3. The Empress
The card of the Empress has multiple layers. It represents, among other things, the feminine in man (the anima in Jungian psychology) and the feminine aspect of God. As an anima she is the other half of the Emperor – the animus. Their fusion – the sacred marriage – leads to a union with God.
Two cards of the Empress have been preserved from the 15th century Visconti decks. At first glance they do not seem to contain any special symbolism. On both cards the empress holds a shield with an eagle on it. This eagle can also be found on the family crest of the noble Viscontis, so is an explainable element. The fact that the eagle on this card does indeed have a spiritual meaning is only clear when we study the entire Visconti-Sforza deck, and when we compare Empress cards from later centuries.
In the tradition of alchemy, which had its heyday in the 15th century, an eagle – the king of birds – represents the completion of the process of God-realization.
On the engraving of Jacob de Heyden (right) from 1615 we see an eagle balancing on two pillars. These pillars represent the inner duality, which must be merged into a (divine) unity. They are connected by a rope with a wedding ring; a reference to the sacred marriage.
Emblem from: The Hermaphrodite Child of the Sun and Moon (author unknown, 1752)
Engraving from: Emblemata moralia & bellica (Jacob de Heyden, 1615)
To express the transcendance of duality, alchemy often uses the image of a king and queen uniting. The illustration from Rosarium Philosophorum (below) is an example of this. We see a royal couple lying in the water, which means that this process takes place in our subconscious. The wings symbolize the completion of the process of unification. One hand of the king lies on his genitals: the sexual energy must be preserved in order to experience the divine.
From: Rosarium Philosophorum (circa 1550)
This powerful primal energy in our lower abdomen must be lifted to the higher chakras. In many spiritual traditions the challenge of gaining mastery over the sexual impulses is symbolized by a powerful dragon that must be conquered.
The Magnum Opus of the alchemist (illustration from around 1400). The king and queen are fused into one figure, also called rebis or hermaphrodite. The conquered dragon lies at their feet. The three snakes in the cup represent the three energy channels involved in a kundalini awakening. The wings, and the ouroboros in the king’s hand, refer to the accomplishment of the inner unity.
With the ages it becomes clearer that the cards number 3 and 4 of the tarot – the Empress and the Emperor – represent the alchemical royal couple, that merges during the process of God-realization. The Empress of the Tarot of Marseille (17th and 18th century) sits on a throne with a backrest that suggests two wings; the symbol for spiritual completion. This reinforces the symbolism of the eagle on the card.
The Empress of the Italian Carlo Della Rocca (below) makes the sign of the sacred marriage (two fingers together) with both hands. In addition, she points with the two fingers of her right hand at the eagle.
Chateau des Avenières (1917)
The Empress of the occultist Oswald Wirth (1889) has real wings. Wirth enriches the card with elements that refer to a vision of the apostle John, from the Bible book of Revelation: a crown of stars and a crescent moon under her foot.
The woman, the Child and the dragon
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars;
2 and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.
3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems.
4 And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child.
5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.
Alchemical illustration of the Magnum Opus (18th century)
This is a vision of a kundalini awakening that John is going through. The woman represents his soul who is about to “give birth” to the divine. John has undergone a purification process of many years for this to happen. The crown with twelve stars stands for spiritual completion. The divine light flows through him unhindered (his soul is “clothed with the sun”). He has conquered duality / matter (the moon).
The divine birth is threatened by a big red dragon. Here also, a dragon stands for the animal instincts. The color red refers to the first chakra, the energy of our most basic (read: animal) needs. The iron staff with which the Child will rule, represents John’s spine with the kundalini energy flowing in it.
The birth of this divine child is the result of the sacred marriage. Alchemy also uses the image of the birth of a child, as part of the Magnum Opus (left).
The Empress in the chapel of Château des Avenières largely resembles the Empress of Oswald Wirth. On the shield in her hand we see a phoenix instead of an eagle. This mythical bird, rising from its ashes, represents the process of spiritual rebirth.
The Rider-Waite-Smith Empress
Arthur Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith have added elements to the Empress that also give her a macrocosmic meaning. The RWS Empress is God the Mother: the feminine aspect of God, who can be found not only in man (the kundalini in our pelvis), but also outside man. It is the supporting, nourishing energy that makes up the universe.
The placement of the Empress in nature refers to her macrocosmic meaning. The grain in the foreground is an attribute of Demeter, the Greek goddess of agricultural crops and the harvest.
On the dress of the Empress are pomegranates are depicted. As we saw on the card of the High Priestess, pomegranates, because of their red color and many seeds, are a symbol of the kundalini: the ‘divine seed’ in our pelvis, at the height of the first chakra (color red).
The pomegranate plays an important role in the well-known Greek myth about the abduction of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, by Hades, the god of the underworld. A story that is seen as an explanation for the changing seasons, but that stands at a deeper level for a kundalini awakening.
