Marseille Tarot 101: The Empress

Like most people who read tarot in the English-speaking world, I started with the the Waite-Smith deck. However, these days I prefer the Marseille Tarot more and more because it is straightforward and clear and not a convoluted mix of various occult disciplines and symbology as is the case with Waite-Smith (I go into more detail about my approach here).

In this series, I go through the cards of the Marseille Tarot one by one to show you how you can build up your personal interpretation for the cards so you can start reading the tarot with confidence all on your own.

A few thoughts before we begin

In this post, I’m going to do things a bit differently than in the previous two I’ve written. Rather than gathering keywords that describe adjectives, verbs, etc. that describe the card, I’m going to compare the Empress from the esoteric Waite-Smith deck and the original Marseille Tarot.

In the Waite-Smith deck this card, the Empress card has become a bit of an astrological mishmosh of Venus and the Moon. In this tradition, the Empress symbolizes romance, art and abundance (Venus) but also nurturance and motherhood (the Moon).

In the picture, we see an attractive woman with the symbol for Venus on her shield. Not much in the way of babies here, unless there’s a baby bump under her flowing gown.

The feminine archetype?

Perhaps, although Venus and the Moon stand for different things, so why squish them together? Still, it is admittedly a lovely card, painted beautifully by a woman, Pamela Coleman Smith.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that this card represents a feminine ideal largely thought up by (Edwardian era) men: keep the Empress regal, beautiful and entirely fuckable, mistress and wife mixed together with a touch of fairy.

Dear Empress, they say, you belong languishing on the soft pillows of Venus near a meandering stream, a fertile goddess, content in your passivity and connection to nature.

But I think she can do more than that.

Understanding the Marseille Tarot Empress card

Now take a good look at the Empress card in the Marseille Tarot deck.

Here it is:

Some of the keywords that fit the Waite-Smith Empress still fit here. We have a beautiful woman in child bearing years, regal and poised, so the card can symbolize beauty, fertility and abundance. The card has some passivity in that the Empress is sitting still upon her throne, but she has far more power than our former lady by the stream; in fact, she takes up the entire card.

Whereas the Empress in the Waite-Smith seems otherworldly, the Marseille Tarot is a flesh and blood Empress with as much strength and power as her husband the Emperor, if not more.

Look at her.

If she sits still and listens to counsel, it is because it is wise to do so. True strength does not need to be loud or belligerent or make rash decisions. But make no mistake: Our Empress may be feminine, but she exudes authority and self-confidence.

In her book Read like the Devil, the cartomancer Camelia Elias describes the Empress as “a woman of action,” a ruler in her own right, not just an ornamental “First Lady,” posting cookie recipes and planning holiday decorations around the palace.

A much better fitting images to the feminine principle than a lithe pregnant Venus in the fields if I do say so myself.