The Empress & The Queen Mother
After analyzing the High Priestess, it’s only a natural progression to The Empress. These two cards are often contrasted against each other, creating a spectrum of female expectation. Many feminists tend to align themselves with the High Priestess, seeing The Empress as a stereotypical subjugation of women. And yet, there are many women who see The Empress as a welcoming mother, an extension of the Goddess. Why do women see the High Priestess and The Empress as an either or? Why don’t men see The Magician and The Emperor similarly? Much of this actually has to do with our understandings of the archetypes involved. When it comes to the High Priestess and The Empress, archetypes are the key to much of the cards’ symbolism. Let’s take a look, and hopefully appreciate both of these complex cards.
When contrasting The Empress against the High Priestess, we begin by discovering surface distinctions. The High Priestess is thought to be a refusal of traditional gender roles. As such, she has hidden her body in long gowns. The Empress by contrast is the embracing of traditional gender roles, flaunting her sexuality. At least, that’s what I hear all too often. But look closer, does that really ring true? In the Rider-Waite Smith it certainly doesn’t seem true to me. The reason for this might be in how we have translated the cards’ archetypes. The High Priestess is seen as all-knowing, intuitive, and mysterious. The Empress is sensual, nurturing, and fruitful. These do seem to reestablish those traditional expectations of gender and the contrast to the concept of womanhood.
But, The Empress is actually defined by the Queen Mother archetype as much as the High Priestess is defined by the Priestess archetype. Both, through their link to the Goddess, share in the Mother Divine symbolism. In the Kabbalah, The Empress would be seen as an extension of the High Priestess in the material realm. They are reflective of each other. The Empress, or Mother Nature, is a reflection of the High Priestess, or the Queen of the Heavens. This is an embodiment of the old saying, “as above so below.” The Empress is the High Priestess below. This is important when taking into account gender expectations. The concept a woman being either the High Priestess or The Empress is an absurd misunderstanding. Be both. Always embrace both.
If this is true though, and The Empress is an extension of the High Priestess, we should see more to The Empress than her motherly nurturing self. While many women see The Empress as a submission to motherhood and the role of the housewife, many likewise see the High Priestess as a sexually liberated woman free of the housewife expectation. What’s interesting is we actually see this dynamic playing out in The Empress and the High Priestess. To me, what was likewise inspiring, was the embodiment of it found in an unlikely place, the biblical tale of Esther. This is inspiring because it shows that even in what many consider to be a patriarchal society, there was a debate over gender roles. It is worth noting for consistency, I’m not treating Esther’s story as purely biblical fact either. This analysis includes additional information from Jewish Midrash and related articles to gauge the debate surrounding the story.
The story of Esther features two women at the heart of it. One is Vashti, the King’s first wife, and perhaps an embodiment of the High Priestess. We see this in an interesting way, as Vashti refuses to obey the King and go before him and his guests in only a crown. Keep in mind though, we understand this as an act to preserve her modesty and dignity today. However, Vashti was a Babylonian woman, and in this context, would have been a stereotypical embodiment of a wanton whore. You know, the Whore of Babylon and all that. For her to preserve her modesty is actually contrary to her character’s stereotype in the story itself. This is also, a trait of the High Priestess. Vashti defies her gender role, and preserves her sense of modesty and dignity.
Esther on the other hand is an embodiment of The Empress. Everything in the biblical accounting of the story simply happens to her. She has no choice as she’s ripped away from her family. She’s forced to be in the King’s harem, and presumably have sex with him. She is even forced to violate many of her religious convictions as a Jew in Pagan Persia. Through it all though, Esther is subservient and accepting. The interesting embodiment of The Empress is in how Esther finally must rebel against all of it. When she does go against her perceived nature and rebels, she’s compared to Vashti, another woman. Yeah, she’s not even given credit for that act of bravery. In some ways, this is our understanding of The Empress. There’s a disconnect between how we view her, and how she deserves to be viewed.
If we change our perceptions a bit, we can learn from this opinion of Esther. When Esther is compared to Vashti, what if it is because she’s now channeling the energy of the High Priestess? Remember, The Empress is the High Priestess in our worldly realm. Consider how Esther echoes the opposite of what Vashti is said to have done wrong. Vashti refused to go before the King when summoned. Esther goes before the King when not summoned. Both instances call into question the power a husband should have over his wife. Furthermore, both women utilize their sensuality to teach this lesson. One defies social expectations, and the other, well she too defies social expectations. The story of Esther is not just about Vashti defying her husband, but Esther as well.
But if we take a step back, we’ll realize striking similarities between Esther and Vashti than differences. Both of these women are not defined by children. Both of these women exercised control, and succeeded in their goal. Both women also became more than their sensuality and beauty. Even to the time span of history, these women crossed cultural expectations to leave us with a challenged concept of a woman’s role. There’s so much that could be said, and yet, it’s all been said already. The High Priestess and The Empress go together. We cannot understand Esther’s conflict without first understanding Vashti. Likewise, Vashti’s success cannot be gauged without seeing how the King considers Esther’s plight. As above, so below.
Today, many women are embracing their inner Empress. This looks a bit different than in the past, but it should. We are not in the time of Esther. Society doesn’t debate the same concepts of gender these days. What’s interesting though, is there is likewise a shift from The Empress to the High Priestess. Women are reading about Tudor Era Queens, and seeing both their exploitation of sensuality and their unquestionable power. Even today, women have come to recognize, and therefore debate, the role of Queen Elizabeth II as a feminist icon. Whatever form your Empress takes, she’ll more than likely inspire you to rise up to the level of High Priestess as well.
This is the tarot’s understanding of both these cards. The Empress and the High Priestess utilize their power differently, but they both have power. They can both conform to societal standards, or question them entirely. Whatever they choose to do though, it is their very presence that threatens the status quo. We, as women, do not need to take back The Empress. There is no reason to redefine her, or her archetype. All we have to do is remember our inner strength. Motherhood is a fantastic trait, but motherhood also takes many forms. We all nurture different projects or aspects of our lives. At the heart of it, we find the intelligence of the High Priestess and the fine touch of The Empress.