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Tarot Talk

Comparing The High Priestess & The Empress



We have done a lot of comparing of two cards in order to discover subtle differences that help with interpretation. This month, we will examine two cards that we already know are different, with the intention of discovering more subtle meanings. I’m in a Major Arcana kind of mood as this year comes to a close, so let’s compare two Major Arcana cards: The High Priestess and The Empress, two aspects of the Sacred Feminine. First, let’s review some terms. If you’ve read my column before, you can skip the next paragraph.

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.

Besides its archetype and individual meaning, each Major Arcana card corresponds to a number, an element, an astrological sign or planet, a Hebrew letter, and a Path on the Tree of Life joining two Sephiroth. By comparing these correspondences, we can learn specific details about these two cards, thus deepening our understanding of them and their messages within a reading.

The traditional image on The Empress is of a woman at the peak of feminine power, often pregnant, dressed in rich robes often decorated with bees, sometimes wearing a crown of stars and often sitting on a throne, usually a full frontal view that tells us she represents all that is recognizable and understandable in the world. Sometimes she is cradling a scepter (often topped by a diamond, the symbol of love and of “as Above, so Below”) or an ankh and sometimes there is a shield emblazoned with a symbol of feminine energies, motherly nurturing or love at her feet. She is usually surrounded by green trees, ripe grains, fruits and vegetables, and other symbols of a bountiful and ripe harvest and the fertility to continue the cycle of growth to the next generation. The symbolism on this card tells of fertility, creativity, and the germination or nurturing of something new. The Empress has access to the transformative powers of Nature that allow her to rule life, as evidenced by her scepter, and that allow her to rule the earth, as evidenced by the grains, fruits and vegetables around her. The bee is a symbol of love within the family, domestic stability, and child rearing, and another reference to “as Above, so Below.”

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. Like The Empress, she is shown facing front; however, she is not seated within the natural world. Her throne is usually flanked by two pillars, one is dark and the other 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”; she can be interpreted as an inner version of The Hierophant rather than The Empress. Something to address in another column.

In the Tarot, the feminine archetype is split between The Empress and The High Priestess. The Empress represents the archetype of the Great Mother. The Empress, like the Great Mother, rules women and everything about feminine energy; she protects her own and responds to challenges with authority and leadership, but in a softer (yet quite strong) way. Often The Empress is perceived by male authors of fairy tales as prone to hysteria and drawn to dark powers or plots, and to some extent this can be true of the reversed Empress. But The Empress also can be a benevolent parent, using her authority to protect those who look to her for guidance and love, and seeing her own empowerment as being enhanced by her interactions with others.

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. She also represents duality (opposing forces that conflict, such as good and evil) and polarity (opposing forces that attract, such as yin and yang) for she is the bridge between the conscious and the subconscious.

The Empress is the number 3 of the Major Arcana; this number represents the creation of something new through a partnership of some kind, or the manifesting or making real of some concept or spark. The number 3 is about playfulness and self-expression, inspiration and imagination, communication and motivation. This number is quite fertile, and it shows us that when the initiating idea, force or thought of the number 1 joins with the germinating energy or fecundity of the number 2, there is fruitfulness and manifestation or action, and an outpouring of energy is created.

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 appear as manifested, without yet being mixed with the influences present in the following cards.

The Empress corresponds with the element of Earth, and thus the suit of Diamonds, the color green and the cardinal direction of North. The element of Earth represents the actual physical outcome of our efforts, the cake that is made by gathering ingredients and following a recipe. Earth represents everything physical, all of the processes of Nature, and the things we need to stay alive and healthy; these energies are stable and very slow to change. Earth represents wealth, which brings us not only physical shelter but also mental and emotional pleasure. Earth also offers a spiritual grounding that is very necessary in our day-to-day life. This element represents diligence and an interest in quality rather than quantity; it can also represent greed and avarice, and the lack of the ability to be aware of resources or to access resources. The Empress is also seen as an alchemic Major Arcana card, representing salt and the inactive principles of Nature that must be energized by a catalyst in order to manifest.

The High Priestess corresponds with the element of Water, and thus the suit of Hearts, the color blue and the cardinal direction of West. 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. Water is about inner manifestations of all kinds, as well as our connections and bonds at many levels. The element of Water usually represents a caring and sensitive nature; it can also represent dreaminess and self-delusion, or the presence of some emotional trauma and possibly a refusal to address this hurt.

Earth and Water are passively friendly to each other. Earth is a receptacle of Water; streams, lakes and oceans are all contained in vessels of Earth; even a puddle in the middle of your lawn shows this affinity. Also, Earth can be dissolved into and combined with Water, creating mud.

