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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Crochet bags for Tarot decks

I was delighted to get a couple of new Tarot decks recently, and I decided to be a little crafty in making my own bags for them. This is just a simple pattern, but I think it’s special to make your own containers for Tarot decks. This is also the first time I’ve tried to write a pattern, so please excuse any mistakes. It is in US crochet notation.

There are two versions, one for a bag I did recently and a more generalized version (metapattern) so that you can customize it to fit whatever deck you’re working with.


worsted weight yarn, approximately 35 grams
crochet hook size H
yarn needle
optional: button and yarn or contrasting string for closure (see end)


Row 1: Chain 16
Row 2: starting in second loop, single crochet in back loop of foundation chain – sc 15 and ch 1 for turning chain
Row 3: turn and sc 15, ch 1
Rows 4-50: repeat row 3
Row 51: sc2tog, sc across until only two stitches left, sc2tog
Repeat row 51 until reduced to a single stitch, then end



Fold over and use needle to whipstitch both sides of bag together, weave in ends
Turn right side out



Optional: Add a button to the point of the flap and add a drawstring to the front of the bag, either in the same yarn or in contrasting thread.



I probably should have crocheted another two or three rows on this particular bag before starting the decreases so that the flap would lay over more completely, but it works. The drawstring closure is just threaded through the fabric of the front side to make a loop that will hold the button down and the flap closed. Here I’ve just used a simple button and tied the ends of the string in a knot, but you could get creative with fun buttons and beads or other decorations for the drawstring.


for a Tarot deck with dimensions L x W x H (dimensions from largest to smallest)

Chain enough stitches to measure W + H + two or three stitches, depending on how snug you want your bag to be
Starting in second loop, single crochet in back loop of foundation chain plus ch 1 for turning chain
Turn, sc across, ch1
Repeat rows of sc until fabric length measures 2L+2H
Begin decreasing: sc2tog, sc across until only two stitches left, sc2tog
Repeat until flap comes to a point, then end
Fold, stitch sides together, weave in ends
Turn right side out
Attach button and drawstring closure if desired

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Review: Blair-Hunt, Tarot Prediction & Divination

Blair-Hunt, Susyn. Tarot prediction & divination: unveiling 3 layers of meaning. Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN. 2011. 283 pages.

This book essentially provides numerous case studies as a way to help the reader learn different spreads. The author has designed fifteen different spreads, divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced groupings, and gives three sample readings for each spread. My favorite thing about this book is that it provides a wealth of examples of interpreting cards in context, in spreads where they interact with each other, which is one of the challenges that beginning readers face in moving from remembering isolated card meanings to doing actual readings. The variety of spreads provided would also be useful to many beginning to intermediate readers.

The subtitle refers to three different ways to interpret the card that the author sees as running along a spectrum from the concrete to the abstract. She refers to these as the divinatory, therapeutic, and spiritual. (p2 ff) She uses “divinatory” to mean specific information about concrete future happenings. Since I see divination as embracing all three of the areas she lays out, I think she would have done better to name this realm of interpretation the “practical” or “predictive” area. She contrasts this concrete level with two more abstract areas: “Therapeutic” is a level of meaning that I would describe as primarily concerned with psychological occurrences and related symbolic interpretations. For her, “spiritual” is the most advanced and/or abstract level of meaning, where the cards are related to generalized statements about Spirit, the Universe, possibly karma, and the overall meaning of one’s life.

Breaking up interpretation into those three levels is an interesting way of getting readers to think about more possible meanings of their cards, especially for those who tend to fall into one type of interpretation too often. Throughout the case studies, Blair-Hunt tries to interpret each reading on all three levels, but she often falls into the problem of the psychological and spiritual blending into each other. Nevertheless, readers interested in seeing different types of interpretation applied to the same cards and spread would find this book valuable.

