Ruler. Authority. Man of Power. Ugh.
So many of these jokers have effed things up so badly in this world that I can't feel at all protected and secure when he shows up. More often I wonder what ulterior motive the guy has, what damage is he about to do, and I eye him as suspiciously as a Page of Swords. Whereas in days past, people may have looked to their King with a sense of pride, if he was known as a "good king" and respect. Or maybe fear? An emperor is known as having a higher ranking office than a king, even though both are monarchs. The difference is generally whether the monarch is head over a particular land, a kingdom, or a collection of kingdoms. The latter would be an "empire" and hence the Emperor is head over all.
It's ironic that the term actually began in an anti-monarchical society, Rome. They actually didn't even like the term and when they did become a monarchy in the latter part of the 1st century they chose all manner of terms to replace it such as "Caesar, Augustus, and Imperator. In Europe it developed into the head of state for the Holy Roman Empire, a collection of territories that were under the dominion of the Roman Catholic Church. Emperors, or their equivalents, were also known in other regions of the world, such as East Asia: China, Japan, Korea, and even in smaller regions such as Vietnam, and had a different tradition than the one that developed in Europe. However, although tarrocchi players in 16th Century Europe may have known about the Dynasties in the East, they were likely more familiar with the Holy Roman Emperor who reigned over much of Europe during that time. It was never a peaceful reign, though. Although the Pope crowned the Emperor, they fought like cats and dogs over who would appoint bishops and abbots and such. The Church maintained their higher authority, God, was above any man, and it was therefore their right to appoint whom they pleased while the ruler of state saw the Church as under his authority. Mostly it was political jockeying for power since a substantial amount of wealth and land was usually associated with the office of bishop or abbot, the sale of Church offices (a practice known as simony) was an important source of income for secular leaders. Since bishops and abbots were themselves usually part of the secular governments, it was beneficial for a secular ruler to appoint (or sell the office to) someone who would be loyal. In addition, the Holy Roman Emperor had the special ability to appoint the pope, and the pope in turn would appoint and crown the next Emperor. Thus a top-down cycle of secular investiture of Church offices was perpetuated. This conflict actually sparked a civil war in Germany which lasted more than 50 years, so it was no petty controversy.
Interestingly, in the Tarot deck's Arcana order, the female symbols of the heads of church and state come before the male, with only the "magician" coming before them. (The Fool's number being zero places him randomly throughout the deck) However, the Emperor (IV) is placed before the Hierophant (V) while the High Priestess (II) is placed before the Empress (III). I find this fascinating, although I have no theory to explain it. Maybe, as with the Court Cards of the Minor Arcana placed as they are in ranking order, the ruler cards in the beginning of the deck may be given ranking placement as well. If the number on the card denotes more power, then I can see the progression: i.e., the Popess having less power than the Empress who has less than the Emperor who has less than the Pope. Something tells me, however, it's not that simplistic. Or maybe it is and I'm just reading too much into it.
So here's this head honcho guy, right? And he shows up in a reading and he baffles some readers much like court cards do, because what the heck is he trying to say? Usually, in my experience, the Major Arcana cards tend to represent a powerful energy that is in play, often but not always unconscious, and very compelling. As an outcome, this card may be saying things will not be bent or swayed or changed, they will stay in place. No amount of railing or protest or fits of temper will change a thing. The Emperor looks for stability in his lands and will quash any hint of an uprising or challenge to his authority and he will do so swiftly and with emphasis. So if you're looking for revolution, change, a twist in coming events, this card states emphatically, "Not on my watch." Why? Because he says so.
Actually the reasons he would give are less pompous. He would say because he is responsible for the health and welfare of not only you but the entire world around you, therefore everyone's needs must be taken into consideration. He looks at the bigger picture and has to balance the pros and cons of any proposed change and decide whether or not it serves the greater good. As I said, he can be reasoned with, and if your argument is compelling and if you can show how your proposal will benefit not just you but those around you as well, he could be swayed. When the Emperor shows up in a reading, it's time to consider how your actions are affecting others, even the long term impact of how they might affect the world around you.
The qualities associated with the Emperor can also be useful at times. If your world seems chaotic and on the verge of war, it may be time to pull out the macho tendencies of this card and pull rank on someone. You may need to be the Emperor in such times and unequivocally draw your battle lines in the sand. Stand up and say NO to whomever or whatever is threatening the safety of you and yours. Why? Because you said so. So let it be written, so let it be done! This is not a card of cooperative effort, sharing power, or of mutuality. He stands alone at the top and the buck stops with him. The authority is his but also the responsibility and he carries it all.
True enough, there are situations in life that certainly call for this set of qualities, but what about the not so admirable side of this guy? We know all about them, for they have left their black marks in our history books and ruled in ways that not only did not protect their people but destroyed them. The famous quote by Lord Acton regarding the corruption of those with absolute power was delivered in the 1870's during a very heated conflict, once again, between church and state. He said:
"I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it." --Dalberg-Acton, John Emerich Edward (1949), Essays on Freedom and Power, Boston:The Becon Press, p. 364Right on. The term "Absolute Power" now typically refers to concepts of tyranny, corruption, authoritarianism, absolutism, and totalitarianism, and is associated largely with monarchy and non-democratic forms of government. While the people of medieval Europe may not have viewed the concept in the same way, I am sure they were not unfamiliar with the results. Prior to the 1500's the King was not an absolute ruler, but rather ruled with the consent of his nobles. During the 1500's however, the notion that King's rule is by Divine Rights, the monarch was, by the dawn of Tarot, absolute. Charles V was the reigning emperor at that time and so the middle ages notion of emperor was likely influenced by his rule. He made one last attempt to unite the medieval universal empire but did not succeed and while there were HRE's after him, the empire itself was broken and much less powerful. He spent a lot of his time in office trying to squelch the French from invading Italy. Hence he was largely seen as a protector of Italy and of Rome, as he also opposed the Protestant Reformation. Italians probably saw him in a better light than citizens of other countries, namely France and Germany, therefore the rendition of the Emperor in Tarot, originating in Italy around the time of his reign, was likely not one of a despot. However, tarot images are not one-dimensional, but always carry within them both the positive and negative qualities possible within the archetype. So the Emperor of Tarot is not specifically Charles V or any particular historical person, but the idea, the concept of Emperor as it applied to European consciousness in the Renaissance Age. Modern tarot decks have diluted the power of the Emperor, portraying him more as a fatherly figure, one who generally has your best interests at heart, neglecting his power and ability to completely devastate your world as you know it depending on his character, his skill, and his mood. Tom Tadfor Little makes an interesting comment on the actual play value of this card:
The Emperor, despite his trappings of rulership, is a very low-ranking trump. He can capture a king or queen, but is worth no points himself. And a good player is unlikely to lose a valuable court card to the Emperor. So like many of the lower trumps, the Emperor is "filler", a card that might win a low-value trick during the middle of a hand, but still much less desirable to hold than high-numbered trumps, court cards, or even the Magician or Fool! One can see in this an interesting commentary on the importance of the real Emperor in Reniassance Europe.
I think the main thing to remember when this card appears in a reading is that you are the one who is standing in control of yourself and your life. While others may attempt to control or dominate you, ultimately you are the Emperor of your own choices and decisions. This card shows a force that, when used wisely, can yield great results or, placed in the wrong hands or used unwisely, can be very destructive. Which kind of Emperor will you be?