations can also say something about an individual's linking to the larger society. In addition, headwear can take on special meaning in certain contexts in a layout. For example, the "crowns you" position in the Celtic Cross layout reveals conscious directions, so a crowned figure is likely to be auspicious in this position. However, in this position, the Tower card, (which often portrays the crown of a tower being struck by lightning and/or crowned figures plunging to doom), could warn of a mindset that leads to danger.
Following is a run-down of some of the insights we can pull out of card illustrations featuring headgear:
The Fool often wears a jester's cap, and in some decks, other characters may also sport such caps. For example, in Ciro Marchetti's Legacy of the Divine tarot, characters in The Wheel of Fortune and the Two of Pentacles also wear jester caps. If you did a reading in which multiple figures in jester caps turned up, you might be concerned about group stupidity or mass delusion. Jester's caps have an association with magic, however, as clowning has traditional shamanic functions in deflecting sorcery and evil spirits, and for similar reasons, bells are often sewn to shamans' costumes, as to jesters' costumes, to disperse negative vibrations. (If you have a cap-and-bells, you could shake it as a protective gesture when you are plagued by memories of having done something foolish—or to remind you not to do it again.) Sometimes the Fool is portrayed differently, as in the Rider-Waite-Smith [RWS] deck, illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith; here, the Fool wears what seems to be a simple green cap or a garland of green leaves, signifying youth and innocence.
In the Marseilles family of decks, The Magician—known there as The Juggler—is often portrayed in a broad-brimmed hat whose lines suggest the lemniscate, which is the symbol that resembles a figure 8 lying on its side, and is used to denote either eternity or the balance of solar and lunar powers. A number of other Marseilles characters wear this hat, including the woman in Strength, (whose hat often also has a crown-like design on the crown section). The Marseilles Kings wear crowns over their broad-brimmed hats, (which is unusual, but not unheard of, as a prince of Sweden wore his crown that way).
In older decks, the High Priestess is known as the Popess and wears a papal-style headdress, which graphically connects her with The Pope, (now more commonly labeled the Hierophant or High Priest). The 3-tiered papal crown is called the triregnum. While the tiers on the headdress of historical popes were added over time and originally signified earthly authority, in the tarot, they are more likely to harmonize the spiritual, mental, and physical realms. When the High Priestess wears a veil, it suggests her ability to enclose herself in thought and go within; however, she is usually depicted with the veil pulled back, showing that she is accessible and prepared to reveal her wisdom. The High Priestess may also wear a very lunar headdress, with a full moon and crescents to emphasize her receptive, reflective nature.
Depictions of the Emperor and Empress may feature conventional crowns, often with imperial arches and/or trefoils or fleurons. However, Pamela Coleman Smith portrays the Empress with a crown of twelve stars for celestial harmony, and she may also be garlanded or bare-headed with flowing hair to show her association with Nature's fertility and abundance. The figures in The Lovers, Strength, The Star, The Sun, Judgment, and The World are also often portrayed bare-headed and/or with flowing hair to convey their naturalness, vitality, freedom, and attunement with Nature. Some artists also depict the Magician and the High Priestess that way, suggesting magical and spiritual potency through an energetic exchange with Nature. Though the woman or angel in Temperance is usually bare-headed, there is a long tradition of depicting her with a jewel on her forehead, alluding to the activation of the higher chakras.
The Emperor in the RWS deck appears to wear an octagonal crown of joined plates, similar to the Germanic Reichskrone. (In fact, in Kat Black's Touchstone Tarot version, the Reichskrone is portrayed in closer detail.) The number Eight was considered the number of perfect attainment in the Middle Ages. For tarot purposes, it doubles the Emperor's number Four, solidifying his ability to order reality in all eight directions. In Ciro Marchetti's Gilded Tarot, he wears the wreath of golden laurel leaves, known as the corona triumphalis, with which Napoleon crowned himself, and which the Roman emperors wore in their triumphal parades. (These "triumphs" contributed to the inception of the tarot.) Other decks, especially the Marseilles, may depict the Emperor with an Imperial Ceremonial Helmet to highlight his more martial role as Imperator (Commander in Chief). Note that Death, whose card number Thirteen breaks down numerologically to the Emperor's number Four, sometimes wears a crown, laurel wreath, or helmet, and crowned figures often fall before him, showing his dominion over all. Yet another figure who is sometimes helmeted is The Devil (as in the Marseilles deck, where his horns stick out from under what appears to be a helmet).
As mentioned, the figures in the Lovers are often bare-headed, which emanates a certain sensuality. However, in some older versions where the man is shown in the dilemma of having to choose between two women, the older, darker woman may be portrayed wearing a crown or crown-like hat, perhaps to denote her greater worldly experience and influence, in contrast to the other, more natural, maidenly woman. (In certain contexts, the tarot could be commenting, here, on having to choose between left-brain and right-brain functions, with the crowned woman as the left brain, through which we are more connected to the social order.)
