Tarot Deep Dive: The Emperor

The Emperor from the Smith-Rider-Waite deck

The Emperor card in the Tarot corresponds to Aries. In the Smith-Rider-Waite Tarot deck, the Emperor shows a man with a white beard and hair with a crown on his head. He is dressed in a red robe and seated on a concrete throne. The throne is adorned with ram’s heads at the top and the ends of the armrests. In his right hand he holds an ankh, a symbol of life. His feet and legs are adorned with armor. Behind the throne, mountains rise up in the distance and a river flows beneath them. In the deck I have been using lately, the This Might Hurt Tarot deck by Isabella Rotman, the Emperor is shown as a man with white hair and a white beard in a blue suit with a red tie. His left hand rests on a globe and his right hand grips an ankh. At his feet lays a ram. Two pillars with a wall between them separate the man from the mountains in the background. There are trees and a river at the foot of the mountains.

Traditional interpretations of the Emperor card talk about him as a father figure, an authoritative figure, someone who is in charge or a leader. I don’t necessarily disagree with the equating of this card with leadership; however, because of the patriarchal implications I do not subscribe to the Emperor being a father figure or an authoritative figure. My teacher Lindsay Mack said, and I love this so much, that if tarot is not for everyone, then it is not for anyone. Some people may not have that father figure in their lives. Some may have had really bad or traumatic experiences with authority figures in their lives. So that interpretation of the Emperor does not really resonate with me. Tarot as I interpret it is a healing modality, so I interpret the Emperor in a way that can heal past trauma rather than ask someone to relive it.

The Emperor is a huge archetypal card that is really about foundations and what we are building the foundation of our lives on. If we look back at the Empress – and I am referencing the Empress in the This Might Hurt deck – we see a woman in nature with vegetation growing all around her. Stars adorn her head, and her pose suggests someone who is completely in touch with her sexuality. The Empress is in touch with the cyclical patterns of nature: the cycle of night and day, the seasons of the year, even the cyclical movement of the planets through the zodiac, which is what her crown stands for.

When we look at the Emperor card, we can see that he has separated himself from nature and those cycles. He doesn’t stand on grass, but on a flat surface that could be concrete. Even in cards where he is pictured on grass, such as in the Witches Tarot by Ellen Dugan, he is separated by the armor that her wears and the throne upon which he sits. He has created a new foundation for his beliefs and being, one that is not rooted in the cyclical patterns of nature, but in the linear patterns of societal structures. Even the ram laying in the foreground of the This Might Hurt Tarot card signifies a domestication, a moving away from our wild animal nature and the drives that are included in that, and toward a tamer, calmer existence.

The Emperor card is about the structures that have been put into place that make up the culture of a society. They can be huge structures such as capitalism or socialism. They can be smaller structures such as the education system. They can be structures that define the “shoulds” of society, such as diet and workout culture defining what form the body “should” take to be beautiful, or that you “should” get a credit card in order to build credit to buy things. They can be political systems and the laws that govern society. The Emperor stands for all of them. These are the new foundation that the Emperor has laid down as the basis of his belief and belonging.

We can see the archetype of this card playing out in recent events. 2020 was an Emperor year, and definitely shined a light on different social systems. Oppressive systems like systemic racism were highlighted during the riots that year, and continue to be highlighted as more light is shined on the abuses experienced by people of color every day. Our economic system has also been highlighted as we feel the effects of disruptions due to covid and also of people leaving the workforce or leaving low paying industries in an attempt to earn a living wage. There are so many other examples of ways that these systems have oppressed people for so long, and a lot of people are standing up and saying, “No more!”

Now we are seeing it playing out in other ways too, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolds. So many systems play into this invasion, including political and economic systems. It shows us that in a lot of ways, these systems have not necessarily tamed us, but cause their own problems that can lead to our animal natures coming out in the worst possible ways.

So when we pull the Emperor, we can ask ourselves what are the structures that we have in place that separate us from nature and its spiralic cycles. I have a couple of examples of where this was highlighted in my own life. One night after work I was sitting at a stoplight. It was still in the winter season so it was dark outside. The stoplight I was sitting at was wedged between two large shopping centers on either side of the road, so the whole street and the parking lots were lit up with lights. As I sat there watching the cars drive through, it occurred to me how dark it actually was outside and how we have gone to such great lengths to banish the dark from roads. All in an effort to help us get places after the sun has gone down, but to what end? So that we can be consumers for a longer amount of time every day? I thought, “If none of these lights were here, these people would all be home right now, safe in their houses.” We shield ourselves from the day/night cycle with our artificial lighting, just as we shield ourselves from the cycle of the seasons with our climate controlled houses. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that and I am the first person to turn on my air conditioner at the sign of a warm day because I can’t stand to be hot, but it has been a great practice for me to become aware of the ways that we separate ourselves from the cycles of the earth, and even take some time to embrace the hot weather once in a while as a celebration of that.

The other example I want to share has to do with the education system. When my daughter was younger, just starting middle school, she became extremely burnt out. She went through a lot because she is neurodivergent, and we decided to just take a break from school. And that is what we did, for about half a year. There is a process called deschooling where you just take a break from that system and the schedule and expectations that come with it, and it was great for her because she was able to really figure out who she was at that time. That is a gift that most kids don’t get, and that is kind of the age where they need it the most, that time to define who they are outside of the group. Peer pressure and the pressure to conform is so huge at that age, and in high school too. It’s the initial laying down of these structures that we are talking about, not to mention the overall structure of schedules and classroom expectations and homework and all of the pressures that come just from being in school.

I have talked to a lot of parents who have either worked from home or didn’t/couldn’t work because they did not want to put their children in child care while covid was so new and unknown and such a threat. A lot of these parents are going back to work and their kids are in child care since the threat of covid as a serious illness is disappearing. These parents talk about how much more stressful their lives are and how hard it is to keep up with everything, from kids to jobs to homework to housekeeping. Some even wonder how they managed it all before covid. It is like they did their own deschooling, except from the structure and expectations of their job, keeping their kids busy, doing homework, and all of the millions of things a working parent has to keep up with. Without jumping too high onto my soap box, I will say that this is what our capitalist economic system has sold to us as how life should be: two working parents keeping it all together and still having the clean house full of lots of things and soccer practice for the kids on the weekends. It is a demanding way of life, and the time away from it has shown a lot of parents just how thin they were stretching themselves.

These are the kinds of things that the Emperor card wants us to examine in our lives. Sure, you can read the card as someone needing to take on a position of leadership, and it might be true. They might need to. But doesn’t this interpretation go a lot deeper? Doesn’t this examination of the systems that rule our lives cause us to do some deep diving into what we have laid as the foundation in our lives and, if we don’t like what we find, give us the motivation to change that? That is what makes Tarot so great, using it to ask those really deep questions about what is driving us and motivating us and seeking to change those things to make our lives better.

How has the Emperor card shown up in your life? Can you point to any systems in your life that you would like to move away from in order to incorporate some healthier systems? Let us know in the comments.

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