The Divine Queer: The Empress, Strength, and Non-Binary Femininity in Tarot
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
The Empress. In traditional Smith-Waite decks, she lounges on a plush throne in a lush landscape, crowned with stars from the heavens and clothed with pomegranates, the age-old symbol of fertility. She’s the card of the Divine Feminine, the Mother, the Creatrix. She represents fertility, sensuality, and pure emotion. She’s the element Earth, the pleasure and bounty of the physical world, and the planet Venus, the ruler of love, sex, art, and beauty. She is all things soft, pleasurable, nurturing, sexy. She’s the sun-warmed earth, the ripe fruit, the throbbing womb, the throaty animal purr.
I don’t identify with her.
Not because I don’t like love, beauty, pleasure, and everything else The Empress represents–believe me, I’m a fan–but because these things are tied so closely, in the Tarot system, to the feminine.
What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Seems like that’s some pretty awesome stuff for the ladies to have in their camp, you may say. And you’d be right: that’s some really great shit. But its association with the feminine relies on stereotypical gender roles that equate female with soft, maternal, emotional, and sensual (i.e. animal, baser), and male with strong, authoritative, intellectual, and rational (i.e. more evolved, higher).
As we all know in this modern age (I hope), these characteristics have nothing to do with your genitalia or your gender expression. There are grandmothers who are powerful boss bitches and femmes who are about as emotional as a stiletto. There are dudes who cry during nature documentaries and ultra-masculine folx who will nurture you like their own baby bird when you’re sick. And there are people who identify as neither male nor female who occupy and embody some or none of these characteristics, because none of these characteristics are intrinsically male or female and it’s only our patriarchal binary culture that has declared them to be so. Furthermore, it is our patriarchal, Western, post-colonial culture that has assigned value judgements to these so-called feminine and masculine qualities in the first place, declaring that the “feminine” world of the body and the heart and the home is somehow lesser than the external, cerebral “masculine” world, when there is absolutely no reason for this to be so.
We see this gender hierarchy extended in the feudal ranking system of the court cards, as well: Page, Knight, Queen, King. Pages are the lowest on the ladder, the innocents, the wide-eyed learners, and are traditionally associated with young girls. Knights are young men and are active, hot-headed, physical. Queens are the mothers, the nurturers, the emotional ones, the Empress Lite. And Kings are the boss daddies, running the show, representing mastery of their suit.
Yes, the Tarot system is a product of an earlier, less evolved time, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as-is, leaving this reductive symbolism in place to reinforce the gender binary for future generations of readers and querents. (Many outstanding Tarot artists are right now doing excellent work to rectify this.)
In the already problematic gender landscape of the traditional Tarot, the Empress is troubling for me in particular because of the card’s symbolic emphasis on the female in the position of mother and wife, as one-half of the Empress-Emperor dichotomy, as woman in relation to man, as if therein lies a woman’s highest function. Women are for nurturing, this card suggests. Women are for sitting pretty, being beautiful. Women are for making children and raising them. The Venus symbol on her heart-shaped bolster and the pomegranates adoring her robe furthermore center the Empress’s female body and its functions, not only as the magical and powerful incubator of life, but as sex object, and, moreover, as vessel, as receptacle. An empty container, in need of filling.
I’m aware that my own gender issues may be showing, so let me back up.
My body is female. I was raised female. I present outwardly as female. But I identify as genderqueer. Right now, the best word I have to name it is non-binary: an existence between the poles of gender, in a fluctuating, more neutral space. I certainly don’t identify as a man, though I grew up feeling always that I was more masculine than feminine. I do, sometimes, feel like a woman, but when I do it’s almost always in relation to trauma or in opposition to patriarchy. When the future President of the United States bragged about grabbing pussies, for instance, I felt like a woman. When I was sexually assaulted by a man in a gay bar, I felt like a woman. When I’ve faced sexism at work, I felt like a woman. When I marched beside thousands of femmes and their allies in the Women’s March, I felt like a woman. When I sit with my rad group of femme friends at Feminist Book Club and gleefully discuss the fall of the patriarchy, I feel like a woman. But most of the time, when I’m just me, hanging out with myself, my friends, my partner, just living life, I feel something close to androgynous, something neither feminine nor masculine and also both, something I can only term as “human.”
It’s easy to define a body by the box it is continually forced into. The “F” box checked on a hundred pieces of paperwork. The box that various men have told me they’d like to put their cock in.