Blair-Hunt never explicates any particular religious perspective within which she is working, nor does she discuss the way a religious perspective would influence the “spiritual” interpretation of the cards, which is a tremendous weakness in her work. She seems to be coming from a generalized “spiritual” background which includes belief in channeling, past lives, and being able to contact the deceased, but she never addresses either the Christian origin of cards’ symbolism or their more common use among Neopagans today. The author’s perspective on spirit is that the universe is a place where everything is working for our good and that difficulties or challenges are just lessons on the way to a better experience; her optimism on this front can come across as deeply naive.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the text stems from a similar source: she suggests that if the reader has difficulty dealing with the potential meanings of some cards, especially Death, that the reader just remove them from her deck. This suggestion is followed by reassurance that removing cards will not change the interpretive power of the readings. (16) This reassurance strikes me as frankly ridiculous, because removing cards inherently reduces the range of possible outcomes in a reading, and the point of removing “difficult” cards is specifically to avoid having to think about or interpret their images. The way she writes about it really implies that she sympathizes with readers who themselves have a hard time dealing with the potential meanings of the Death card and other cards with potentially negative meanings, as she repeats this advice more than once, and suggests that it may apply to cards such as the Three of Swords and others. (15) I can sympathize with those who have a difficult time thinking about death, but anyone who intends to read meaningfully for herself or others should be willing to spend time and energy grappling with the shadow issues represented in some cards. Trying to make the deck all sweetness and light – or worse, pretending that life itself is all sweetness and light – is willful blindness and likely to lead to all sorts of significant problems.

In more practical terms, the book is difficult to use because the reproductions of the tarot cards in the spreads are tiny – only three-quarters of an inch high (less than 2cm). The author makes a point of using three different decks (the Gilded Tarot, the Lo Scarabeo Tarot, and the Universal Tarot) but the details of the cards can barely be made out in the minute black and white illustrations. In all but a couple cases there is clearly space on the page for the illustrations to be made larger, making the source of this problem truly a mystery.

In addition to the main text, there are five appendices which contain different types of correspondences for the Tarot cards. The first one is a fairly standard set of keywords for the entire deck. The second discusses choosing significators, relying largely on astrological and personal characteristics. Perhaps the most interesting appendix is one on card combinations, where Blair-Hunt lists specific divinatory meanings for certain cards and combinations in a variety of situations that readers are likely to encounter. I was disappointed that she didn’t discuss whether these interpretations come from some other source, her own inspiration, her concrete experience reading, or a combination of all three.

The last two appendices are about the timing that cards can represent and an “empowerment guide” to the Major Arcana. In discussing the timing indicated in cards she uses astrological attributions of the cards that stem from the Golden Dawn without discussing where they come from. But then she creates a timing chart that is completely separate from the Golden Dawn system of attributing the pips to the decans of the zodiac, and doesn’t say where she gets that from either. I am led to believe that she may be unfamiliar with the roots of some of the information she is propagating or that she simply doesn’t care about the historical background of her material. Finally the empowerment guide has color, gemstone, incense, and other correspondences for the Major Arcana, and again she doesn’t cite any sources or explain any background.

If someone learned all fifteen spreads in this book they would be a very well prepared reader for just about any kind of reading someone could ask for, and I really do think this book has a lot to offer in terms of case studies of cards in context. As long as the reader does not fall into the trap of trying to alter the deck to make their understanding of the world sufficiently easy and comfortable, there are some good examples of useful spreads here. If the information in this book is combined with a broader perspective on the Tarot and its history and meanings the reader will have a good resource to help them apply a basic understanding of the deck to its actual workings in real, live readings.

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Yule – Element of Earth

There is a lovely phrase that I have incorporated in my devotions: that the divine is the “source and ground” of all that is. I think Yule and the season of the Element of Earth are the perfect time to contemplate this perspective, the importance of the ground itself.

