Last month we talked about The Empress, one half of the Sacred Feminine within the Major Arcana. If you have not already read that essay, please do so now. The other half of the Sacred Feminine in the Tarot is The High Priestess, and we will talk about her this month. First, let’s review some terms.
There are 22 Major Arcana cards in a Tarot deck, with numbers from 0 to 21; the Majors usually deal with broader and more far-reaching life experience issues, archetypes that are easy for us to identify with and connect with at some point in our lives. An archetype (pronounced “ark eh type”) is a generic, idealized model of a person, an object, or a concept which can be copied, patterned, or imitated. The term archetype often refers to one of two concepts: a “stereotype,” a personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of a personality type; stereotypes can be positive or negative, or an “epitome,” which is the embodiment of a particular personality type, especially as the “greatest” or “best” example of the particular personality type; epitomes can also be positive or negative.
So archetypes present personality traits that are common enough to be known by us all, through images (rather than words) that contain symbolism that connects with our subconscious in a universal manner. Each of us can understand the symbolism of archetypes and connect with that symbolism because each of us has (or will) personally experienced these archetypes.
Each Major Arcana card corresponds to a number, an archetype, an element, an astrological sign or planet, a Hebrew letter, and a Path on the Tree of Life joining two Sephiroth. There is quite a bit of symbolism to consider regarding The High Priestess, so let’s get to work!
Many Major Arcana cards represent archetypes of people in our lives. In the Tarot, the feminine archetype is split between the High Priestess and the Empress. The High Priestess represents the archetype of the Feminine Mysteries. The High Priestess is the guardian of the unconscious who contains within herself the secrets of life, the mysterious unknown that women often represent (especially within cultures that value the tangible and the known), and of waiting or allowing things to manifest through stillness. As we learned last month, The Empress represents woman’s role as the crucible of life.
The traditional image on The High Priestess is of a woman sitting on a throne, often dressed in a blue robe similar to that worn by a nun or religious woman, and wearing a crown consisting of a crescent moon, representing the Maiden phase of the Goddess and waxing power; often one or both of her feet are also resting on a crescent moon. Her throne is usually flanked by two pillars, sometimes one is dark and the other is light, representing the dual and polarized nature of the world. Often there is a curtain or veil behind her, representing the hidden mysteries she guards, as well as an inner focus. Some cards show a web rather than a curtain, which adds the concepts of relationships, connections, correspondences and synchronicity. In her lap is a scroll or a book, representing knowledge and wisdom, a record of truth, and a measure of time. In some decks this card is named “The Papess.”
The High Priestess is the number 2 of the Major Arcana; this number represents balance, creative partnerships of all kinds, duality and polarity, tension and cooperation; it represents diplomacy, and decisions. The number 2 offers both direction and connection, and can be considered a gateway. This number offers the concept of comparison, The Line (which stretches between two points). In the Tarot, this number represents the first time the energies associated with the card appears as manifested.
The High Priestess corresponds with the element of Water, and thus the suit of Hearts, the color blue and the cardinal direction of West, and inner manifestations of all kinds. This element represents emotions, dreams, divine love, the heart and the subconscious. Water represents purification and transformation, and being grounded in the heart rather than the intellect.
In astrology, The High Priestess corresponds with our Moon. In our solar system the Sun, the star at the center of our solar system, is necessary for our existence; the planets of our solar system, one of which is our home, the Earth, revolve around our Sun. The Moon revolves around the Earth rather than the Sun, and is our Earth’s only natural satellite. The Moon is in synchronous rotation with Earth, always showing the same face. It is the second-brightest regularly visible celestial object in Earth’s sky after the Sun, and although it can appear a very bright white, its surface is actually dark. It is prominent in the night sky, and its regular cycle of phases causes it to appear to change shape. The Moon’s gravitational influence produces the ocean tides and the slight lengthening of the day. The Moon’s current orbital distance from the Earth causes it to appear to be the same size as our Sun (which allows the Moon to cover the Sun in a solar eclipse). The Moon represents the archetype of dreams, instincts, and the anima. Like our Sun, the Moon is a source of illumination, but the Moon presents illumination without heat.
In the Hebrew alphabet, each letter is connected to the creative forces in the universe. They express themselves on three levels: one level is archetypical and runs from the first to the ninth letter; the second level is one of manifestation and runs from the tenth to the eighteenth letter, and the third is a cosmic level and runs from the nineteenth to the twenty-second letter. The High Priestess corresponds with the Hebrew letter Gimel, the third letter in the Hebrew alphabet; this letter corresponds with the camel who safely crosses the desert that is Da’at, the Abyss, and thus, has the secret of life. Gimel is a conduit or transmitter, corresponding with the throat, with walking, and with repayment or kindness.
On the Tree of Life, The High Priestess represents Path 13, running between Tiphareth (the hub of the creation process where energies harmonize and focus to illuminate and clarify), and Kether (the source, limitless possibility). Path 13 is one of the Paths that represent the highest and most abstract qualities of Deity, and of the human mind. It is the only Path on the Middle Pillar of the Tree that crosses Da’at, The Abyss which separates the top three Sephiroth from the bottom seven, representing knowledge of self, consciousness and awareness, and being able to “see.”
In the Tarot, The High Priestess is one half of the Major Arcana representation of the Sacred Feminine (along with The Empress), the half that is about mystery, hidden knowledge and initiation. The High Priestess, who crosses The Abyss, tells of Uniting Intelligence. She is the source of the power of The Magician, the feminine version of The Hierophant, and the Keeper of the Mysteries.
The High Priestess is the Gatekeeper who determines whether we are ready to experience the Mysteries, and she is somewhat removed from everyday life although her mind is receptive. She is not about mental analysis at all; she tells us that in order to access the Mysteries she guards, we must know the inner self completely, and accept the messages of the Inner Voice, even if they defy analysis. The High Priestess and The Empress are sisters, one bringing life into the world, the other inviting the living to the esoteric mysteries.
The High Priestess is the initiatrix who knows the secrets of life and guards her knowledge well. Without her help, we cannot penetrate the darkness of the Dark Night or cross the desert of the soul; we cannot discern the reality that hides behind the veil of the perception of our physical senses. Oswald Wirth describes her as knowing of “the occult philosophy and the subtle doctrines of Hermeticism” and “Gnosis, faith (of the wise), the fruit of the highest forms of thought.” She teaches us to have faith in intuition and in our dreams and feelings as well as analysis and fact, and she shows us how to use and depend upon our own resources. She represents the discernment which allows us to truly perceive and know that which is hidden behind the Veil between the Worlds.
“In the gloam, the night is full of whispers – the secret knowledge of the stars, of the trees, and of the earth.” From The Shadowscapes Companion.