The Emperor is the animus to the Empress' anima. He is the Father to the Mother. He is masculine energy, majesty, and authority.
Barbara G. Walker's Emperor, shown above, is a confident man with a long beard, which is a sign of masculine maturity, tights not withstanding. The fact that the beard is black shows he is in the prime of his virility. His eagle-blazened shield symbolizes his honor and nobility. His orb and scepter illustrate his kingship. The mountains and broad sky behind him show the reach of his power and possibility.
Robin Wood's Emperor also has the full beard of maturity and virility, but it is shot with gray to temper that virility with wisdom. It is also gold, like a lion's mane, to show his regality. He is crowned with the laurel leaves of a philosopher king, and clothed in the red of fire-y power and the purple of royalty. He's got the whole world at his feet, and his arm rests have ram's heads, a symbol of sexuality and power. His codpiece also has a ram's head ;).
His animals are also important symbols. His head is flanked by two birds. I see these birds as ravens, and they remind me of Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Huginn means "thought" and Muninn means "memory." They are Odin's loyal servants, who keep him informed. Thus, the Emperor in a spread may indicate that the questioner must know who their friends are, and whom they can trust to be honest and true. It also may be telling the questioner that they have intuitive powers and shamanic prowess. This is underscored by his silver-y armor. This isn't just brawn; it's brains too. A real man embraces the Feminine. Sometimes, the Emperor may want to remind a powerful questioner of that fact.
Sometimes, the Emperor reminds me of Odin in his sacrificial aspect. One important thing about Odin is that he gave himself over to great pain to obtain knowledge of the Runes and give it to the people. Sometimes, the Emperor is there to tell us that the ultimate manly act is to sacrifice oneself--either to gain knowledge, or, even better, to help others.
Mary Guinan's illustration for Julian De Burgh's Celtic Deck shows the Emperor in a state of meditation, even melancholy. Did he see something in his orb that has brought him to this state? Or is he simply weary? What has him so worried?
Or, is he thinking of a solution to a problem?
Has he forgotten that, as The Emperor, he has the power to solve the problem, and the wisdom to find a solution? Is this what the card is trying to tell the questioner?
While I mentioned that The Emperor may remind the questioner that real masculine power must also have elements of tenderness, The Emperor may also want the questioner to embrace power, action, and force, no matter what gender. Kris Waldherr, creator of The Goddess Deck, chose Freyja, the Norse goddess of beauty and love. Freyja, a member of the peaceful Vasir, was given in marriage to broker peace between the Vasir and the war-loving Aesir. She balances action and rest, strength and gentleness. Waldherr writes, in her companion book for the deck, "Freyja becomes the link between the old world--before iron tools--and the new, where power was often expressed in violence instead of through diplomacy and tolerance. She shows that true power lies in the ability to discriminate between aggression and passivity--and the ability to choose between them at the correct time" (Waldherr 26).
Power comes from balance between opposites.
If the Emperor does not represent the questioner, he (or she, in Freyja's case) may represent someone in the questioner's life, usually a figure in power, typically a father figure, or another male presence in the questioner's life, or a woman with traditionally "masculine" attributes. This person is a good leader, someone who is kind and powerful.
Reversed, The Emperor may indicate someone who is either too weak, and is being used as a doormat, or someone who is aggressive and bullying. It may also indicate a person who is simply incompetent, especially in a leadership position. Knowing the situation will help you figure it out.
This post is dedicated, with love, to Jim Carmody--1922-2012.