I let myself be defined from the outside for a very long time. I even went out of my way to make it easier to be defined in such a way. I refuse to allow this anymore.
Thus, my fraught relationship with the Empress, with the representation of a female body as defined by her capacity for motherhood, the conflation of an AFAB body with the function of its genitals, the assumption that the holiest form of female is ultra-femme.
I’m not trying to argue that the Empress archetype is somehow bad, or that anyone is wrong for identifying with her. Many people, both cis and trans, strongly identify with her luxurious energy and her Mother power, and indeed the creation of life is perhaps the most tangibly magical thing any of us humans are capable of in this life. If you vibe with the Empress, by all means, vibe away! Follow that connection, let her fill you up with her potent, visceral beauty. Soak her in; step into her power. What I want is not to erase or rewrite the Empress. What I want is only an additional option, a less binary vision of femininity–and masculinity, for that matter–in the Tarot. One that I, and people like me, can see myself in.
The Tarot does provide another feminine archetype: the High Priestess. As Rachel Pollack writes in her indispensable classic, 78 Degrees of Wisdom, “The Tarot splits up the feminine archetype into two trumps and actually assigns the more benign qualities to the second one (trump 3), the Empress. The High Priestess herself represents a deeper, more subtle aspect of the female; that of the dark, the mysterious and the hidden.” Pollack goes on to point out that these symbolic associations were ascribed by–guess who–men: “To men, women have always appeared mysterious, strange, and, when safely in their mother role, loving and merciful.” And thus we have the two sides of the female, according to the male: the cunning and kinda-scary High Priestess, and the maternal and wholesome Empress.
That being said, the High Priestess is my jam. She’s largely androgynous, no swelling bosom in sight. She’s mysterious and ancient and holds knowledge you can’t even begin to imagine. Even better, she’s powerful and intimidating and scares the pants off of the men-folk. Yass, queen! Tied for my Tarot darling is the Magician, a likewise androgynous figure of a rangy man in lose robes that could easily be a magical little queer witch boi. The Magician’s got the tools and, striking a pose like a disco queen, gets shit done.
Are you sensing a theme here? I like representations of gender that are fluid, dynamic, even muddy. I dislike hard binaries.
I think my queer is showing.
So, when I calculated my Year Card for 2018 (find out how at the end of my last post) and got The Empress, I was underwhelmed.
Then, in my Year Ahead spread for 2018 (also in my last post), I pulled as my Significator–you guessed it–the Empress, that sly minx, once again. At this point, I was puzzled.
You see, in addition to my feelings about the Empress, I almost never pull her in my personal readings. Seriously, almost never. It’s only happened once in the last year that I can remember, and it showed up in a self-care context, not as the card representing me, as the significator does.
(I also have to say: I know that as a Tarot reader, I’m not supposed to *dislike* any card. But we’re all freaking humans here. Any Tarot reader ever tells you they’ve never had some personal beef with any card, let me introduce you to my skeptical face.)
There are certainly queer ways to read any Tarot card, even the most heavily gendered ones. (There’s a great series by Cassandra Snow called "Queering the Tarot" on LittleRedTarot.com.) In fact, one could argue that my dislike of the Empress hinges on a reductive, gendered reading that I, myself, am responsible for placing on it, when the archetype could be allowed to transcend such gender boundaries. (And this is true, but I would maintain that the Tarot was created in and still exists in binary system of gender representation and thus such gendered interpretations are nevertheless an unavoidable issue.) The Empress as my year card and my significator could represent that I’ll have a particularly creative year, for instance. One where I gestate ideas and birth projects. There are many ways to be a mother, after all. And this is indeed how I read the card in my Year Ahead spread. I’m not going to interpret my entire reading here–that’s personal–but the Empress’s placement in conjunction with Strength and the Sun in my spread (pictured above) led me to a little epiphany about femininity in Tarot, one that has expanded my relationship to it and that I’d like to share with you here.
First, let’s put our Tarot Nerd glasses on and do a little comparative study.
If we put the Empress and Strength beside my aforementioned favorite witch-boi, the Magician, some similarities will become immediately apparent. Not only do the background colors, that warm marigold, all match, but they are all three situated in nature and garbed in white. The femme figure in the Strength card has her blonde hair arranged with a crown of leaves and flowers in a fashion reminiscent of the Empress’s blonde hair crowned with laurel and stars. Both figures are sumptuously curvy, and their appearance is similar enough that they could even be the same woman. At the same time, Strength has floating above her head the same lemniscate from the Magician, the symbol for infinity, representing divine knowledge. Furthermore, the belt of roses that hangs from her waist is perhaps the same garland of roses that hangs above the Magician.
