Continuing with our Tarot series, we pick up today with card number 4: the Emperor. Complementing and contrasting the Empress, the Emperor is a stern, masculine authority figure in comparison to the Empress’ sensual feminine warmth. He stares unsmiling before a bleak background, unlike the friendly Empress reclining on a sofa before a lush forest.
The Emperor sits upon a hard throne of grey stone, each corner adorned with a Ram’s head, symbolizing the sign of Aries and all of its qualities: leadership, strength, action and initiative. He sports a long, white beard that reaches down to his chest, denoting his many years of experience. He holds a globe in one hand—representing his dominion over the world—and an Egyptian ankh in the other, a symbol of eternal life. His robes and vestments are bright red like the sky behind him, echoing his fiery passion. But the landscape behind him is desolate, bare mountains signifying life’s harder edges and the overall seriousness of this card.
Standing for authority, power and mastery, the Emperor is an expert at what he does and others accord him the appropriate respect. He has authority over others and exerts power at his own discretion. He also stands for structure, solid foundations and order more generally.
When the Emperor appears in readings, it means that you have or are about to reach a new level of mastery, usually in your work. People will consider you an expert in your field, and will respect your opinion on professional matters. You may even come into some actual power, exerting authority over subordinates or becoming a thought leader in your business.
In certain positions, he can stand for father figures, authority figures or power structures in general. If you receive the Emperor in a challenge position, it could indicate that a powerful authority figure opposes you, or that an entire system of power is against you. The Emperor can be fatherly and protective, but is usually more of a taskmaster who is hard to argue against.
In reverse, the Emperor is too rigid, inflexible and domineering. The reversed Emperor represents authority run amok, when control becomes obsessive and order becomes stale, stagnant and suffocating. An abuse of power is likely, or any kind of bullying and domination of others. Micromanagers are a classic example of a reversed Emperor—someone exerting too much power unnecessarily.
The Emperor and the Empress should be studied together to understand the two sides of power. With these two cards, the Tarot is teaching us about the duality of power, its masculine and feminine poles. Exerting power correctly means balancing these two styles of authority. The Emperor is about hard power—exerting direct force to solve problems—whereas the Empress is about soft power—growing organic & creative solutions. Both approaches are necessary at different times, and the deft use of power means knowing when to use which. Through their reversals, these two cards also show us how to avoid behaving. The feminine archetype of power means being abundant, creative and expansive while avoiding co-dependence, and the masculine archetype of power means being authoritative, orderly and penetrating while avoiding rigidity & inflexibility.
So far, we began our journey toward enlightenment as a Fool, oblivious to the true nature of things but ready to cast off the past and shed all worries for the future to relentlessly relish in the present. Then, we met the Magician who taught us that there are four parts of ourselves that need balancing to achieve the power to manifest our desires: body, heart, mind and spirit. Aligning these, we earned the creative power of the Magician, but we were confounded with the question of how to act? Here, the High Priestess rescued us from our ignorance and taught us to study outwardly through intellectual learning and education, and to explore inwardly through silent self-reflection. Armed now with knowledge and inner guidance, we were ready to create appropriately, granting us an audience with the Empress—the fertile personification of Mother Nature’s abundance. The Empress is the healthy growth of our creative power. Remember when we only had the Fool’s knapsack? Now, the whole forest, and all of the abundance of Nature, is our garden. But to maintain order in our garden, we must develop the experience of the Emperor and learn how to exert authority over others in a balanced, dignified and deft manner.