Many folks seem have a troubled relationship with the Emperor card.
Plenty more strongly dislike it. According to my own totally informal research, the Emperor is the least popular tarot card of all.
As the Emperor is often read as the archetypal ‘Father’ (with the Empress as ‘Mother’), there are Freudian and Jungian explanations for this that are rooted in father-child (and mother-child) relationships. As in, the Emperor can represent your own father and/or that relationship, or it could point to your relationship to masculine parental figures and paternal authority in general. (You can research the Father Complex if this interests you.)
Beyond ‘Father’, though, the Emperor also represents social structures, norms and codes.
Authority. Government. The establishment. The patriarchy. Society can be (and clearly is) a constrictive box where each person is made to conform or is expelled or made very uncomfortable. The Emperor can represent the rule of law, decision-making by out-of-touch leaders, and so on. The Emperor typically prizes order, conformity, commercial success, strong hierarchical leadership. Going further, it can be about the ways law and order is enforced: this may point to the prison system, the police state, white supremacy, religion or capitalism as social control, and so on.
Further, the Emperor often asking you to confront difficult dynamics as they manifest in your own life, such as your relationship with authority, feelings of powerlessness, complicity in in oppressive structures, your own use or abuse of different kinds of power, and more.
So yeah. It’s no wonder queers, feminists, lefties and nonconformists aren’t into this card!
The Emperor has been queered brilliantly in both the Collective Tarot and the Slow Holler Tarot, as ‘the Code’ and ‘the Navigator’ respectively.
In the Collective Tarot, the Code (depicted as an attractive genderqueer boi giving you the eyes from the bar) is about social codes in the sense that we all create, understand and communicate by codes of some sort. Yes, this card can represent the way people are policed and controlled, and the social norms we are aware of and either conform to or don’t, but it can also be about individuals’ or communities’ moral codes, or subcultural codes such as the ‘red hanky’ code shown on the card (a subtle indication of sexual preference, for those who need to know). It also raises the theme of ‘daddy’ in the sexual/kink context.
The Slow Holler Tarot’s Navigator “…has skills, confidence and experience that allow them to steer, direct and create structures for group effort.” This is a person who can talk the talk, who understands the norms and codes and is able to lead with confidence. These are not qualities reserved only for those to whom society affords more power, but are found within our own communities, too. They are valuable skills that can inspire:
Expectations are clear, boundaries are set and marked, and all standards and protocols are laid out. Despite their emphasis on order and structure, they can also show a bold, innovative vision – their solid base of knowledge sprinkled with a dash of daring.
I like to think of the Emperor as representing ‘foundations’.
Foundations, like the Emperor, can be stable and sound, or weak and crumbly. Setting the ground rules at the start of a community workshop can create a solid platform upon which a safe space can be established. That might mean, for example, mean a confidentiality rule, or a talking stick, or a clear method for making decisions. It might mean a policy of centring marginalised voices or a specific way of dealing with derailing behaviours. The rules are established, hopefully by consensus, and made clear to all. And someone, or a number of people, have the role of ensuring the rules are followed. Because if they’re not? The safety of the space is compromised and the outcome of the workshop or meeting will not be useful.
The Emperor could also represent a person creating boundaries for themself. These boundaries are an essential element of self-care, holding that person’s emotions out of reach of spiritual vampires or keeping them safe from a particularly toxic person or community. (By the same token, it could indicate that someone’s boundaries are too rigid, or are being clung to out of fear.)
The Emperor could be a sound business policy that protects you and honours your work. Years ago I learned the hard way to create and enforce a ‘no follow-up questions’ policy after several of my tarot reading customers returned over and over, wanting to pick apart elements of their reading, or asking for ‘one more card’ to clarify something. They had received the time, energy, expertise and reading they had paid for – they had not bought access to a bottomless well. Want more? Purchase another reading! It was hard, but creating this policy enabled me to carry out my work with joy and provide a fair service to all, rather than feeling resentful.
My own relationship to the Emperor changed when I went though a period of feeling really unstable in my life and work. I craved routine, structure, something to hold on to. And of course, there was the Emperor, time and again, in my tarot readings, encouraging me to establish a daily routine and bring in some self-discipline to help me get back on track. Though I understand that rigid routines are not for everyone, there are times we can all benefit from a little structure. It can mean the difference between drifting aimlessly, and moving yourself forwards. Procrastinating, or getting that project done.
And if the Emperor does represent ‘society’, it necessarily therefore can represent the vision of a better one. A solid constitution. Genuine consultation. Leadership that ensures everyone gets heard and looked after.
All of these examples are ‘foundational’.
They’re earthy and mundane. They’re not glamorous, they’re not what you see in the end product, but they are absolutely essential to get there. They are the hard work that props up the thing at the end, whether that’s an activist campaign, a happy relationship to your work, steadier mental health, the completion of your novel.
The Emperor as leader can be someone who grabs power and wields it over others, or it can be someone who is able to lead (can you hear me straining not to write a certain prime ministerial soundbite here?) As one of my heroes once said to me “don’t be afraid of leadership. Leadership is a wonderful word.”
Cards shown are from the Rider Waite Smith Tarot, The Collective Tarot, the Slow Holler Tarot, and Trung Nguyen‘s tarot deck (in progress).