4. The Emperor

In terms of its meaning, it seems to be one of the simplest cards of the major arcana, but nothing is less true. Title and image are deceiving here, because the Emperor of the tarot is not about the emperor …!

Both the card of the Emperor and the Empress of the 15th century Visconti Tarot have an eagle on it. As we saw in the analysis of the Empress, this bird (‘the king of the sky’) represents in the tradition of alchemy a completed process of God-realization. The placement of the eagle on the Emperor’s hat (instead of on a shield, as with the Empress) confirms this interpretation. This refers to the caduceus: the staff of the god Hermes, the classical symbol for a kundalini awakening.


The two wings at the top of the caduceus represent an expansion of consciousness. The staff itself has the same meaning as the scepter in the hand of the Emperor: the spine with the divine kundalini flowing in it. The two serpents that spiral upward on the staff represent the duality that merges into oneness during the awakening process. This aspect has been subtly incorporated into the legs of the Emperor.

The Visconti di Modrone Emperor

The Visconti (Brera-Brambilla) Emperor

On the Visconti di Modrone card (above left) we see the Emperor depicted with crossed legs. On the card above right, only one foot shows. These are references to the inner sacred marriage (2=1). The theme of the crossed legs will be carried over to the Tarot of Marseille, and many other decks to follow.

The Buddha at a young age

The god Ganesha

In Hinduism, gods and saints are depicted with just ONE FOOT on the ground to express that they are no longer connected to duality, but are rooted in divine ONENESS.

In christian art Jezus is depicted with only one leg showing to indicate he experienced a kundalini awakening. Below three examples.

Benedetto Diana, 1486.

Giuseppe Cesari, 1593.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 19th century.

The so-called globus cruciger (a globe with a cross on it) in the hand of the Emperor has, just like the scepter, both a worldly and a spiritual meaning. In the hand of a ruler (a “possessor of the world”), the globus cruciger stands for spreading Christianity as a dominant doctrine of faith. Esoterically, the globe with a cross stands for spirit ruling over matter.

Below two emblems with the alchemist who completed the Magnum Opus, depicted as a reigning king/emperor.

‘Attaining Wisdom’ (in text) is a veiled reference to the Gnostic SOPHIA (Greek for Wisdom), the personification of the KUNDALINI. (George Wither’s Emblem Book, 1635)

The king in the water represents the DIVINE IN THE SUBCONSCIOUS, that has to be ‘saved’ (realised). (Splendor Solis, 16th century)

The Tarot of Marseille

All decks that have appeared under the collective name “Tarot of Marseille” show the Emperor in profile. With this body position he expresses the number 4, which is in symbolism the number of earth/matter. This interpretation is confirmed by the extra number 4 that is placed on some decks below the Roman numeral (IIII) of the card  (below center). The Emperor is the only Marseille card that has this double numbering.

The Tarot of Marseille,
by Jean Noblet (circa 1650)

The Tarot of Marseille, by Jean Dodal,
with an extra 4 (1701-1705)

An alchemical illustration of the Magnum Opus: king (red) and queen (white) are merged into an androgynous figure (rebis). The tight BELT around waist of the naked body, and the SCEPTER placed in his genital area, symbolize the SUBLIMATION (bringing to the higher chakras) of the sexual energy.

The globus cruciger has been moved to the top of the scepter. The Emperor is holding his belt with his free hand. This symbolizes control over his sexual impulses (the energy of the lower abdomen): the Emperor is lord and master of his animal nature. Matter (the number 4) and the body have no hold on him.

Left: the alchemist, depicted as a warrior, is standing in the transforming fire of the kundalini. The six trees represent his six chakras that are being purified. Next to him stands the god Hermes with his staff the CADUCEUS, the classic symbol of a kundalini awakening. Hermes raises the GLOBUS CRUCIGER in his hand: a reference to the SUBLIMATION (deification) of the lower (material) energies. (Philosophia Hermetica, Federico Gualdi, ca. 1790)

Another new detail is the red feather on the crown of the Emperor. In combination with the other symbolism, it is likely that this feather stands for a kundalini awakening. Red is the color of the first chakra, where the kundalini resides. Red is also the color of a completed Magnum Opus in alchemy. The feather refers to, and has the same symbolic meaning as, the eagle on the hat of the Visconti Emperor. The red feather also features on three cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot: The Fool, Death and The Sun.

