When the Emperor Becomes the Hanged One

This post features cards from the Muse Tarot and the Vindur Deck, with images created by Meg Jones Wall.

At the top of 2020, I wrote a piece about how this would be the year of the Emperor: a chance to take control of our narratives, build foundations for our future, clarify our goals and step into our power and decide who we want to be. And I still believe that all of those things are true — but it’s also true that a global pandemic has drastically changed daily life for just about everyone, that goals and ambitions have shifted, that the dreams that felt within reach a few months ago may now seem completely impossible. This may be a year to harness the energy of the Emperor and embrace a sense of focus, discipline, and intentional forward progress, but what happens when we must intentionally limit this movement? Where does all of that fire and energy and momentum go?

Many tarot readers are talking about the Tower these days, about how so many cracks are being revealed and systemic shortcomings are being exposed. But for those of us that weren’t in the dark about that, that have always seen and struggled against the flaws and weaknesses in the societies we live in, this is less of a Tower moment and more a time of the Hanged One, of forcing ourselves to sit in uncomfortable stillness for an uncertain amount of time. In many ways these two archetypes feel like opposites, with the Emperor’s need to control and build contrasting sharply with the Hanged One’s ability to yield, to give in, to wait. But there are beautiful lessons we can find when we look at these cards together, ways that we can deepen our understanding of both archetypes in our current context. With the world at a standstill, with so much uncertainty and powerlessness in the air, how can we understand the intersection of these two energies? And how can we harness both to find new strength and power?

The Hanged One is a card that sits within the second cycle of the major arcana, between Justice (or Strength, in some decks) and Death. On the heels of clarity around personal morals and ethics, after making some big decisions or adjustments, after prioritizing balance and equality, we find ourselves in a place of quiet stagnation. Often this lack of movement is something that we choose intentionally — putting ourselves in a place of discomfort, while knowing that it will lead to important progress and growth. At its simplest this is like a difficult yoga pose, one that is a struggle to hold but ultimately helps us build strength, flexibility, and a sense of deep pride in perseverance — but on a bigger level, it can be about fully giving up our power in a situation, letting someone or something else call all of the shots. We commit completely to waiting, to seeing what will happen when we stop trying to force movement and instead let things happen around us. We give something up in the hopes that we will gain something greater, something necessary, something beautiful.

But in this case, many of us are frustrated and frightened with our current forced surrender. We’re trying to find ways to survive, to thrive, within the confines of small homes, new responsibilities, limited resources. Many have lost employment, health insurance, a sense of security. Many others are shouldering additional burdens, caring for loved ones without the usual, necessary resources. And even the most introverted among us are struggling with the lack of connection, the fear for the future. It can feel impossible to dream right now, to imagine what the world looks like on the other side of this.

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If you’re someone that was particularly thrilled to work with the Emperor this year, to embrace personal power and take control of your narrative and make some real moves towards those clear, focused objectives, it may feel that you’re in free fall right now. But the Hanged One is not giving everything up just for the hell of it — they are making a conscious, deliberate choice to be quiet, to wait, to be patient. There’s a grief in this card, certainly, a sense of loss; not only because the card that follows the Hanged One is Death, but also because choosing stillness is itself a sacrifice. Knowing that the world is shifting and changing around us, even as we stay motionless, can be painful. But if we can resist the impulse to dwell on what we’ve lost and instead anticipate what is to come, what this patience could accomplish, it can help us find some healing even in the midst of discomfort.

Choosing to stay inside, to socially distance, to restrict contact with the world and the communities we live in, is technically optional. But it’s something that we’re deciding to do, because it ultimately protects us and the people around us in the best possible way. It contributes to a greater good, even though it requires deep and profound personal sacrifice, forces us to be uncomfortable. And while this isn’t something that anyone really wants to do, by choosing it anyway, we are absolutely stepping into the energy of the Hanged One. We are prioritizing the health of the many over our personal comfort. We are giving up some of our freedoms in the hope that it will create a world that is more stable, more safe. And in letting these establishments break, in watching these structures of capitalism and greed and the power of the few collapse in on themselves, in seeing how others are starting to discover how deeply broken some of these systems are, we can begin to imagine another kind of world, the possibility for new growth, balance, and safety.

When we look at the Emperor and the Hanged One together, we still see the power of choice and decisive action. We see a clarity of purpose, a personal intention, a willingness to focus on what matters and leave the rest behind, and recognize that both cards understand what they’re working towards. We tend to see the Emperor and Aries as being full of fire and power, as needing to be in charge, but remember too that for goals to be clear, for objectives to be focused, we must first know ourselves intimately. This rich sense of intention did not come out of nowhere — the Emperor asks us to dig deep, to be honest about what we want, to love ourselves enough to focus those desires and make plans to build the future that we need. And although the Emperor represents stepping into power while the Hanged One asks us to give that power up, both cards offer us a path forward, a way to reach the goals and ambitions that we hold in our hearts. The Emperor may be craving movement, may reach their goals by pushing ahead in an orderly way, but the Hanged One trusts that things will fall into place even if they aren’t there controlling every step, every breath, every shift. We can clarify our purpose and then step back, letting our humility and submission provide new strength and magic. We can breathe deeply, find power in patience, and see what the world looks like when we open our eyes again. And after letting the Emperor help us understand what we need and crave at our deepest levels, the Hanged One can give us the freedom to surrender, to release the pressure of needing to do everything ourselves.

