The Emperor and the Four Kings
“It’s good to be King!” I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before. Is it really, though? Wouldn’t it be better to be an Emperor? I normally think of kings ruling vast kingdoms, such as the kings in The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. But an Emperor can rule over a whole galaxy, like the one in Star Wars.
This came to mind again recently because I was explaining my philosophy about the relationship between the Emperor and the Kings and the Empress and the Queens to some of my esteemed colleagues at the Tarot School’s 2011 Readers Studio. I’ve found that my perspective on these relationships adds some breadth and an extra bit of depth to my readings whenever, say, the Emperor and one or more of the kings appear in the reading.
In this article, I’ll explain how I see the relationship between the Emperor and the four kings of the minor arcana. I believe the Emperor encompasses the four kings. (I’ll explain how I see the relationship between the Empress and the four queens in Part 2.)
Who really ranks higher: an Emperor or a King?
This is a grand question. I thought about this some time ago because it struck me that there are four kings in the Tarot, but only one emperor. I knew and understood the commonly held reasons why this is the case, but it just struck me as odd nonetheless. This one question prompted me to think about the relationship between these cards (as people), the result of which is the perspective I’ll share with you shortly.
You can answer this question by understanding the difference between an emperor and a king. Here are the definitions from my trusty Oxford English Dictionary.
Emperor The sovereign of an empire. (1)
King A male sovereign, especially the hereditary ruler of an independent state. (2)
The emperor seems to be of higher rank than a king, especially given the fact that the emperor rules an empire. Couldn’t an independent state be considered an empire, though? Ok, back to the dictionary for clarification.
Empire An extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority. (3)
Kingdom An organized community headed by a king; the territory subject to a king. (4)
An empire is much greater than a kingdom, so the emperor is definitely of higher rank than a king. While we’re on the subject of empires and kingdoms, consider this: Based on these descriptions, you could say that an empire consists of a set of kingdoms. Keep this in mind, as it will be an important point soon. Now let’s look at the Emperor and kings a little more closely.
NOTE: I want to set a little context here before we go any further. I believe, as most of you likely do, that we have both a male and female aspects to our persona. Some of us have a stronger male side, others have a stronger female side, and still others are relatively balanced. This is an important concept because I believe the traits and aspects of the Emperor/Kings and the Empress/Queens apply to everyone, regardless of gender.
I focus mainly on the positive qualities of these individuals in my discussion. My specific intent is to show you how I perceive the relationships between the Emperor and the kings, so I need to describe each of them just enough to provide some context for those relationships. You can find more thorough explanations of these cards in the many good Tarot books out on the market.
The Emperor – Supreme Male Ruler of the Temporal Realm
The Emperor is commonly considered to be the archetypical patriarch and male ruler of the temporal realm (the Hierophant being his counterpart for the spiritual realm). He is the epitome of the male aspect. He is strong, confident, willful, focused, compassionate, empathetic, just, tenacious, methodical, well-spoken, analytical, gregarious, and powerful. The Emperor can be very generous or very selfish, open-minded or dogmatic, warm-hearted or cold as ice, a great ally or a feared enemy.
He is someone you may meet in your life’s journey, which may bode good or ill depending on when, where and how you meet him. You’ll know him when you meet him, though. On a more personal level, he could represent a type of person you should aspire to be. There will come times in your life when you might need to embrace particular qualities of the Emperor so that you can more effectively work through an issue or deal with a given situation that’s going on in your life.
The Kings – Male Monarchs of the Four Suits
The four kings in the Tarot represent each of the four suits in the minor arcana, and each king is the epitome of the masculine qualities of the suit he represents.
The King of Pentacles is the male sovereign of earth and governs the physical aspect of life. He’s concerned with daily life, work, finances, family, and material wealth. He’s grounded, methodical, pragmatic, successful, wise, and very content with his life. He’s a good businessman, a great family man, a true friend, and a trusted advisor.
The King of Swords is the male sovereign of air and governs the intellectual aspect of life. He’s concerned with reason, logic, analytical thinking, beliefs, speaking and communication of all kinds. He’s very thoughtful, conscientious, focused, and confident. He’s a quite a philosopher, a great speaker, a voracious reader and a decisive man of action.
