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The Tarot of the Elves High Priestess

This post was written by Barbara Moore
on November 10, 2009 | Comments (26)

hpelvesThe High Priestess from the Tarot of the Elves is probably one of the most controversial images in tarot. Many people were appalled and had a very strong negative reaction to this card. However, people don’t have a problem associating The High Priestess with the Greek goddess Persephone. She was kidnapped by Hades, the god of Death, and taken to the underworld to live–kidnapped, taken from her family and a life she loved to live underground. She was, in a sense, dead. Without the experience of her death, the joy and power of her consequent rebirth could not have been. Many initiatory experiences recreate a symbolic death. We find them in most mystery religions, many modern pagan and shamanic traditions, and even in the Protestant full immersion baptism. Study, a function of The Hierophant, comes first, followed by experience or the initiation. There are things, truths of the universe, which cannot be learned by study; they must be experienced and death symbolizes a strong transformational experience.  And despite the calm, peaceful demeanor of most High Priestesses, I cannot imagine that such a death is easy or clean. For this reason, the pain and the immediacy of this card draws me in, even as it does, as it is meant to, repels. It speaks of the experience that comes before the calm and the knowing.

What do you think?

Reader Comments

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#1 
Written By Penny
on November 10th, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

Wow, that is one powerful image; I’ve never seen this deck before (where have I been??), but I can see why some would react negatively. The High Priestess is seen in many decks as the untouchable, the unreachable..she’s there, but not really. This card is so in-your-face, and makes the High Priestess so real. I like your point – the High Priestess cannot sit between this and the other world/realm without having experienced both aspects of the two worlds at some point in her life. And this card points to that, making her more real than people may like. She really is not as untouchable as we might believe. Really intense!

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#2 
Written By Barbara Moore
on November 10th, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

Thanks, Penny. I seem to get a bit worked up over the tarot underdogs, such as a Hierophant, and this particular image of the High Priestess. I am looking forward to reading what others have to say, too.

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#3 
Written By lada
on November 10th, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

the image triggered an association with the famous photo of the woman screaming over the body of a student at Kent State.
perhaps the disquieting affect is to keep me from feeling complacent about this card, to keep me from thinking I already know the answers.
the shadows of the pillars in the foreground don’t add up with the source of light in the background

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#4 
Written By Barbara Moore
on November 10th, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

Lada, that is an intense and tragic association. Feeling complacent about the High Priestess and her wisdom probably is a very dangerous thing! I think I understand and see what you mean about the light. Is the effect simply distracting or does it add to the jarring image?

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#5 
Written By kevin Quigley
on November 10th, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

While, for myself, I think I could make the leap to use this image in a reading; there’s no freaking way I’d use the deck with a client. No freaking way – just the need to explain what’s going on there, would derail many, many consultations.

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#6 
Written By Irmata
on November 10th, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

I was excited to see this card being discussed, given its infamy ;)

My problem with this card is that she’s not just dead, she’s been murdered. I infer this from the clawed “WHY???” fists of the other figure, although I could be wrong. If it was a ritual death, or the death of the old priestess to make way for the new, it would be different. But this speaks of… violation. The loss, no – THEFT – of something precious and irreplaceable and sacrosanct. She did not make this sacrifice of her own free will.

Now, you might equate Persephone’s descent in relation to this, but there are texts that read that she went willingly and knowingly into the Underworld and was not the victim of rape, as so often portrayed. If this image depicted suicide even, it would be less jarring and more symbolic, but as it stands, I am firmly in the DO NOT WANT camp!

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#7 
Written By Barbara Moore
on November 10th, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

Excellent! Now we are cooking.

Kevin brings up a very good question. Even if you responded favorably to this image, would you use it for reading for others? Why or why not?

Irmata adds an interesting point: in initiations the act is voluntary. How does that weaken, affect, or change my point? I think that fact that is was more real and more violent and more final than a ritual act makes it even more real and powerful for me.

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#8 
Written By James Wells
on November 10th, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

It’s certainly interesting, but for me the RWS and Gaian versions of the High Priestess are the strongest.

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#9 
Written By Ellen-Mary
on November 10th, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

I wouldn’t use this card in a reading for others. Many people don’t react well to the RWS Death card and the 10 of Swords I can only imagine what the response would be to the scene of a murdered priestess. It looks like a crime scene, which it technically is, and the man in the illustration seems to have just found the body. I doubt that most querents would hear what you have to say about death, rebirth or the experience of initiation after seeing that picture.

