Like him or hate him, the Emperor shows up in Tarot readings when a firm hand and a dose of high-octane masculine energy is needed.
The Emperor is linked to the planet Mars – in other words, you do not want to cross him or engage in a power struggle with him.
Your reaction to the energy that the Emperor card brings to a Tarot reading is key to its significance. Is the Emperor a contrarian authority figure, forces outside of yourself that you cannot control but have to defend yourself against or push against? Is he a wise and supportive mentor? Or, is he a reflection of you, a symbol of your awakening power, authority and ability to shape and control the direction of your life?
What does the Emperor Tarot card stand for?
Like any Tarot archetype, the Emperor has many shifting layers. One glance tells us much about him, though. It is clear that we are dealing with a powerful and imposing figure, a wise and firm leader.
The Emperor can refer to qualities and battles we are facing within ourselves. He may appear in a reading to remind us of our personal power, or of the need for us to step up in a situation and assume responsibility.
At other times, he may appear as a representation of another person in our lives. The Emperor can represent one partner in a romantic relationship, any kind of authority figure, mentor or superior.
The Father Figure
The Emperor is the ultimate father figure type, embodying all of the archetypal qualities we would associate with the role of the father.
The father is a protector and a mentor, but also someone who sets boundaries and guides his family with a firm but fair hand.
What we see reflected in the Emperor sometimes comes from our relationship with our own father; we may protect his strengths as well as his shortcomings onto the paternal figure of the Major Arcana.
People who struggle with father issues tend to dislike the Emperor, while people who enjoy a positive relationship with their father tend to like him.
The Emperor and the Empress
The Emperor has a female counterpart, the Empress, immediately preceding him.
Where the Emperor is the king and the father, the Empress is the queen and the mother. Together, they form the yin-yang power couple of the Major Arcana.
Understanding the Empress gives us a better understanding of the Emperor, as they are two sides of the same coin. She is the divine feminine, he the divine masculine. She nurtures and gives of herself, he controls and sets boundaries. She makes things grow, is sensual and intuitive, while he brings structure and logic. Both ooze authority and wear their crowns well.
Emperor Tarot card description and symbolism
Depictions of the Emperor vary, but almost all of them include the essential symbols found in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.
The Emperor himself is the focal point of the card. Armoured, crowned and seated on his impressive throne, he is impossible to ignore.
The Emperor is depicted as a mature man. Although there is nothing frail about him, he has a white beard, a sign of wisdom and experience. Although anyone can express the qualities and energies inherent to this mature ruler, they are more often found in an older person, rather than of someone young and unsure of themselves.
The Emperor has been around the block a few times, and he has earned his place in highest leadership. At this stage of the game he knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and how to run his kingdom. It is no wonder why he oozes confidence, authority, and the kind of wisdom and inner power that can only be earned through experience.
The Emperor is a serious card; he doesn’t play games. Although he is currently seated on his throne, his back is straight as an arrow, his expression is calm but alert, and he is always dressed for battle.
Here is a king who has earned his throne and his kingdom, but never takes them for granted.
The Emperor’s imposing throne is decorated with four rams’ heads.
The ram is a symbol of Aries, liking the Emperor to the zodiac sign as well as to its ruling planet, Mars.
Mars, of course, played a role in Ancient Rome as the god of warfare and agriculture. Both connotations suit our Emperor, as he is both the main peacekeeper and defender of the realm. Our Major Arcana Emperor is even dressed similarly to the Ancient Roman god to whom he is linked.
In his right hand, the Emperor holds an ankh, the Ancient Egyptian symbol representing the key to life. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and deities are often depicted holding an ankh, symbolising their dominion over life and their ability to revive souls in the afterlife.
The fact that the Emperor is holding this powerful symbol in his hand suggests that he, too, is able to wield its power.
In his left hand our Emperor holds a golden orb or globe, a sign of his kingdom, which he holds in the palm of his hand.
Much like the god Mars, the Emperor is dressed in a flowing red robe. Its fiery colour fortifies his connection with the god of war, and the colour itself suggest passion, drive, dominion and aggression.
Underneath his armour, the Emperor is wearing his armour.
Not only does the armour add to the impression of impenetrable strength and invulerability that the archetype gives off, it also suggests that he is ready for battle any time. The Emperor is always ready for action.
Yet another significance of the armour is its connotations of emotional impenetrability – pleas, threats and arrows will all ping off the smooth, hard surface of the armour. The Emperor is not what emotionally available, or at least, he shields himself well and it would require a lot to convince him to lower his guard.
Behind the Emperor we see a landscape familiar to the seasoned Tarot reader; the mountain range.
The steep and jagged mountain range appears in Tarot cards again and again throughout the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. The mountains symbolise the difficulty of the spiritual journey, as well as the aspiration and pursuit of higher knowledge.
In the Emperor Tarot card, the expression we get is that the mountains form a continuation of the Emperor’s throne. Our Emperor appears to be backed up by the very mountains, suggesting that he has traversed more than a few inner mountain passes and has obtained a certain level of self-mastery.