In Wicca, our practice of grounding and centering acknowledges and makes use of our intimate connection with the earth as an aspect of the divine. The metaphor of grounding draws partially on an image of electricity, in terms of grounding as removing excessive energy, but much more often the imagery used in actual visualizations is that of living things, plants or trees, making grounding more of an exchange, a chance to both release what is no longer needed and an opportunity to draw in the nutrients that are needed to refresh your own organism.

This is the sense in which I understand the idea of “source and ground,” meaning that the Earth, the planet, is the source of our physical being, and it is what we ground into throughout our lives, and it is what our physical parts return to when our lives are ended. Thus the Element of Earth, although it is the most stable and least active of all Elements, is perhaps the mother of all the Elements, as the planet is the embodiment of our experiences of all of them together.

In Wicca, when we cast circles, we start from the north, the direction of Earth, and we return there to complete the circle. Many Wiccans place their altars facing north, seeing it as appropriate because that is the direction of darkness and mystery, and thus our altars face into the mysteries, the unseen, the place of starlight vision that we need to see beyond (or within) the everyday realities around us. And although we speak to the East first when calling the Elements, we end with the North, always returning to our ground, our source of being in this embodied existence.

As I wrote in the Story of Sif, even the wonders that we know of come from the ground, ultimately, because this is a physical existence, where the physical defines and, yes, delimits the possible. It is up to us to discover and enjoy the wonders possible within those limits. Wicca is not a religion that seeks transcendence or escape from reality above all other things; there is no liberation from the physical world within Wicca, nor a promise of escape into a better, easier paradigm. Instead there is the promise of the transcendent that emerges within the world as we discover it to be, and especially within the world as we can shape it to be more full of love, more full of beauty, and more full of meaning.

In Tarot, the Element of Earth is represented in the suit of coins, also called disks or pentacles in some decks. This suit has to do with the physical, and yes, it has to do with money, and all the things related to money, especially work and possessions. But I don’t think the Tarot has to represent or assume a capitalist relationship with the world; I think it can represent these things as simply energy embodied, and thus it can represent a relationship of love and of exchange, the natural give and take, within the context of that love.

May this Yule be a time for you and yours to connect to your source and ground and face the return of the light refreshed.

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The Magician and Identity

Since the Fool is numbered zero, the Magician is numbered one. One is the identity element for multiplication. In math, an identity element is the number that doesn’t change other numbers (when multiplied, in this case). This is why it is called the identity element: other numbers keep their identity, their same value, when multiplied by one. Their nature remains unchanged by the operation. So what is it that one is doing when it interacts with other numbers?

At the same time, every number keeps coming back to the identity element. In multiplication, every number except zero has a counterpart, and when you multiply a number times its counterpart (also called its multiplicative inverse) you get 1. So you can always come back to this identity element. In some sense, it contains the seeds of all the other numbers, or the potential to take on the identity of any other number multiplied by it.

I think there’s a resonance between the nature of the identity element and the symbolism of the Magician card. The Magician works with the natural forces represented by the tools shown in the card, but she doesn’t fundamentally change those forces; she uses them as tools to accomplish her own goals. She doesn’t change the nature of Air or Water, or restrict the burning passion of the flame she lights, but by working with them she creates change around herself. Or perhaps she creates the change within herself…

And so we are brought back to the paradoxical heart of magic. We create change by starting that change within ourselves. And yet, somehow, we retain a coherent identity. In fact, for many of us, the kinds of change that we create are a lynchpin of our identities. Think about it this way: our skills and abilities are one of the major components of our identities. What are those skills and abilities besides the ability to create change in particular ways? I go to work, and I change the world. It’s only a tiny bit, but I think it matters. Tomorrow I’ll do it again. The changes we make are something we depend on for our very sense of self.

In this sense the Magician is very much about identity because the Magician is one who makes change possible and thus creates identity, and who really has an independent identity, as opposed to the kind of blank canvas that the Fool represents. The Magician has her tools to hand: she is holding all the aces of the Tarot deck, the potential power of each suit, and beginning to use them to create something new, something that could be almost anything.

