A regal presence, seated on a ram’s-head throne, wears a stern, resolute look on his face. His red robe and white beard are matched by the rubies and white gemstones embedded in his crown. In his right hand is an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life; in his left hand is an orb, symbolizing the egg, gestation, and perfection of form. All around him are the colors of fire; orange in the skies, and golden-umber in the craggy mountain ranges behind him. Beneath his robe he wears a full suit of armor, so while he is at heart a man of peace—he is seated, not standing, and he wields a cross, not a sword—if aroused he can be implacable foe. This is the card representing the “squaring of the circle” in the most perfected realm of Creation, and the dynamic spiritual force that brings Creation out of the womb and into the world; for as the Magician summons consciousness, the High Priestess intuition and the Empress love, the Emperor summons unto Creation the will to power. It is also, however, the birth of ego (about which, more later).
As the High Priestess is the perfect supernal compliment to the Magician, the same holds true for the Emperor and Empress in the archetypal plane. He is every god of the world and humankind who has ever existed: Mars and Aries, Vishnu and Shiva, Zeus and Jupiter; he is the Animus, the activating masculine principle, the “great father” of Jungian psychology. As the personification of the number “4”, he stands as an emblem of the four-lettered Name of God; the four Tarot trumps; the four Sephiroth of consciousness in the universe; the four stages of consciousness in Jungian psychoanalysis; the four elements; the four cardinal points; the four seasons of the year; and even, by extension the four limbs of the human body, the arms and legs that give us motion. The Holy Trinity opens a door to God’s love; the Emperor gives us the power to apply that love unto the wider world by giving it form in right speech, thought and action.
The path of the Emperor, which joins supernal Chokmah to archetypal Tiphareth, is known as the Constituting Intelligence, and this is likely related to the Emperor’s roots in the Latin word imperator, meaning “He who prepares.” As the Empress spreads love unconditionally like a free-flowing stream, the Emperor creates—or constitutes—spiritual structure and discipline in much the same way that a father acts as the “disciplinarian” in conventional family life. (The mother, typically, is more of the “nurturer,” though obviously in our time, with universal marriage equality all but inevitable, and gender roles much more fluid than in the past, there are exceptions to the rule. But we are dealing with ancient archetypes here.) In that regard, the Emperor functions as a kind of spiritual “check valve” to protect us from being overwhelmed by the Empress’s ever-nurturing impulses. Consider the river that flows past The Empress’s feet. If it is properly managed, it can water our crops and nurture us. If it overflows its banks, it can destroy our crops and kill the people who live nearby. Similarly, God’s grace can animate a life-changing dream or vision, but without some psychic mechanism to provide it with form—to impose some spiritual discipline, in other words—we likewise drown in the hallucinations of the unconscious mind, which is the definition of psychosis. We see this state of derangement in our time in the inhumane brutalities committed by religious true believers, who inflict vile slaughters upon their brothers in the name of a murderous monster-god; and we hear it in the disseminations of our leading public officials and their many disciples, who in short-term pursuit of material gain deny that disastrous climate change is occurring at all, while the evidence that it is already happening and may well be irreversible grows more ironclad by the day.
We see the will of the Emperor being worked immediately after the severing of the umbilical cord. When that happens, we are forever separated from that quiet and comfortable cradle in which we’ve developed for the past nine months—into a blinding, noisy world of confusion and chaos. Strange creatures—a race of giants—squeeze our cheeks, stroke our heads, and make funny gurgling sounds at us. No wonder we didn’t want to be born! But even in this disorienting state, a sudden thought, however primitive, forms in our infant minds: If we don’t eat, we will die. Time to let the giants know this! We express our hunger with wails and whines, and in a moment, a teat or a bottle is offered us. Without that primal will with which we are all endowed, we would die of starvation in a matter of days.
This is also the will that gives us our first sense of identity in childhood. In this regard we are simply imitating the Creator, who spoke to Moses thus: “I am Who I am.” It is the same will to self-discipline that drives us to excel at school, to participate in sports or creative endeavors, and to decide upon a career that is materially and spiritually fulfilling. In this way, ego and psyche exist more or less in accord as we pass through the formative stages of life. As we grow older, however, and we become more “comfortable in our own skin,” we hopefully come to see that interconnectedness of all things, that the universe really doesn’t revolve around us, and for us to continue on the path of individuation that the Creator would wish for us, we need to dissociate our psyche from ego’s self-centered strivings, that our will to power be employed in our maturity for the good of all Creation, not merely for our own benefit. It is like the apostle who wrote: “When I was a child, I spake as a child; I understood as a child, I thought like a child: When I became a man, I put away childish things.” Failure or inability to make this psychological transition can cause all sorts of problems later in life, and is at the root of most of our common neuroses. This is, of course, the negative aspect of the Emperor: the will to power turned against itself.
The Hebrew letter assigned to The Emperor is heh, which means “window.” It is similar to the Empress’s “door” (daleth), though there are some distinctions: Windows allow sunlight to illuminate a room; a door can only do this when opened. Windows permit you to see who is coming to visit you before they arrive; you cannot see through a door. What this implies, of course, is the quality of vision, in this case our ability to recognize the calling and blessings of the Divine, to accept them and fully integrate them into the psyches, then use the power of motion and of will to put them into practice in our everyday lives.
Meanings of this card in a reading, as with the Empress, are reasonably self-explanatory and can include fatherhood in all its aspects, the creative or destructive powers of manly phallic energy in all its most exalted and/or debased forms, a fierce tyrant or a benevolent ruler, ego brought to heel or at war with the psyche, the destructive or purifying nature of fire (the astrological sign he is assigned is Aries), individuation attained, the split mind triumphant, or any of the manifold significances of the number “4” as discussed previously. Much depends on how much man respects what the Emperor hath wrought in his archetypal collaboration with the Empress, for he can be a loving God of protection or a fierce God of war.