High Priestess and duality

Two is where we come to a place of relationship, to the possibility of duality and interchange between different forms of being, and in the Tarot the two is the card titled the High Priestess, also known as the Papesse. This is where things start to get complicated, and that complicatedness is reflected in the way that the High Priestess has to do with wisdom that is not obvious, wisdom that may be obscured or hidden.

“Obscured” is the original meaning of the word “occult,” and the High Priestess is definitely involved with wisdom that is occult in this sense. I like to use the word esoteric to describe her wisdom, in contrast to the exoteric, or obvious on the exterior, kinds of knowledge that most people rely on.

Most images of the High Priestess have some kind of closed symbology about them, whether it is the traditional veil in front of which she sits or an example of making her book or scroll a closed one. It is important to understand that this does not mean the wisdom she is working with is inaccessible; it only means that it is up to us to use nonstandard ways of knowing to access that awareness, to see through the veil or to be able to interpret the hidden words.

The domain of the High Priestess is mystery, the occult or esoteric, and thus it is appropriate that I have questions about this card which are not easily answered. I think it is appropriate to see the High Priestess as part of a duality, but to me it remains an open question who is her appropriate partner in duality.

The High Priestess can be seen as part of a duality with either the Magician or the Hierophant as her partner. She is placed next to the Magician and Robin Wood renames him the High Priest to make the partnership explicit, but I think in part this is due to Wood’s overt antipathy to the Hierophant; if you read her book she makes it quite clear that she simply detests the Hierophant and everything he stands for. I think that is a bit of an overreaction, and I’ll have more to say about it when we get to that card. It is worth noting that Wood also gives the High Priestess an open book, making her less about the traditional esoteric wisdom, but situating her in a natural setting to emphasize that her wisdom is her connection with nature instead.

For those who do not share Wood’s antipathy to the Hierophant, it is also possible to see the High Priestess as a counterpart to him, especially when she is described as the Papesse. I was just re-exposed to this idea, and it has a certain intrigue. I certainly remember now that my first Tarot deck suggested that the Papesse was a counterpart to the Hierophant or Pope card, but then I started working with the Robin Wood deck and it became my go-to deck for several years, so I pretty much forgot that interpretation. (This is a great example of how useful it is to compare different decks!) Robert Place is the most recent author I’ve read who brought this alternative interpretation back to mind. In his Alchemical Tarot he suggests that the Magician is more of a hermaphroditic figure, and as a result the High Priestess is paired with the Hierophant. The more I think about it, the more this approach has to recommend it.

Historically the Tarot trumps may have reflected the medieval practice of having a triumphal parade where each successive stage in the parade was seen as overcoming or “trumping” the previous stage. Place makes several arguments about this view of the trump cards, and it makes a certain amount of sense in this sequence; first comes the fool, who is overcome by the one who seeks magical power, who is overcome by female spiritual insight, who is overcome by female temporal power, who is overcome by male temporal power, who is overcome by male spiritual authority. Each of these successions could have seemed natural in the medieval context, especially since males had authority over females and the Pope held spiritual authority over the Holy Roman Emperor.

Thinking of the High Priestess in duality with the Pope or Hierophant card makes explicit the contrast between her esoteric ways of knowing and worshipping and his exoteric approach. I am sure that for some people this only heightens the distaste for the Hierophant’s structured systems, but for me it somehow softens his image a little, as I can better appreciate his methods by understanding that he is trying to reach a similar goal.

In some ways the essence of this question comes down to how we gender the cards; the High Priestess’ proximity to the Magician makes their duality seem natural if we see the magician as male. Of course, reducing everything to male-female polarities is a vast oversimplification and is part of the problem; that’s why I appreciate the view of the magician as neither strictly male nor female.

At any rate, the High Priestess introduces the idea of duality and mystery, regardless of how you understand her relationships to the other Major Arcana. The ultimate answer may be that the reader has to use her intuition, especially depending on the way the High Priestess and any other cards show up in a reading, and that ability to use intuition is really what the High Priestess symbolizes in the first place.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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2 Responses to High Priestess and duality

  1. Widdershins says:

    I like this. I’ve never seen the High Priestess paired with anyone so this is food for thought. 🙂

    I’m not fond of the Heirophant. He supports the old boys club, and if he does see through their games it’s only a recent thing and his fear of the Unknown binds him closer to them. I have hope that he will one day break those chains … one day.
    The High Priestess, of course is an integral part of that Unknown, but she’s not for everyone. You gotta pay your dues to hang with her. 🙂

    • Literata says:

      I have a suspicion that a lot of people who are interested in Paganism and/or Tarot tend to be people who’ve had bad experiences with what the Hierophant represents. 🙂

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