The High Priestess: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

The High Priestess is one card that idealists and advocates for a benign (or at least neutral) view of the tarot archetypes love to put on a pedestal as a lofty example of purity and virtue. She is obviously as pristine as the driven snow, never mind that she is also as crystalline as an ice cube and  as abstemious as a Vestal Virgin. She is seen as an exalted feminine role-model to aspire to, remote like the Star but also somehow less abstract and more approachable at a mystically intuitive level (must be the lunar connection). Readers who value inductive over deductive methods are especially enamored of her, mainly because she keeps the higher truths concealed and only glimpses of insight are offered on which to base conclusions. They content themselves with meager scraps of knowledge and leave the difficult path of ascent to her altar to the more assiduous. One thing that is almost certain, though: our mundane objectives are almost never her immediate concern, so we might not understand her even if she did condescend to speak with us.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the High Priestess, mainly because she knows how to keep her mouth shut. She is the Guardian of the Veil, beneath which the uninitiated are forbidden  to peek. The implication in a reading is often that the querent isn’t ready to receive her wisdom, and perhaps isn’t worthy of it because he or she hasn’t put forth an honest effort to comprehend the situation without demanding coaching or hand-holding. My impression has always been that she has no patience for slackers, and is exacting in her expectations for spiritual refinement in her supplicants. She will turn a deaf ear to the undeserving.

Some writers have described the scroll or book she is holding as the Akashic Record, in which the past, present and future of every human being are recorded. This observation makes sense to me, and it’s also understandable that she is the ideal custodian to keep it under wraps. Meditation, not petition, is the way to her confidence, and forbearance in seeking her favor is essential. She will impart her knowledge in her own good time. I see her pursuit as a kind of vigil, in which one must be alert (and grateful) for any hint of a momentary parting of the curtain. She will not open the gates without testing the mettle of the aspirant, and her standards are high. It’s vital not to misconstrue her shrouded insinuations as actionable advice without squaring them with other impressions from your own experience. You might only be seeing an artfully  redacted intimation of the truth.

The High Priestess may express the “higher vibration” of the Moon, but – in the words of the Robert Heinlein novel – “the Moon is a harsh mistress” – or at least a confounding one. Her saving grace is that, although both instances of the Moon in the Major Arcana can indicate the likelihood of encountering surprises, those of the High Priestess are likely to be more enlightening and less unpleasant. But she still obscures more than she elucidates. Her mode of revelation is the slow drip and not the flood; the dawning realization and not the sudden epiphany; the insightful dream and not the lightning-bolt of illumination. Inspiration often comes by night and pales in the morning sun. Blink and you might miss it.

4 thoughts on “The High Priestess: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

  1. Contra the established view, it is worth pointing out that the Pope-Popess dichotomy is typically based on the historicity of the Church and the popes, as well as the non-existence of the Popess, as opposed to what the Tarot cards actually depict.

    Let me explain: The Pope is usually taken to mean the exoteric, orthodox and conventional Church (or organised religion in general), whereas the Popess would represent the hidden, inner, esoteric teachings available only to the initiated. The fact that a female popess never existed reinforces her standing for what is hidden or occulted.

    However, observing the cards, we find that the Popess is alone, and holding a book, whereas the Pope is clearly in an act of direct teaching with 2 disciples (in many versions of the card) or blessing or initiation.

    It could just as well be argued that the Popess stands for solitary book learning, whereas the Pope stands for the actual oral transmission of knowledge or empowerment. And in fact, every esoteric tradition emphasis the crucial matter of initiation from qualified master, thus forming an unbroken chain or lineage.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the matter explained in these terms before, so I’m just putting this out there!


  2. I like the bit that Waite wrote about The Chariot in pictorial key: “[And].. that if he came to the pillars of that Temple between which the High Priestess is seated, he could not open the scroll called Tora, nor if she questioned him could he answer.”

    I also totally agree with what _R_ commented above. It goes in line with what Waite wrote (also in PKT): “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 Greater Arcana”

    I believe that Waite might have been alluding to a passage in the Bible when he wrote: ” 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 is Shekinah – the co-habiting glory”

    In the Bible (2 Cor 3:18) it says: “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image”

    (sorry to do so much Waite-quoting ☺️)


  3. When it comes to religious interpretations of the tarot, I stand on the far side of the esoteric divide since I prefer the Hermetic and Qabalistic viewpoint rather than the strictly Christian one, even though the latter underlies the original myths. I find archaic associations to be intellectually interesting but rather out of touch with modern usage, so I downplay them in my own thinking, writing and practice. Apparently a majority of Americans now say they are “spiritual but not religious” (which I’ve been saying about myself for years). The orthodox way has become increasingly irrelevant to the seeker after wisdom when there are so many individual paths to choose from, so I ride that particular wave (although I draw the line at a purely psychological approach).


  4. Pingback: Tarot 101, My Way – Major Acana: The Priestess and The Empress | Parsifal's Wheel Tarot & Astrology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s