The Emperor: Waite’s Symbols

We continue our series of posts regarding the symbols in the Waite Colman Smith tarot deck. We compare Waite’s descriptions in the Pictorial Key, the textual descriptions by predecessors and contemporaries such as the Boot T and Mathers, as well as any “undocumented” symbolism in the illustrations, which may represent enhancements to Waite’s instructions by Colman Smith, or the latter’s own ideas.

For other posts in the series, click here or on “symbol” in the tag cloud.

4: The Emperor

ID symbol meaning
EMP ankh Waite: “He is the virile power, to which the Empress responds, and in this sense is he who seeks to remove the Veil of Isis; yet she remains virgo intacta.” At its most obvious, this is a reference to the relationship between the two cards. The Veil of Isis is said to represent the inaccessibility of nature’s secrets. Interestingly, some have said that Colman Smith’s representation of the Empress, which we’ll look at next, is obviously pregnant. In my opinion, the ankh, which is an Egyptian sign of virility (see below) may also relate and contrast the card to the Hierophant, in that Roman Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy.
EMP globe Mentioned but not explained by Waite; it may simply serve as a symbol of worldly power.
EMP rams head Waite: “The higher kingship, occupying the intellectual throne. Hereof is the lordship of thought rather than of the animal world.” There is an interesting side note. The ankh (noted above) may derive from one of the Eqyptian bull-cults. This may be a viewpoint not yet put forward in Waite’s day, so we shall leave that just as an aside, right now, in noting the rams’ heads at four corners of the emperor’s throne. Colman Smith does seem to have embellished the throne, as opposed to previous illustrations. One could possibly consider that the “lordship of thought” may be based upon the “ambition” of the Emperor as described in the Book T, but it certainly appears
EMP sceptre Mentioned but not explained by Waite; it may simply serve as a symbol of power. The ankh appears on top of it. In the Marseille deck, which Mathers appears to describe, the sceptre has an orb (which Colman Smith puts separately in his right hand) and cross at top, much more similar to what one sees in other depictions of monarchs of the middle ages and renaissance.


Whether Waite liked it or not, it seems to me that Colman Smith illustrated the emperor with a bit more virility than Waite may have been able to face up to. In any case, the Emperor, of whom the Book T personifies as “War, conquest, victory, strife, ambition,” and Mathers as “realization,” (which could be said to be a form of virility), in the Waite Colman Smith deck appears to convey a much more masculine message than its antecedents. As such, I feel that Waite took a strategic move with the High Priestess/Hierophant pair and the Emperor/Empress pair to stress each of the “couples'” complementary natures. We’ll go into a little further detail in the next post (the Empress). The stressing of the complementary natures seems to me, at least, to be a rational, organizing principle that “fills in” a lot of the blanks that the lack of detail of his predecessors’ descriptions of these archetypes had left unfilled.

Final note: notice the red striped background pattern of the card. There is no other card in the Waite Colman Smith deck like it. I don’t think it means anything. Though it is important to concentrate on many small symbols spread throughout, there is such a thing as getting stuck on the minutiae!

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot? 😉