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Tarot History Empress.jpg

She looked straight at me, took a drag off her cigarette and said,

“You want to get high? Walk through customs with heroin strapped to your body after stepping off an international flight. Now THAT’S a high.” Right at that moment I made two important decisions. Number one – no second date here, and pay the check in cash so she couldn’t get a look at my credit card number. Also – no more internet dating, at least for a while, and possibly forever. Which of course brings us to . . . . . . the Empress.

How does that last paragraph relate to the Empress, you ask? It doesn’t. There is zero correlation between that story and the third major arcana card - which is of course, the Empress. Thank you for asking about her!

In this essay, we are going to cover three cards. Starting from the left we of course have the Visconti-Sforza Empress. She is dressed in a long robe, brown on the outside with a blue lining. Interestingly, her robe blends into the tapestry on the wall behind her, which is the same shade of brown. She wears a crown on her head, green gloves on her hands, and holds a shield in her left hand with a figure of an eagle on it. The eagle is a symbol of rulership and there is a specific reason it is on this card.

The same way the Popess was Maifreda Visconti, in this deck the Empress is supposed to be Bianca Maria Sforza. She was the daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was murdered in 1476 when she was four years old. Her father, the Duke, was stabbed to death in church the day after Christmas. Less than 2 years later, the Medici assassination would take place in Florence under very similar circumstances. (You may recall we discussed that at some length in our very first posting – the one about the Hanged Man.) After the death of her father, Bianca was raised by her uncle, Ludovico Maria Sforza, who ruled Milan as Regent until he was elevated to Duke himself.

On the card, Bianca is seen holding a shield with the eagle on it. At the time, the eagle was the symbol of the Holy Roman Emperor. Ludovico, who led Milan in a series of conflicts with other states, needed an ally after going to war with France, and thus formed an alliance with Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. In 1496, when Bianca was 18 years old, her uncle married her off to Maximilian and included a hefty dowry to seal the alliance. When that happened, of course Bianca became Empress – hence her appearance on the card. (How convenient that the Viscontis had both a Popess AND an Empress in the family.)

Moving to the next card, we have the Rider Waite Empress. From one to the other, not much has changed. Here the Empress is dressed in a long robe and seated not on a throne, but outdoors on cushions. She has a crown with 12 stars on her head, holds a scepter in her right hand, and beneath her to the right we see the planetary sign of Venus on a shield. Waite went into detail about her, calling her “the fruitful mother of thousands”. He also said, “There are also certain aspects in which she has been correctly described as desire and the wings thereof . . .”

Although I tend to lean more towards Waite’s card meanings, for the Empress I lean more towards Paul Foster Case’s definitions: Beauty, luxury, pleasure, happiness. And we can’t forget – fertility & pregnancy. Drop this card and Ace of Cups in the same reading, and someone is knocked up, or about to get knocked up. BAM ! What happened in Vegas . . . didn’t stay there. Time to buy a crib and repaint the guest room pink or blue.

The last card on the right is The Empress from Lo Scarabeo’s Tarot of the New Vision (which is a deck I should pull out more, especially for these little essays). The artwork was done by Gianluca and Raul Cestaro, and the deck was designed by Pietro Alligo. Although it’s obviously modeled after the Rider Waite, this takes us right back to . . . . Italy, since this deck was designed and illustrated by Italians for an Italian company.

Seeing as this whole exercise serves to trace the history of Tarot images from Renaissance Italy to the present day, I would like to quote Pietro Alligo here, who gives us some insight on this very subject: “The truth is that, with the Tarot, every deck is connected to all previous decks. It is not possible to separate and fully understand the extent to which one deck is influenced by another.” If a deck is truly a Tarot deck, it is part of a long line of research, history and art – and it is that line that we are attempting to follow.

Let us get back however, to the New Vision deck’s Empress. Here we see Waite’s Empress from behind. She sits within her garden (called here the Garden of Venus) and before her is a road which leads to the top of a hill. The road is the road of life, and from the top we can see the future and the past. While this card is about fertility, it’s also tied to intellectual creativity. The swan represents desire (which has ‘the wings thereof” that Waite mentioned). The children represent harmony between oneself and the world, the desire to create or procreate, and humanity’s journey and the growth it entails.

This deck is a perfect example of Pietro Alligo’s suppostion that all decks are related to one another. However, while it is a direct relative of the Rider Waite, it also puts a new and perhaps more modern spin on the Empress archetype and a relevant update to its meanings.

I think we’ve beaten all the meaning we can out of this card, so now it’s time to move on to the the other half of the pair – the Emperor. Before we do so however, please share your thoughts below, and let everyone know what the Empress means to you.

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