The Emperor: Meaning & Symbolism
On the throne sits the High King, absolute and unwavering. To him belongs all the power of his great realm. For with the passage of time has come great success and wealth. And yet, behind his study gaze is a hidden wisdom. The Great King assess all around him, for he is the true center of his kingdom. As a stronghold, he guards all within the borders of his kingdom, maintaining the order he has wrought from chaos.
Keywords: Authority, Social Structure, Protection
Correspondences: Fire, Mars, Aries
Archetype: Father King
At first glance, The Emperor is a card of authority. The symbolism is undeniable, even on the intuitive level. To many, The Emperor is an embodiment of the social structure around us. For men, The Emperor is an ideal state of being. This is virile power personified, a standard for conduct to live by often thrust onto men by society. For women, The Emperor is often likened back to their father or a father figure. Recently however, there has been an added dynamic to The Emperor specific to women. To some women, The Emperor is also a symbol of the patriarchy. This is an important factor to consider in the translation of The Emperor as a concept when dealing with women specifically. Authority is so easily abused, and that makes it tough to idolize true power. However, there are still core concepts worth exploring within tarot that help.
The first correspondence of The Emperor is Elemental Fire. According to Holistic Tarot, the traits associated with Elemental Fire include creativity, innovation, passion, determination, and leadership. In the Rider-Waite Smith deck itself, the themes of creativity, innovation, and passion are seen only in the red color of The Emperor’s robe. Another correspondence that compliments the themes of Elemental Fire is that of Aries, and therefore Planetary Mars. When it comes to the Rider-Waite Smith, the themes of Aries are the strongest of all. The throne of The Emperor features multiple rams’ heads, a symbol connected back to the astrological sign of Aries. Dissecting the significance of Aries and the influence of Mars is complex and quite difficult.
Aries, within Astrology, is the natural sign of the 1st House. This is the realm of individuality, early childhood, and often the approach one takes to life. It is also the sign linked to how others perceive us, or how we wish to be perceived. All these ideas are embodied by The Emperor. Many tarot readers miss this symbolism at the core of the card’s deepest meanings. The Emperor is our sense of individuality, and that then, opens the door to society as a whole. Is it any surprise then, that Planetary Mars is often seen quite negatively? Much of this has been out of error, as the influence of Planetary Mars can be quite disruptive. But, at the source of this disruption is individuality. Self-assertiveness is often linked to the negative ideas of control, power, and force.
The implication of these assumptions cannot be stressed enough. This is the area many of us must face our negative views of The Emperor. Where and when must any one of us sacrifice our individuality? That is the question at the heart of The Emperor. How you answer that question will directly impact whether The Emperor is seen as a positive force, or a negative one. If The Emperor maintains a personal sense of order, a control over self, then why is that negative? When many people refuse to bend to the will of others, they are seen as stubborn, or perhaps power hungry. and prideful. Today, we live in a society that largely preaches self-sacrifice. We penalize individuals for their failure to compromise, and thus, we see The Emperor as a dictator.
The Emperor though, was never meant to be perceived as a dictator. A close look at the card, and we will see The Emperor is crowned, holding a globe and scepter. These are the distinguishing marks of a monarch, one that rules by divine authority. There is a much older theme being depicted here. While The Emperor contains unmistakable themes of sexual passion and desire, he is also raised above them. As a crowned monarch, The Emperor is symbolic of the divine’s ruling authority on Earth, and therefore, of higher thought. The Emperor has the capability to rule with true intelligence, though this is not guaranteed. While the presence of Planetary Mars is a strong one, it is not necessarily the only trait of The Emperor. Within tarot, The Emperor rules by experience and divine authority. Both themes combine to convey a ruler who is both strict and just, or in other words, knowledgeable and fair.
An even closer look at The Emperor’s scepter revels a crux ansata, or nowadays, an ankh. This is an ancient symbol filled with various interpretations. Most, if not all, interpretations of the ankh though, feature the gift of life. The Emperor, through divine authority, rules over life and death. Through his relationship with The Empress, this authority often leads to life and abundance. However, thriving is not in The Emperor’s nature. Instead, the harsh environment surrounding The Emperor’s throne reminds us of his true realm. While The Empress creates beauty and nourishment, The Emperor gives us limitations and higher thoughts. At times, limits are necessary to allow creativity to shine through and materialize in our life. All this, is a concept embodied in the ankh. However, The Emperor only holds this within his power, he is not the source of it. The Empress, in this case, allows herself to submit to The Emperor.
Lastly, we cannot forget the armor under The Emperor’s robes. This is a ruler who has fought in battler, and remains ready to do so again. While there is a protective aspect to this, there is once again something much deeper being conveyed. The dilemma of any ruler is a double edged sword. Does The Emperor rule by peace or by war? Both seem like the case here. The Emperor promotes peace within his realm, but he will also fight to keep that peace if necessary. In the Rider-Waite Smith deck specifically, it’s interesting that the armor truly shines through at the feet and legs. To me, this indicates a foundation in war or conflict. The Emperor, or order itself, is only born through conflict. It’s a tough subject to grasp, but it’s a prevailing theme within the card itself. Peace is only possible when the fighting has been settled. And perhaps, that is the entire point of The Emperor.
When we draw The Emperor in a reading, we really do need to take into account the experience of the person being read for. If they are male, The Emperor can represent a strict structure of conduct being imposed. For a woman, The Emperor can highlight a source of protection or authority. Both though, will be impacted strongly by themes of conflict, individuality, and a prevailing sense of higher ideals. At times, limitations can allow for creativity to thrive. Within a tarot reading, The Emperor can indicate areas being limited in order for growth to occur. The Emperor is often an embodiment of our outward foundation, and as such, gives us a sense of our true self. At times, all we really need to hear is that we already possess our own permission to pursue our passions. This must never be forgotten, and The Emperor offers us a reminder of what truly drives us as individuals.