I spent most of the day yesterday working on preliminary sketches for the Emperor card, which has been the single most frustrating card I have worked on so far.
I have had the concept firmly in mind for over a year — a man building some kind of sustainable structure, like a straw bale or cob house. The card would be renamed “the Builder,” a nice contrast to “the Gardener” (aka the Empress).
When we get the Emperor card in a reading, it’s often time to ask ourselves: “What am I building? Are the foundations of my life based on strong structures? Are my boundaries clear and well tended?” I think an earth-friendly “builder” will address all those issues.
The Emperor, like the Hierophant, is one of those cards that often is shown in Tarot decks as patriarchal, stern, authoritarian and domineering. I want to show a man who is strong, comfortable in his own authority, and yet not someone who rapes the earth for his own benefit. (We won’t be using members of the current administration as models for this card!) The Emperor, to me, is the Creator of Culture and Civilization, as compared to the Empress, who is the abundance of Mother Earth, especially the bounty of agriculture rather than the wilderness. He is the city, she is the country. He is the building, she is the garden.
In some contemporary decks, the Emperor — while still clearly depicted as an authoritarian ruler — is clearly benevolent. My favorite card in this genre is “Arthur” from the Hallowquest deck by John and Caitlin Matthews, painted by Miranda Gray. The man’s a warrior, to be sure, but his sword lays across his knees, and he carries an aura of quiet strength. This fellow would fight only when necessary, and not for the pleasure of battle.
I also like the Emperor card from the World Spirit deck by Lauren O’Leary. He looks out over the city below and the mountains beyond, and I have the sense that he is proud of his accomplishments and is blessing the inhabitants of his domain.
I also like Lunaea Weatherstone’s Emperor from her Full Moon Dreams deck. Sean Connery is a man’s man, James Bond and all that, but I love that grin of his in this particular image.
Other contemporary decks, like the Greenwood deck and the Tarot of Transformation, have recast the Emperor as the Green Man. This doesn’t quite work for me. The Green Man is a potent archetype whom I have loved for many years, but he is not a Creator of Civilization and Culture. He is more like the Empress, but symbolizes the spirit of the Wilderness rather than the Garden.
My Emperor — my Builder — is a man who is inspired by the Green Man, yet creates structure and culture in community with others. He works in harmony with nature and does not lord over the earth or its animals.
So yes, my concept is doing just fine, thank you! It’s the details of composition that are driving me nuts!
I have a whole album full of photographs that I took when Craig and I built our own straw bale house a few years ago. One photo shows him sitting astride the roof trusses, looking down (“surveying his domain”). I thought I’d use that one for the main Emperor figure, but the photo is fuzzy and boy, that baseball cap just doesn’t look too mythic to me! I woke several times during the night, jotting down notes of other possibilities — a wood carver decorating the posts in front of the door to his house, a builder with hammer and saw, or with hands slathered in mud pressing it into the straw bale walls.
We’ll see. I’m sure the image and composition will come together. If you’re reading this, say a prayer to the Muse for me, that the Emperor / Gaian Builder will take clear form soon. Thank you and blessed be.