The Emperor has not disappeared. There is still so much rich potential in the air, but it requires us to make some adjustments, to consider new pathways forward. Even if the way you reach those dreams is evolving, the dreams themselves likely have not left you. And while the Emperor may not burst with creativity in the same way that we often view the Magician or the Empress, there is still a deep sense of innovation and power, of cutting through the bullshit and focusing on what really matters. We may be sacrificing a lot right now, but you still have control over some aspects, have the ability to choose where you’re putting your energy. And even in setting small goals, in making sure you shower at least once a week or eat more than one meal a day or keep your kids from tearing the house to pieces, you are still harnessing that Emperor energy. You are still taking control where you can, and giving it up where you must.

This combination of archetypes is inviting us to truly be with ourselves, to honor our most powerful urges and needs and desires, to listen to the wisdom that emerges in this period of stillness and stagnation. And while the Hanged One asks us to wait quietly instead of pushing hard, to surrender to the experience instead of fighting against what we cannot control, this is also a chance to understand what drives us, fulfills us, inspires us. What are you dreaming of? What has become more important to you, and what have you realized isn’t worth your energy? What are you learning about yourself, your partner, your community? What longings and desires are becoming even more clear?

I know that this reframing doesn’t necessarily make your daily lives any easier. So many of us are lonely, angry, feeling powerless or helpless or hopeless. I’m not pretending that diving deeper into a challenging tarot archetype will change the circumstances that you’re in, the choices you’ve felt forced to make, the anxiety you’re wrestling with every day. But in recognizing what we are choosing to surrender, in giving ourselves credit for the difficult decisions we’re making and the ways that we are working to adapt, we can find a bit of satisfaction during this impossible moment in time. In remembering why we’re making the choices that we’re making, we can find strength of purpose, pride in generosity, connection even in challenges. And I hope that in embracing the power that comes with stillness, you can find a bit of hope for a new kind of future.

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Meg is a freelance photographer, writer, and tarot reader living in New York City.

Meg has written 37 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I used this spread (with my Slow Holler deck) and loved it so much! Thank you! I had a lovely evening my cards and my candles and my wine and some evergreen sprigs for burning that I gathered in the backyard.

    In Slow Holler, the Emperor is reimagined as “The Navigator”, and the Hanged One is “The Precipice”. I dove into these cards and what they mean for me in my body and my little space pod of isolation right now. They both felt really true for me — I have a strong sense of order and navigation in my life right now, but… like many people in quarantine, I’m also relaxing into the various constraints and suspension of The Precipice right now. Learning how to do some conflicting things at the same time — to wait, to float, to adjust and guide and stay on course.

    I also pulled:

    Two of Stones {an existing structure to adjust}

    This image of two stones balanced on a point — this dynamic and flexible balance, active and skillful and moment-to-moment adaptation to shifting and unpredictable circumstances — this rang very true to me right now. Stay grounded. Embrace the fluidity. I can do this. It reminds me of Kora the moment she figures out how to be an Airbender.

    Eight of Vessels {a sacrifice to embrace}

    “Allow your mourning to be generative.” This card felt like the perfect sentiment for the moment, and the image of the weeping sky with broken bottles growing new plants felt exactly right too. I engaged with the things I mourn in my life, and the things I’m sacrificing now, and what to embrace that can transform what’s lost into new growth.

    The Lovers {a reminder of your power}

    I’m single, I’m isolating alone, I find the illustration on this card kind of scary (their hair is BRAIDED TOGETHER, that is too too much for me!), and so I struggled with this card. Perhaps the power I’m uncovering here is the relationship I’m developing with myself in my solitude, and how maybe I can carry that forth into my friendships and a romantic relationship…

    Student of Branches {a new way to create magic}

    Foremost on my mind lately — the lack of access to “the most perfect thing” in all circumstances has blasted past my own paralytic perfectionism and set me free to tinker, experiment, and learn in a way I haven’t let myself before. This experiential, experimental knowledge I’m building with my body — from knitting to art to exercise to new spots to open water swim solo, where I’ve learned the patterns of the wind, tide, and water visibility with my body rather than with books — is for sure my new magic. I want to keep feeding this spark long after quarantine is over.

    <3 Thank you again, I just wanted to share my reading to show you how important your essay was to me.

  2. I’ve been umming and ahhing about the Muse Tarot and now you’ve got me interested in the Vindur as well! This column is dangerous to my wallet!

    As always, absolutely wonderfully written. A good perspective, thank you.

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