At the bottom of the card, near the Emperor’s armour-clad feet, a small stream of water is weaving its way through the landscape. This suggest that although hidden and well protected, the Emperor has a softer, more emotional side tucked away somewhere behind the impenetrable exterior.
Meanings of the Emperor Tarot card
The Emperor Tarot card has many layers of meaning – which ones stand out will always depend on the subject and context of the Tarot reading in which he appears. Let us look at some of the most prominent meanings of the Emperor Tarot card.
Authority, sovereignty and rulership
The Emperor Tarot card represents sovereignty and rulership.
This can refer to self-sovereignty and inner power that you are either very aware of or have forgotten or buried.
When the Emperor appears in a Tarot reading, we are often being asked to assume responsibility and reminder our inner power and authority, rather than externalising these qualities and peerpahs projecting them onto another person.
The Emperor reminds us that we are powerful, that we are the rulers and captains of our own lives. You do not have to live in a castle and drive a limo to be an Emperor; it’s a matter of attitude, energy and how you carry yourself in life.
Structure and control
The upright Emperor is a sign of structure and control, and sometimes hierarchy also be implied.
The surrounding Tarot cards in a reading should help clarity whether we are talking about externally or internally imposed structure and control.
The Emperor may be referring to the restrictions work imposes, or to the self control needed for you to reach a specific goal.
Structure and control can be experienced as positive or negative, depending on the circumstances and on whether or not they are external or internal. A work place where you are subjugated to excessive control can make you feel powerless and make you desperate to break free, whereas self-imposed structure can be immensely empowering and can help you establish power and confidence.
A father figure
Often, the Emperor represents a father figure. This can be your literal dad, or it can be someone who plays a similar role in your life, such as a mentor, a teacher or some other masculine role model. In some instances, the Emperor can represent a boss, or even a romantic interest.
Whether the Emperor as father figure or mentor is positive or negative will depend on the relationship the querent has with this person in their life.
The Emperor suggests responsibility.
Being the ruler of your own kingdom – regardless of its size – comes with a lot of responsibility. The upright Emperor Tarot card reminds you to carry it well, and to consider growing responsibility a good omen and a sign of your growing power.
Increased responsibility is the price you pay when you want to be your own boss, when you want a mortgage, or when you want to have children.
Meanings of the reversed Emperor Tarot card
When the Emperor card is reversed, his energies and qualities intensify, invert and push to the extremes. Here the most common interpretations of the Emperor reversed.
Excessive control, dominion
The Emperor reversed often points to excessively controlling circumstances – or a person – in our lives. Either way, there is very little room for self-expression, spontaneity, fun or freedom.
When the upright Emperor creates rules and demands respect it is one thin; when the reversed Emperor unreasonably demands to micro-manage and control every aspect of your life it is another.
The Emperor reversed may be a reminder for you to stand up for yourself and demand more freedom, more trust, more space to grow and breathe.
The energy of the upright Emperor can be a bit heavy to dance with as it is, but when the Emperor appears in his reversed position, he becomes completely inflexible, immovable, closed off and unresponsive.
The Emperor reversed may appear in a Tarot readings when you are up against a rigid system, hierarchy or person and find yourself wondering whether there is a real human being with empathy and feelings behind the facade.
Irresponsibility, lack of discipline
Taken to its other extreme, the reversed Emperor can be a sign of a total lack of discipline and a refusal to grow up or assume responsibility.
Think of the 40-something-year old living in his parents’ basement, expecting them to still take care of him and you will have a pretty clear vision of one manifestation of the reversed Emperor.
What the Emperor Tarot card means in a reading about personal development
When the Emperor appears upright in a reading about personal development, it is generally considered a good sign. You are in possession of yourself, you have gathered enough life experience and skill to feel absolutely confident in your own abilities and now the future is open to you; you are indeed the ruler of the realm.
Reversed, you may be feeling powerless and struggle to find your sense of confidence and self-wroth.
What the Emperor Tarot card means in a reading about love life
In a Tarot love and relationship reading, the Emperor signifies a thrilling encounter with a charismatic person. Of course, the Emperor can also suggest an aspect of yourself that you need to show more of, since confidence, experience and self-possession are inherently attractive qualities.
When reversed, the Emperor Tarot card can signify an overly controlling partner. The controlling partner might be you.
What the Emperor Tarot card means in a reading about career
In a career context, the Emperor is a very positive sign. A pay raise or an exciting opportunity to elevate your position and increase your power base is close at hand. Others are recognising and acknowledging your level of skill and experience.
Reversed, you may be experiencing difficulties in your job search or in the rigid old-boys-club work environment you find yourself in. Consider whether there are more empowering opportunities out there.
Whether he appears upright or revered, the Emperor always ask us to consider: How do I become the ruler of my own kingdom? What is my most powerful option, given the circumstances?