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Meaning of the Tarot card The High Priestess

The High Priestess (II) is a Major Arcana Tarot card. In the first tarots with inscriptions, the 18th-century woodcut Marseille Tarot, this figure is crowned with the Papal tiara and labelled "La Papesse", the Popess. For historians or heresiologists, such a figure suggests the female equality practiced among the Cathar perfect, who had been extirpated from Northern Italy and Southern France, where the Tarot first appeared.

Description and symbolism

Some frequent keywords are:

Intuition ----- Nonaction ----- Mystery ----- Calmness ----- Silence

Inner voice ----- Deep understanding ----- Discretion ----- Sensitivity

Distance ----- Stability ----- Wisdom ----- Unconscious knowledge

Patience ----- Looking inward ----- Contemplation ----- Subjective mind

In the modern Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck many occultist symbols have been applied to La Papesse (illustration). She now has the lunar crescent at her feet, a horned diadem centering a globe on her head, and a large cross on her breast. The scroll in her hands is inscribed with the word Tora, signifying the Greater Law, the Secret Law and the second sense of the Word. It is partly covered by her mantle, to show that some things are implied and some spoken. She is seated between the white and black pillars-'J' and 'B' for Jachin and Boaz-of the mystic Temple of Solomon, and the veil of the Temple is behind her: it is embroidered with palms and pomegranates. The style is influenced by Art Nouveau.


Kabbalistic Approach

She has been called occult Science on the threshold of the Sanctuary of Isis, but she is really the Secret Church, the House which is of God and man. She represents also the Second Marriage of the Prince who is no longer of this world; she is the spiritual Bride and Mother, the daughter of the stars and the Higher Garden of Eden. She is, in fine, the Queen of the borrowed light, but this is the light of all. She is the Moon nourished by the milk of the Supernal Mother. In a manner, she is also the Supernal Mother herself-that is to say, she is the bright reflection. It is in this sense of reflection that her truest and highest name in bolism is Shekinah-the co-habiting glory. According to Kabalism, there is a Shekinah both above and below. In the superior world it is called Binah, the Supernal Understanding which reflects to the emanations that are beneath. In the lower world it is MaIkuth-that world being, for this purpose, understood as a blessed Kingdom that with which it is made blessed being the Indwelling Glory. Mystically speaking, the Shekinah is the Spiritual Bride of the just man, and when he reads the Law she gives the Divine meaning. There are some respects in which this card is the highest and holiest of the Major Arcana. (Binah and MaIkuth are two of the sephiroth in the gnostic belief.) On a more mundane level, the High Priestess is a figure who has passed through most of life. She started as a novice when a child. Now She has grown and governs the convent which is Spiritual Reality. She knows God. She knows what we go through because She has been through it Herself. But She is also very strict. Laws are in place to stop the new set of novices from hurting themselves.

Mythopoetic Approach

Other schools of thought associate the High Priestess with intuitive knowledge. The water that flows from her gown is the collective unconscious, and flows through most of the cards of the Pamela Coleman Smith Tarot. The bow at her feet explicitly evokes with Artemis. Artemis is not merely the Moon, twin sister of Apollo, the Sun; she may be one of the oldest goddesses in Europe. Her name comes from a root word meaning "bear," and may be linked to the divinity on the oldest cave paintings we have. It is also connected to Arthur, King of the Britains, the once and future king, marking her as another consort of the divine king. She is often shown wearing the crown of Isis and Hathor; the waxing, full, and waning moon. This demonstrates one of the ways life survives death; through taking on new forms. She is often shown sitting between two columns, one black, one white. This represents all dualities, light and dark, good and evil day night, summer and winter. She knows that dualities are useful abstractions but can blind us to the underlying wholeness of reality and the need to integrate them. In some decks, the columns are labeled "B" and "J." These letters were inscribed on two columns of Solomon's Temple. The original meaning is controversial, though there are some who say that on the tarot card, they represent Baal and Jehovah; two paths to wisdom. If that is true, Baal may bring back in the Moon, as he was the spouse of Astarte, the Queen of Heaven, and a moon goddess. Jehovah was a god of light; Baal a lord of the night, another duality the High Priestess stands athwart. As mentioned above, the High Priestess is Shekhinah, the female indwelling presence of the divine. The High Priestess is associated with Key 11, Justice and Key 20 Judgement through their cross sums (the sum of the digits). There are those who say that the columns represent Justice and Mercy, reminding us that justice is not merely the imposition of the judgment of the powerful onto conflicts, but must be levied with mercy to deserve the title of Justice. Typically, the High Priestess holds the Torah on her lap. She is not merely the mistress of hidden wisdom, she has read the words and knows their deeper meaning. Generally, unlike The Magician, she does not explore the world in order to master it, but in order to understand it. That understanding often leads to the temptation of mastery. She is also associated thematically with The Moon. She can lead to deep wisdom, but can also lead to madness. The pomegranates associate her with Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld and another example of the Dying God whose annual rebirth renews the world. From time to time, Persephone intercedes on the part of visitors to the Underworld, embodying Mercy. Note that the motif that hangs behind the High Priestess's throne, veiling what ever mysteries she guards, is suggested in the pattern of The Empress' gown. The two are sisters, one bringing life into the world, the other inviting the living to the esoteric mysteries. When she appears in a spread, she typically counsels the Querent to seek new paths and hidden paths to wisdom. She can also be a warning to interrogate the lessons of the unconscious. It does not always lead us to wisdom. She also warns the Querent to question how he or she has divided up the world; to test the judgments made in the past against the world as we have come to know it.

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