The Emperor is the fifth Major Arcana card (followed by The Hierophant), and can be thought of as the masculine counterpart to The Empress, an archetype who brings order and structure to her creative proliferation. He represents the personal power each of us can access through the establishment of order, boundaries, and discernment in our lives.

The Emperor Tarot Card Upright and Reversed Keywords
The Emperor tarot card upright and reversed keywords.

The Emperor’s element is Fire, and his astrological association is to the zodiac sign of Aries, which represents strength, courage, and action. As Aries is the first sign of the zodiac, it’s associated with the phrase I am, a declaration of singular will that reflects The Emperor’s empowered individuality and authority.

The Emperor Keywords

Upright keywords

Reversed keywords

authority, reason, stability, personal responsibility

rigidity, stubbornness, misuse of power

Description of The Emperor Tarot Card

The explosion of creativity in The Empress card finds stability and balance in The Emperor. As card #4, or Key 4, in the Major Arcana tarot, The Emperor is associated in numerology with the number 4, and the principles of order and balance: the four directions of a compass, the four suits of the tarot, and the four posts of The Magician’s table. His shape, the square, is found everywhere that humans impose order onto nature, representing the distinctly human ability to shape and control the elements of the natural world.

The Emperor Tarot Card Versions
Three variations of The Emperor tarot card, from left to right: Rider Waite Smith tarot deck, Ancient Italian tarot deck, and Aleister Crowley's Thoth tarot deck.

In the classic Rider-Waite tarot deck, The Emperor is depicted with a crown, white-beard and red robe, and sits upon a stone throne decorated with ram’s heads (the animal of Aries), the only man-made structure in an otherwise imposing mountainous, craggy landscape. This contrast symbolizes his ability to take the raw elements of nature and shape them to serve and elevate his needs.

His armor suggests that he’s gone to battle to secure his position of power and that he possesses the strength and courage to fight for his ideals. His tools of dominion are not weapons but an ankh-topped scepter in his right hand and a golden orb in his left, which symbolize eternal existence and suggest that his desire for power serves to uplift life.

The small river that flows beneath him connects him to the river in The Empress card, indicating that although his chief faculty is reason, he is also connected to the creative principles of growth and flow.

The Emperor Upright Meaning

In the upright position, The Emperor suggests that you are in touch with your sense of personal power, agency, and authority and that you can draw upon these to accomplish your goals. He represents the wisdom of implementing structures, boundaries, routines, and self-control that serve to protect your precious life force.

Upright love keywords

Upright career keywords

boundaries, claiming desire, honoring your needs

power, mastery, authority, practical action

This archetype represents the frames, containers, and structures that we use to understand and organize the patterns of our own creative impulses—the language that allows us to express our thoughts and feelings. He represents the necessary limits we must put in place in order for life to flourish; you can find him in the stone wall that protects the garden, the stakes that prop up a young tree, and the walls that support a roof.

The Emperor knows that power is an easily corruptible privilege, and he stays connected to his desire to serve and guide others through his knowledge of the responsibility that comes with authority. He asks you to clarify your higher authority or guiding principles and to assume a position of leadership based on your sense of personal responsibility for your choices and actions.

Love and Relationships (Upright Meaning)

The Emperor asks you to seriously consider protecting your energy and life force by practicing the art of boundaries within a relationship. Boundaries are essential to ensure that the subtle exchange of energy between you and another moves in a balanced manner and that this exchange is responsive to the fluctuating needs of each person.

In an existing relationship, you could be embodying the archetype of power, authority, and leadership in benevolent and supportive ways. If you are seeking love, The Emperor wants you to fully know your worth and assert it by boldly claiming your desires, acting upon them, and honoring your needs.

Career and Finance (Upright Meaning)

In a career tarot reading, the upright Emperor indicates that you could be assuming a position of leadership and authority or are gaining mastery in your field. If you’re in a position of power, it is an encouragement to wield it with respect and integrity.

It could signal that you’re ready to embrace a new level of authority in your work, either by creating your own career or path or by leading a team of others. He suggests that you can find success when you take the initiative to forge your own path, create your own rules, and take practical action toward your dreams.

The Emperor Reversed Meaning

In the reversed position, The Emperor urges you to examine your sense of personal power and agency. There may be a situation that requires you to be more assertive, state your authority, or be more proactive. It is an encouragement to focus on what is within your control and take action or establish a boundary in accordance with your needs.

Reversed love keywords

Reversed career keywords

overbearing, controlling, rigid, not settling

shying away from responsibility, lack of initiative, fear of claiming authority, rigid leadership

You could be shying away from assuming more power or authority in your life because of experiences you’ve had with corrupt figures in power or because of a persistent feeling of imposter syndrome. He encourages you to recognize that true power comes from within and that a true leader guides others based on respect for the innate sovereignty of all beings.

It can also signify an impulse for power that has become distorted due to an excessive thirst for control. If you’ve become overbearing, restricting, or rigid in some area of life, it is an encouragement to cultivate more flexibility, kindness, and compassion. It is also a reminder to avoid the trap of overly identifying with any structure or system that gives us the illusion that we can control or understand the totality of human experience and reality.

Love and Relationships (Reversed Meaning)

In a love tarot reading, the reversed Emperor suggests that you have become rigid or controlling within the context of your relationship. If you’ve become stuck in a stultifying pattern of relating or are operating from calcified ideas about how your relationship should look, this card is an encouragement to cultivate more freedom, spontaneity, and adaptability within a relationship.

It can also signify that greater boundaries are needed in a relationship to protect your personal energy. You could be feeling drained by someone who is not respecting your personal space or your need for autonomy within a relationship. If you’re seeking love, it could signal that you can attract what you desire when you stand firm in what you are confident you want and need.

Career and Finance (Reversed Meaning)

In the reverse position, The Emperor suggests that you’re letting fear guide your actions and are allowing others to take the lead. You sense that stepping into your power requires greater accountability for your choices, and you could be fearing the immense responsibility that this requires of you.

In a career reading, The Emperor can also show up reversed when your approach to leadership has become rigid, controlling, and domineering. Examine the fears that underlie this approach and try to open yourself to a more adaptable form of leadership. You may find that when you loosen your grip and cultivate a more trusting attitude, life flows more easily toward your desired ends.