Saturday, March 25, 2006

Tarot as Mirror of the Psyche: The Empress


[Please see the Introduction to this series for a brief synopsis of my approach to working with the major trumps of the Tarot. I am hoping to post a new meditation each Saturday. I use "meditation" here in the philosophical sense of the word, meant to denote an open-ended, free-form exploration of an idea.]


As the Fool moved along the path of existence, the first two cards s/he met were both energetic potentials -- the Magician/animus and High Priestess/anima -- but that changes with The Empress. For the first time, the Fool faces manifestation of its potential in the physicality of flesh.

Early depictions of the Empress showed her as pregnant, but that literal image was muted over the years and replaced with symbols of fertility and new life. Some more modern cards still aim for the very literal view of this card.

Where the High Priestess represents a virginal aspect of the feminine, a spiritual element that seeks a fleshly home, the Empress represents the creative, life-giving aspect of the feminine, a physical presence giving birth to Spirit (often in the form of Jesus).


Many of the earliest versions of this card showed an eagle on the shield she holds. In alchemical symbolism, the eagle represents a feminine aspect of Spirit:

The Empress's connection with the spirit is further indicated by the way she embraces the golden eagle, almost as if he were alive, for this royal bird obviously represents a living force with which she feels emotionally connected. The fact that a similar bird also appears on the shield of the Emperor (Trump four) indicates that this golden eagle is the family coat of arms or talisman. As such, its image would exert a very subtle, powerful influence over this royal couple and their empire. (Sallie Nichols, Jung and Tarot)

Nichols goes on to explain that the eagle often symbolized the spiritualization of instinct (used interchangeably with the Phoenix). She suggests that the eagle symbolizes the bridge between heaven and earth that the Madonna represents in the Jesus story. However, where the Church often rejected the body in its attempts to address the soul, the Empress card suggests, as Jesus taught, that the way to Spirit is through the body.

In this respect, the archetypal energy of the card expresses some of the same wisdom we find in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism (Vajrayana), where tantric yoga is employed to bring the energies of the body into the quest for transcendence. An integral path, no matter the religion, is incomplete without the body.

Nichols offers another useful observation on the Empress's role at this point in the Fool's journey:
As Madonna, Great Mother, and Queen of Heaven, the Empress is the connecting link between the Magician's fiery yang energy and the [High Priestess's] watery yin power. One might say that the Magician's wand has touched the [High Priestess's] depths, and out of this union, through the mediation of the Empress, something new has come into being . . . one world which includes both aspects.

Oh, come on Sallie, just say it: the Magician knocked up the High Priestess and the Empress is acting as the surrogate mother (the High Priestess has to maintain her virginal image).

Uh . . . moving on.

Another useful way into this archetype is through its number, three. Working with the riff that Nichols offers, we see the I of the Magician merged with the II of the High Priestess to produce the III, the trinity, a union of opposites in which the third manifests a union of traits from the first two.

By combining the energies of the previous cards, the Empress embraces them both and serves to fuse the yin and yang energies, giving them a physical presence in the material world -- in the form of a child. She is the creative impulse in nature.

And that is exactly how this card is seen on the Zen Osho deck -- as creativity. The Osho deck is unconcerned with the history of the card -- it looks more directly at its archetypal nature. Here is some of the commentary on the card it calls Creativity:

From the alchemy of fire and water below to the divine light entering from above, the figure in this card is literally 'possessed by' the creative force. Really, the experience of creativity is an entry into the mysterious. Technique, expertise and knowledge are just tools; the key is to abandon oneself to the energy that fuels the birth of all things.

This energy has no form or structure, yet all the forms and structures come out of it. It makes no difference what particular form your creativity takes - it can be painting or singing, planting a garden or making a meal. The important thing is to be open to what wants to be expressed through you. Remember that we don't possess our creations; they do not belong to us. True creativity arises from a union with the divine, with the mystical and the unknowable. Then it is both a joy for the creator and a blessing to others.

This reading introduces another important element into the vision of this card. Although the Empress represents creativity and fecundity as the Madonna or Great Mother, she must also release her creation into the world that is beyond her control. Her archetypal energy serves to close the gap between heaven and earth, Spirit and matter, but once she gives birth she can only hope her creation finds its own path.

She must come to grips with attachment at some point. But for now, she is still the Mother in all its forms, and this includes a dark side. Once we manifest in physicality, we cast a shadow, and even the Madonna has a dark side. One of the world's great depictions of the Terrible Mother is Kali, the wife of Shiva. She nearly always wears a necklace of human heads and a belt of human arms.

She is known as Kali the Destroyer in her negative aspect. As a part of the tantric tradition, it is important for all students to face this aspect of the feminine and confront their fear of death.

Just as there are sects within Christianity, especially the gnostic tradition, that see Mary (sometimes known as Sophia -- see Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels) as the ultimate reality, giving shape to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the Nirvāna-tantra, Kali's uncontrolled nature represents the Ultimate Reality. According to Wikipedia, the text claims:

[T]he trimurti of Brahma, Visnu and Siva arise and disappear from her like bubbles from the sea. Although this is an extreme case, the Yogini-tantra, Kamakhya-tantra and the Niruttara-tantra declare her the svarupa (own-being) of the Mahadevi (the great Goddess, who is in this case seen as the combination of all devis).

This adds a more balanced understanding of the feminine role in creativity. But even this is an incomplete picture. As we will see in the Emperor, the Empress is not complete in and of herself -- she needs her opposite.

[Note to feminists: Please do not attack me. Archetypes can seldom hold more than a single energy. I am not saying a woman needs a man to be complete. Any woman can hold within her psyche a galaxy of archetypes, which gives her access to all the energies humans may know.]

So, the Fool, having launched him/herself on the path to transcendence, has gathered the yin and yang of its psyche and found its birth into the world through the Empress, the Great Mother. Next week, the Fool meets the Father, the Emperor.

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