Tarot Card Meanings: The High Priestess

The Light: study, wisdom, intuition, faith.

The Shadows: closed mentality, conceit, surface knowledge.

The High Priestess represents the ancient route to wisdom. She may come to us in readings when we are embarking on a spiritual journey or when we need a gentle reminder to take a step back from more orthodox religious teachings and rely instead on our own inner guidance. Dreams and flashes of intuition are particularly important at this time. It can also indicate that a spiritual shift is about to take place, allowing you to step beyond the curtain that separates you from your subconscious. While the High Priestess can be an intimidating gatekeeper, only those brave enough to approach her will be able to step beyond to the sea, whose shoreline lies tantalisingly beyond the veil.

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Deck used: Original Rider-Waite

In this card, the first thing to speak to me is the lunar imagery – she wears the crown of Isis, with two crescent moons and a full moon (also the symbol of the triple goddess), and her foot rests on an elegant waxing crescent moon. This lunar imagery shows us that our insight can grow and wane like the moon, and that the strength of our intuition can be directly linked to its phases. Additionally, the word ‘lunar’ is the root for lunacy – this can remind us that following our own truth can look crazy to others without our particular knowledge, but following this type of wisdom is based on something much older than ourselves. It is innate and ancient, brought forth into modern times as time marches on.

She is sitting before a curtain of fully seeded pomegranates, displaying that her authority is set against a background of organic growth, fertility and feminine potential. Interspersed with the fruits are palm trees, representing peace and triumph. The pomegranate bears a lot of cultural significance. Born out of the blood of Adonis, it became the fruit that Persephone ate which caused her to remain in the underworld for part of the year. This life-death-rebirth theme also ties in with the lunar and seasonal shifts. More recently, the pomegranate was the symbol of Katherine of Aragon. Pomegranates are also represented on the robes of Hebrew high priests as symbols of the promised land.

The Hebrew links continue in this card. The Priestess sits between two pillars, labelled J and B – this stands for Jachin and Boaz, the two pillars which stood at the doorway of Solomon’s temple. Hebrew is read right to left, so it makes sense to translate the words in this order, though they appear reversed on the card for those of us who read left to right. Jachin is roughly translated as ‘He establishes’ and Boaz as ‘strength.’ Additionally, the Priestess holds a Torah scroll in her hands.*

In some decks, she is also called The Popess, which is possibly a reference to the legendary Pope Joan. While Pope Joan may be a fictional figure, her story reminds us of the danger women often faced if they tried to excel in a male field. However, Joan’s religious acumen allowed her to rise through the ecclesiastical ranks to the Catholic church’s highest office, only to have her efforts betrayed by giving birth to a child. Depending on the account, Joan was either executed or sent away to do penance. In the latter tale, that baby went on to become a bishop himself, though his mother’s story will forever be shrouded in mystery.

*My own research outside of the tarot currently revolves around the Norman Conquest. With Tora Torbergsdatter being Harald Hardrada’s consort, seeing the scroll state ‘Tora’ immediately makes me think of her.

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