The King of Cups is the male sovereign of water and governs the emotional aspect of life. He’s concerned with emotions, intuition, relationships, and aspirations. He’s very loving, happy, sympathetic, and giving. He can be very supportive, has a great sense of humor, and builds long-lasting relationships.
The King of Wands is the male sovereign of fire and governs the energetic aspect of life. He’s concerned with focusing energies, commerce, risks and opportunities, movement, and conflict management. He’s passionate, focused, willful, energetic, and dynamic. He loves to travel, enjoys starting new businesses, is a great leader, and can often be quite spiritual.
The kings commonly represent people you know or are very likely to meet. The type of “king” you meet will help you in some way with the aspect he represents. For example, you may meet a “King of Cups” type of person when you need emotional support or guidance.
Kings can also represent the type of qualities you need to emphasize in your own persona at a given point in time. For example, you may need to emulate the King of Swords to get you through a period of indecision and stress.
The Emperor and the Kings
Now that I’ve established the aspects of the Emperor and four kings, here’s my philosophy on how I believe they relate to each other.
The Kings and their Kingdoms
Remember that a king reigns over an organized community, such as a territory, country or state; I’ll use “kingdom” for the remainder of this discussion. The four kings in the minor arcana reign over four distinct kingdoms – the Material Kingdom, the Intellectual Kingdom, the Emotional Kingdom, and the Energetic Kingdom. These kingdoms are wholly separate and each includes its own royal court and citizens.
The Emperor and his Empire
Recall that an emperor rules an empire consisting of an extensive group of countries or states. The Emperor is part of the major arcana, so he is particularly significant as the sovereign of a vast empire known as the temporal realm. It’s important to note that the temporal realm encompasses all that exits on this plane of existence (as opposed to what is encompassed within the spiritual realm).
The Royal Relationships
Here is how I believe the relationships between these five individuals work:
The four kings have equal status, power and authority.
The Emperor’s Empire encompasses all of the Four Kingdoms.
Given the nature of their realms, the kings ultimately pledge their allegiance to the Emperor.
The Emperor himself encompasses the personas and qualities of all four kings, and they are fully integrated into his being.
The Emperor and the Kings in a reading
Here’s where everything now comes into play and how this particular perspective of the royal males can add more meaning to a reading.
Whenever you see the Emperor and one or more kings in a reading, there are typically two possible interpretations you can derive from their appearance. (Remember that context is very important.) Let’s assume that the Emperor, the King of Swords and the King of Wands appear in a reading.
Suppose that the Emperor seems to be a major part of the reading’s focus, and the guidance seems to indicate that the querent needs to be more like the Emperor in order to overcome or help resolve the issue at hand. Given my statement that the Emperor encompasses the personas and qualities of the kings, the King of Swords and the King of Wands could likely indicate that the querent needs to emphasize or intensify the qualities of those two kings.
Now suppose that the kings seem to be a major part of the reading’s focus, and the guidance seems to indicate that the querent needs to emulate the qualities of those kings in order to overcome or help resolve the issue at hand. The Emperor’s appearance could likely indicate that the querent needs to apply the qualities of the kings in broader context, beyond that of the current situation. There is likely a “bigger picture” that the Emperor sees that the kings cannot.
You’re likely to come up with more types of interpretations as you experiment with this perspective – these are just the two that consistently come up in my readings.
The royal cards seem to be a continual source of consternation and endless fascination for readers of all styles and levels of experience. There is so much to learn about them and, indeed, you can find a lot of information in many of the great tarot books out on the market. I’ll have a section on them in a book I’m currently writing that will, hopefully, be out by the end of the year.
I hope this article helped you to see these cards from a new and fresh perspective, and enabled you to discover new ways to use them during your readings. Stay tuned for Part 2, as I’ll cover the relationships between the Empress and the Queens.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Tarosophist International Magazine.
All card images in this article are from the Radiant-Waite-Tarot deck, Copyright © U.S. Games Systems.
1. Page 442, The Concise Oxford Dictionary 9th Edition, Copyright © Oxford University Press 1995
2. Page 747, The Concise Oxford Dictionary 9th Edition, Copyright © Oxford University Press 1995
3. Page 442, The Concise Oxford Dictionary 9th Edition, Copyright © Oxford University Press 1995
4. Page 747, The Concise Oxford Dictionary 9th Edition, Copyright © Oxford University Press 1995