The Empress (Tarot card)
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Description and symbolism
Arthur Edward Waite was a key figure in the development of modern Tarot interpretations. However, not all interpretations follow his theology. All Tarot decks used for divination are filtered through personal experience and standards.
Some recurring keywords include:
- Mothering — Fertility — Sexuality — Abundance
- Material prosperity — Pleasure — Comfort — Power
- Nature — Delight — Desire — Physical attraction
- Health — Sensuality — Beauty — Satisfaction
The Empress sits on a throne wearing a starry crown, holding a scepter in one hand. The Scepter is representative of her power over life, her crown has twelve stars representing her dominance over the year, and her throne is in the midst of a field of grain, representative of her dominion over growing things. The Empress is representative of the productivity of the subconscious, seeded by ideas. She is meant to be the embodiment of the growth of the natural world, fertility, and what one knows or believes from the heart.
The Empress seems to have had a rather uneventful five centuries. Waite and the other occultists are responsible for the starry crown, the emblem of Venus, the waterfall, and the vegetation and wildlife. In historical decks, the Empress sits on a throne, almost always holding a shield or orb in one hand and a scepter in the other. The shield typically bears an eagle, the heraldic emblem of the Holy Roman Empire. The Empress Adelaide, beatified by the Catholic Church, seems a likely historical person this card may allude to.
According to Waite's The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, The Empress is the inferior (as opposed to nature's superior) Garden of Eden, the "Earthly Paradise". Waite defines her as not being Regina Coeli (the Blessed Virgin Mary), but rather a Refugium Peccatorum - a fruitful mother of thousands: she is above all things universal fecundity and the outer sense of the Word, the repository of all things nurturing and sustaining, and of feeding others.
The Empress is mother, a creator and nurturer. In many decks she can be shown as pregnant. She can represent the creation of life, of romance, of art or business. The Empress can represent the germination of an idea before it is ready to be fully born. The Empress is often associated with Venus, goddess of beautiful things as well as love, and indeed the Rider-Waite deck brandishes her symbol upon a heart-shaped bolster. The Empress is also often interpreted to be Demeter, goddess of abundance. She is the giver of earthly gifts, although at the same time, she can be overprotective and possessive. In anger she can withhold, as Demeter did when her daughter, Persephone, was kidnapped: Due to her fury and grief, Demeter keeps the Earth cold and barren until Spring when her child is returned
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She is the Queen of Heaven, as shown by her crown of stars. She is the Great Goddess, the consort of the dying god. She’s associated through her cross sum (the sum of the digits) with Key 12 The Hanged Man, the Dying God, her Son (or daughter) and Consort, who dies at Autumn Equinox or Winter Solstice, and is reborn with Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, or Beltane. She’s also associated with Key 21, The World, the final card of the Tarot. Through death, rebirth, and reproduction the world is renewed.
She is associated with Isis, both as the mistress of heaven and as the Ur-Poisoner. According to some tales, Isis achieved the queenship of heaven by poisoning Ra with a serpent and refusing to heal him until he told her his secret name. Isis’s consort was Osiris, an example of The Hanged Man.
The Empress is closely associated with the suits of Disks (Earth) and Wands (fire/masculine generative force). She is the mistress of the Knights (12th cards of the Minor Arcana), who as Grail Knights are in some sense searching for her, and, like their counterpart in the Major Arcana, the Hanged Man, may well die for her.
She is also associated with Ishtar, who went alive into the underworld and came back. She is sometimes associated with Demeter, the mother of Persephone. When Hades, the lord of the underworld, kidnapped and raped Persephone, Demeter stopped everything from growing until a deal was struck whereby Persephone spends part of the year with her, part of the year dead.
The fruit on her gown suggests a pomegranate. Possibly the pomegranate is the fruit that Persephone thoughtlessly or hungrily ate in the underworld, which binds her to it for part of every year. It also suggests the wall hanging behind The High Priestess’s throne, veiling us from the greater mysteries.
When she appears in a spread, she may represent life itself asserting itself through our attempts to master it. She can also represent the smothering of a blanket of ivy as it paralyzes and chokes the forest. She often represents mothers, good and bad, or the demands of the real world. She can also portray the blood flowing throughout all living things, and the womb and the tomb.
The Empress may also represent the Object of Desire. Most obviously, the love of the beloved, the love and approval of parents, especially (but not solely) mothers. While this may be healthy, over attachment to the object (or to the idea of the object) can be a danger sign.
If the Empress is the Object of Desire, the Hanged Man (or a Hanged Man substitute from the Minor Arcana) is often the one who desires. This can inspire Great Works, or trap the Querent in pathology. Attachment can lead to death, metaphorically or otherwise. When The Empress kills (again, metaphorically or otherwise), it is usually by consuming, suffocating, or poisoning.
In her beneficent aspect, she gives, nurtures, and/or celebrates life. In her negative aspect, she takes it, either literally or figuratively. (A card does not need to be reversed to display its negative aspect in all spreads.)
When Demeter is inverted it portends either an opposite or challenge to the previously portrayed aspects of her card. If the card shows up upside down it would mean difficulty (although not lack of success) in her positive attributes. This would include denial by the certain loved one, or the potential to change this future through personal action. The inverted Empress should not necessarily imply the opposite of the card, but should be taken as a sign for a rise to challenge (i.e. your loved one won't come around etc.), to be oneself, to become the Empress and satisfy ones own individual needs in order to accomplish ones goals. Essentially, this means growing stronger through being yourself (in many ways potentially) and becoming the person capable of overcoming certain obstacles in ones life. The Empress can have a very strong influence on a man's life, whether inverted or upright.
- Gray, E. (1960). The tarot revealed: A modern guide to reading the tarot cards. New York, N.Y.: Bell Publishing Company.
- A. E. Waite's 1910 Pictorial Key to the Tarot
- Hajo Banzhaf, Tarot and the Journey of the Hero (2000)
- Most works by Joseph Campbell
- G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., The Owl, The Raven, and The Dove: Religious Meaning of the Grimm's Magic Fairy Tales (2000)
- Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (1987)
- Mary Greer, The Women of the Golden Dawn
- Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman
- Robert Graves, Greek Mythology
- Juliette Wood, Folklore 109 (1998):15-24, The Celtic Tarot and the Secret Tradition: A Study in Modern Legend Making (1998)
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