The High Priestess card is one of the most loved and most mysterious cards in the tarot deck. Its very nature, the way we interpret it, everything about this card suggests the unknowable. And yet we continue to try, as we should, for in the very act of seeking we find something. Perhaps not the answers we hoped for, but something of value. This article will present some commonly accepted truths about the High Priestess and then wander around some thoughts I’ve entertained about her role in the scheme of things.
Some basic High Priestess correspondences:
The Evolution of the Priestess
This card used to be known as the Papess. We are not really sure why, and often hear tales about a pope, who went by the name of Pope John, who started life as a woman. This woman disguised herself as a man so she could be a priest. She was so good at her job, that she was elected pope. All was well until she publicly gave birth. This was a problem on several levels. One, there is the whole celibacy thing. Second, men don’t give birth. So, things weren’t looking so good for Pope Joan, as she came to be known. This probably isn’t a true story, but it is one we like to tell. And I always think that if we seem drawn to a story, we should listen to it and figure out why.
Even though our lovely and mysterious priestess began life as a fake pope, she has evolved, just as other cards have evolved. For example, our current version of the Fool is a carefree innocent representing a pure spirit and fresh start—a far cry from the dirty simpleton that graced earlier decks and really did mean a literal fool. Also, our powerful Magician—he started his career as a lowly juggler, charlatan, and con man. There is some evidence, though, that our fine lady began to evolve a century earlier than these gentleman (see Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Wisdom for more on that).
Categorizing the Priestess
One of our favorite things to do with our tarot cards is to put them in order. We love to put numbers on them (the oldest Majors were not numbered). We love to say “this card goes with that one” or “this one balances that one.” It is normal. Our brains are hardwired to see patterns and to understand things in terms of opposites. So, naturally, we try to pair up our High Priestess with other cards. There are two main choices: the Magician and the Hierophant. The Emperor is off-limits, clearly being connected to the Empress. Because so many tarotists love the High Priestess and hate the Hierophant (or at least dislike him very much indeed), people don’t care to talk about this pairing. But this is a brave article, so you can be sure we’ll not shy away from that here.
The High Priestess and the Magician
Studying the Priestess in relation to the Magician is very common for a few reasons: it is easy, it makes sense, and yields useful information.
If we look at the numbered Major Arcana cards as a linear journey (and this is only one way to look at them, remember), we start with the Fool, an unformed being, clean and clear and fresh—undifferentiated, pure spirit. When the Fool steps out of his environment and falls into the physical world, he because matter. He becomes separated, he is this but not that, and the existence of opposites begins.
The first pair of opposites are the Magician and the High Priestess, our first division into male and female energy. The Magician is, of course, the masculine energy of the being. There is much we can say about the differences in male and female energy, but here we will focus on just one aspect. The Magician represents how we relate to and interact with the external world. The High Priestess represents how we react to and feel about the external world. The Magician is the outer experience and the High Priestess is the inner experience. I think that this idea of inner, inside, interior is a very important part of the list of commonly associated feminine energy characteristics and will carry through the rest of this article.
The High Priestess and the Hierophant
The Hierophant card used to be titled the Pope, so when the High Priestess was the Papess, she went with the Pope in the same way that the Empress went with the Emperor. It is interesting that they are separated numerically, but again, the earliest decks did not number the Majors.
If we let go of all our negative associations of the modern Catholic church and just think about what the earthly leader of spiritual practice is, we might make more progress and be more comfortable while thinking about the our Priestess partnered with the Hierophant.
A pope, spiritual leader, teacher, and steward of religious practices is one who shares tradition with others. In addition to explaining on an intellectual level these traditions, he also advises how to put beliefs into daily practice. It is one thing to talk the talk, to understand on an intellectual level religious theory or spiritual philosophy. It is another thing entirely to understand how to live those lofty ideals in everyday life. This card is someone who teaches us how to walk the talk.
The High Priestess is, remember, a card of inner experience. She is the entrance to initiation—passing through her means being admitted into an inner chamber. The word Hierophant originally meant the chief priest at the Eleusinian mysteries. The Eleusinian mysteries are based on the myths of Demeter and Persephone (the High Priestess is often connected with Persephone). In this way, in this association to myth and initiation, The Hierophant is connected to The High Priestess. She represents the inner secrets, the wisdom that can only be learned through experience. She represents what an initiate receives during initiation, that which cannot be spoken but only known. The Hierophant, or perhaps we could say The High Priest, prepares the initiate, in so far as it is possible, for initiation, or to experience the High Priestess.
An initiation is a physical experience that is meant to resemble or symbolize a spiritual experience. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that an initiation also triggers a spiritual revelation via the symbolic experience. In any case, all the learning and studying in the world (via the Hierophant) does not yield true knowledge of the precepts. Understanding must be coupled with experience (via the High Priestess). Then, when the two opposing aspects—external or intellectual understanding and internal experience—are combined wisdom is created.
What is behind the veil? It cannot be shown because it is different for everyone. Everyone approaches and relates to the unknown, the Divine, the great mysterious in their own way. That is part of what it is, the unique relationship between the individual and the thing that is sought. So really, a veil is an excellent symbol for this card’s deepest meanings.