This month, we will return to the Major Arcana, and talk about The Emperor. Before we begin breaking down The Emperor, let’s define and remind ourselves of some terms.
There are 22 Major Arcana cards in a Tarot deck, with numbers from 0 to 21; the Majors usually deal with broader and more far-reaching life experience issues, archetypes that are easy for us to identify with and connect with at some point in our lives. An archetype (pronounced “ark eh type”) is a generic, idealized model of a person, an object, or a concept which can be copied, patterned, or imitated. In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, a personality, or a behavior. In the analysis of personality, the term archetype often refers to one of two concepts: a “stereotype” (a personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of a personality type; for instance, “girls make good cooks” is a stereotype), or an “epitome” (the embodiment of a particular personality type, especially as the “greatest” or “best” example of the particular personality type; for example, Venus is said to be the epitome of feminine beauty). Archetypes present personality traits that are common enough to be known by us all, through images (rather than words) that contain symbolism that connects with our subconscious in a universal manner. Each of us can understand the symbolism of archetypes and connect with that symbolism because each of us has (or will) personally experienced these archetypes.
Besides the symbolism in its traditional image, each Major Arcana card corresponds to a number, an archetype, an element, an astrological sign or planet, a Hebrew letter, and a Path on the Tree of Life joining two Sephiroth. Let’s start breaking this one down; we’ve got a lot of work to do!
The traditional image on The Emperor is of an adult man, often at least partially clothed in armor, seated on a throne, many times with his face turned to one side, and his legs crossed, appearing similar to the number 4. We see those crossed legs elsewhere in the Majors (take a look at the image on The Hanging Man, in many ways the polar opposite of The Emperor). The Emperor holds a scepter or some other symbol of his rank and authority, and often there is a shield nearby, sometimes decorated with the image of an eagle or a ram.
The Emperor card is numbered 4; the number 4 is about foundation being created, solidification, discipline, authority figures, self-imposed boundaries, or a too-tight focus. The number 4 adds dimension, stability, and solidity to the numbers 1, 2 and 3; this number offers the concept of depth, The Solid. Fours are stable numbers; four walls, four seasons, four corners. It takes a massive amount of energy to move them or tip them over. The Emperor is connected to the Death card, the 13th Major; in numerology, the number 13 has a connection to the number 4 (1 + 3 =4). Emperors often maintain their power through death and they receive it through succession, also connected to death.
The Emperor represents the archetype of the Father or the Hero. The archetype of the Father combines a talent for creating or initiating (as a catalyst) with an ability to oversee others, whether a biological family or a group of creative people. Although the Father has often been associated with the negative connotations of paternalism and male dominance, the primary characteristics of the Father are courage and protectiveness. A true Father guides and shields those under his care, sacrificing his own desires when that sacrifice is appropriate.
The Hero is a classic figure in ancient Greek and Roman literature, often portrayed as a person who must follow an increasingly difficult path of obstacles in order to become initiated into manhood. Many of the gods of the world’s ancient religions began their lives as heroes who performed amazing feats of strength or skill. Today the Hero is seen as an icon of both male and female power (Wonder Woman is just as heroic as Superman). Through facing physical and internal obstacles, the Hero confronts fear and taps into his own courage; he then returns to the tribe with experiences and wisdom that are of great value to the entire group.
The Emperor corresponds with the element of Fire, which is hot and dry, and shapes and separates. Fire manifests as spontaneous, impulsive and energetic change. Fire corresponds with the suit of Wands from the Tarot Minor Arcana, the playing cards of Clubs, the direction of South and the color of red. Fire represents ideas, seeds being planted, growth, ambition, and passion; Fire’s energies encourage us to move forward, to experience joy and passion (including sexuality), and to take action based on divine will rather than our ego-based self.
In astrology, The Emperor represents the astrological sign of Aries, a cardinal Fire sign that is a catalyst, a person that inspires others by being totally committed to his or her own vision. Aries is the first sign of the zodiac, the leader of the pack, first in line to get things going. Those born under this sign prefer to initiate, and they won’t shy away from anything new. Aries people are action oriented, assertive, and competitive. Aries is ruled by Mars, the God of War, bold and aggressive, and able to tap into the focus needed to take on any challenge. The symbol of Aries is the Ram, blunt and to the point, and a sheer force of nature. The great strength of those born under this sign is found in their initiative, courage and determination.
In the Hebrew alphabet, each letter is connected to the creative forces in the universe. These creative forces express themselves on three levels: one level is archetypical and runs from the first to the ninth letter; the second level is one of manifestation and runs from the tenth to the eighteenth letter, and the third is a cosmic level and runs from the nineteenth to the twenty-second letter. The Emperor corresponds with the Hebrew letter Heh, the fifth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, representing the window that allows light and air into a room. In Judaism, the letter Heh is often used to represent the name of God, as He stands for Hashem, which means The Name, and is a way of saying God without actually saying the name.
On the Tree of Life, The Fool represents Path 15, running between Chokmah (male in the electric sense, dynamic energy, the origin of vital force and polarity) and Tiphareth (the hub of the creation process where energies harmonize and focus to illuminate and clarify), the Path of Natural Intelligence. Chokmah (Wisdom) is the second sephira on the Tree, at the top of the Pillar of Force/Expansion. It is seen as dynamic thrust, and as the Ultimate Positive, the Great Stimulator and the Great Fertilizer (one of the symbols of Chokmah is the penis). It represents dynamic male energy and is the origin of vital force and polarity. Tiphareth (Beauty) is the sixth sephira on the Tree, the second on the Pillar of Balance (the first being Kether, the Crown), and represents harmony, equilibrium, and the epitome of balance. Tiphareth is the balance between active and passive, force and form; the hub of the wheel, the Sun in the sky.
The Emperor follows The Empress in the Tarot Majors, and he is indeed father to her mother and civilization to her nature; he imposes order, balance, form and structure onto her fertility and her creations. The strength of The Emperor is the stability he brings to a situation. In the best of circumstances, he is the intelligent, enthusiastic leader of an orderly, lawful, thriving family. He is the wise parent who offers his children the structure they need in their lives to help them to become responsible adults.
The reversed Emperor reminds us of the weaknesses he can bring to a situation, such as the risk of stagnation, or the risk that we may come to believe in our own entitlement beyond what we actually deserve. The Emperor can be a despot, imposing his own will on his subjects instead of seeing to their needs. Rather than the mature and caring parent, a reversed Emperor can be like a 2 year old, filled with enthusiasm and charm that easily morph into the personality of a demanding tyrant: impatient, demanding, controlling. The Father becomes difficult to deal with when caring guidance and protection turn into control or abuse of authority, and the Hero can sometimes fall into the trap of personal empowerment achieved through the disempowerment of others.
The Emperor has the vision necessary to create a dynasty, and the power, authority, experience and wisdom to manifest that vision. In a way, we each are one version of The Emperor, because whether we know it or not, we are the ruler of our immediate environment. The Emperor also reminds us that the good of the many must supersede the good of the few, and he reminds us that authority comes with responsibility, and even personal sacrifice. In order to be a good ruler, we sometimes need to put aside our personal needs in order to lead and serve others, and The Emperor is good at sacrificing all yet still inspiring others to reach upward and evolve toward fulfillment.