The Empress – The Tarot: Major Arcana
After meeting the Magician and the High Priestess, counterparts that symbolize masculine and feminine principles respectively, we come to the symbolic merging of the two – The Empress. As the third card in the major arcana, the Empress serves as the tarot’s representation of the mother archetype. Before we talk about that however, we must look at how she’s been depicted historically.
(pictured left to right: The Visconti di Modrone and the Visconti-Sforza)
In the imagery of the original gaming tarot decks, greater emphasis was placed on the Empress’s role as queen, as opposed to her qualities as a parent. This was accomplished by decorating her with various royal accoutrements. In the Visconti decks, the earliest surviving series of tarot decks, she is seen wearing a bejeweled crown, a scepter, a shield with an eagle, and a fur-lined gown, with no explicit references made to pregnancy or motherhood. In some versions she would be surrounded by four handmaidens.
(Marseille decks pictured from top to bottom: Jacque Vievill Tarot, J-P Payen Tarot, Teodro Dotti Tarrochi)
In later Marseille decks she was given a pair of wings, an unintentional detail added by artists who misinterpreted the back of her throne, which has two arches on either side resembling wings.
(pictured: Oswald Wirth Tarot)
In the nineteenth century, occultist Oswald Wirth released his version of the Marseille Tarot, which predates the Rider-Waite by 20 years and is one of the earliest examples of a tarot deck that was conceived with divination in mind as opposed to purely for use in gaming. Based on the teachings of occultist Eliphas Levi, the Empress in this deck has been re-interpreted as the Woman of the Apocalypse, a biblical figure interpreted by some Christians as a portrayal of the Virgin Mary. This is implied through her wearing a crown with 12 stars, a trope that became popularized in the Rider-Waite version of the card. Like Mary we see a crescent moon at her feet, a trope that Arthur Edward-Waite would also re-use in his own deck but in a different card – the High Priestess. All of these symbols contribute to the more modern interpretation of the Empress as a mother as opposed to purely a ruler.
Let’s refer back to the Rider-Waite for a moment. Remember how in the last post we mentioned how Waite’s High Priestess and the Magician can be seen as opposites that represent a womb and a phallus respectively? And remember how the pomegranates and the palm leaves on the High Priestess’s curtain symbolize a merging of the two? Well it should come as no surprise then that the figure in Waite’s third card is pregnant, and she is wearing a dress covered in the same pomegranates seen in the High Priestess! She is also surrounded by ripening wheat, another symbol of birth and fertility. Her square-shaped shield marked by an eagle has been replaced with a heart-shaped one marked by the symbol for Venus, the Roman goddess of love, completing her transformation from imposing authority figure to compassionate mother. What a warm and cozy archetype to pull in a tarot reading!
Let’s elaborate on that for a bit – how does one read the Empress in a tarot reading? In the context of divination, the Empress can be thought of as a symbol of leadership, femininity, and fertility. She reminds us of the potential that can be found in situations when we commit to a plan and work towards it steadily. Whether it be a child or a fresh harvest of wheat, most processes don’t come to completion overnight. In the majority of cases, our goals require us to be patient, nurturing, and consistent. Another lesson the Empress teaches us is how to be a kind and compassionate leader. At many points in our life we will interact with or be the Fool, the unnumbered first card in the Tarot we talked about earlier. The Fool makes mistakes, and the Empress shows us how to forgive those mistakes and extend others the same mercy we’d want shown to us.
So how do we see those qualities expressed in other versions of the card published after the Rider-Waite?
