Tarot Card Meanings: The Emperor

The Emperor (“L’Empereur”) – Card IV

When I fight Authority, Authority always wins.” – “Authority Song,” by John Mellencamp

Behold: The Emperor. Here’s the “Authority” that John Mellencamp was singing about back in 1983, embodied in a humanoid figure for us to marvel at.

The Emperor is any commanding Force that holds enough power to impose its will upon the world.

Laws of Nature hold Emperor-level authority: try telling gravity that you just don’t feel like falling down when that patch of slippery floor gets the better of you.

Institutions can play Emperor, too. For example, take a crack at violating Facebook’s rules of use, and see how long you can manage to stay on there as a member operating on your own terms.

And sometimes, individual humans get to sit in the Emperor’s throne. Sometimes people – whether through inheritance or through conquest of whatever variety – find themselves elevated to a position of tremendous command.

In a Tarot reading, whenever Card IV appears, we may be looking at any or all of these types of Emperor, but the principle that’s being flagged for the reader is virtually always going to revolve around the concept of power:

What kinds of power does the querent have?
Does the querent have enough power? Too much power? The right or wrong kind of power?
How is the querent using the power that they do have?

That last question is especially important to consider. Surf up quotes about power online, and you’ll invite down upon yourself a tidal wave of verbiage having to do with ideas about how power corrupts, and about what makes our leaders good or bad in their leadership. Niccolo Machiavelli, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Lord Acton, Eleanor Roosevelt…these historical figures have all given us plenty to chew on in terms of assessing what power is, what it does to those who wield it, and what they do to it in return.

But consider the words of another musician from more modern times here. The late and very great Jimi Hendrix once said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

Jimi was making a hugely valuable point about the ways in which power can be applied. Power is what it is…but the application of it can be merciless at one end of the spectrum, or it can be tempered with compassion at the other.

Which provides a terrific segue for bringing up the fact that power doesn’t really occur in a vacuum. This is especially true when power is being employed by humans. There are people using the power, people observing it being used, and people on the receiving end of it when it’s being used. All of these people contribute to the interplay.

So now consider the fact that The Emperor is part of a natural pair. In the previous entry in this series, we looked at The Empress. These two archetypes fit together, and ideally, they bring out the best in each other. It may be a bit of an oversimplification to say this, but we can fit this royal couple into that quote from Jimi Hendrix: The Empress is Love, and The Emperor is Power, and only when they’re working together in the optimal way will the outcome favor the greatest good.

This is therefore a critical factor when analyzing the Emperor card’s meaning when it appears in a reading. What cards surround it? Do they add up to paint a picture of a brutal, pitiless authority? Or do they suggest a more caring and nurturing commander who wants to secure peace and freedom and joy for those under its control?

When The Emperor expresses himself in a more negative manner, some of the themes that may emerge in a reading can include tyranny, repression, loss of individuality, the blind pursuit of power, rampant ego, selfishness, narcissism, an unhelpful fascination with rules and regulations (bureaucracy/red tape), and feelings of powerlessness on the part of the querent.

When The Emperor manifests in finer fashion, though, he can signify such concepts as benevolent authority, inspiration, safety, security, needs being provided for, civilization in its more noble forms, beneficial laws and structures, integrity, and a rallying point for the community.

It’s pretty much impossible to escape the ebb and flow of power in your life – you even exercise it (or don’t) upon yourself. The Emperor, then, always invites us to take a good, in-depth look at exactly how the ever-present dynamics of power are playing a role in a given situation.

Previous entry: The Empress
Next entry: The Hierophant
Main Tarot Card Meanings Page