4. The Emperor

Strength in foundations

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.

But the Emperor does not only signify oppressive or harmful structures. It can be the qualities of leadership that can achieve positive change. In the Slow Holler Tarot, this card is re-named ‘Navigator’, and represents a person who “…has skills, confidence and experience that allow them to steer, direct and create structures for group effort.” This person can talk the talk, understand the relevant norms and codes, and is able to lead with confidence. These are valuable skills that can inspire. They are useful in all kinds of spheres.

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.

The Slow Holler Tarot

As a leader, the Emperor can be someone who grabs power and wields it over others, or it can be someone who is able to lead with compassion and, assisted by a team, achieve great things. It represents the difficult decisions that need to be made, the structures that inform those decisions, and the importance of accountability at all levels.

Advice from the Emperor

The Emperor will often be asking you to confront difficult power 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. It can represent any institution, person or group that wields power, or it can be your yourself.

This card is also about doing groundwork, building solid foundations. That might look like setting the ground rules at the start of a community workshop, to create a solid platform upon which a safe space can be established. 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.

Or it might look like 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. Or creating a daily routine to get you through a ‘stuck patch’ or beat procrastination. For the Emperor is not a person who procrastinates! If there’s a job to be done, this card says: get it 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.

Key words and concepts

  • Rules and laws
  • Structure
  • Discipline
  • Leadership
  • Doing what needs to be done
  • Making (perhaps difficult or unpopular) decisions
  • Creating solid foundations, doing groundwork
  • Wielding power (for good or bad purposes)
  • Oppression, dictatorship, an institution or situation that traps and controls
  • A paternal figure in your life

Some common symbols

  • Armour (protection)
  • An older person (wisdom gained through experience)
  • Red robes (strength and leadership)
  • Symmetry and straight lines (structure, order)
  • A ram’s head (the zodiac sign of Aries, the initiator)