PART 1 – THE HIGH PRIESTESS SYMBOLISM
Disguised as a man, Pope Joan aka John Angelicus aka John VIII was a female Pontiff during the medieval times. Her identity was exposed when she gave birth to a child during a procession.
Legend or reality? Reality skeptics note that the first references to Pope Joan only appear hundreds of years after her supposed reign. Reality supporters however argue that the Church may have attempted to first hide and later erase all evidence of her existence from historical records. While today’s scholars are inkling towards the legend thesis, even as of today this story remains an unsolved mystery. Pope Joan imposture has been a controversial topic in books, movies, songs, videos, TV stories and debates.
There are countless articles about this fascinating story to be found online, such as in Wikipedia. Just Google “Pope Joan” and you will be comforted by the legend option if you are Catholic and puzzled if you are not. An interesting ABC-TV story titled “Looking For Pope Joan” aired ten years ago. Click here to download the ABC News Press Release.
The tarot arcanum number 2 is named “La Papesse” (The Popess) in the French TDM, which was created during the Renaissance when Pope Joan story was believed to be true. Five centuries later, an English tarot school chose to name that arcanum “The High Priestess” when the legend credibility started to fade.
From a symbolic perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the story really happened or is a legend. For the narrative though, the premise of a woman disguised as a man is more acceptable than a man becoming pregnant. On the early stage of the initiation, Joan symbolizes a pregnant mother (incubating an embryo), who happened to be a Pope (universal love) and delivering a child (giving birth to a new living heart).
This post will establish that the symbolism of the pregnant High Priestess “La Papesse” (arcanum #2) will fit perfectly between the androgyne Magician (arcanum #1) and the seductive Empress (arcanum #3). Before detailing the High Priestess symbols in the four previously selected tarot decks, let’s look at the Astro Tarology “Flower of Life”. That structure works for almost all tarot decks major arcana. We selected the Tarot de Marseille (TDM) where the Fool is called “Le Mat”, the Magician “Le Bateleur” and the High Priestess “La Papesse”. They can be seen at the image bottom.
The High Priestess “La Papesse” links the circle of “Venus” (human love and beauty) with the circle of the “Heart” (divine love and beauty), symbolizing the unified love of mother-deity in the pregnancy.
Let’s now observe the four different High Priestess arcana.
Tarot de Marseille (TDM)
The TDM tarot deck we are showing here is the Jodorowsky/Camoin digitally renovated version of the original 1790 Conver cards. During those days, the story of Pope Joan was considered as true and the second TDM arcanum was named “La Papesse” (The Popess) after her. Lots of symbols can be seen on this arcanum: (1) Her white (virgin purity) face and hands (her only visible body parts remind us of the five senses), (2) The skin-colored (human life) book (study and accumulation of knowledge), (3) the white egg (embryo) under her left (receptive) elbow (incubation), (4) the blue sky (spiritual) bands (including three small crosses) crossing (Christianity) her chest (heart), (5) the yellow (intellectual), orange (spiritual) and red (life) tiara (divine ruler), (6) the sky blue curtain behind her head (spiritual enclosure), (7) the abundant clothing (spiritual protection from physical world).
The Magician made his first step on his initiation path, but like the Apprentice Sorcerer he doesn’t master his magical power right away. He has to meet the Higher Priestess first in order to learn and accumulate the knowledge needed for his journey. This will require patience for his gestation period length. There are no shortcuts. Even a smart woman cannot shorten the 9-month pregnancy duration. The Magician embryo (arcanum #1) needs the High Priestess for his spiritual gestation (arcanum #2) that takes time until finally the Empress (arcanum #3) will hatch and radiate.
To reach a higher awareness level, the TDM High Priestess “La Papesse” needs to take the time to accumulate inner knowledge before acting in the world.
Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (RWS)
The RWS tarot deck was created in 1909. By then Pope Joan story had entered the legend theory acceptance and the “High Priestess” replaced “La Papesse”. She could no longer have the Christian Pontiff attributes. Her head would no longer be covered with a tiara. She now wears a horned moon shape headdress, associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor (switching the two syllables makes “thor-ha”). Her book contains the letters “T O R A” implying also the Jewish Torah. The two pillars marked with the letters B and J, which refer to the names of Boaz and Jachin as found on the Old Testament Temple of Solomon two entrance columns. The veil (spiritual world inside the temple) behind the High Priestess contain pomegranates (613 seeds = 613 Torah commandments). These four references to Jewish wisdom symbolize spiritual knowledge.
