A Journey Through the Tarot Major Arcana: The Emperor

In the last post we talked about the Empress being the tarot’s embodiment of the mother archetype. In this article we’re going to talk about the father – The Emperor.

Like the Empress, early renderings of the Emperor emphasize his authority as opposed to his role as a parent. We should start by noting that, during the 15th century, when tarot decks first emerged, Italy was still part of what was known as the Holy Roman Empire which lasted for a thousand years until Napolean dissolved it in 1806. The empire was engaged in a power struggle with the papacy, with both parties claiming authority over the other. In those days you were expected to align with the Emperor or the Pope, and which one you chose largely came down to religious beliefs, where you lived, your allegiances within the community and your personal priorities. Today we interpret the Emperor as representing secular power and the Hierophant representing spiritual power, but during that time, the distinction between the two wasn’t always so clear.

(Pictured: The Visconti Tarot)

The Visconti version of the Emperor features Sigismund in the role. Sigismund was elected Duke of Milan in 1395 after bribing his brother, then Emperor-elect Wenceslaus. The deck itself was commissioned for Sigismund’s daughter’s wedding. We can spot Sigismund’s distinctive forked beard and we also see him sporting traditional symbols of power including a crown, staff, an orb, and an imperial eagle on his hat. Other tarot decks published in the late fifteenth century feature similar albeit more generalized takes on this image, with many omitting the imperial eagle, possibly so as not to emphasize the influence of the German emperor in many Italian city states.

(pictured: The Marseille Tarot)

When Marseille tarot decks began being published in France, a new depiction of the Emperor sitting on his throne in profile with one leg crossed over the other became the standard. The familiar tropes of the crown, staff, the orb, and the imperial eagle also make appearances. Following the French Revolution, all imperial symbols were removed from the card and the Emperor was renamed the Grandfather (or Le Grande Pere). The crown became a hat, the staff became a flower, and the orb and eagle were omitted altogether. As decades passed and political tides changed, these symbols were reinstated, and the Grandfather once again became the Emperor.

(pictured: The Oswald Wirth Tarot)

In the last post about the Empress, we talked a bit about the Oswald Wirth Tarot, which predates the Rider-Waite as one of the first tarot decks intended for divinatory use.  The Oswald Wirth was one of the first decks to ascribe esoteric symbolism to the tarot’s imagery, and, in the case of the Emperor, the cross-legged pose took on new significance as representing the merging of a triangle with a cross, or the symbol for alchemical sulfur, as well as a reference to spirit dominating matter. Obviously we can also see the number 4, the card’s number, which doubles as the astrological glyph for Jupiter. The association with 4 can also be seen in the large stone cube which has taken the place of a throne, with each square face having four sides (the imperial eagle also reappears as an engraving on the side of the cube). The orb denoting spiritual power topped by a cross has been reinterpreted as the astrological glyph for Venus, and the staff is topped by a lotus flower, a symbol of enlightenment. This version of the Emperor also is associated with the Hebrew letter Daleth (door or womb), which occultists interpreted to mean that the Emperor presided over the birth of material things.

(Pictured: The Rider-Waite Tarot)

Fast forward to the Rider-Waite version, probably the most well-known version of the card. By this time occultists had shifted the Hebrew alphabet onto adjacent cards, leading to the Emperor becoming associated with Heh (window) and its astrological associations with Aries and Mars. Explicit references to the Holy Royal Empire such as the eagle have been removed and Ram’s heads abound, with four carved into his throne and one on the shoulder of his robe. The robe itself is red, which in the Oswald Wirth deck symbolized fiery creative energy; in this deck, it becomes a stand-in for the energy of Mars. The Emperor in this deck does not sit cross-legged, removing the alchemical symbolism from previous iterations, while introducing the qualities of alertness and vigilance (some interpret the prominence of red and white in the imagery as being a call to alchemical practices). The staff has been rendered in the shape of the Egyptian ankh (“key of life”) which acts as an allusion to the Emperor’s associations with life force, the sun, and fertility. The Rider-Waite depiction of the Emperor also takes greater pains to contrast the card’s imagery with its counterpart, the Empress. The sunny, fruitful garden of that card has been replaced with barren mountainous world, and the jovial expression on the Empress’s face is now a stern look of judgement. The crown of stars has been replaced by man-made bejeweled crown and the flowy dress of the empress is now a hard suit of armor. We can take all of this to interpret the Emperor as being the cold, guarded, and uncompromising disciplinarian to the Empress’s warm, open, and gentle nurturer.