In astrology, The Empress corresponds with the planet Venus, the Goddess of Love, Beauty and Pleasure, which is why harmony and beauty and physical pleasure are all associated with this Major Arcana card. Venus is a feminine planet, which means its energies are inner and receptive in nature. Venus is associated with feelings and well-being and gentleness, and an appreciation for art, social life, and beauty. In Venus we find the allure, the refinement, and the urge to join with or sympathize or nurture others which are all found in The Empress. And yes, sex and sexual pleasure are a part of this too. Venus is the second brightest object in the night sky, the Moon (the second brightest celestial object visible from Earth) being the brightest.

The High Priestess corresponds with our Moon. In our solar system the Sun is necessary for our existence. The planets of our solar system, including our 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 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 cause it to appear to change shape. The Moon’s gravitational influence produces our oceans’ tides, and its 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 Empress corresponds with the Hebrew letter Daleth, the fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet; this letter corresponds with the door or the womb, and is considered the archetype of physical existence. Daleth also represents the poor (with the concept of poverty being a gateway toward Perfect Love), telling us that a poor person needs to open themselves to the charity of the benefactor, and the benefactor must offer charity discretely so as to not embarrass the poor person. The High Priestess corresponds with the Hebrew letter Gimel, the third letter in the Hebrew alphabet; this letter corresponds with the camel who is able to safely cross the desert that is Da’at, the Abyss, and thus, has the secret of life. Gimel is similar to the Aramaic word “gamla,” which means “bridge.” Gimel is a conduit or transmitter, corresponding with the throat, with walking, and with repayment or kindness. Gimel also has the power of integration, as it is able to combine two contrasting forces.

Daleth tells of the initial manifestation of the life force into physical existence, unstructured potentials for realization, or the matrix within which life develops. Gimel is considered archetypal motion or cosmic resistance, stirring and integrating the powers of Above and the powers of Below.

On the Tree of Life, The Empress represents Path 14, running between Binah (female receptive energy, the origin of form and structure and the top of the Pillar of Form) and Chokmah (male in the electric sense, dynamic energy, the origin of vital force and polarity and the top of the Pillar of Force). She is the connector or conduit between the two primal forces of Form and Force, and she connects both Wisdom and Understanding, neither of which can function without the other. Path 14 is one of the Paths that merges imagination and reality, and offers us ways to transition the Abyss and pass beyond the Dark Nights of the Soul that are a necessary part of spiritual evolution in order to perceive the Machinery of the Universe.

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.” Because Path 13 crosses Da’at, it is also the Path of the Dark Night of the Soul, when we question our beliefs. This period of questioning may strip away our resources, but what is left is a clear vision of Kether, the Crown.

Path 14 and The Empress awaken within us new opportunities to grasp blessings, and to feel deep gratitude for what we have obtained. Path 13 and The High Priestess enable us to balance and quiet the noise of the outer world so we can hear our own inner voice. The Empress reveals our hidden talents, and The High Priestess helps us through the labor pains in the process of giving birth to our own light.

In the Tarot, The Empress is one half of the Major Arcana representation of the Sacred Feminine, the half that is about creativity, fertility of all kinds, a deep connection to Nature and the nurturing of others, and an enjoyment of the senses. The Empress, who is the mother of Form, tells of Creative Intelligence; she reveals the concepts and hidden knowledge guarded by The High Priestess, and she encourages us to immerse ourselves in the manifestations of the physical world. She creates rather than destroys and she is able to let go of the need to dominate or control.

The High Priestess is the other half of the Major Arcana representation of the Sacred Feminine, the half that is about mystery, hidden knowledge and initiation. The High Priestess who successfully 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 tells us that in order to access the Mysteries she guards, we must know our inner self and accept the messages of our 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 experience the Mysteries.


About the Author:

Raushanna is a lifetime resident of New Jersey. As well as a professional Tarot Reader and Teacher, she is a practicing Wiccan (Third Degree, Sacred Mists Coven), a Usui Reiki Master/Teacher, a certified Vedic Thai-Yoga Massage Bodyworker, a 500-hr RYT Yoga Teacher specializing in chair assisted Yoga for movement disorders, and a Middle Eastern dance performer, choreographer and teacher.  Raushanna bought her first Tarot deck in 2005, and was instantly captivated by the images on the cards and the vast, deep and textured messages to be gleaned from their symbols. She loves reading about, writing about, and talking about the Tarot, and anything occult, mystical, or spiritual, as well as anything connected to the human subtle body. She has published a book, “The Emerald Tablet: My 24-Day Journal to Understanding,” and is currently working on a book about the Tarot, pathworking and the Tree of Life. Raushanna documents her experiences and her daily card throws in her blog, DancingSparkles.blogspot.com, which has been in existence since 2009. She and her husband, her son and step son, and her numerous friends and large extended family can often be found on the beaches, bike paths and hiking trails of the Cape May, NJ area.

The Emerald Tablet: My 24-Day Journal to Understanding on Amazon