I’m not familiar with this deck but looking at that illustration now makes me wonder if the initiation/transformation experience is his. Is he learning, from the death of the high priestess, what is and is not important? People can tell you about the transformative effects of the death of a loved one but until you live it you can’t really know. It puts many things into perspective and you get very clear about what really matters in life.

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#10 
Written By Barbara Moore
on November 10th, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

Ah, no argument there…the Gaian HP is amazing (as is that whole deck, in my opinion).

But I have never warmed to the RWS HP. Ironically, in a meeting today, I told the committee to use that image on the cover of my upcoming book. I am in the minority; most people equate the RWS HP with tarot reading and most readers really identify with her.

Thanks for stopping by, James.

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#11 
Written By Helen
on November 10th, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

It’s certainly an image that identifies with the transition that can be made when lifting oneself out of the physical in order to know the spiritual.

I’m with James though when I agree the RWS HP has the most symbolism for me.

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#12 
Written By Lunaea Weatherstone
on November 10th, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

I see what you’re saying, Barbara, but my take on this card is that it isn’t about the high priestess, it’s about the DEATH of the high priestess. It’s not a symbolic death as part of a rite of initiation or a metaphor for the cycle of renewal as represented by Persephone or Inanna. This is a human death — there’s a big old honkin’ pool of blood there. Why is violence being done to the voice of feminine wisdom? I don’t like to leap to conclusions about cards I haven’t seen, but as a priestess and a feminist, this card does offend me and would put me off the whole deck.

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#13 
Written By Mark McElroy
on November 11th, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

Thanks for featuring the card in this blog entry, Barbara.

Some responses to this card point to a limitation faced by certain contemporary Tarot card readers, who tend to confuse reading the cards with projecting personal issues upon them.

This approach to reading the cards is popular — primarily, I think, because it does not require its adherents to read any books. But this approach is also a bit limiting, in the same way that trying to study art history by staring in a mirror would be, and the rewards gleaned through exclusive application of this approach will be limited, as well.

The event depicted on this card is not shrouded in secrecy; its nature, its purpose, the characters involved, their relationship, and even the ultimate fate of Priestess are laid out in great detail in the novella that accompanies the deck.

And, as Barbara has been kind enough to note, even this scene is little more than a pale echo of many similar scenes, played out in many settings with many characters wearing many masks. The content may be disturbing … but, perhaps, some Truths should be.

In my personal experience, the loudest critics of this card frequently admit (often in their very next breath) that they have no knowledge whatsoever about the card … or the deck … or the story behind it.

In response, I can only note that, sometimes, Secret Wisdom *does* lie, neglected and bleeding, on the ground … and, sometimes, those complaining the loudest about this assault are the very ones holding the knife.

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#14 
Written By Lunaea Weatherstone
on November 12th, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

May I respond to Mark? Since he seems to be responding at least in part to my message immediately above his.

I mentioned that I didn’t know anything about the deck and the story behind it to clarify that my reaction was based purely on the imagery of this one card, which is what was up for discussion. But my reaction doesn’t exist in a vacuum — I’ve been reading the tarot (and yes, books about tarot) for nearly 40 years. I completely support any artist’s freedom to bring a new take to any of the cards, just as I did when I created my own deck, which takes tremendous liberties with traditional tarot imagery. I was just expressing my own reaction to this image, that it isn’t for me personally. It doesn’t mean I’m ignorant about the tarot or a shallow reader. In my opinion, tarot is first and foremost a visual tool. If the images don’t work for me, then it isn’t the right deck for me. I do understand about being a bit defensive about your artwork — for example, I chose an image of Sean Connery to represent the Emperor in my own collage deck and more than one person has objected to that on the grounds that Connery is a wife-beater (in their opinion). It stung to not have my meaning seen clearly, and it sounds like you had the same reaction here, Mark. I certainly was not taking a knife to your interpretation of Secret Wisdom. I wish you well!

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#15 
Written By Irmata
on November 12th, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

I also want to add that my response was purely to the question being asked, namely “What do you think of this card as the High Priestess?” I’m sure it _does_ have a great back-story in terms of the deck and book that goes along with it, but I am not familiar with it. That does not mean that my reaction (or anyone else’s) is incorrect or invalid _in relation to the question_. To imply that anyone who does not like this card is lazy, has personal issues and is afraid of the truth is jumping to conclusions.

Mark, as the creator of the deck, maybe you could educate us as to the story behind the card. I am interested to see how many of us would feel differently if we knew the aim of this artwork.

