Tarocchino Arlecchino: The Empress

. . . the Elle-woman is young and of a fair and attractive countenance, but behind she is hollow like a dough-trough.

Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology (p. 81)
The Empress from Tarocchino Arlecchino.

The Elf-king’s daughter

If you look through my past drawings, you can likely guess that I am a big fan of the British folk/rock band Steeleye Span. This time, the song I’m working in is “Dance With Me” from All Around My Hat (1975). In essential Steeleye Span fashion, the song is aggressively catchy in a very 1970s way, with Maddy Prior’s falsetto joined by a fiddle in a jaunty tune, and, when you tune in to the lyrics, you find it is all about lies and stabbing.

The poem is about a valiant young knight riding on the eve of his wedding day, who to his misfortune comes across an elf-dance. The Elf-king’s daughter* propositions him, offering all sorts of gifts in exchange for a dance, but he stays true to his fiancee. Loyalty does him no good – when she realizes he’s a hopeless case, the Elf-woman runs him through with her spear.

And if thou wilt not dance with me,
Scathe and sickness shall follow thee!
She struck Sir Oluf under his heart,
Deep in its roots he felt the smart.

“The Elfin Shaft,” translated by E. M. Smith-Dampier in Danish Ballads (1920, p. 117)

Steeleye Span’s upbeat ditty ends on this death-blow, in other versions he continues to ride pale and bloodless to meet his mother and fiancee and die in the woods shortly thereafter, putting a serious damper on the wedding festivities.

The Empress

The Empress offers a globe of golden moon and stars, and in her other hand carries her heart shaped spear to quickly dispatch any foolish young man who should refuse to join her dance. The blood flies from her spear and spills on the ground.

Harlequin, hellequin, Herla-king, Erl-king, Elf-king. Perhaps it’s just a series of sound-alikes, but I like the connection. I “met” the Erl-king through Schubert’s song. Knowing no German I assumed that Erlkönig meant Elf-king, but evidently even though it was meant as a translation of Elf-king, it translates instead to Alder-king. Accordingly, the Erl-king’s daughter wears alder leaves and catkins in her crown.

I think this will be my last foray into the land of sinister elves for this deck. I will continue to more traditional Arlecchino imagery rather than his murky origins. Still, these questionable characters are fitting for these questionable trumps. In the modern tarocchino the Empress and Emperor were changed into two of the four Moors (the other two are the Female Pope and Pope). In turn, Etteilla changed the Empress to the Stars.

The card’s upright meaning pertains to night, obscurity, the occult – the time when the Elf-ladies dance. The Elf-king’s daughter hides behind a mask (though of course in this series, she is not alone in that). Like all fairies, she offers a glamorous front to veil sinister goings-on.

Reversed, the sun pierces through. Perhaps then Sir Olf will have a guiding light through the mists to bypass the elf circle.

Keywords (translated from Julia Orsini)

Upright: night, darkness, obscurity, nocturnal, mystery, secret, mask, hidden, unknown, clandestine, occult, eclipse, veil, mist, image, parable, allegory, mystical meaning, veiled remarks, mysterious words, obscure discourse, occult science, unvoiced plots, machinations, in secret, clandestinely, madness, obliviousness, blindness, obfuscate, cover up, envelop, forget, oblivion, cover, sheath

Reversed: day, brightness, clarity, light, brilliance, splendor, illumination, manifestation, demonstration, evidence, truth, clear, visible, luminous, enlighten, illuminate, engender, give life to, uncover, bring light to, publish, come out, bloom, break through, emerge, come to light, become clear, acquire knowledge, public joys, illuminations, fireworks, zodiac


* As far as I know, this King of Elf-land’s daughter is unrelated to the one written by Lord Dunsany (where the elf-princess herself is the young man’s intended bride). But worry not, some former Steeleye Span members teamed up with Christopher Lee to make a concept album around that novel as well, because nobody can speak the word “elf” without someone from Steeleye Span appearing.

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