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 Emperor and the Empress of the 15th century Visconti Tarot have an eagle on the card. As we saw in the analysis of the Empress, this royal bird, spiritually speaking, stands for 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 snakes that spiral upward on the staff represent the duality that merges into a unity during the awakening process. This aspect has been subtly incorporated into his legs of the Emperor. On one Visconti card we see the Emperor pictured with crossed legs (2 = 1) and on the other card only one foot is visible. The theme of the crossed legs will be taken over by the Tarot de Marseille, and by many other decks that follow.
The Visconti di Modrone Emperor
The Visconti (Brera-Brambilla) Emperor
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.
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.
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, the number of the earth. This interpretation is confirmed by the extra number 4 that is placed on some decks below the Roman numeral of the card (IIII). The Emperor is the only Marseille card that has this double numbering.
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 the crotch, 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.
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. The feather refers to, and has the same symbolic meaning as, the eagle on the hat of the Visconti Emperor. We also see the red feather on three cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot: the Fool, Death and the Sun.
An alchemical illustration from: Philosophia Hermetica, Federico Gualdi (ca. 1790). The alchemist, clothed 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.
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.
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 also contain a symbolic layer. These two realms could 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 within themselves. The inner struggle that accompanies this, is represented by the war between the two Egyptian sub-regions.
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.
The Emperor in mosaic from Château des Avenières (1917)
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 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 Emperor cards, 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.
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. 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 a Djed pillar (4th-3rd century BC)
Jesus as the “King of the Universe”, with the devil, in the form of a dragon, under his feet. 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).
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: the alchemical symbol for the fusion of the opposites (emperor and empress). Next to the Thoth card (below), we see a extraordinary alchemical illustration on which Jesus, instead of being crucified, is depicted as a double-headed eagle …!
Illustration from: Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (15th century)
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)
“…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.
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.
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 a unity. 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 is master 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 Chevalie, from 1781, we see this arduous path from the alchemist to “spiritual emperorship” in beautiful symbolism.
Colored engraving by Sabine Stuart de Chevalier from Discours Philosophique (1781).
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 with 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.
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
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