Strength, stability and structure - the 4's, the Emperor (IV), and Death (XIII or 1+3)
March 11, 2017
The Fours are cards that embody structure, foundation and a building up of those things that we want to bring to form in our lives. They are a step along from the Threes, where decisions started to take shape, and initial actions and plans were leading to first steps, and that in turn leads to the Fours where those efforts take shape, grounding themselves into powerful places of strength for us.
If we think about one of the most important things in shaping our lives, the home, it's traditionally a 4-sided structure, built to withstand the rigors and weather the storms that are sent to test it. It's no coincidence that Cancer is the 4th Astrological House, which talks about home and hearth, family and our roots - those things that shape us, give us a sense of stability and groundedness.
The Fours deal primarily with how that structure permeates our lives. It is more set and structured than the previous Threes, although it can be more stubborn and restricted as a result, but it's yet to embody the complexities, conflict and struggles that we see in the Fives ahead. So, in the individual Minors, we see: setting up a structure, and laying down roots and connections, physically, emotionally and spiritually (Four of Wands); the recognition that our structure might provide some benefits in terms of security and resilience, but that a wall to keep others out can also keep us in, focused on the physical or material nature of things (Four of Pentacles); the need for meditation, rest, recovery and recouperation - a call to self-care and to find welcome solace in grounding ourselves, after the trials and tribulations of the Two and Three before it (Four of Swords); becoming bored or stale with the established status quo, and failing to recognise those benefits and strengths that are enjoyed in the now (Four of Cups).
When we see multiple Fours appear in a reading, they will talk about strength and authority, and how it's used (or abused); structure, and how it can provide a castle of solace, or lock us away from the world; call us to recognise that we should be grateful for those things that allow us to stand tall and reach for the stars, while not being held back out of fear of the 'new' or of finding disappointment; that we need to welcome planning and organisation into our lives, and yet not be eternally bound by it, leaving room for individuality to grow and flourish; to ground ourselves and embrace the structure of home and hearth, the security of family (however we define it) and the strength of shared connection and shared efforts.
The Major Fours appear in the first two septs, Physical and Mental, but not in the ephemeral and shifting Spiritual sept, probably for good reason! The Physical Four is the Emperor, and there isn't another card in the Majors that embodies the resilience, strength and structure of him. The Emperor is traditionally portrayed as an armoured older gentleman, sitting on a throne adorned with rams heads, and holding a sceptre and orb (and sometimes a sword in hand or at his hip). He embodies the strength and defensive nature of the Four, coupled with the powers of leadership and control. Surrounded by mountains, the Emperor is unyielding, enjoying the luxury of a defensible position, and his rich robes and appointments show how this position has benefited him and made him confident, wealthy and focused on helping others, like a father-figure who 'knows best'. The Emperors planetary association is Mars, showing a potentially more martial aspect to the card, that could become despotic, if the status quo of what the Emperor has built is disrespected or dismissed foolishly, and the rams heads remind us of the connection to Aries, the first sign, the house of self-awareness, the physical body, and ego, as well as leadership and strength as the first of many. Here in the Physical, the Emperor is fixed, formidable and formed.
As we move onto the other Four, Death (XIII or 1+3), set in the Mental Sept, characterising the more transformative energies, we begin to see how the structure and immovability of the Four must embrace the creativity and energy of the One and the restructuring/compromise/recognition of others of the Three, to ensure that the home does not become a prison; that structure and walls do not cut us off from the world around us; that familiar patterns and stability do not bind us to unhealthy situations that need to develop and grow with us; and that we do not rush to defend that which has become untenable out of habit or misguided loyalty. Building structure into our lives is something that must be periodically revisited, to ensure we have not outgrown its boundaries, and, by doing so, fettered our own growth. Death is often portrayed as a skulled or skeletal figure in a black robe or black armour, carrying a scythe or a black flag with a white flower design, walking or riding through a field in which he (she/it) tramples over prone figures, one of which is usually portrayed in rich vestments and wearing a crown (the Emperor, perhaps?). The flag, a white flower on a black field, talks about rebirth after death, and the need to cull or cut back in order to allow for growth to occur. Often seen as a portent, ill-omen or 'bad card' in the Majors, the Death has something of an unfair reputation - after all, would we stay in the family home, if we outgrow it, trying to squeeze a family of 6 into a house built for 3? Should we stay in a relationship because it is familiar and comforting, even though we die a little more each day, knowing that it is not fulfilling us? Do we insist on staying in a job that is slowly killing us with stress or destroying our ambition with boredom, because we fear what giving up that security might mean?
Death represents the ugly truth, in the saying that most people would 'prefer a beautiful lie to the ugly truth', and as such, we can resist it, rail against it, and make change an unwelcome guest in a situation that is stifling us. Death does not mean that we must throw the baby out with the bathwater, but simply recognise that the baby is now a grown person, and needs a bigger bath, their own place, and a way to fulfill their place in it. Death is a call to 'sharpen the saw' (or scythe), to be bold, and cut away those things that no longer serve us, so that we can replace them with things that do, reinvigorating, revitalising, and ultimately, strengthening our lives, our resolve and our selves, such that we are a better, bigger, brighter version of that structured Four that seeks to serve us so well!
It's the Fours that call on us to welcome solid foundations, structure, and protection into our lives...but not at the cost of being too limited or bound to tradition or the familiar, that we cannot move beyond it, living our lives as a snapshot of 'once upon a time'. They are cards of construction, building, finalising and facilitating, strengthening and stabilising.
What are your experiences of the Fours in Tarot? I'd love to hear your thoughts!