Bill Butler, in The Definitive Tarot has commented on the historical-legendary sources for this female archetype. Throughout the Middle Ages the story persisted that a woman was once elected Pope. Disguised for years as a man, this supposed 'Pope Joan' made her way through the Church hierarchy to the top position, only to die in childbirth during an Easter celebration.
Pope Joan was most likely a legend; the Visconti Papess was real. In the late thirteenth century an Italian group called the Guglielmites believed that their founder, Guglielma of Bohemia, who died in 1281, would rise again in 1300 and begin a new age in which women would be popes. Jumping ahead they elected a woman named Manfreda Visconti as the first papess. The Church graphically ended this heresy by burning Sister Manfreda in 1300, the year of the expected new age. Some hundred years later the same Visconti family commissioned the first set of Tarot cards as we know them. Among these unnumbered and unnamed trumps appeared a picture of a woman later decks titled 'The Papess'.
The name persisted until the eighteenth century when Court de Gebelin, believing the Tarot to originate in the Isis religion of ancient Egypt, changed the name to the High Priestess. Today both names exist (as well as 'Veiled Isis'), and the Waite image of the be to immediately limit, narrow, and falsify it. Most people at some time have felt they understood something in such a deep way that they could never manage to explain it. Myths serve as metaphors for deep psychic feelings; yet the myths themselves, like the explanations given by theologians and anthropologists, are only symbols. The High Priestess signifies inner wisdom at its deepest level.
She sits before two pillars, representing both the temple of Isis and the ancient Hebrew temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God on earth, in other words, the home of the Shekinah. A veil hangs between the two pillars, indicating that we are barred from entering the place of wisdom. The image of the veiled temple or sanctuary appears in many religions. The Shekinah was indeed said to dwell within the veiled ark of the temple.
Now, most people assume we are somehow forbidden to pass the pillars of the High Priestess. In reality, we simply do not know how to. To enter behind the veil would be to know consciously the irrational wisdom of the unconscious. That is the goal of the entire Major Arcana. Look carefully at Smith's picture. You can see what lies behind the veil by looking between the veil and the pillars. And what lies behind is water. No great temple or complex symbols, simply a pool of water, a line of hills, and the sky. The pool signifies the unconscious and the truth hidden there. The water is motionless, the secrets in its darkest depths, hidden under a smooth surface. For most of us, at most times, the turbulent subconscious remains hidden under a placid layer of consciousness. We cannot enter the temple because we do not know how to go into ourselves; therefore we must travel through the trumps until we reach the Star and the Moon, where we can finally stir up the waters and return with the wisdom to the conscious light of the Sun.
The temple introduces the image of the two pillars, and the theme of duality and opposites. The image occurs again and again through the trumps, in such obvious places as the Hierophant's church pillars or the two towers of the Moon (the pillars of the High Priestess seen from the other side), but also in more subtle ways, such as the two sphinxes of the Chariot, or the man and woman of the Lovers. Finally, Judgement, with the child rising between a man and a woman, and the World, holding two wands, resolves the duality by uniting the inner mysteries with the outer awareness.
The letters 'B' and 'J' stand for Boaz and Jakin, the names given to the two main pillars of the temple in Jerusalem. Obviously, the dark Boaz stands for passivity and mystery while Jakin symbolizes action and consciousness. Notice, though, that the letters carry the reverse indications, a white B and a black J. Like the dots in the Tao female; that of the dark, the mysterious and the hidden. As such, she connects to the virgin side of the Virgin Mary, the pure daughter side of the Shekinah (who was pictured simultaneously as mother, wife, and daughter).
We should realize that this assigning of qualities to women comes mostly from men and male ideas. The Qabalists, the occultists, and the Tarot designers, all deplored the separation of men and women into categories and taught unification as a final goal. This is shown by the World dancer of the Tarot. They were ahead of the established religion which even debated whether women had souls at all. Nevertheless, men still made the categories. To men, women have always appeared mysterious, strange, and, when safely in their mother role, loving and merciful. Women seem alien to men, more subtle in their thinking and non-rational. In our time, constant novels and films have pictured simple men manipulated by cunning women.
The fact that the menstrual cycle lasts about as long as the lunar cycle links women to that remote silvery body. Menstruation itself, a copious bleeding from the genitals, with no loss of life, has simply terrified men through the centuries. Even today superstitious Jews believe that one drop of menstrual blood will kill a plant. The fearful mystery of birth further connected women to the idea of darkness. The foetus grows and the soul enters it in the warm moist darkness of the womb. Motherhood linked women to the earth, and there too darkness dominates. Seeds lie in the ground through the dark dead winter, to emerge as food under the warm reassuring rays of the sun which, in many cultures, is considered as male.
Just as the sun's rays penetrate the earth so the male organ penetrates the female to leave a seed in her mysterious womb. We can easily see how men came to view themselves as active and women as both passive and mysterious. People often link passive with 'negative' or that is, inferior and weak. But passivity contains its own power. It gives the mind a chance to work. People who only know action never get a chance to reflect on what that action has taught them. In a deeper sense, passivity allows the subconscious to emerge. Only through withdrawal from outer involvement can we allow the inner voice of vision and psychic forces to speak to us. It is precisely to avoid this inner voice that many people never rest from action and movement. Our society, based completely on outer achievement, fosters a terror of the subconscious; yet without its wisdom we can never fully know ourselves or the world.