Feathers as a symbol for a kundalini awakening can be found, among others, in the iconography of Ancient Egypt. Below three examples.

The goddess Ma’at

The god Osiris with two ostrich feathers on his crown.

The goddess Renenutet. She was depicted as a cobra, or as a woman with the head of a cobra.

In Christian art of that time, the red feather has been used as a symbol to communicate that Jesus had experienced a kundalini awakening. Three examples below.

RED AND WHITE (the two feathers, click here) represent in alchemy the polar energies/duality, which merge into one. The SPIRAL ROD (click here) refers to the kundalini. The SCORPION (flag, click here) represents the death of the ego. (Jörg Breu Sr., 16th century)

The three feathers refer to the three phases of the Magnum Opus: NEGREDO (black), ALBEDO (white) AND RUBEDO (red), click here. Only ONE LEG of Jesus is depicted. This refers to the SACRED MARRIAGE (2=1), click here. (Michael Pacher, c. 1470)

Giovan Battista Moroni

Double headed eagle

A compelling indication that the eagle on The Emperor (and The Empress) has a spiritual significance is the double-headed eagle variant of some decks. The double-headed eagle is an alchemical symbol for a completed Magnum Opus (process of God-realization). The two heads represent the fusion of the polar energies/duality (see emblem on right).

The earliest Emperor with a double-headed eagle can be found in one of the very first printed decks, the so-called Budapest-Metraopolitan deck, of which only an uncut, uncoloured printed sheet has been preserved (below left).

The two cards below, center and right, are of a later date. On the Italian card (below right), a double-headed eagle is placed on top of the Emperor’s scepter. There is also no longer an eagle on a shield, but it is now a life size bird next to the Emperor. We may take this as a second indication that the eagle on tarot card number 4 represents spiritual realization. 

From: Medicinisch Chymisch und Alchemitisches Oraculum, 1755.

Budapest-Metropolitan deck, 16th century.

The Tarot d’Epinal, a reproduction of a French deck from 1830.

Italian deck, Serravalle Sesia, 1880.

Alchemy regarded Jesus as an alchemist who had successfully completed the inner Great Work. Below on the left a remarkable illustration of Christ as a double-headed eagle.

Also in Christian painting, the symbol of the double-headed eagle has been used to refer to the kundalini process of Jesus. An example of this below on the right.

Christ depicted as an alchemist who completed the Magnum Opus (the DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE). From the alchemical manuscript: ‘Book of the Holy Trinity’.

Titian, Palazzo ducale di Urbino, 1544.

Oswald Wirth Tarot

Oswald Wirth has placed his Emperor on a cube with an eagle. In alchemy, a cube symbolizes earth (the three dimensions). Both the eagle and the fact that the Emperor sits on the cube refer to his supremacy over matter. The lyre on the eagle is an attribute of the Greek sun god Apollo; an additional element to confirm to us that the Emperor represents the spiritual aspirant who has realized the divine.

The sun and moon on the chest of the Emperor represent the duality that he has conquered. The two energy channels that flow along his spine, and that form the energetic blueprint for our inner duality, have merged into one.

On the top of his scepter (symbol for the spine) a fleur-de-lys, or “French lily”, is placed; an esoteric symbol for the pineal gland. See the alchemical illustration on the far right.

Oswald Wirth Emperor (1889)

An alchemical illustration of the process of kundalini awakening. The scepter with fleur-de-lys symbolizes the spine with the pineal gland at the top.

Château des Avenières

The Emperor in the chapel of Château des Avenières is an Egyptian version of the Oswald Wirth Emperor. The 4 x 4 squares on the cube is (probably) a reference to the 4 elements. The eagle has been replaced by a phoenix: an element that emphasizes the overall symbolism of spiritual awakening (an eagle can still be seen as heraldry).

