Death and the Emperor


The Fairytale Tarot

Designed by Karen Mahony

Illustrated by Alex Ukolov

Published by Magic Realist Press

As many of us oldies know, fairytales are the most potent medicines we have. They set us up for life: they teach us wrong from right, they teach us guilt and happiness, fear and responsibility, punishment and reward, fairness and unfairness. In addition, tales with malign female images like “wicked witches”, “evil stepmothers” and “bad fairies”, show a small child ways of dealing with a loving mother when they suddenly don’t seem so loving: when they punish you for doing things you didn’t understand were bad, or when they don’t provide physical closeness at times when you may be craving it. At such times, fairytales suggest, your rightful mother has been merely “replaced” by a wicked witch or an evil stepmother instead of turning bad themselves, which figure will eventually be ousted at the end of the story and replaced by either the rightful loving mother or by some other longed-for loving figure.

Likewise male figures: how often has the “good king” or the father died in a fairystory, to be replaced by the Evil Vizier, the Dragon, the Black Knight, or the Giant who needs to be vanquished by either the child-protagonist or the hero-in-waiting before the hero-in-waiting can replace that beneficent absent male?

I got to thinking about the Emperor and Death in the MRP Fairytale deck. I had to pull the deck out anyway for a different reason, so I had another look at these two cards.

Every time I use this deck, much as I love it, I am always disappointed by the Emperor. To me, in the Tarot deck, the Emperor should be a card of power and command. Yet the fairytale used is the Emperor and the Nightingale, a story about a vain ruler on his deathbed at the mercy of his vizier, who hears a bird singing in his garden, and tells the vizier to capture the bird in a cage for his listening pleasure. Of course, the bird pines and doesn’t sing, and eventually they set it free. The vizier has a mechanical nightingale built on clockwork principles, but the emperor does not find its mechanical song healing. Messengers are sent out, the length and breadth of the kingdom until the little bird is found, and informed of the Emperors impending death, he flies back and sings outside the window of his sickroom. The emperor dies anyway, but presumably dies happier.

I’ve known this fairystory since childhood, and to me it has always been sensationally beautiful but also very, very sad – the Emperor never recovers, and the bird flies away never to be seen again. As soon as I saw this card I was thinking: Shouldn’t this be the Death card, the transition from illness and pain to death and rest?

So I pulled out the Death card. Its story is Godfather Death, which I originally knew as Death and the Soldier. In the tale, a boy’s father accepts Death as the godfather of his last child (in the version I knew, a soldier returning by foot from a battle to his home town met Death in an inn), they had some kind of dialogue, and Death ended up in the soldier’s debt. Whichever version you are familiar with, Death feels an obligation (of love or debt) to the young man, and looks after him, setting him up as a healer, telling him that if he stands at the head of the bed the person will recover, but if he stands at the foot of the bed, the person will surely die. No one but the soldier/godson can see the figure of Death in the room. He becomes famous as a great healer, able to tell who will recover and who is beyond all help.

And that, too, is a brilliant choice for a Death card. Looking at the two images, Death has the Grim Reaper escorting an obviously young and vibrantly healthy man into a subterranean chamber lit with candles that represent human lives – a lovely allegory of the Otherworld and Shamanic journeying, but not really, to my mind, the image of Tarot-Death so much as an image of a spirit-helper in the Otherworld, a much vaster concept than merely the land of the dead.

On the other hand, the Emperor shows an ill, pain-wracked and grey-skinned old man in a sumptuous bed obviously dying, a jewelled bird drooping by his bedside, a living bird outside the window singing his heart out to the moon, with the figure of Death by his bedside, holding the dying stub of a candle (symbolising life) and reaching his skeletal hand out to the forehead of the emperor in a tender embrace.

An image of power? An image of command? No. An image of death and transformation.

I love this deck, I love it a lot. But to me it has two different Death cards and no Emperor. I am left wondering why Death is so important. After all, isn’t life important? Do we and all of nature spend the bulk of our time caring for and/or providing for our offspring, directly or indirectly, so our own essence (or DNA) encapsulated within them might survive beyond our own bodies, and be translated into the future, generation after generation? Life is about life.

But living things wear out, and worn-out things die. I am reminded of another fairytale, when a soldier catches Death and ties him up in a magic sack. From that moment, nothing in the world dies. Even seasonal plants like grains and herbs keep springing back after the harvest, becoming woodier and weedier and less edible. Old fruit trees that are no longer bearing cannot be grubbed out of the ground and burnt – their wood remains too green to burn.

And sick, elderly and injured humans and animals cannot die, no matter how much pain they are in. The soldier lives for centuries, in an increasingly pain-wracked and feeble body. Legions of aged and infirm people beg him to release Death from the sack, but he cannot – his fingers have grown too feeble with age.

Death is a necessary part of our lives, and we all must face it sooner or later. For some of us it will be quick and traumatic. For others it will be relatively peaceful. For still others it will be accompanied by weeks, months or even years of illness and pain. However it comes, there is no getting around it. And in stories we contain our hopes and fears, our belief that someone, somewhere, will be able to bargain with Death, while ultimately realising that no one will truly ever be able to do so.

The Emperor card shows a mighty Emperor humbled and brought to his bed. He has ruled a vast kingdom reaching over many lands and seas, but now he no longer rules even his own bedroom or his own body. The wisest physicians in the land cannot help him. His is emaciated and drawn, his skin as grey as his heart. Nothing gives him pleasure or any relief from his pain – until a tiny, dowdy brown bird, a nightingale, sings in a tree by his bedroom window. Enchanted, he listens to this song of an innocent, free soul who can fly where and when it wants, and listening to this song, it seems to him that his pain is far away from him and does not matter any more.

When the bird flies away the pain comes back, and he calls his ministers and tells them to bring it to him in chains if necessary, so that it can be compelled to sing all day and all night for it. They catch the bird, and the emperor instructs that it be given a beautiful cage of gold, studded with gems, and only the finest of meat for food and wine for drink. The bird pines and refuses to sing. When the
Emperor asks why, he bird tells him that even the most gilded cage is still a cage, something which the Emperor in the cage of his inform body and his bed is uncomfortably aware of. So he gives instructions that the bird be freed, and that his royal watchmakers construct him a bejewelled clockwork bird that sings, to take its place. The nghtingale flies away, and the artificial bird is made. It sings and sounds a lot like the real bird, but somehow its song is not so satisfying; and used over and over, it soon breaks.

The Emperor’s health becomes worse and worse, and calls are sent out to the furthest reaches of the empire to seek the bird and beg it to return. It has a kind heart: hearing of the Emperor’s plight, it returns, sits on the same branch out side the Emperor’s bedroom, and sings sweetly. Colour comes back into the Emperor’s face and his pain melts away in the beauty of the song and the compassion of the little bird, and he is able to die at last, peacefully and free of pain.

Aspects of this story could be an Emperor card: the might of a ruler whose word causes a single small bird to be sought in a vast empire is impressive, as is his ability to command craftsmen to make an exact replica of the song of a living creature. Aspects of this story could also be The Star: the nightingale, whose song brings relief to the darkness and a glimmer of distant happiness and hope. Even the gentle touch of the hand of Death on the forehead of the Emperor could be the caress of a concerned parent.

But to me this card was, is, and probably will always be, dominated by Death in a very Tarotic sense: the passage or transition of the Emperor from a bed of pain and misery to a peaceful and pain-free death, aided only by the song of an innocent bird as his guide forwards.

This is possibly the most beautiful card of a beautiful deck.

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