Now that we have greater understanding of how the Emperor has evolved over time, as well as its common associations and symbols, let’s take a deeper look at how someone might interpret the Emperor in the context of a tarot reading.  The Emperor is a representation of all forms of authority, both within and outside of ourselves, but in contrast to the Empress, this type of power is built on structure and firm rules that provide no room for accommodations of any sort. While this type of energy can point to close-mindedness and stubbornness, it can also provide for greater stability and consistency. While the Emperor is strict, he’s also reliable, and he’s clear about what he expects from his followers. When pulling the Emperor in a reading, you may need to be more clear about your boundaries and principles, both with yourself and others. It’s okay to provide room for error, but overall, holding yourself and others accountable to your boundaries will lead to greater integrity and self-respect over time. If the reading is about a specific authority figure in the querant’s life, the card may imply that this person is going to be particularly unyielding in terms of their leadership style. Depending on the context of the reading, there may be times when the Emperor’s presence suggests the need to be subdue such energy. Sometimes our desire for control can lead to recklessness and a lack of empathy for those around us. If the Emperor is reversed or appears as the answer to a question about what needs to be cleared away, it may be a reminder to be considerate of how your beliefs and actions affect others. There’s a possibility that one may need to free themselves from the control of a corrupt authority figure. Lastly, the Emperor can be interpreted as a representation of masculinity in contrast to the Empress’s femininity and his presence in a reading may suggest the need to incorporate more traditionally masculine qualities in your approach to a situation.

As tarot has become more prominent as a divinatory tool, there are more versions of the Emperor than ever. Let’s explore how his traditional qualities are represented in other decks.

(Pictured: The Gilded Tarot)

In the Gilded Tarot by Ciro Marcetti, most of the tropes we’ve become familiar with have been removed, with the Emperor now standing without a throne, taking the Rider-Waite’s introduction of alertness to the imagery one step further. His orb of power is gone, and he is seen a wearing a laurel wreath in place of a crown, an unsubtle nod to one of history’s most famous rulers – Julius Caesar – and an implication that this Emperor has claimed this role for himself as opposed to having it granted by birthright. His staff which depicts the sun on top with various planets in its orbit, calls to mind the ankh from the Rider-Waite, which symbolizes sun and life force energy, and also implies the Emperor’s status as being the center of the universe (the sun also printed on his robe in various places). In the background, we see a zodiac wheel which has been turned to mirror the position of the same wheel shown in the Gilded Tarot’s version of the Empress, affirming their connection as counterparts to one another.  He is also seen floating in the sky, while she is firmly planted on the ground, indicating the Emperor possesses a certain aloofness while the Empress is much more down to Earth. While Marcetti has taken many liberties with the traditional symbolism of the card, his version is simple and uncluttered, emphasizing only the core qualities of the Emperor in a manner that make the Gilded Tarot a great deck for beginners who still feel too intimidated by the amount of esoteric elements in the Rider-Waite.

(Pictured: The Mystic Mondays Tarot)

Another more minimalist take on the Emperor is the version in the Mystic Mondays Tarot which takes the imagery of the cards and reinterprets them in a colorful, simplified, 80s-style aesthetic. Here, the throne is present, topped by a familiar setting sun, along with triangles to symbolize fire and to some extent Aries, the card’s astrological sign. The triangles could also be an allusion to the “spirit dominating matter” concept presented in the Oswald Wirth deck. The crown has been replaced by what appears to be a bear skin, hinting at the Emperor’s willingness to take what he wants by force. Lastly, even though most of his facial features have been obscured, the Emperor’s iconic beard is prominently displayed, symbolizing his masculine qualities. This version of the deck would certainly appeal to beginners but has enough symbolism to appeal to more experienced readers, particularly those who grew up in the eighties who are fans of the design elements popular during that time.

(Pictured: The Motherpeace Tarot)

The woman-focused Motherpeace Tarot emphasizes the more problematic aspects of the Emperor archetype by casting Alexander the Great in the role. Here we see a ruler who has crossed over into megalomania, determined to conquer anything and everything by any means necessary regardless of the effect this may have on the land and the individuals being conquered. The throne carved out of rock returns, accented by a brick wall to further hit home the Emperor’s qualities of being unmoving and stubborn. While its easy to bemoan his tactics, there is no denying that the Emperor gets what he wants, and to illustrate this, we see a large table behind him adorned with various trophies, weaponry, and artwork, as well as a spread of food including what appears to a roast chicken and various fruits. The guidebook for the Motherpeace mentions that the Emperor has no room for goddess energy, which is notable given that the deck is many ways a tribute to the divine feminine. This version is a reminder of what can happen when our own feminine qualities are not given an outlet to be expressed and our masculine qualities are driven to excess. While the Motherpeace may not necessarily be a great deck for beginners to read, its celebration of womanhood and femininity may make it more appropriate for a woman-identified reader looking for a deck that casts women in empowering roles, as well as anyone looking to read the tarot in a more inclusive and innovative way.

To summarize, the Emperor is the tarot’s representation of authority figures, particularly that are strict and unwavering in their approach to leadership. There are positive and negative ways to use this approach, but the key message is to follow through with your intention and stick to it.

The decks pictured above can all be found at our brick-and-mortar store in Northampton, MA as well as online at inspiritcrystals.com/shop!

Sources

  • Tarot Heritage
  • Tarot Wisdom by Rachel Pollack
  • Tarot Deciphered by T. Susan Chang and M.M. Meleen