Following the Empress in all her glory is the regal Emperor. In some ways, he is the counterpart of the Empress; in others, he is a successor, building upon what she has already laid down.
As her counterpart, the Emperor is the King and the Father. He gives a firm hand of guidance to compliment her more gentile hand of nurturing, and like her, he has two archetypal sides. He is either the strict but benevolent leader, or the tyrannical despot. No matter what, though, the Emperor is strong and powerful. His word is law.
As number four, the Emperor builds upon the work of the Empress, stabilizing the unbalanced odd-number three. He therefore represents civilization, or humankind’s triumph over nature, when previously we were at its mercy.* Now there is an order, a hierarchy, and this allows us to flourish in ways that were simply not possible as bands of hunter-gatherers.
The pinnacle of ancient Mesopotamian civilization was Babylon, which is perhaps best remembered for Hammurabi and his codification of the law. This was a critical moment in the early development of western civilization. It is the law which defines civilization, in the sense that it defines how citizens of the community act toward each other. Those who break the law are ostracized – they no longer are able to reap the benefits of civilized life. Consequently, the Law symbolizes civilization itself, and the Emperor is the Lawgiver. He bestows order unto a chaotic existence, and as such he is a very important figure.
The Emperor does, however, wield a double-edged sword. Civilization is absolutely not without its drawbacks or pitfalls, and progress always comes at a cost. The Emperor can be easily corrupted and his authority abused, as history has shown time and again.
*Of course, we are never truly free of Nature’s whims, but our civilization allows us to keep up a buffer zone of sorts, which is necessary for progress.
Mr. Crowley had a thing about “aeons”. Humankind progresses through them, said he, at a rate of an aeon per every couple millennia, give or take a few years off the ends. So far our kind has known three: the Aeon of the Mother, the Aeon of the Father, and the Aeon of the Child. We are currently experiencing the latter; in fact, we have only very recently entered into it. The aeon is young.
The names of these aeons echo the primal archetypes of Mother and Father, with the Child, or self, being a product of some magical fusion of the two. This has psychoanalysis written all over it, and insofar as myths are considered projections of humanity’s collective subconscious, they portray an almost infinite number of interpretations on just what exactly it means to be the Child.
More often than not, creation myths equated the Father archetype with the sun and sky and the Mother archetype with the moon and earth. Prehistoric peoples told stories about how their environments came to be the way they were through variations of these archetypes and their interactions.
The world is split in two. There is the Earth beneath, and there is the Sky above. We exist on a thin margin where these two vast entities meet.
But we do exist.
Which means that there are three entities, not two! There is the sky and the earth, and there is us to perceive them as separate from each other. This revelation raises two questions:
Could there be more?
What are we?
From one springs two, from two springs three, and from three springs everything. Certainly there is more; it’s only a matter of awakening consciousness. But that magic number three, what makes it so generative?
Not only does three hold the key to unlocking the multitudes, without it there is nothing to recognize one and two as separate from each other. Without the perspective of three, neither of them can truly be said to exist.
It appears that, whatever we are, we are in a very delicate place between oblivion and infinity. Whatever we are, we instinctively try to escape the former and run toward the latter. Our species does this on the material plane, because we reproduce.
Like the world apparently consists of both Earth and Sky, humanity physically consists of woman and man. It takes two to make three. Mother and Father come together to make Child. Of course, the Child grows and can possibly become either a mother or a father, thus renewing the cycle, but as an individual, he or she is an entity unto itself, separate from all else. The Child is therefore symbolic of the self, the individual. We are each and all of us the Child.
The Magician is one, the Priestess is two, and the Empress is three. Taken as a creation myth, this makes plenty of sense. The Magician is the Sun or Sky Father, the Priestess is the Lunar or Earth Mother, and the Empress is the Child. She is life itself, and her card usually features a combination of heavenly and earthly symbols of fruitfulness. Sometimes she is pregnant. But the Tarot is primarily concerned with humanity’s dilemmas, not its origins. The cards are made by humans for humans – whether for games or divination, it matters not – to help alleviate for a moment the burden of conscious existence. In this context, the Empress is certainly not the Child, even if she might be a child of the High Priestess and Magician.
The Child is not card number three, but the third card. The Priestess is actually the third card in the progression, after the Fool and the Magician, but because the Fool doesn’t have a numerical designation, he falls in place as the card separate from One and Two. The Fool, then, is the Child.
Eden Gray wrote that the Fool “represents the soul of everyman, which, after it is clothed in a body, appears on earth and goes through the life experiences depicted in the 21 cards of the Major Arcana, sometimes thought of as archetypes of the unconscious.”* She called this the “Fool’s Journey,” which mirrors the Hero’s Journey myths.
Hero’s Journey myths are not about the beginnings of the world or the conception of the Child. They follow instead the Child’s development. The core Mother and Father archetypes manifest in these myths as various people (including biological or adoptive parents), creatures, gods, or forces, benevolent or otherwise. When these are benevolent, they help or guide the Hero in some way, often giving a gift or crucial piece of advice to be used during times of serious crisis. Such times arise when the Hero must face the malevolent manifestations of the archetypal parents. The Hero’s success depends on how well he uses the help of the former to overcome the obstacles presented by the latter.
These are stories of nature versus nurture. We are the products of our environments and societies, nurtured by our educations and upbringings, and yes, our parents. Each and every one of us is the biological product of a father and a mother. There is no escaping this fact of life. But we blaze our own trails. We live our own lives, and we make our own choices. It is our nature to strive for better. We yearn for apotheosis.
In Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom Rachel Pollack prefaced her chapters on the Major Arcana with a discussion of the four cards pictured above.** The Fool, number 0, and the World, number 21, represent the before and after shots of the Hero. The Fool exists in the bliss of unconsciousness, and the World dancer exists in the bliss of enlightened consciousness. In between is the journey of life. To get from 0 to 21, the Hero must be born into the imperfect world of opposites, the realms of the Magician (1) and the Priestess (2), and work through stages towards reconciling those opposites in his or her psyche, to integrate the disparate elements of his or her own self, to become “whole” – separate from Mother and Father, yet made of them both. Opposition is only an illusion, and it is the Fool’s purpose to remove the veil of segregation from over his eyes. The path of the individual is paradoxically the path to realizing unity with all, and it is this path that is depicted by the Major Arcana, as walked by the Fool. The key to understanding the cards in this light is to recognize the three fundamental archetypes that they present. From three springs everything else, after all.
*From page 228 of Gray’s A Complete Guide to the Tarot, published in 1970. Gray may or may not have been the one to coin the term “Fool’s Journey”; either way, it’s the earliest use of the term in my library.
**She used the RWS to illustrate, not the OWT. Page 13.