The Emperor: are we looking at the ultimate expression of patriarchy and toxic masculinity here? Or perhaps the tyrannical antithesis of democracy? Or is this a stable, reasonable, responsible ruler who represents the good side of authority figures?
As always with the Tarot, the answer is: it’s complicated. And if you’re using the Tarot as a writing tool, the answer will depend on the story you want to tell.
Let’s break this card down. An older, stern-looking man, dressed in armor and regal robes, sits on a stone throne with rams carved into the arms. The rams are a symbol of the astrological sign Aires. That’s a potent choice: Aires is a fire sign (as opposed to an earth, water or air sign), and the planet Mars is named for the Roman god of war.
The man holds an ankh in one hand—an ancient Egyptian symbol of life—and a golden ball in the other, possibly meant to represent a globe and therefore world domination. (It also distinguishes his temporal power from the spiritual power of The Heirophant—although, as we saw, the Heirophant’s power was not necessarily confined to the spiritual.) There are stark, barren mountains behind him, and a sky that’s bright and glowing with the orange of either a sunrise or a sunset.
It’s a fairly masculine card—in the traditional and loaded sense of masculine, I mean. But ultimately, for me, it’s about rulers and leaders and authority figures, regardless of their gender. (If you’re into gender issues, though, you can certainly push that side of the card further.)
So how does this all add up? Well, like I said, it really depends on the story you want to tell. This is a Major Arcana card—a trump card, so to speak. I don’t use cards from the Major Arcana to represent specific characters; to me they’re powerful archetypes instead. So my question is always: how would my character respond to the archetype represented here?
I’m outlining a novel now with a character who’s torn about authority figures—he despises them on one level but is painfully drawn to them on another. This card is helping me dig deeper into his motivations. It’s helping me discover more about his urge to tear down people who abuse their power even while he searches for the genuinely caring authority figure who doesn’t.
(Huh. My characters tend to be either authority figures or people who have issues with them. That seems to be a thing with me.)
Another possibility: this card might be about governing ourselves, about self-discipline and self-control. I know I’ve created characters who lack both, and who sorely need to learn the lessons The Emperor seems to offer! Carry that self-discipline to an extreme, though, and you’ll end up with a rigid, inflexible character who needs to learn how to let go.
So how does this card strike you? How would you use it in a story? What stories have you read where this archetype was especially prominent? And, as always, if this card inspires a meta or a story or poem from you, please leave a link in the comments!
Okay, we need a card for next week: we’re back to the Minor Arcana with the 7 of Cups.