The Emperor wears a so-called Pschent: a double crown representing the union of the two sub-regions Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. According to the historiography, several pharaohs had the task of uniting the two halves of their land into one kingdom.

Anyone who delves into the details of the history of Egypt, and is familiar with spiritual processes, cannot escape the impression that the stories about Upper and Lower Egypt contain a symbolic layer. These two realms also represent the higher (divine) and lower (animal) nature in humans. In a kundalini awakening, it is the spiritual aspirant’s task to unite both natures. The inner struggle that accompanies this, is represented by the war between the two Egyptian sub-regions.

The Emperor in mosaic from Château des Avenières (1917)

The PSCHENT (center) is composed of two crowns: on the left the goddess Wadjet with the red crown of Lower Egypt and on the right the goddess Nekhbet with the white crown of Upper Egypt.

On the Emperor’s crown we see a so-called uraeus: a stylized, upright, Egyptian cobra; symbol of the awakened kundalini energy. At this place in the head – at the height of the sixth chakra – the fusion of the opposites takes place; which includes the union of the lower and higher nature.

Rider-Waite-Smith Emperor

The RWS Emperor is dressed in red. This is, as we saw during the discussion of the previous card, the Empress, a reference to the alchemical royal couple (red king and white queen) that merges during the Magnum Opus. The red and white stones in the Emperor’s crown represent this sacred marriage. The mountains in the background symbolize an expanded consciousness.

The ram’s heads on the throne have a double meaning. Where the RWS Empress is connected to the female energy of the planet Venus, the Emperor is connected to the male energy of the planet Mars. The zodiac sign for Mars is Aries.

The ram is also a symbol of the animal nature that the Emperor has conquered. This becomes even more apparent when we put two other decks, that were also influenced by the philosophies of the occult group The Golden Dawn, next to the RWS card (below).

On the Classic Golden Dawn card, one foot of the Emperor is on a ram. On the Builders of the Adytum card, the Emperor sits on a ram-headed cube. Both standing and sitting on something symbolizes dominion over that object.

Rider-Waite-Smith Emperor (1909)

Classic Golden Dawn Tarot (2004)

Builders of the Adytum Tarot (circa 1950)

The Classic Golden Dawn-Emperor also has a scepter with a ram’s head at the top. This means that the energy from the animal drives (the lower chakras) is sublimated (brought to the higher chakras).

The scepter of the RWS Emperor communicates the same thing, with different symbolism. The RWS scepter is a derivative of the Ankh, the Egyptian symbol that stands for eternal life (below left). An Ankh is a stylized representation of the spine with the pineal gland at the top, similar to the caduceus. The Ankh scepter of the RWS Emperor is placed on top of one of the ram heads. This means that the Emperor has led the energies from the lower abdomen, through the spine, to the pineal gland.

The Egyptian god Ptah with an ANKH on his staff (4th-3rd century BC)

Left: Jesus as the “King of the Universe”, with the devil, in the form of a dragon, under his foot. The deeper meaning of this is comparable to the “spiritual emperorship” of tarot card number 4. In the words of Jesus: “MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD …” (John 18:36).

Thoth Tarot

The Thoth Emperor looks to the left, to the Thoth Empress, with whom he forms a pair. Both cards have a shield with a double-headed eagle.

Aleister Crowley has not incorporated many elements from christianity into his deck. At the bottom right of his Emperor card we see one of the exceptions: the victorious Lamb from the Book of Revelation, with the visions of John. From the following quote we may deduct that the Biblical Lamb on this card is the counterpart of the sexual energy that the ram stands for:

1 Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads.
4 These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb.
(Revelation 14:1 en 4)

The Thoth Emperor (1969)

“…having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads” are those who have completed the sacred marriage at the height of the sixth chakra. “They have kept themselves chaste …” . It can hardly be stated any clearer!

The number 144,000 is also meaningful. The sum of the “petals” of the first six chakras is 144 (4 + 6 + 10 + 12 + 16 + 96). The number of petals of the seventh chakra is a symbolically large number: 1000. One hundred and forty-four thousand refers to the opening of all chakras after a completed kundalini awakening.