This arcanum evokes the Greek invasion of Israel by Alexander the Great who forbade the study of the Torah during the fourth century BC. Some Kabbalah scholars indicate that to circumvent the interdiction, the Jewish people created the first tarot decks whose symbols would cover the entire Torah esoteric content. Playing tarot cards would then enable the Torah study without detection. The ruse lasted until the Maccabees expelled the Greeks from Israel. After that, the tarot decks were forgotten until being revived during the fifteen century.
Among the remaining symbols, we see a yellow (spiritual) moon (unconscious) at her feet (mother earth). The High Priestess robe is white (purity) and blue (truth) with a cross (incarnation in time and space) on her heart (love and beauty).
To reach a higher awareness level, the RWS High Priestess needs to set love, beauty and truth as key priorities.
Mythic Tarot (MT)
The MT High Priestess share the two pillars with the two arcana above as well as Astro Tarology “Flower of Life” reminding Kabbalah pillars of severity and mercy. The dark column represents the pillar of will and the light column the pillar of pleasure, the two unconscious conflicting energies. The MT High Priestess shows in her right hand the seeds of an opened pomegranate, which religious symbolism was mentioned above and which mythologic symbolic meaning will be described in the myth of Persephone below.
The mythological Greek character associated with the High Priestess is Persephone. She is the daughter of earth mother Demeter (who is associated with the Empress arcanum that will be next in our study) and Zeus. Hades, Zeus brother and lord of the underworld, was in love with Persephone. He abducted her while she was picking narcissus, brought her to the underworld and marry her. Protesting such abuse, Demeter prevented all vegetation to grow on earth turning the land more and more sterile. Zeus then decide to send Hermes to the underground to bring Persephone back to earth. The problem Hermes faced was that Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds (both the food of the dead and conjugal love) making her bound forever in the underground. A compromise was finally found. Persephone would share her time between the underground and earth, where she would return at each Spring beginning.
More symbols can be found in the MT High Priestess arcanum. (1) Unlike the two arcana above, she wear a golden crown on her head (she became the queen of the underworld), (2) her skin is pale (there is no light in the underworld) but not white (she comes back to earth every Spring), (3) her dress is all white (pure virginity), (4) there are narcissus (dead flower during winter that emerges to light in Spring) on the floor as well as in her left (receptive) hand (reminder of her abduction), (5) behind her we see the long road from darkness to the terrestrial light on her annual return.
To reach a higher awareness level, the MT High Priestess needs to hold both light and darkness unconscious energies.
Symbolon Tarot (ST)
The Symbolon Tarot is based on astrology and mythology. There are no more pillars, but the symbolism remain the same. The image left side shows the night (dark convoluted path, house, mountains, moon) while the right shows the daylight (fertile ground, river, tree, dragonfly, sun). In the middle the Priestess is dressed in white (purity) and blue (truth). Above her head is a yellow star (cosmic spirituality). Her yellowish face (spiritual mental abilities) is the only visible body part (protection from the physical world). She wear a religious necklace (separating her head from her body).
In the four card corners, we see the ST High Priestess astrologic analogies with the Cancer and Sagittarius signs as well as the Moon and Jupiter, their respective planetary rulers. The Symbolon cards associations with astrologic symbols differ from those in the Astro Tarology “Flower of Life”. Because of its exclusive structure, the “Flower of Life” mandala will always be different than any other astrological affinities with tarot cards.
To confuse the reader a little more about Greek mythology correlations, the ST High Priestess is associated with Mnemosyne, different than MT High Priestess Persephone. Both relate to Hades underground and represent valid analogies. What was Mnemosyne story?
Daughter of Uranus and Gaia, Titaness Mnemosyne (name related to the word “mnemonic”) was the mother of the nine Muses (epic and lyric poetry, history, music, tragedy, hymns, dance, comedy, astronomy) all conceived during nine consecutive nights by Zeus. In Hades underground water to dead souls was available from two sources: (1) the Lethe river and (2) a pool presided by Mnemosyne. When drinking from the Lethe, the dead would not remember their past lives, but from Mnemosyne pool they would. Thus Mnemosyne symbolizes past memories, personal truth and soulful insights accessible through introspection or therapy.
To reach a higher awareness level, the TS High Priestess needs to be open to past memories, personal truth and soulful insights.
In a summary, we can say that to reach a higher awareness level, the High Priestess needs to (1) take the time to accumulate inner knowledge before acting in the world, (2) set love, beauty and truth as key priorities, (3) hold both light and darkness unconscious energies and (4) be open to past memories, personal truth and soulful insights.
As a practical simple advice, your inner High Priestess recommends that you plan any new action and prepare patiently before implementation.
Click on 2 for the HIGH PRIESTESS Practical Exercises