At the same time, she must balance the opposites within herself, both the opposites contained in the different qualities of the suits and natural powers and the contrasts between what is and what might be. These inverses keep looping back to her, as the infinity symbol on her card keeps crossing through its own center. Out of that central point, out of her identity as an element of change, comes a realm of nearly infinite possibility, with the potential for so many different outcomes that points to the rest of the deck as an unfolding exploration.

NB: For those who are interested, zero is the additive identity – and zero also “breaks” multiplication by not having a multiplicative inverse. In many ways everything I say here about one is also true about zero under addition, but with much stranger overtones because of the way it behaves under multiplication. I chose to emphasize the properties of the numbers this way because I think it teaches more about the meanings of the cards.

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Gratitude without complacency

I have been struggling with how to write this post since Thanksgiving. I wanted to write something about how beneficial I’ve found the practice of gratitude, but I had trouble with it because I didn’t want it to be just another saccharine annoyance about how you, too, will feel #blessed if you just take the time…you know how those go. Most of all, though, I was confronted with the problem of complacency.

There is a tension that I am only beginning to explore between so many of the practices that are touted these days – mindfulness, gratitude, etc. – and my fundamental orientation to the world, which is part of my Wicca. I fundamentally believe that we can and should change the world; I am concerned about too much acceptance of what is, just because it is, especially for the situations that humans create and thus could change.

In the short term, my answer to the problem of encouraging gratitude without complacency is that my gratitude practice is one of the tools that helps me do my magic. I think this is because I approach it slightly differently from the way I’ve usually heard it presented, some of which has to do with my personal situation, and some of which has to do with a more Pagan perspective. I’m going to share that here in hopes that it may be useful to some others.

My gratitude practice is a simple daily activity: list three things about yesterday that were good. They don’t have to be big, earth-shaking goodnesses; in fact, on a lot of days, they are just simply three things that made me feel good or be happy, even if just for a breath. When I write down “sunrise,” I’m not trying to contemplate the cosmic beauty of sunrises in general. I’m just trying to capture and acknowledge the way that particular sunrise yesterday made me smile, even for a second. When I am grateful for people in ongoing relationships, I try to think of a specific interaction that made my heart glad.

That’s it. I don’t go through some grand exercise of trying or working or pushing myself to feel grateful or thankful or extra happy. I don’t generalize, I don’t contemplate the grandiosity of the universe, I don’t try to make myself believe that this is the best of all possible worlds or that all things are working together for my betterment. I had to leave all those expectations behind for this practice to start being meaningful for me.

In part, this is a valuable practice because of my personal struggles with depression. Simply acknowledging that there were good things yesterday helps me have hope, even in the darkness of depression, that there might be a few sparks of light in my day today. This is when even a split second’s worth of not-hurting can be the most valuable memory to hold on to.

From a Wiccan perspective, though, my gratitude is more than that. This simple act, especially when repeated on a regular basis, helps make me more myself, and deep down it helps me gain the power to do my magic, whether that means shaping myself or shaping the world, or – usually – both at once.

An important point here is that for Wiccans gratitude can be a part of the everyday fabric of life. We don’t need to stop and be grateful to someone outside of the world; we are grateful to the world itself for being, as the reification of divinity. We are not bowing and scraping for the scraps that an all powerful divinity chooses to toss our way, and could revoke at any time; instead we are grateful as part of the web of relationship of beings that we participate in as full and equal partners.

Thus my gratitude helps me remember the intricate web of relationships in which I exist, and on which I depend; like so much else in Wiccan practice, it makes me more myself, it helps me to be myself, as part of my relationships with others, human and nonhuman alike.

Remembering those connections not only makes me more myself, it makes me better able to do my magic because my magic flows from and through those very connections. I gather the tools I use and the very energy I need to do magic from that web of relationships, and I send my empowered intention out through that same network to create change in the world.

