As we move through the Major Arcana, the next figure we encounter is The Empress’s counterpart — The Emperor. If The Empress is the embodiment of earthy sensuality, sexuality, and fecundity, The Emperor represents Her flipside (or perhaps Her Shadow, if you want to look at it that way.) If The Empress represents the power inherent in each of us as a product of our physical, embodied presence on the Earth, then The Emperor represents formal, institutional power. For those that prefer to think of things in terms of a gendered polarity or binary, The Emperor is the Divine Masculine to The Empress’s Divine Feminine.
In the Rider-Waite Tarot, The Emperor is associated with fiery Aries, which is ruled by the warrior planet Mars. This gives The Emperor a fiery, sexual, and sometimes martial or aggressive energy. The Emperor is someone who has parlayed personal power and leadership abilities into a position of formal power.
Who Is The Emperor?
The Emperor is the embodiment of not just power but authority, which is what happens when a person’s power is legitimated by society. Unlike The Empress, whose power is inherent to Her, The Emperor’s power derives from his title and office. He is a strong leader who takes seriously the power that has been vested in him. He can, however, also be impulsive and quick-tempered or, at the other extreme, stodgy and overly invested in How Things Should Be Done.
The fourth step on The Fool’s journey, The Emperor represents what happens when we tap into our personal power and find our power center. While institutional power is most definitely a double-edged sword, The Emperor reminds us that there can be much Enlightenment and empowerment found through established social structures. Alternatively, he can represent the ability to work within those systems to get what we want, without actually abdicating our own sovereignty to those systems.
When The Emperor shows up in a reading, He typically indicates the need to engage with systems of power — most often formal systems of power, rather than tapping into personal power (which is the message of The Empress). He can indicate that the querent needs to pursue their goals through formal channels or follow accepted paths and protocols. The shadow side of the Emperor is that he can indicate being stuck in one’s ways, being too invested in How Things Should Be Done (often to one’s own detriment), or trying to exert Power Over others in situations where it would be better to explore other dynamics.
The Emperor is the symbol, the personification, of Power, particularly formal power. The way he is portrayed in The Rider-Waite Tarot and decks which are based on it is evokes feudal (and patriarchal) systems, and as such he can also be seen to symbolize government and even abuses of Power. This imagery is certainly in keeping with the overall imagery of such decks. However, I think it’s useful to think about Power in different ways — I am particularly interested in Starhawk’s distinction between Power Over/Power With — and these images don’t evoke that for me.
Which is why my favorite “Emperor” is this one……
Come back tomorrow, and ride with me in Freyja’s chariot…..