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#16 
Written By Barbara Moore
on November 13th, 2009 @ 6:43 am

Many questions are surfacing in these comments. As with many things connected with tarot, complexity is the name of the game.

Later today, I’m going to do a further entry about the points I think are raised by this entry and the comments, which have little to do with this specific card.

In the meantime, feel free to add more comments. I’ll definitely check them before posting.

Thank you!

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#17 
Written By lada
on November 13th, 2009 @ 9:28 am

my understanding was that Sean Connery and his wife had a consensual S&M thing going on.

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#18 
Written By Barbara Moore
on November 13th, 2009 @ 9:47 am

I’m not sure I want to know any of this about Sean Connery.

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#19 
Written By Mark McElroy
on November 14th, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

Because tone can be difficult to “hear” in text, I would like to clarify something: in my earlier post, I was very careful to address general trends and attitudes I’ve encountered personally — not to address any specific person here, or any specific person’s comment made before my own.

Some final notes;

- I do think there’s room in my personal collection for decks that feature more than smiling, rainbow-hued prancing unicorns or rehashes of Rider-Waite-Smith themes and images. I do think it’s okay for a deck to incorporate cards that startle or unsettle me or my clients. I think that some truths are disturbing, and I think that the language of Tarot should be diverse enough to address those truths.

- I don’t think every deck is for everybody. I don’t think every deck can or should be or has to be for everybody.

- I don’t think the Tarot of the Elves is for everybody. Some folks will like it. Some folks won’t. I don’t take it personally when people don’t like this deck, but I do like to point out the difference between what’s actually going on in the card and what people *imagine* is going on there.

- I do think that knowing the story behind this particular card is absolutely essential to fully understanding and appreciating it. I do think there are important messages that the Tarot of the Elves (once you learn its language and symbol set) can deliver with this card that you will *not* get from drawing the High Priestess from, say, the Waite-Smith.

But lacking that context, I can see how folks would imagine all sorts of things going on. Many people will be content to stop there, with what they have imagined, and never find out more. Some, though, will be motivated to ask questions and dig a little deeper.

I have a special place in my heart for those kinds of people, and I confess I made this deck especially for them.

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#20 
Written By Bobby Jack
on November 18th, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

The Hermit’s Inward Search for hidden meaning reveals The High Priestess, She Represents the Moon, Which is the Sum of all things Past, The Reflection of those things which are no more is the foundation of Intuition and the Bases of Emotion. The High Priestess is at the Root of the whole death experience. She mingles in the Darkness with the Deception of Shadows from the Past and the whispers of the Lower self. The Sadness Personified in the Separation of the Moon
And the Sun, is all about the Persecution of GODDESS and the Dis-unity of Self in the lower realms.

The Moon Goddess speakes to us of the never ending cycle of rebirth and decay in the realm of Sorrow and Karma.

I find the Artwork most fitting.

Bobby Jack

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#21 
Written By Blackbird
on January 6th, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

Sorry about the Lateness of this post I only just really found this blog…

I must admit I am not familiar with this deck and am reacting strictly to the Art itself, which is certainly beautifully executed and disturbing; IMHO the first question we must ask ourselves is whether the 2nd Character knelling at the head of the slain woman, the woman herself. Do we see the soul having passed through the veil on the other side of the archway … If so we have a very different card, than if as IRMATA suggests she has been murdered, “I infer this from the clawed “WHY???” fists of the other figure.” Perhaps, but I tend to see the figure bringing the thumb and forefinger of otherwise open hands together in a more meditational pose.

Ritual death, even unto real death; is quite a different thing from Murder; which in the ancient world was held to leave a restless, not enlightened spirit.

In the end I tend to like this card if only because;

If you have seen a person through Addiction, Alcoholism, other such troubles, you know the terrible price that must be paid to reach for the calm and wisdom the Priestess represents; the path to that attainment can be quite bloody indeed.

And while Kevin makes a good point about not using the Deck for Consulting, I personally only use 3 or 4 decks for consultations anymore; but a long standing part of my own practice has been to use reversals as a cue that basically says to me; this card, different deck and intuitively go to another deck. That Inner deck we all have, that is multidimensional and made up of all the various visions of various decks we have exposed ourselves too is surely enriched by exposure to challenging images like this one. It might make a very interesting deck to take ones own daily draws from for a month.

