Tarot 101, My Way – Major Arcana: The Emperor and The Hierophant

These cards depict the twin pillars of patriarchal authority, one secular and the other spiritual: the State and the Church. Taken as a pair, there is an undeniable aura of “Father knows best” about them. In less flattering terms, we might say they’ve “got you coming and going.” I once created a simple allegory about their place in the series of trumps: the Magician meets the High Priestess, and after a time (or as Monty Python slyly remarked in their “Happy Valley” sketch, “a few times”) under the spell of the Empress, they decide to get married. The Emperor endorses the union and, discharging his fatherly duty,  “gives away the bride,” and the Hierophant bestows the blessings, after which “The Lovers” depart in “The Chariot.” The key point is that nothing can progress without the intervention of the male jurisdiction. In more universal terms, the Emperor is the “might makes right” card and the Hierophant is the divine apologist for imperial power; as the saying goes “one hand washes the other.” As this isn’t a very encouraging paradigm, let’s think of the Emperor as “stability” and the Hierophant as “tradition;” there is still a rather stuffy, hide-bound stiffness  to their operation, but it is the “Rule of Law” that is implied so there is a good reason for their insistence on protocol. Without the judicious enforcement and righteous justification of order, there can be only chaos. In a reading, one might indicate your father, your boss or similar male authority figure and the other a teacher, a mentor or wise counselor; generally, one is to be obeyed implicitly and the other listened to and learned from (assuming you aren’t out to “break the mold”).

The Major Arcana: Trump 4 – The Emperor


Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“War, conquest, victory, strife, ambition.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Stability, power, protection, realization; a great person; aid, reason, conviction; also authority and will.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):

“War, conquest, victory, strife, ambition, originality, over-weening confidence and megalomania, quarrelsomeness, energy, vigour, stubbornness, impracticability, rashness, ill-temper.”


The assertive, impatient qualities of Aries come forth strongly in this card. It represents power and authority of the kind traditionally associated with a “father-figure.” It has potent stabilizing and protective influences due to its association with the number Four, symbolizing “law and order.” The aggressive, destabilizing aspects of “war” and “conquest” associated with Mars – the planetary ruler of Aries – are less immediately relevant in modern terms than those of “ambition” and “victory,” with “strife” and other forms of conflict somewhere in the middle. The Emperor is a “do-er” who is seldom deflected from his goals and is intolerant of opposition. While the Empress can be prone to wait an obstacle out, the Emperor is more apt to ride rough-shod over it to get on with his agenda. He wields broad administrative jurisdiction and his unshakable foundation of purpose, will and conviction operates most effectively in the arena of practical affairs. He is a perfect example of the “might makes right” mode of governance, since compromise is not one of his dominant virtues.

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The Major Arcana: Trump 5 – The Hierophant


Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Divine wisdom. Manifestation. Explanation. Teaching. Occult wisdom”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Mercy and goodness; inspiration. Marriage, alliance, captivity, servitude. (A) man to whom the Querent has recourse.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):

“Stubborn strength, toil, endurance, placidity, manifestation, explanation, teaching, goodness of heart, help from superiors, patience, organization, peace.”


The Hierophant represents, above all, the twin bastions of custom and tradition. His principal mission is to uphold the status quo through the teaching of conservative values. However, this is not so much a card of orthodox religion as one of aspiring to a higher calling with the aid of a wise mentor or other form of inspiration. The cautious, stolid, security-minded sign of Taurus is associated with this card, and its emphasis on slow, steady growth is exemplified by the cumulative effects of the teaching of sanctioned dogma. The ideas of seeking out and submitting to the wisdom of a higher authority are portrayed by the two acolytes in the RWS card, denoting “life-lessons” to be learned by the seeker. As an agent of institutionalized knowledge, the Hierophant imparts the level of instruction that the student is ready to receive. This is an apt expression of the Zen proverb “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” a general statement about the nature of reality and the approach to understanding. Its advice is to stay the course and don’t succumb to tempting short-cuts or diversions that promise to deliver enlightenment with the investment of little personal effort.

More observations can be found here:


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