The Empress: 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.

By way of introduction to this particular card: I was in a seminar with twenty other people the week before last. I was surprised when the seminar leader stated flat out that the Empress, in Colman Smith’s illustration, was pregnant. I was even more surprised when every woman in the room, spanning an age from under twenty to over seventy, wholeheartedly agreed. So, now I take it as given that The Empress is going to have a little Arch Duke or Arch Duchess. Had to look that title up, by the way!

And the fact that she is pregnant is probably all we need to know about the Empress to understand this card. But let’s look at what Waite said, anyway.

3: The Empress

ID symbol meaning
EMS diadem Though mentioned but not explained by Waite, a diadem or crown of 12 stars was mentioned as being worn by a woman in the Book of the Apocalypse. “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered.” Later, Mary is sometimes said to wear a crown of 12 stars as the queen of heaven. Note that no diadem is mentioned in the Book T or Mathers’ writings. Clearly Waite emphasizes the Empress’ nature as a mother.
EMS globe Mentioned but not explained by Waite; it may simply serve as a symbol of power. But contrast with Mather: “She is the Symbol of Action, the
result of the union of Science and Will.” It appears to me that Waite places all physical womanliness in the Empress, and all spiritual womanliness in the High Priestess. Has any human ever existed wholly one or the other?
EMS corn Waite: “She is the inferior Garden of Eden, the Earthly Paradise, all that is symbolized by the visible house of man. She is not Regina coeli (Queen of Heaven), but she is still refugium peccatorum (Refuge of Sinners), the fruitful mother of thousands.” A corn field is placed in the foreground. In my opinion, this doubles down on the globe symbol. The card is all “Earthly” in nature, as in “Mother Nature.”
EMS sceptre Mentioned but not explained by Waite; it may simply serve as a symbol of power. The sceptre is also mentioned by Mathers.
EMS venus Waite: “The symbol of Venus is on the shield which rests near her… the door or gate by which an entrance is obtained into this life, as into the Garden of Venus.” Clearly Waite emphasizes the physical femininity of the Empress. Note that Mathers’ Empress has a shield emblazoned with an Eagle.
EMS waterfall Mentioned but not explained by Waite; it may simply serve as an additional symbol of fertility and life.

Conclusions

It would hardly be flip to state that Waite had some woman issues, but let’s not leave it at that. It is clear from all the above that Waite and Colman Smith are emphasizing the physical side of womanliness, particularly that of bearing children and of sexuality In this, it appears he is portraying her as an opposite of the High Priestess. This is not the focus of his contemporaries and predecessors. In particular, I point out Mathers, who states the Empress is the “symbol of action,” and the Emperor is the “realization.” Where Mathers gives us complementary pairs, Empress and Emperor, High Priestess and Hierophant, Waite and Colman Smith presents us with opposite pairs, High Priestess and Empress, Hierophant and Emperor. I believe it is Waite’s focus on Christian symbolism and a Christian interpretation of the Tarot that motivates this change in focus.

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? 😉