IV. The Emperor



Meaning:  Fatherhood.  Responsibility for many.  Careful instruction and planning.  Work within the community. Measured risks.

Reversed:  A Tyrant.  Use of force to take what isn’t given.  Overlooking potential friendships among the lower ranks.


Cary-Yale Visconti


Before the time of the Tarot’s appearance, a significant change had occurred in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor.  The traditional ordainment was no longer held by the approval, or authority, of the Pope, and future Emperors simply took the title in turn.  But in the time of the Visconti-Sforza, the Hapsburg line began with the marriage of a German, Frederick III in Rome.  This Holy Roman Emperor was known as the Peaceful, and being occupied with Germany, cooperating with the Hungarians (his son would make war with them) and even living in the Vienna they occupied.  Unlike his former namesake Frederick II, who had threatened to destroy the Republic of Venice two centuries earlier, the Hapsburg would be a friend of Rome.  It also must have seemed symbolic in a good way that a new family taking over from the house of Luxembourg brought to an end those who reigned over the misery of the plagues and the Hundred Years War.

Hans Burgkmair, ca. 1591, Frederick III (detail)
Hans Burgkmair, ca. 1591, Frederick III (detail)
Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Maximilian I (son of Frederick III)
Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Maximilian I (son of Frederick III)

Now in the Classical references that run through the Tarot, the Emperor also takes the seat of Jove, or Jupiter, the all father and god of the Emperors of Rome before him.   Borrowing loosely from the Greek’s own Zeus of course, the Romans believed that their success came from placing the sky (eagle) god at the highest place.  As it happens, Jove’s myths lack many details regarding childhood, spouse or children, because it is the result of previous religious changes, like Olympianism which had condensed regional cults from the country into a pluralistic groups with shared names in the cities.  What is key about this, is that with Olympianism, you have the growing establishment of a truly patriarchal society, which Rome would continually evolve towards until only something resembling Jove the All Father remained. 

Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, detail.  Not like Zeus, more like Apollo - the Roman all-father just blows away the power of women.
Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, detail. Not like Zeus, more like Apollo – the Roman all-father just blows away the power of women.

Some historians believe Jove was originally a twin with Juno, probably a prehistoric first ancestor story describing some long distant tribal chief.  This lends credence to the fortune telling tradition about the card, that the Emperor is ‘the son of the High Priestess and the Magician’, because the same is said of the Empress, making them siblings, not husband and wife.  Jupiter is something of a loose copy Zeus, whose parents were Cronos and Rhea, both of whom also appear in the Tarot.  But unlike Zeus, the tradition in Rome is that that Jupiter was the son of Fortuna Primigenia (the Original), also once someone’s mother goddess before she was Lady Luck for the Empire, who is also in the deck as the Wheel of Fortune.

The position of the Empress and Emperor as siblings gives us an extra clue about the identity of the Magician, who would then be parallel to Chronos. Chronos is Time, an ancient god of Death, from the days of giants, and is already present in the Tarot as the Hermit.  So we have the god Hermes as the next bet for a god of Death and Time to serve as parent, and Magician, and this is one thing the occult generally gets correct.  We seal the deal with the fact that the word hermit comes from Hermes of course.  Along with the Tower this means the Tarot has four (possibly a fifth if you count Judgement) different incarnations of death, very different cultural ideas, as though the deck is devoted in a way to diversity, rather than summary.

As a bit of extra curiosity, it is said that Frederick III was quite taken by mystic symbols, astrology, the employment of alchemists, and associated with Humanists.   He also decorated many of his possessions with the vowels, AEIOU.

Motto of Frederick, 1446
Motto of Frederick III, 1446

Like his namesake, and many curious people of his time, he was obsessed with questions of the Origins of everything.   The location of the Garden of Eden, Atlantis the original civilization, or the original true cross and many other things central to the European obsession with traveling to Jerusalem and waging Crusades.  Another was the ‘original language’, meaning the quest to discover what was spoken before the Tower of Babel story, because the belief was that one created language of Paradise existed before that time.  In 12th Century ignorance, the choices were believed to be Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic.  It’s worth revisiting the science-like experiments Frederick II was known to have conducted two hundred years earlier. Frederick II had a group of infants raised separate from all speaking humans, tended to by women who were ordered not to utter a word or even tone, to see what sort of words the babies would utter on their own.  He did not make any language discovery, but none of the children survived.  So go the early days of science, as with his other experiment, trying to satisfy his curiosity about whether the substance of a soul could be measured, to which end he placed men in barrels and after they died opened small holes to see if anything like a spirit tried to escape.


Reliquary for the Veil of Mary Charlemagne brought back  from Jerusalem.
Reliquary for the Veil of Mary that Charlemagne brought back from Jerusalem.

While the Tarot of North Italy seems almost designed to satisfy the interests of Frederick III in 1450, the greatest Emperor to the people of Marseille in the 1600s may still have been Charlemagne of old.  If one was inclined to admire an Emperor, that would be the character.  Restorer of the Troubadour way of poets, bringer of the Gothic wonders, friend of Constantine, friend of a Giant, the one who put the Franks above Rome, and in a vague way the revenge of the Celts, Gauls and disparate peoples and languages in that part of the Empire.  For the people of Marseille, the Emperor card may well have been Charlemagne alone.

Model of the Aachen Chapel built by Charlemagne
Model of the Aachen Chapel built by Charlemagne