Read more about the symbolism in the Bible in my book ‘John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ’.

According to Aleister Crowley, his Emperor expresses the alchemical symbol for sulfur (a triangle with a cross underneath) with his body posture. Sulfur is one of the three primary elements involved in the Magnum Opus.

Right: a colored engraving by Giovanni Lacinio, from 1714, of the Magnum Opus, with many elements that we also see on the various Emperor cards through the ages. The symbols on the tree trunk (spine) are the three primary alchemical elements: salt, sulfur and mercury. The two LIONS represent the animal drives that, sublimated (the wings), provide the force necesary to complete the process of God-realization. The symbols above the lions are the FOUR ELEMENTS: fire, earth, water, and air. The GLOBE (orb) with cross, on top of the tree trunk, stands for spirit ruling over matter (four elements). The SUN and the MOON, at the top of the illustration, represent duality. A small sun and moon are also depicted in the globe: the duality has merged into oneness. The white EAGLE symbolizes the completed process.


Together with card number three, the Empress, the Emperor forms the alchemical couple that merges during the Magnum Opus. The Tarot Emperor also represents the person in whom this sacred marriage took place: for the spiritual aspirant who has gained mastery over matter and his animal drives.

His crown and scepter came at a price. He had to go through a lengthy and painful process of cleansing and detachment. On the engraving of Sabine Stuart de Chevalier, from 1781 (right), we see this arduous path from the alchemist to “spiritual emperorship” in beautiful symbolism.

The monk’s habit of the alchemist represents his way of life. On the left we see him sad because all his efforts do not seem to be successful. His enormous bookcase stands for the knowledge and wisdom he has acquired. In the background we see a maze as a symbol for his quest in the dark.
But then he is surprised by a divine visit. The woman stands for “GOD THE MOTHER” (Sophia, the kundalini, the Shekinah, etc.). He impulsively refuses the CROWN AND SCEPTER she offers him; an indication of his humility and modesty. The tree bearing fruit is a metaphor for a completed kundalini awakening. On the organ pipes behind him are the symbols of the seven classical planets. These represent the seven chakras of the alchemist that are fully opened. In the glass flask (symbol for the alchemist himself), on the left in the foreground, the red king and white queen (the inner polarities) are united. On the rim of the fireplace, above his head, are the symbols for the FOUR ELEMENTS: he has conquered matter.

Tarot of the New Vision
(© Lo Scarabeo, 2003)

This deck pictures what can be seen if you turn the Rider-Waite cards 180 degrees. The turtle behind the Emperor’s throne represents the patience and perseverance needed to attain spiritual emperorship. A turtle that pulls in its head and legs, is also a well-known metaphor for meditation (the withdrawal of the five senses from the outside world). Lo Scarabeo adds to this: “a turtle carries the burden of its own house. This entails a responsibility.”

The Alice Tarot
(Baba Studios, 2014, eu.baba-store.com)

This mythical animal – a griffin – with the lower body of a lion and the upper body of an eagle, symbolizes the sublimation of the animal energies (transformation from lion to eagle). The tail with two points refers to the merging of duality into divine oneness.

LeGrande Circus & Sideshow Tarot
(US Games, 2015)

A circus director is lord and master of “the show” (the illusion, Maya, of material life). He lets the animals do what he wants with his whip. A WHIP (click here) is also a kundalini symbol. The lemniscate form of the whip refers to the fusion of duality and the divine. In alchemy, RED AND WHITE (click here) represent duality (the red king merges with the white queen).

The Raven’s Prophecy Tarot
(Llewellyn, 2015, maggiestiefvater.com)

The sword in the stone is a kundalini metaphor from the King Arthur legends. Whoever manages to pull the sword from the stone (the awakening of the kundalini in the pelvis) is the true (spiritual) king / emperor. Click here for the SWORD as a symbol for the kundalini. 

This article was published in Paravisie Magazine (June ’19). Copyright Anne-Marie Wegh 2019

Anne-Marie Wegh is the author of the book
John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ

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Illustrations from the tarot decks, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

Foto’s Châteaux de Avenières: http://hermetism.free.fr/Avenieres

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