For me, my gratitude practice is a another simple-seeming tool, like breath work, or grounding and centering, which when investigated deeply is an opening to much more complex work. I’m only beginning to explore that. As the poet said, I shan’t be gone long; you come too.

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Fool and Zero

It is so appropriate that the Fool card in the Tarot is numbered zero: it seems like there is not much there, but what it does is change the shape and meaning of everything that is around it.

Mathematically speaking, the invention (or discovery, if you prefer) of zero is vital for the place value system of numerals. We are so used to the place value system (often called Arabic numerals) that we have trouble imagining how difficult it was to do even simple mathematics with previous systems. Have you ever tried doing division with Roman numerals? (What’s XXXVI divided by IX?) It goes beyond a simple unfamiliarity with Roman numerals: they’re just harder to work with because they encode information differently. Each numeral can require multiple steps simply to understand its value, because the numeral encodes information in a pattern similar to the way we count up or down to a number using lots of different reference numbers. The place value system, by comparison, uses only powers of ten as a reference, and thus goes much more directly to the exact value we want to work with. Additionally, because the information about reference numbers is encoded in a digit’s location within the number, we can do neat tricks like multiplication and division using the very layout of the number itself to guide our work, which is impossible with Roman numerals. The difference is due to zero.

All of the simplicity of the place value system of numerals depends on being able to have empty columns: we have to be able to tell 306 apart from 36, or 400 apart from 4. Zero is what makes that possible, which allows the simplicity of the place-value based system. The necessity of emptiness is counter-intuitive in a counting-based system, because it’s very uncommon to start counting with zero. This is precisely why it’s so fabulous and important that the Tarot begins counting this way – beginning from nothingness, which is a step that is necessary for other kinds of being and order to emerge.

But zero isn’t just about zero – it is connected to infinity, and this made it controversial when it was first introduced to the Western world; we’ll touch on this more when we discuss the World card.

This mathematical background is why I like to think of zero as symbolically holding space for potential to develop. I suggest that when we see the Fool in a Tarot reading we think of it as a similar placeholder – not just a void, but a space open to possibilities and change, a space made gravid by virtue of its emptiness.

Occupying the space of emptiness is something that we do need to do from time to time. Emptiness is when we seek to reset ourselves, or open ourselves to be able to receive something new. Emptiness is the place we start from at the beginning of a journey, which is how the Fool is usually depicted. At times that kind of zeroing out can even be great fun, such as I tried to invoke in the foolish ritual I wrote.

But foolishness has always had deeper implications, especially links to the idea of the sacred fool, or the holy wisdom of foolishness. (Laurie R King has written good fiction exemplifying this idea, for anyone who is interested.) One way to think about it is that the fool is a mirror, reflecting back the world around him, allowing others to see themselves in different ways. But achieving this kind of emptiness can be heartbreakingly difficult and dangerous. Exercising this nature of the fool for any long period of time is not a lighthearted endeavor at all, as Lear’s fool should show you.

Out of the difficulties of attaining Foolishness comes the possible reading of a warning: look out, the dog is trying to pull you back, be careful that you don’t run over a cliff. The danger arises when we mistake illusion for emptiness. There is a wonderful depiction of this in the Mystical Cats Tarot, where the Fool is thinking of herself as seated on a cushion drinking milk, and thus completely unaware of what’s going on around her. This kind of empty-headedness is not true openness but rather a covering-over of her surroundings which leaves her unable to deal with whatever is actually happening in the world around her. The work of emptiness, just like any other work worth doing, is not easy, even if it appears so at first.

From a mathematician’s point of view, the requirements and dangers of zero make it the perfect metaphor for beginning such a challenging sequence of ideas and archetypes as the Major Arcana. The Fool, as card 0, represents a state of emptiness that is the necessary precursor to other kinds of wisdom.

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