Persephone (the kundalini) is taken against her will by the god Hades to the underworld (the kundalini is “locked up” in the pelvis). Demeter is inconsolable and goes into mourning, as a result of which all the greenery on earth stops growing (spiritual aridity, no longer experiencing a connection with God). Zeus, the father of Persephone, orders Hades to bring her back. Hades, however, tempts Persephone to eat six seeds (at the sixth chakra the sacred wedding takes place) of a pomegranate. As a result she has to return to the underworld for a few months every year. Persephone is freed from the underworld (the pelvis) by the god Hermes, the god with the caduceus, that stands for a kundalini awakening.
“The return of Persephone”,
Frederic Leighton (1891)
Artist Frederic Leighton has incorporated the deeper meaning of this myth in his painting from 1891. We see Hermes with one hand holding the caduceus and his other arm is around Persephone. This depicts the merging of the inner masculine and the feminine. This interpretation is confirmed by both hands of Persephone, that make the sign of the sacred marriage.
The RWS Empress sits on an orange-red cloth and leans against an orange cushion. These colors refer to the dwelling place of the Empress (the kundalini) in humans: in the pelvis, at the level of the first and second chakra (red and orange respectively)..
On the right-hand side of the card we see a stream of water flowing from a tree, that is shaped like a pine cone, to the feet of the Empress. This water symbolizes the kundalini energy that flows from the pelvis to the pineal gland.
The color white of the dress the Empress wears represents the feminine. In alchemy, the colors white and red represent the opposites of duality that must be brought to a unity. Often the metaphor is used of a marriage between a queen dressed in white and a king dressed in red.
The heart shape of the shield on the RWS card, and the symbol of the planet Venus (on the shield, on the black pillow, and the pomegranates), are elements that refer to duality, of which the Empress represents one half:
Empress – emperor
Female – male
Venus – Mars
Heart (feeling) – head (thinking)
The RWS Empress also represents a complete spiritual awakening: the scepter, the crown with twelve stars, and the laurel wreath on her head, express this. A scepter stands for authority / mastery. The scepter on this card has a globe at the top, which refers to dominion over matter. The stars on the head of the empress have the shape of a hexagram (six-pointed star); the symbol that expresses the merger of the polarities.
The laurel wreath (a wreath of laurel branches) refers to mastery over sexual urges. This meaning is derived from the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne. The god Apollo pursues the river nymph Daphne (a name that means Laurel), driven by lust. She desperately calls on the help of her father, the river god Penues. He turns his daughter into a laurel tree, through which she escapes Apollo’s persistent advances. Apollo turns the branches of the laurel tree into a wreath, which then becomes a symbol of chastity.
The moral of this myth is that the kundalini energy can only awaken and grow into a “tree of life” that reaches to the crown of man, if the sexual energy is preserved. A laurel tree is green all year round. This symbolizes the immortality of man after a completed kundalini awakening..
The Thoth Empress is also full of symbolism. According to Aleister Crowley, the Empress stands for both the lowest level of creation (matter) and the highest, spiritual level. Her throne of water spirals represents her birth from water; a reference to the goddess Venus. Water is a feminine element, just like the moon. At a deeper level, birth from water refers to a kundalini awakening.
From: Figuarium Aegyptiorum Secretarum (18th century)
The Thoth Empress (1969)
The lotus flower in the right hand of the Empress is a classical symbol for spiritual perfection. The blue lotus was seen as the holiest of all flowers in Ancient Egypt. In his Book of Thoth, Crowley calls her “the blue Lotus of Isis, a symbol of the feminine.”
On the shield at the feet of the Empress we see a double-headed eagle. The two heads reinforce the alchemical meaning of the eagle: God-realization, as a result of transcending (fusing) duality. Usually the heads are shown turned outwards (see illustration above from Figuarium Aegyptiorum Secretarum). Crowley has chosen to turn them towards each other, and to put a fusion of sun and moon between them, thereby reinforcing the symbolism of unification.
The pelican who feeds her young with her own blood, on the bottom of the card, is also a classic metaphor, from alchemy and Christianity, among others. Crowley herself explains this as Mother Nature who feeds her children (us). In Christianity, the self-wounding pelican stands for Christ’s self-sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. In alchemy, the pelican stands for the self-sacrifice of the spiritual aspirant: the sacrifice of the ego – and the suffering that comes with it – to realize the divine.
As a feminine aspect of God, the Empress resides in our pelvis (the kundalini energy) as well as in creation. When we look around us, everything that we can see, and everything that grows and flourishes, is “the Empress.”
The Empress also stands for the “completion of nature”. The tradition of alchemy views nature / man as not “finished”. A process of sublimation (deification) is still needed (the Magnum Opus). The crown and scepter of the Empress represent a completed process of transformation, and mastership over matter and the animal instincts.