The Empress: Meaning & Symbolism
At the end of the winding waterfall she sits, awaiting your notice. To you she offers all the passion of life. Behind her gaze is an eagerness, an anticipation of what is to come. Around her all life seems to hold some fascination for you. The fields of wheat sway in the breeze, a harbinger of what awaits from the nourishment and sustenance of life. For this woman is the embodiment of all forms of beauty.
Keywords: Fertility, Birthing Projects, Nourishment
Correspondences: Earth, Venus
Archetype: Queen Mother
For many, The Empress is a simplistic card filled with only stereotypical symbolism. The Empress is almost certainly linked to oppressive ideas of motherhood and all that goes with it. Themes of sexuality are either freely open and expressed, or buried under strict standards of behavior. And yet, The Empress is an embodiment of the High Priestess in the earthly realm. Behind her, is a deeper symbolism than we see at first glance. In the Rider-Waite Smith tarot, there is much to be gained from the interpretation of symbols within the card. While The Empress may seem simplistic to us today, this was not the case when this deck first came out. In fact, the symbolism may even challenge our conceptions of motherhood and femininity.
Much of The Empress’ symbolism lies in its planetary correspondence. Venus, as a planetary correspondence, explains much of the initial symbolism of this card. Love and sensuality are the main themes of Venus, however there is more to this. Venus also dictates the regular comforts of life such as artwork, aesthetics, music, and poetry. The Empress is therefore, a creative sign. Marriage is also closely linked to the planet Venus, and as such, The Empress rules over harmonious marriages. But, it is worth noting there is not an outright sexual theme to Venus, but rather, sensuality. The sexual themes of The Empress remain rooted in the Elemental Earth correspondences of this card. There is both sexuality and fertility linked to Elemental Earth, that, with the other correspondences, gives us the stereotypical symbolism of The Empress we see today.
The background of this card also speaks largely to the earthy themes of fertility. In front of The Empress is a wheat field, one with a waterfall flowing to it. This water source is seen as a nourishment for the year’s crop. Similarly, is the idea of a mother providing milk for her newborn child. Sustenance, whether it comes in the form of wheat or milk, belongs to The Empress. In this, we can easily start to see the symbolism of The Empress as Mother Nature, or a form of the Divine Feminine. It is worth noting that The Empress’ dress is covered in pomegranates. Remember that in the High Priestess card the pomegranate stood for passion. The same is true now with The Empress. She is passion, both sexually and motherly.
Another variation of the pomegranate symbolism is quite important. The Empress is often seen as being rooted in emotion. Some take this to mean she is irrational. But, in The Pictorial Key, The Empress is also likened to the Sanctum Sanctorum, or the Holy of Holies. Interestingly enough, the High Priestess guards the Holy of Holies, or is depicted as such on the Rider-Waite Smith card. The Temple Veil on that card, covers the fabric in pomegranates and lilies. In The Empress card, we see the Empress herself covered in pomegranates. The symbolism of this is clear. By becoming the embodiment of the Sanctum Sanctorum, The Empress is anything but irrational. Emotional The Empress may be, but not as we’ve come to paint this idea today.
Much of The Empress’ outright power is seen by subtle symbols in this card. There is the scepter of The Empress, which represents her “divine right to rule.” Along with that, is her crown of twelve stars. These stars may allude to the High Priestess, and the connection to the cosmic realm. Some see The Empress as a doorway or gateway to the High Priestess. Other’s have come to see the twelve signs of the zodiac in her crown’s twelve stars. In either of these cases, we cannot miss the symbolism of The Empress’ necklace. The number of pearls varies, but many seem to agree on this necklace representing the planets, whether traditional or otherwise. The Empress is clothed in passion and cosmic beauty.
Along with a crown, The Empress wears a wreath, which stands for victory. This indicates that The Empress is successful in all she does. She is the source of the fruitfulness of creation in our earthly realm. In fact, she is also the fruitfulness itself. While The Empress may not be the Queen of Heaven, she is the unity of both The Magician and the High Priestess. This is not a Kabbalahistic teaching that I’m aware of, but instead, may have to do with Numerology. One plus Two equals Three, and three is the number of creation. Pythagoras understood that three was also linked to stability and strength, themes we also see in the High Priestess carried forward to The Empress, as the symbolic Temple Veil.
Beside The Empress rests her shield. This shield contains the planetary symbol of Venus, or the planetary correspondence of the card. It is worth noting that in Greek Mythology, Venus was linked to the great Aphrodite. Throughout time, artists have used Aphrodite to depict the beauty of the female sex. But more than this though, is an ancient exploration of love and love specific to gender. Plato asserts that Aphrodite Ourania is the goddess of homosexual love, while Aphrodite Pandemos is the goddess of heterosexual love. Aphrodite, as Aphroditus, was a man dressed in the clothing of a woman. The concept of beauty, sensuality, and even desire or love were highly questioned to the ancients, perhaps similarly to today. Even so, Aphrodite is one of the three Major Goddesses that started the Trojan War. The other are Hera (the High Priestess) and Athena (Justice).
The embodiment of Venus in Aphrodite is an interesting addition to the symbolism of The Empress. Aphrodite was not originally the Goddess of Love & Beauty. She was in fact, seen as the personification of nature’s ability to generate. In other words, Aphrodite was an earlier form of Mother Nature. Aphrodite’s beauty then, was understood to reflect the nature of the world around us, not to be an idealistic beauty standard. In fact, many tales connected to Demeter can also be attributed to Aphrodite in some form or another. The Empress is linked quite closely to having control or rulership over the natural world. The connection is as strongly rooted in the planetary correspondence as the elemental. This is what makes the surface beauty of The Empress so fascinating to many women even still, despite the feeling of stereotyping women.
At first glance, The Empress doesn’t seem to offer us much. But, as the personification of beauty, we find a deeper connection to the world around us. The Empress to some, is the Temple Veil. To others, she is a mother providing much needed nourishment. Even yet, she has become an extension of the High Priestess, an embodiment of sensuality and womanhood. All of these themes seem inseparable from one another in a reading. The beauty of The Empress is fluid, and so is the refreshment of her presence. To all of us, The Empress is often our first glimpse of complete and unconditional love. Many continue to see The Empress as our connection to the Divine, and embrace the essence of creation within ourselves. Whether this is a personal project or a new life.
At first glance, The Empress doesn’t seem to offer us much in the way of clarity. As the personification of beauty, her presence takes on many forms. To some, The Empress provides much needed resources. In other readings, The Empress offers a time of unconditional love and support. When The Empress comes up in a reading, there’s a strong indication of female presence, and with it, sensuality and creativity. Some may relate the themes of fertility to sexual implications, while others relate such themes to material projects. Whatever form The Empress takes in a reading, she is always connected to both The Magician and The High Priestess, balancing both perfectly.