Our study in femininity above is presented with this ceramic artifact my aunt found at a junk store, which can only be one lonely half of a set of breast-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers. I greedily acquired this during a family game of White Elephant, and now my partner and I treat it as a good luck totem and rub the nipple for luck, as some may rub the belly of a buddha.
Rachel Pollack, in 78 Degrees of Wisdom, recognizes this, too: “We can describe Strength as the Magician united with the Empress; that is, the Magician’s power of consciousness and direction has mingled with the Empress’s sensuality, giving it a sense of purpose . . . ” Seen this way, Strength is manifestation and actualization through the inner rather than outer, through the “feminine” qualities of compassion, sensuality, empathy, adaptability.
In my Year Ahead spread, the Empress and Strength stood out, along with the Sun and the 4 of Wands, all of them tied together through color and proximity. The Empress is, as already stated, my significator, my “me” card at this moment in time. The 4 of Wands is my foundation to build on from the last year, and Strength is my wisdom to come in the new year. The Sun, in all its fortuitous glory, is my work ready to begin.
There is a dialogue happening between these four cards, one about the source of success, vitality, fulfillment–those joyous promises of the Sun. The Sun is associated with active, “masculine” energy, but it’s the only outward-focused card in this set. There’s a message here about enacting external success through inner fortitude (Strength), through nurturing creativity (Empress), through rectifying the disparate elements within ourselves (Strength, and also Temperance) to find the balanced path and walk in the light of our own truth (the Sun).
But my attention kept being drawn back, drawn back, drawn back, to Strength.
In Pollack’s analysis, she nods to Strength’s gender-transcending properties: “Strength’s position, as first in the [second] line [of the Fool’s Journey], links the card to the Magician, as does the infinity sign . . . above her head. The reversal of sex indicates a joining of aspects from both the male and female archetypes. The Magician’s active involvement with life has been modified by the inner peace implied in the High Priestess.”
And herein began a lightbulb moment:
Strength is not only the merging of the Empress and the Magician, she’s also, in a way, a gender-bent Magician. If that’s not queer enough for you, Strength represents the triumph of love over hate, and as such could be the veritable mascot of the LGBTQIA movement.
Strength is gentleness over force. Strength weathers the storm, doesn’t give up, keeps fighting.
Strength is getting to know your wild beast, your ugliness, your gnashing teeth, and not chaining it up but integrating it calmly and peacefully into your wholeness. I know you’re fucked up, Strength says. I know you’re messy. And that’s okay.
In Strength, we see a femme figure who is not weak or passive. No, she is not aggressive, but she is certainly active. We see a femme figure who is not pure or innocent; she gets her hands dirty, puts them straight into the lion’s steamy mouth. Moreover, she is not sexualized. Her identity, utility, and symbolism does not hinge on the output of her genitals.
Maybe Strength is my personal Divine Feminine. Maybe she’s the queered vision of the Empress that I’ve been searching for. She is not a wife nor a mother, or maybe she is but these roles do not define her. She has the fortitude and agency of the Emperor and the compassion and nurturing instinct of the Empress. Like the Magician, she is an active force in the world, a conduit of her own kind of magic. Like the High Priestess, she is in touch with her raw, wild, subconscious side, her emotional animal, the lion. She is in full control of herself, of it. The beast reaches out its tongue to lick her.
That lion with its friendly tongue is our past traumas, our fears, our inner demons, the tangles within ourselves that refuse to be smoothed out or glossed over. But Strength does not run away from these terrors. Instead, she stands beside the beast and places her hands tenderly and firmly on its snout. Don’t avoid these inner complexities, this card says, but also don’t obliterate them with force and perpetuate the cycle of violence. Sit with them instead. Listen to them, love them. Be gentle with yourself. Accept yourself. Be more than one thing. Be undefinable. Be brave. Be whatever the fuck you want to be. Be strong. Find peace.
In Strength, we find the merging and crossing of the “masculine” and “feminine” cards in myriad ways, and in combining these aspects Strength trans*forms them, becomes more than them, becomes something else entirely.
Maybe Strength is not my Divine Feminine, after all.
Maybe they’re my Divine Queer.