In Italy, the homeland of the tarot, each major city had its own distinctive tarot deck, with traditional imagery and ordering of for the trump cards (now known as the major arcana). Indisputably the most lavish local variant of the tarot was the Minchiate of Florence, which contained 97 cards instead of the usual 78. (The additional cards were the four elements; the four virtues Prudence, Faith, Hope, and Charity; and the 12 signs of the Zodiac.)
Florence, being not far from Rome, often felt the political influence of the Papacy more directly than more remote cities such as Milan and Venice. The church, at various times, had taken issue with two of the standard tarot subjects: The Pope and The Papess (ancestors of the Hierophant and High Priestess familiar to modern tarot practitioners). Therefore, in Florence, instead of the familiar foursome of Papess, Empress, Emperor, Pope, we find three cards, traditionally named The Grand Duke, The Emperor of the West, and The Emperor of the East.
In one way of looking at it, the standard Emperor card has been split into two alter egos. Or, one might think of the Emperor of the East as a crypto-Pope, in which case the Emperor of the West stands for the familiar Emperor card of other tarots. Indeed, he would seem quite at home in a line-up of Emperor cards from other classic tarot decks.
The man in the card is adorned with all the traditional emblems of imperial power: the crown, the orb and scepter, the eagle. He is in his middle years, mature but still strong and virile, apparently at the height of his prowess as a ruler. His expression, though, seems intense and brooding, as though he is burdened with many worries.
For centuries, Western Europe kept alive the image of the Roman Empire as a universal political order, the secular partner of the catholic church. The original Roman Empire, of course, had come to an end before 500 CE, but its ghost loomed over the Western world, generation after generation. When the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans in 800, the institution of the Holy Roman Empire was born, which did not completely disappear for another thousand years.
The Empire during these situations was sometimes a true nation-state, and other times more of a political fiction, a power broker in the dealings of the European monarchies. During the time of the earlier tarot decks, the Emperor was an immediately recognizable symbol of universal secular authority, overlord of all Christendom, in abstract principle if not in mundane reality.
In this card, I see a person whose whole being is devoted to the exercise of power. Although theoretically at the top of the feudal hierarchy, he must constantly monitor the political machinations of those under him, in order to remain secure in his position. He reminds us that power comes with a price, and can be its own undoing. Furthermore, when we reflect on the fact that the “empire” he rules is really only an afterimage of the Roman Empire, at the mercy of the mightier powers of armed kingdoms and a politically aggressive church, we see an image of power fossilized and crumbling.
Power over others is a lure that has seduced human beings in many different times and places, throughout the history of the planet. Great works have been accomplished under the command of powerful rulers, and emperors the world over have sought to leave a legacy of achievement behind them. Many, either by weakness of character or by driving ambition, have become tyrants, leaving behind them a legacy of fear and destruction.
This card offers a warning about the ways of power. Power is not simply a harmless energy we can exercise for benevolent purposes. It has a life unto itself: it distorts relationships, breeds corruption and jealousy, and can leave us lonely and brooding. It is also notoriously fleeting.
The message of this card is to examine the role of power in your own life. How does power work in your relationships, at work and at home? What is your relationship with the institutions of power? Is the power you experience organic and active, or is it rigid and fossilized, part of a structure that has outlived its orginal meaning?