The Emperor (Tarot card)
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Description and symbolism
A. E. Waite was a key figure in the development of modern Tarot interpretations. However, not all interpretations follow his theology. Usually all Tarot decks used for divination are interpreted through personal experience and standards.
Some frequent keywords used by card readers include:
- Fathering — Stability — Authority — Power
- Control — Discipline — Command — Common sense
- Status quo — Order — Structure — Egocentrism
- Tradition — Rigidity — Leadership — Experience
- Inflexibility — Conservative ways — Organization
The Emperor sits on his throne, holding a scepter, accompanied by the heraldic Eagle of the Holy Roman Empire. This is usually on his shield though the heraldic eagle is sometimes a free—standing statue or live bird. He symbolizes the top of the secular hierarchy, the ultimate male ego. The Emperor is the absolute ruler of the world.
The essential features of the design for The Emperor card have changed very little through the centuries. The Emperor sometimes got caught up in the censorship placed on the Papess (The High Priestess) and the Pope (The Hierophant), as when the Bolognese card makers replaced the Papess (High Priestess), Pope (Hierophant), Empress, and Emperor with four Moors or Turks. In the Minchiate, the first of the two Emperors are assigned number III because of the removal of the Papess (High Priestess) from the deck.
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The Emperor symbolizes the desire to rule over one's surroundings, and its appearance in a reading often suggests that the subject needs to accept that some things may not be controllable, and others may not benefit from being controlled.
As with all Tarot cards, multiple meanings are possible. Where the Empress is the Feminine principle, the Emperor is the Masculine. Most individuals will relate to this card in the same way they relate to their own father.
The Emperor is Key Four of the Major Arcana. Fours are stable numbers; four walls, four seasons, four corners. It takes a massive amount of energy, comparatively, to move them. The strength of The Emperor is the stability he brings. The weakness is the risk of stagnation.
Emblematic of the power of The Emperor is the origin of the god Zeus. After Gaea (see also The Empress) created the world, she created a consort, Uranus (sky). Uranus imprisoned Gaia's youngest children in Tartarus, deep within Earth, where they caused pain to Gaia. She created the archetypal scythe and gave it to Kronos, who ambushed his father and castrated him.
Kronos followed in the sins of his father, only he let his children be born, then swallowed them. In the end, his son Zeus (through the good offices of another avatar of The Empress, Rhea) escapes being consumed and engineers a revolution.
Instead of eating his children, Zeus eats the Goddess destined to bear the child who will engineer his downfall, Metis. And he becomes the Emperor.
The Emperor is connected to Key 13, Death, through its cross sum (the sum of the digits). Emperors maintain their power through death and through their relationship with the other 13 of the tarot; The Queens (who legitimate their rule and bear their heirs). He is also strongly associated with Life; his scepter is an ankh, the symbol of life. But he is in the mountains, separated from the pulse of life. The sign of the Emperor is associated with the sun sign of Aries. Aries is the first sign of the zodiac and is the leader. The Emperor, like Aries, is fiery, powerful, authoritative and very egotistical.
King Minos is another aspect of this archetypal image. He was, mostly, a good king who increased and protected Crete for many years. But he took his kingdom by means of a trick. He and his brothers disputed who should rule, and he prayed to Poseidon to send a sign from the sea that he was the chosen of the gods, which he promised to immediately sacrifice to the god. Poseidon sent a magnificent bull, and Minos was proclaimed king. But he balked at fulfilling his promise to slay the animal, and substituted a bull from his own herds. In so doing, as Joseph Campbell put it he “converted a public event to personal gain, whereas the whole sense of his investiture as king had been that he was no longer a mere private person. The return of the bull should have symbolized his absolutely selfless submission to the functions of his role.” And the consequences were catastrophic; Poseidon afflicted the Cretan queen, Pasiphae, with an unquenchable desire for the bull. Their coupling produced the Minotaur, who was fed on human flesh.
The Emperor’s power and apparent stability bring great comfort, self-worth, power. But the danger, as Minos discovered, is that we may gain a sense of personal entitlement beyond our actual rights. That way leads to corruption, material or spiritual.
Generally, when the Emperor appears in a spread, he is something to be overcome. Some rigidity of thinking, some inflexibility of approach, some external force keeping us from our destiny. A comforting myth the Querent has outgrown.
Sometimes, he represents the exterior forces we must accommodate. Sometimes, he is the superego.
- The parallel, fourth Major Arcana card in the Osho Zen Tarot deck is called The Rebel, and carries some similar connotations.
- In the Vikings Tarot Ullr depicts the Emperor. He is shown with a bow, a pair of skis, a shield, and a sleigh.
- In the X/1999 Tarot version made by CLAMP, The Emperor is Kyougo Monou.
- In the The Legend of the Legendary Heroes Tarot, The Emperor is Sion Astarl.
- In the Mythic Tarot deck, the Emperor is depicted by Zeus.
In pop culture
- The Emperor is the name of the final boss in The House of the Dead 2 (produced by Sega.) and is depicted as a Shape-Shifting Liquid Creature. All of the bosses in the House of the Dead series are named after the Major Arcana.
- In Saint Seiya Episode G series, Saga of Gemini is depicted as The Emperor in the tarot cards version of the manga.
- In the SNES video game Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, the Emperor is portrayed as a shaggy bearded king wearing blue robes and a crown, standing upright, with both hands resting on a scepter. On drawing the Tarot card after liberation of one of the towns, it increases the characters' charisma by 2, and when used in battle, it gives each of them an extra attack point.
- Joseph Campbell (1968), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 15.
- Ogre Battle - Tarot Cards
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