Additional cards that may feature crowned figures are The Chariot, Justice, and the Wheel of Fortune. Aside from the fact that the Charioteer appears to be a King or Queen in a triumphal parade, the crown symbolism adds to this card's denoting the need for the intellect to maintain control over the conflicting emotions represented by the horses. Justice applies intellect in wielding temporal power, and in the RWS deck, Justice wears what is known as a mural crown (resembling walls with battlements), which further shows her concern with social order. It could be said that any crowned figure in tarot has some concern with human society. The Wheel often depicts a crowned figure perched above the wheel, denoting the person who has some ability to maintain equanimity in the midst of change; at the same time, other crowned figures may be shown rising and falling from the wheel.
The Hermit is typically hooded, though the hood is usually pushed back to reveal a certain amount of outwardness in what would otherwise be a more inward character. A hermit or other character with a hood pulled forward wants to shut out distraction.
To my knowledge, the Hanged Man is never drawn with headgear—for obvious reasons—but this says something, too, about the rule of intellect over-turned.
The Lightning-Struck Tower card illustrates another way that head/crown/consciousness symbolism makes a dramatic point, as in many versions, the top of the tower is crown-like, and crowned figures may be seen plummeting from the tower. This lightning bolt to the head may indicate that the life-changing situations this card foretells will force you to change your way of thinking, (and may have been brought about by dysfunctional habits of mind). If the Tower comes up in association with cards featuring characters with certain types of headgear, you might consider the graphic resonance between these images, and what that tells you about peoples' thinking patterns. On the positive side, the Tower can sometimes indicate the flash of creative inspiration that leads to invention or the solution of a problem.
Turning, now, to the Minor Arcana, we see the creative use of headgear to distinguish court cards by suit and element. This gives tarot illustrators an opportunity for imaginative symbolism, as in Pamela Coleman Smith's use of the butterfly crown to hint at the airier, less severe side of the Queen of Swords, or the cherub centered on the King of Swords crown, suggesting higher thought. In Ciro Marchetti's Legacy of the Divine tarot, the Knights are represented by empty but elaborate helmets, whereas the other court cards in that deck have human figures wearing different types of headdresses. Perhaps the emptiness of the helmets suggests that these denote roles or modes of action that any kind of persons could project themselves into. By the way, it is interesting to note whether your deck portrays all of the Kings, Queens, Knights, or Pages with similar headgear, or if it shows one different from the rest—as in the Marseilles, where all the other Knights and Pages wear hats, but the Knight and Page of Cups are bareheaded, with long hair, showing their closer connection with Nature and instinct.
Elsewhere in the Minor Arcana, hats tend to be worn by persons enjoying a certain level of wealth and status, while less fortunate persons may have rags or band-aids on their heads. In the RWS deck, the head coverings of the influential men in the Two of Wands and Four of Pentacles resemble mural crowns, signaling a level of social control.
The creation of theme decks also affects the headgear portrayed. For example, a number of figures in The Sorcerer's Tarot by artist Antonella Castelli have hoods or conical wizard's hats; in a tradition that goes back to John Duns Scotus, the pointed hat is supposed to increase mental potency—like wearing a pyramid on your head.
One other notable mention of Minor Arcana illustration is the tradition of portraying the Ace of Swords with a crown hovering over the tip of the sword. To my knowledge, none of the other Aces' symbols have a crown above them. However, as the Swords represent elemental Air and conscious thought, the crown emphasizes intensity of concentration and intention. If the Ace of Swords is next to cards with crowned figures, it can show how those persons' intentions are driving the action.
The symbolism of hats, crowns, and headgear lends itself to readings focused on this pictorial imagery—especially if you have a deck whose illustrations feature an interesting assortment of head coverings. Shuffle and cut the cards as you pose the request, "Please tell me something about the hats I wear in life," and then lay out a card for past, present, and future. Then, look to the headgear that the figure in each card is wearing, to get an idea about major roles you've been playing. In cards with multiple figures, focus on the central or fore-grounded person, unless you identify with someone else in the picture. In relation to the pointers described above, hats can make a statement about your place in society, and crowns denote conscious directives that you set for yourself. Helmets may denote a need for protection in taking on challenges. In cards where the figures are bare-headed, in addition to the symbolism discussed previously, this could indicate a period of life where you have been more of a free spirit, or your roles are less defined due to flux in your life, and being driven by different unconscious motivations, or having less of a linking to social demands and expectations.
You can also utilize these images to change your way of thinking. For example, if a crowned figure comes up reversed in a reading, think about how fuzzy thinking or an inability to set directions may be a problem for you, then right the card as you mentally commit yourself to cultivating new attitudes.
Much more could be said about headdresses in tarot art, as the tarot has such a varied history. Seeing that incidental images that we might not otherwise think about can enhance our interpretation of cards and layouts on so many levels, we can get even more out of the process of tarot discovery.
Janina Renée is a scholar of folklore, psychology, medical anthropology, the material culture of magic, ritual studies, history, and literature. Her books include Tarot Spells, Tarot Your Everyday Guide (winner ...