Light & Shadow: The Emperor

Two weeks ago I sat shoulder to shoulder with 100 or more tarot readers, swapping readings and learning from some of the best in the world at the Reader’s Studio. One reading, in particular, impacted me in a big way…

When the tears came I made no motion to stop them. The reader sitting beside me looked unphased. No doubt he had ushered many through the watery depths of their stories. I was no exception. He motioned toward his Marseille – and here I mean he literally used the deck that he had created – as if to pull another card. I felt surprise, maybe even fear, and a feeling I couldn’t identify. I thought, haven’t you told me everything already? But, no. There would be one more card.

My tears dried in time for him to pull the Emperor. I looked at the card with its helmet, scepter, and throne and felt a little iron door swing shut in my heart. Distrust. Closure. Combativeness. It was as if, unconsciously, I had taken on the darkest parts of the card at the first glance. There was an unmistakable recognition. The Emperor. The card I had chosen to write about for this piece weeks ago. The card I keep pulling, face up, face down and had identified as a “difficult card”. Not a stalker card yet, but it’s on its way.

I was a little surprised at how I recoiled. Even after an expert reading where I was able to be vulnerable, where I felt encouraged, supported, and absolutely safe. Still there was this distrust of the Emperor. When you consider the traditional symbolism of the card, it’s clear why a person might react this way.


Themes of the Emperor

Traditionally the Emperor carries a big stick, as if to bludgeon. They sit elevated above and appear to be a bit guarded. Their warrior status is clear from the weapons and clothes. And also the demeanor. These are the shoulders of someone who will not budge. The person who leads. In the world of the Emperor, status is clear. Everything is determined by the battle and its victors. In the Marseille version, above on the right, we look at the Emperor from the side. Are we subjects? Advisors? Members of the court? Either way it seems we must earn the attention of this stern character. We must assert our worthiness in a warrior’s world. In the Smith-Waite version we confront this character head on, armor and all. The Emperor wields a closed fist and heart. It’s not hard to see how one might come to dread a card like this.


Even in these non-gendered and untraditional representations of the Emperor, there’s an unmistakeable heaviness to the cards. In the Raven’s Prophecy Tarot on the left, we see the proverbial sword in the stone as if asking if we, the onlookers, are the ones that will draw the sword. (There’s that worthiness thing again.)

Carding’s Transparent Emperor at the top of this photo is unlike ANY I’ve seen. Up until a week ago I couldn’t really connect to the city skyline as the Emperor. How fitting that this card would reveal itself to me, here and now, while I am traveling in New York City. It wasn’t the oppressive hordes of people that clarified this card for me, floating like ones and zeros through the crowded streets, and it wasn’t the NYC landscape either.

Jenga building.

A photo posted by Siobhan Rene (@siobhansmirror) on

Ironically, I was finally able to get this version of the card while attending the workshop of the man who pulled the Emperor for me. His reading was done with his version of the Marseille, the CBD. It went so well that I decided to purchase it for myself and learn more about him.

The restored Marseille requires an appreciation of traditional symbolism and subtle imagery. The theories of the deck creator, Yoav Ben Dov, are made of more versatile stuff – physics, manifestation, and, above all, context. His Open Reading method is the transpersonal worldview embodied as tarot practice, prioritizing context and interconnectedness above structure. It allows for more fluid interpretations and positioning of the tarot and feels like to home to me since this is how I prefer to read.

Embracing the Particle

Yoav gave a brilliant talk about physics, psychomagic and tarot in which, among other things, he discussed the shift in scientific worldview from Newtonian physics (particle) to quantum mechanics (wave). From logic and individuality (particle) to infinite possibility and transpersonal interconnectedness (wave). It struck me that the particle, with its clear beginning & end and absolute & objective laws of motion, was like the Emperor. Newtonian physics depends on the separateness of things, on the boundaries between and the defense of those boundaries. After attending his talk, the pointillist cityscape of Carding’s Emperor appeared to be a sea of particles.

It struck me that the particles are like the people that inhabit the city. Self contained. Separate. Living inside carefully constructed boundaries. Living with absolute beliefs. As if there was a concrete truth out there in the world, a hierarchy or structure in which we can fit ourselves if we are sure to take our big sticks and our shields. It amazes me that this landscape still births dreamers and artists. That you can still find a drum circle where the lines blur and communities that believe we are all part of the same great big thing. Even communities like these need structure, containers, defenders.

