Meaning: The power of women of authority, property, and influence. Using influence to promote wisdom in culture. Defense of the house. Duty to one’s own people.
Reversed: Suppression over gender or other difference. Ruthless business tactics, misuse of power. Abandonment of responsibility.
Readers are often tripped up trying to imagine a distinction between the High Priestess and the Empress. It helps to look for the most relevant identity during the time of the card inventors. It could be historical, considered to portray Sophia, Empress of the Byzantine Empire, regent for Justin II once he had gone mad, or Cleopatra. In our culture royalty doesn’t have a solid place in our imagination. For cultures living in the time of landlords and serfs, the Empress card may have represented a specific and grand lady of their own choosing. Meanwhile, occult tradition likes to say the Empress card is the daughter of the High Priestess and the Magician.
In history if we narrow down to contemporary understanding of the title of Empress, it would exclusively refer to the title Holy Roman Empress. Among the earliest depictions, the Visconti-Sforza, the Empress appears with an Eagle emblazoned on a yellow or gold field as she traditionally continues to do, which is the coat of arms of the King of Rome. This image dated to the 1455, and we can discover that the Empress as that time was Eleonor of Portugal, consort of Frederick III, first of the Hapsburgs. She is said to have liked dance, gambling and hunting, and was imprisoned far from Portugal in Vienna, where she was a charitable influence. In the Hans Burgkmair painting, it’s work noting the Empress holds a book, as she often does in the historic Tarot. The pair were married in Rome, and the North Italian decks seems to commemorate this in some way. By the time of the printing of the Marseille Tarot, there had been 14 Hapsburg Empresses, and around that time, the last of a line. The Empress and Emperor cards had scarcely changed.
Because there is a pattern of parallels between contemporary people and classical mythology throughout the deck, we should look at the Empress with a wider scope. Of course, the wife of any Holy Emporer is a virginal role, and in the portrait she holds the white lily, in those times a symbol of this (introduced into painting around the same time by Boticceli as a symbol for purity). But there is another ruling woman, who was known as the Virgin and for being wise, who was ever compared to every Queen and Empress alike as ordinary talk. This would be the goddess Minerva, to the Greeks, Athena (which means “I proceed from myself”). Born from the the head of a father she was destined to overthrow, a virgin birth, self born. The independent daughter that teaches what a wise rule looks like. She carries a hooked bird staff, her birds are the dove and the owl. Plutarch says the inscription in her temple was “I am everything which has been, which is, and which will be, and no mortal has yet lifted up my veil.”
The choice of a shield for a Holy Roman Empress also points to Minerva, goddess of war, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts and magic. If occultists had picked up on the Classical reference, they would have realized their High Priestess card is really the Empress, not the Papess. Perhaps, the allusion is to indicate the Empress is the Goddess of Civilization.
Another goddess in this line, Astraea, is older than these, prehistoric. She is the constellation of Virgo in fact, said to be the last of the immortals to live among humans, who ascended into heaven, vowing to return bringing a new Golden Age.
Of course, a key Virgin goddess of everything in late Antiquity which influences so much of the Renaissance, being the most recent and likely to survive scraps, was the Egyptian goddess of resurrection and king making, Isis. For the latter reason the Empress card has understandably been associated with Isis, but Isis was a mother goddess, not the free life of Minerva the motherless child whom none could touch in combat. The mother mystery is better found in the Papess (High Priestess) card.
Athena also was regarded as a most ancient of Queen Goddess, synonymous with the citadels early cities retired to, called Pallisades today after Pallas, or the Palladion, a small prehistoric object from Anatolia that was said could kill anyone who touched it. It was stolen during the Trojan war, brought to Rome, and kept in her cousin, the Temple of Vesta, for centuries.
Athena, Minerva, Tyche these names were synonymous with the power of civilization, and the power of a Goddess to decide how that happens. Athena like the others was able to command the good spirit of the Earth, or was one and the same, and this manifested as the form of a great frequently bearded or horned snake climbing a tree or altar on command. Why a snake? Its movement has been likened to the hallucinatory vapors of an oracle, incense and offering smoke, and these comparisons have merit. It rise, twists and wends from the grown like the shoots of new plants. It is also a way in which the Earth and its goddess of your choosing can, at any moment, strike and feasibly kill you. Snakes were to the Earth like lightning to the sky or sea, an image of power.