The High Priestess represents all these qualities: darkness, mystery, psychic forces, the power of the moon t*\ stir the subconscious, passivity, and the wisdom gained from it. This wisdom cannot be expressed in rational terms; to try to do so would beauty to fascinate him; he stayed too long, and the goddess, discovering that a man had seen her nakedness (compare the High Priestess's layers of clothing with the Star maiden's nudity) turned Actaeon into a stag. When he ran away, terrified, his own dogs tore him to pieces.
Here the Fool comes in (and remember the Fool's dog, leaping at his side), reminding us to dance lightly away from both these visions, the Magician as well as the High Priestess, until we are truly ready to assimilate them.
The divinatory meanings of the High Priestess deal first with a sense of mystery in life, both things we do not know, and things we cannot know. It indicates a sense of darkness, sometimes as an area of fear in our lives, but also one of beauty. A period of passive withdrawal can enrich our lives by allowing things inside to awaken.
As an emblem of secret knowledge the trump indicates that feeling of intuitively understanding the answer to some great problem, if only we could express that answer consciously. More specifically, the card can refer to visions and to occult and psychic powers, such as clairvoyance.
In its most positive aspect the High Priestess signifies the potential in our lives - very strong possibilities we have not realized, though we can sense them as possible. Action must follow or the potential will never be realized.
Despite its deep wisdom the card can sometimes carry a negative meaning. Like most of the trumps, the High Priestess's value depends on the context of the other cards. Negatively the trump indicates passiveness at the wrong time or for too long, leading to weakness, fear of life and other people. It shows a person with strong intuition who cannot translate feelings into action, or a person afraid to open up to other people. Whether the good or bad aspect of the card comes up in a particular reading depends on the surrounding cards and of course the reader's intuition (we partake of the High Priestess every time we read the cards). Very often both meanings will apply. Human beings have more than one side.
The High Priestess is an archetype, a single minded picture of one aspect of existence. When we reverse it we bring in the missing qualities. The card reversed signifies a turn towards passion, towards a deep involvement with life and other people, in all ways, emotionally, sexually and competitively. However, the pendulum can swing too far, and then the card reversed can symbolize a loss of that most precious knowledge: the sense of our inner selves.
symbol the letters signify that duality is an illusion, and each extreme carries the other imbedded inside it.
In her lap she holds a scroll marked lTora\ This name refers to the Jewish law, the Five Books of Moses which is usually spelled 'Torah' in English. This particular spelling allows the word to serve as an anagram for 'Taro'. As the ultimate subject of all Qabalistic meditations (like Christ's crucifixion for Christian mystics) the Torah carries a great deal of esoteric significance. The Qabalists believed that the Torah read on Saturday mornings in the synagogues was only a representation, a kind of shadow of the true Torah, the living word of God that existed before the universe and contains within it all true existence. The Tora held by the High Priestess, rolled up and partly concealed in her cloak, therefore signifies a higher knowledge closed to us with our lower understanding. We can describe it also as the psychic truths available to us only in the distorted form of myths and dreams.
Earlier we spoke of the Fool coming in at crucial moments of change to push us along. The gap between the High Priestess and the Empress is one such moment. We can too easily be seduced by the dark coolness of the second trump, even if we never really penetrate its secrets. The person beginning in spiritual discipline often prefers to stay at the visionary level rather than go through the slow hard work needed to advance. Many people in more ordinary situations will find life too overwhelming, too vast and demanding, for them to take part. We can best use the High Priestess's passivity as a balance to the outward-looking attitude of the Magician, but many people find the passive side extremely attractive. It represents an answer to struggle, a quiet retreat instead of the harsh glare of self-exposure when we involve ourselves openly with other people.
But the human mind does not work like that. It requires passion and it needs to connect itself to the world. If we cannot penetrate the veil the temple remains for us an empty place, devoid of meaning. The person who tries to live a completely passive life becomes depressed, more and more trapped in a cycle of apathy and fear.
Virtually all moon goddess religions feature myths of the goddess's ferocious side. Ovid tells the story of Actaeon, a hunter, and therefore a figure who properly belonged to the world of action. He happened one day to see a stream and decided to follow it to its source (again, water as a symbol of the unconscious). Thus he became separated from his dogs and the other hunters, and when he had reached the source, away from the active world, he saw a group of maidens. Among them, naked, stood the virgin goddess, Diana. Now, if Actaeon had returned immediately to the outer world he would have found his life enriched. Instead, he allowed Diana's of parents and society. Those who never make the break become cut off from a full life. For most people the medium by which they break from their parents is the emergence (Freudians and perhaps occultists would say 're-emergence') of the sexual drive at puberty. It is no accident that children rebel from their parents in ideas, habits, and dress at the same time that their bodies grow towards maturity.
The development of individuality is only a part of growth. Each person must find his or her personal goals and achievements. At the same time he or she will sooner or later face sorrow, sickness, and the general weakness of a life governed by old age and death. Only when we reach a full understanding of the outer life of humanity can we hope to reach inwards for a deeper reality.
As stated in the previous chapter the Empress represents the more accessible, more benign aspects of the female archetype. She is motherhood, love, gentleness. At the same time she signifies sexuality, emotion and the female as mistress. Both motherhood and sex derive from feelings that are non-intellectual and basic to life. Passions rather than ideas. The High Priestess represented the mental side of the female archetype; her deep intuitive understanding. The Empress is pure emotion.
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