If feel compelled to take a moment for an aside on Marks comments, “Some responses to this card point to a limitation faced by certain contemporary Tarot card readers, who tend to confuse reading the cards with projecting personal issues upon them.
This approach to reading the cards is popular — primarily, I think, because it does not require its adherents to read any books. But this approach is also a bit limiting, in the same way that trying to study art history by staring in a mirror would be, and the rewards gleaned through exclusive application of this approach will be limited, as well.”

And I would say … at the end of the Day the Art has to speak for itself. It will have to speak to for itself in the context of any given reading for which the deck is selected. I find the hostility he expresses for people relying on their intuitive/ instinctual responses to the Art, as projecting there own issues on the cards odd, and perhaps a projection itself. After all Mark’s income comes from people reading Books, certainly he wants them to read those books.
I think most of us here understand,

Reading the Tarot is no “Instant” thing. IMHO it makes a good Year and Day project; just to develop a working relationship with your first deck. It can take a lifetime from there expanding that contract, expanding ones knowledge of the language ones guide speaks, through the Tarot; and yes Books can be helpful, but I don’t think we should rely on them to heavily; only when we have exhausted the possibilities for interpreting the art on its own merits first.

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#22 
Written By alexandra
on March 24th, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

perhaps the negativity this card is usually met with speaks of the ideas we have about death, of it being a dreadful thing & something that “takes away”, many people pretend it doesn’t exist or they run from it kicking & screaming, until they have to eventually surrender to it. this negative preception has to do with fear,

immediately upon seeing the card i felt the creature that is still alive & “above” her was in an entranced, connected state, conducting a sacred energy of love vulnerability, surrender & healing.

like sickness, which is imbalance, the “yucky stuff” has to surface in order to be cleansed ( they’re both in white & there’s an old aura of grey thickness clearing & airing out of them & around them )

& life is restored & replenished,
like the way your body needs sleep

those who meet this card ( or anyone or anything, for that matter ) with fear, have some getting in touch with themselves, some things to face within to do.

this feels like life balancing itself out,
in the moment we may not always understand
or see the big picture, the ultimate purpose
but it is always happening & when we let go of our preceptions, particularly the negative ones, we see & become in contact with all the beauty & love that is unfolding within & all around us

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#23 
Written By Nathalie
on February 18th, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

I think I must be in the minority because this deck’s High Priestess is probably my favourite HP card of any Tarot deck so far precisely because it is so striking. I understand why it has caused so much controversy, what with the blood (and implied murder, if one follows the storyline provided in the accompanying book), but personally, I think the visuals fit the conventional description of this card. I interpret the blood as the equivalent of the traditional veil hanging behind the HP, i.e. the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious, between life and death. The card’s typical feeling of passivity and quiet intuitive receptivity is aptly conveyed by the fact that she lays prone on the ground, which, in essence, is no different from her standard seated pose. Both are essentially passive, receptive, non-active positions. The distraught figure of the man at her side conveys to me the card’s other traditional meaning of asking “why?” – of mystery, of deep, hidden questions, issues or insights that have not yet seen the light of day.

All of this is just my humble opinion, of course.

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#24 
Written By Lorna
on May 28th, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

I am very new to tarot but saw this deck on the net and bought it. Oh! my what a wonderful deck, the story runs right through them, I have not read the book but it is clear from the cards what the story and the meanings are.
Those people who are negative about this deck are just looking at the cards individually and not the story as a whole which speaks for itself. This deck ‘speaks’ to me in a way that none of the other decks do. But then I adore Tolkien and think I understand elves.
Thank you Mark McElroy and Davide Corsi for a truly inspirational deck.

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#25 
Written By Authiel Erynien
on April 17th, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

I’m a late-comer to this whole thing, judging by the timestamps. Oh, well.

This deck is somewhat Tolkien-based, if I’m correct. If there is one thing I really understand, it’s Tolkien’s Elves. This card shows a “death,” which is always sad. However, it also means a new beginning and new life. You see, when Elves die, their spirits go to the Halls of Mandos, where they await reincarnation. The Elves can either stay in Valinor (the West, where they sail to anyway) or they can return to Middle-earth. Most stay. Elvish deaths are sad because of the waiting time for reincarnation, because the Elves still dwelling in Middle-earth will not see that person for a long time, and because Elves can only die as a result of violence or of a broken heart, neither of which are pleasant.

This card represents to me the end of a phase. While it may be sad for a time, and while nothing may be the same as it once was, a new phase will begin. Death is not a permanent place for Elves, and they will endure. Sad events will be moved past. Again, a new phase of life will begin.

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  1. Second Thoughts  on November 13th, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

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