(pictured: The Modern Spellcaster’s Tarot)
In the Modern Spellcaster’s Tarot by Melanie Marquiz and Scott McMurphy, we can see several familiar symbols return – a crown of 12 stars, a scepter, a field of wheat, and a heart shaped shield – but various new elements have been added in as well, such as the Futhwark rune for Ingwaz, a symbol of seed and gestation (perfect for a card about mothers). Her skin color has been changed to green, most likely a reference to the archetype of Gaia or Mother Earth. We also see a bull – a traditional symbol of fertility due to their use in farming – lying next to the Empress wearing a wreath of flowers. This also calls to mind the Story of Ferdinand, a popular children’s tale about a bull who preferred to play with flowers instead of fighting other bulls his age (this could be a reference to the Empress’s gentle nature, as well as her power, given that she doesn’t have to restrain the bull in spite of its strength and size). The bull is marked with five stars which could be interpreted as a nod to Quintessence or the merging of fire, air, earth, and water to create spirit. The fifth month of the year is also May, which falls under the sign of Taurus, the sign of the bull. The Empress embodies many Taurean attributes, such as groundedness, reliability, and comfort. We also see this embodied in the literal boulder that has taken the place of her throne. This version of the Empress would be perfect for a beginner who wants to learn some of the traditional associations with the card but refreshed with enough new details to make it feel unique from a typical Rider-Waite clone.
(pictured: The Ostara Tarot)
In a more minimalist take, we have the Empress from the Ostara Tarot, illustrated by Julia Iredale. Here, the 12-starred crown has been replaced by a bird’s nest. Bird’s nests are made by mother birds to protect their eggs, a metaphor that perfectly sums up the Empress’s role as parent and nurturer. She is holding a glowing flower, a symbol of fertility and hope, and she is surrounded by what appear to be lush branches, evoking the common themes of abundance and growth we ascribe to the card. Interestingly, this take on the Empress comes across as more delicate, and perhaps a bit protective. While the branches around her can certainly be interpreted as a sign of her abundance, she seems to be hiding behind them. One could be reminded of how bird’s nests are often targeted by predators looking for a quick meal. While abundance and fresh starts are certainly worth celebrating, they can also be the envy of onlookers who are eager to satisfy their own ends. Parents are supposed to protect their children from harm, and this version of the Empress encapsulates that idea by showing us a mother taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of her children (in this case, the bird’s nest and the glowing flower she’s holding). While we can see how this version of the Empress still expresses the standard qualities of motherhood and responsibility, the language of symbols used to depict this has been radically altered, making it a deck more suited to someone who is already comfortable with reading tarot as opposed to a complete novice.
(Pictured: The Urban Tarot)
Finally let’s look at the version depicted in Robin Scott’s Urban Tarot. Here, the portrayal of Empress as mother is laid bare, with the image showing a woman feeding her newborn in her kitchen. Like the Modern Spellcaster’s Tarot, some traditional elements find their way back into the mix – we see the 12-starred crown (here suggested to be more of a metaphor than a literal crown), as well as a sunlit garden, which is seen peeking through a window above the newborn’s head. The child is also wearing a bib with a heart on it – likely a nod to the heart shaped shield depicted in the Rider-Waite version of the Empress. We see a person who is clearly at home in their parental duties, which is another quality to remember about the Empress – she is not only happy to be a mom, she is enthusiastic. There are times where being in a position of authority can feel like a significant burden. We have to be responsible for the well-being of others even when we don’t feel up to the task. The Empress is the difference between someone who gracefully steps into their role as a parent, and someone who treats the role like a punishment. While this version of the Empress contains enough old-school elements to make it familiar to a beginner, it takes enough liberties to make it interesting enough to a more well-versed reader who may be looking to see the archetypes of the tarot through a new lense.
However you choose to work with the Empress, her presence in a reading asks us to nurture the potential in ourselves in others. Like tending a garden, through patience, focus, and a great deal of love, we can help the important things in our lives to grow and thrive, radiating that same loving energy that went into them in the first place.
The decks pictured above can all be found at our brick-and-mortar store in Northampton, MA as well as online at inspiritcrystals.com/shop!
- Tarot Heritage
- Tarot Wisdom by Rachel Pollack
- Tarot Deciphered by T. Susan Chang and M.M. Meleen