Creative Rebellion

The integration of this card is like that of the particle and wave. The conscious warrior: the Emperor as rebellion as depicted in the Osho Zen Tarot. A balance between form and freedom. Old structures and new. The realm of infinite deities/all creation and finite beings. The old gods and the new.

Mercury and company at Grand Central. This remind anyone else of that scene in Hackers? #nyc #nostalgia

A photo posted by Siobhan Rene (@siobhansmirror) on

Lately I’ve seen the Emperor as the keeper of creative rebellion. Creativity is not always welcome in the practical particle world. Well-meaning people teach us to focus on the hierarchy and to fit. They teach us that it’s dangerous to do otherwise. They want to protect us. They may well be right. And so it becomes necessary to crusade for creative spaces. For vulnerability and connection. To wear our worldviews like so much armor and to grasp what keeps them safe – time, space, sense of self worth – and wield these things for ourselves instead of the world of our forebearers. We must be ready to transform: particles when we need to protect the gentler parts of ourselves, the parts that prioritize vulnerability and connection; waves when we need to dissolve into transpersonal limitless potential. The Emperor is the kind of protector a seedling needs. This card challenges us to bring awareness of our worldviews as we choose our leaders. And for those of us who are our own Emperors, remember that even as we are the protectors we are also the seeds.

Whose worldview do you live in? Do you consciously choose?
When do you allow yourself to feel worthy?
Thoughts on the Emperor?
Comment below or use #difficultcards

Featured decks: CBD Marseille by Yoav Ben-Dov; The Transparent Tarot by Emily Carding Schiffer; Smith-Waite Centennial Edition; Raven’s Prophecy Tarot by Maggie Stiefvater

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  1. Melanie says:

    I was fascinated by your interpretation of The Emperor as a difficult card ….. his sceptre ready to bludgeon! I have always seen him as an expression of our sovereign power.embodying this in the here and now, which in itself is the challenge! I’ve never seen Carding’s transparent Emperor before and I don’t like it – to me this IS a difficult card and only shows the shadow aspects of power, the abuse.
    The Marseille was my first deck, which I quickly replaced and it is so interesting to see this Emperor next to the others. As you talked of particles and waves, conscious to superconscious, your interpretation of The Emperor as Creative Rebellion really struck home. As I looked at the Marseille Emperor with his sceptre held high, I could feel his tenacity to own his divine birthright – to bring heaven to earth, to own and embody his creative expression. Thank you Siobhan for opening up the Emperor for me in so many ways.

    • “to me this IS a difficult card and only shows the shadow aspects of power, the abuse.” Cities and cityfolk have their own magick, I think. I took a fabulous workshop by Sasha Graham recently that masterfully dealt with reclaiming the shadow through tarot. Her class inspires questions like:
      – when is it time to erect boundaries (and be like the particle)
      – when is it for the highest good to embrace our shadows, to bludgeon or be bold, and to stand in our sovereign power as you mention above

      The dots in Carding’s version really call to mind the wave as an assembly of particles, the city-soup made of people. People and places have a flavor and both the dictators who control and/or the ones who recognize and affirm the people often end up leading.

      You are welcome Melanie!

      • Melanie says:

        I absolutely agree with you Siobhan that cities and cityfolk have their own magic. “The dots in Carding’s version really call to mind the wave as an assembly of particles, the city-soup made of people” , this really makes sense to me. From my lens the city skyline invokes politics & commerce, hence my personal negative reaction. Sasha Graham’s workshop sounds wonderful – do you have a link? Thanks again for such a thought provoking article.

  2. Always happy to know more of The Emperor. We’ve had a tumultuous but fruitful relationship. Which kinda describes creative rebellion, actually lol.

    I’m slowly learning more and more of the Marseille. My most recent exposure being a delightful if a tiny bit pretentious documentary called Tarology, about a reader named Enrique and his straightforward but poetic understandings of the Marseille’s messages. I believe it references this version of the deck particularly, and its colors, positions, and unique charm.

    • Interesting! I’ll take a look at this documentary. I’m all about the CBD Marseille right now. The Emperor continues to challenge me, the ones within and without.

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