You know, a lot of people have a really negative reaction to the Emperor–more so in some cases than they do to cards like Death, the Tower, or the Devil! I have to admit that I myself have long been disappointed when I see this card come up in a reading, for I respond to how dead the land looks behind the Emperor. It’s as if his stranglehold on rules has choked the life right out of his Empire, and he is really the emperor of nothing. Robin Wood really turned my interpretation of this card around for me. She notes that she views the dry mountains behind the Emperor as “the rust-red mountains of Mars. They are dry, because the male principle is dry and cold, as opposed to the female, which is wet and warm. And they reach high, because his achievements are great, and because he likes a challenge!” I suppose, then, that this landscape is the male counterpart to the Empress’s fecund fields and woods, and not necessarily indicative of a tyrannical ruler.
Waite’s card depicts an elderly man wearing a gold crown set with red and white stones (which connects him with the Magician) and red, orange, and black robes embroidered with a great ram’s head over his left shoulder. We can see that these robes cover the armor he wears beneath them. The Emperor sits on a hard, austere stone throne carved with four rams’ heads. Frankly, it looks like nothing is ever going to pry the Emperor from his throne, which indicates a certain stability in his control. This is all set in a fairly Martian landscape of high, red mountains, with a trickle of a stream running in front of them to connect with the earthly life flow found on the Empress’s card. In one hand the Emperor holds a sphere, the symbol of his possession over the world, and in the other he holds a scepter shaped like the Egyptian Ankh, a symbol of life and of sexual union.
Much of this card is meant to evoke a strongly Martian, military feeling. Everything here is all hard lines. Even the rams heads are meant to evoke Aries, the first constellation in the Zodiac, and one ruled by Mars. The rams, however, were also strong symbols in ancient Egypt, where they were venerated for their fertility as well as for their warlike attributes: both of which are strongly masculine properties. I suppose both of these do reflect the two main attributes of the Emperor. As Waite said, “he is a crowned monarch–commanding, stately” and “he is the virile power, to which the Empress responds”.
Robin Wood’s take on the Emperor card is very close to Waite’s, but she has definitely managed to make him far more “fatherly” than “foreboding.” She shows a man with a full, blond beard beginning to grey–showing that he is a virile figure, but “no longer ruled by his hormones.” He has smiling eyes, and looks fairly inviting. He wears a laurel crown over his golden crown to show his victorious nature, and to show his growth and virility. He is clearly wearing armor to show his martial nature and his vow to be constantly ready to defend and protect. His armor, however, only covers his top half, because he does not let his war-like nature completely cut him off from gentler things. His white belt shows his knightly purity and chivalry, and his red trousers show his passion and courage. The Earth is shown beneath his feet to show that masculine principles currently rule the planet. He holds an ankh as his scepter to show his potency, and he wears a purple cape with ermine lining, like the Empress, to show his majesty and his purity. His square, stone throne shows his stability and firmness. There are ravens carved upon it to show his warlike attitude, but to invoke Odin’s ravens, and so also speak to his wisdom, intelligence, and self-sacrifice. On the arms of the throne are, of course, the requisite rams. A hunter’s horn hangs from the throne, for the Emperor is also the Lord of the Hunt. The eagle flying above all shows the height of his intellect and his mastery of the element Air.
KEYWORDS: Fathering, emphasizing structure, exercising authority, regulating, governing society, security, success, stability, a little bit authoritarian.
Close your eyes and imagine that you sit on the Emperor’s throne. Imagine yourself cloaked in his robes and feel the power that they impart. On the ground before you lies the Emperor’s golden staff, which is formed in the shape of an Egyptian ankh. This is the symbol of immortal life and eternal power. Take the scepter in your hand, and immediately you will feel the power of the Emperor flooding through you. Ask yourself what action to take in your life. When you are done, open your eyes and take that leadership role.
Keep the Emperor card with you at all times today, or place it on your altar. For the duration of the day, consider how you lead other people (or how you don’t). How effective are you as a leader? Do you assume leadership duties or do you shrink away from them? During the course of the day, take the lead in some positive, inclusive way.
The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book The New Tarot Handbook, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin’s Around the Tarot in 78 Days. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website, learntarot.com.