The High Priestess & The Female Pope
Today is the day we finally get to discuss the High Priestess tarot card. This card is such a difficult one to discern the meaning of. Even so, many people connect to the imagery of the High Priestess. There’s something about the card that draws you in seeking more. Why is that? Well, I think I can finally answer that question. Taking a look at the myths surrounding the High Priestess helps to put the card’s meaning into a specific topic. The card actually contains many complex themes, themes that are easily recognizable in stories. In some ways, I think the High Priestess communicates best through story. For this reason, let’s look at the High Priestess through various archetypes.
There are many archetypes that the High Priestess fits into. The most common, however, is that of Priestess. In today’s culture, the Priestess archetype is making a huge comeback. Many women seek to embrace their concept of Divine Feminine. As a female myself, I’m not going to argue that point. However, I do think we need to take a moment to make a distinction. Within tarot, and in many various archetypes, there are many types of Divine Feminine. In tarot specifically, we see the archetypes of Mother/Queen, Priestess, and Warrior. I think it is worth noted, in today’s culture, that studying any one archetype does not negate or sum up the others. This is true studying the Divine Masculine as much as it is true studying the Divine Feminine.
The High Priestess in tarot specifically represents the Priestess archetype. As such, the card has become, or always been connected to, certain myths. Over time, the strongest of these myths seems to be that of Pope Joan. Some people like to think of Pope Joan as a real person. I understand this, in fact, I sometimes find myself wishing Pope Joan was real. However, there’s no historical evidence to suggest that a Pope Joan is anything other than myth. Now, with that said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some historical basis for the myth of Pope Joan. Rachel Pollack points this out in her book Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom that Pope Joan might have a historical basis in the life of Manfreda Visconti. There’s even a really great article on the historical evidence for a connection of Manfreda Visconti to the High Priestess card over on Mary K. Greer’s blog here.
To sum up the interesting life of Manfreda Visconti, she was elected Pope in Milan around the year 1300. Instead of ushering in the anticipated spiritual movement focused on the Divine Feminine however, Manfreda was burned as a heretic. Followers of the spiritual movement were also persecuted for their beliefs, and many were burned as well. This story does echo some of the interesting details of the Pope Joan legend. Both feature females who are named Pope. Both include the Easter time period. And, interestingly enough, both females die as heretics, though for very different reasons. In fact, I believe the Pope Joan legend tells us something about the way the Divine Feminine was perceived in the eyes of the Church. Oddly, these same views may be reflected in the tarot for otherwise unconnected reasons.
If we assume that the life of Manfreda Visconti was the inspiration for the Pope Joan legend, we can take into account certain differences in the story. In this case, namely the way each female died. In Visconti’s case, she died more or less a victim of the dogma of her time. However, in the legend of Pope Joan, she dies due to giving birth to a child. It’s interesting that Pope Joan specifically dies from complications during her labor. While this may feel like an overly stigmatized story discussing the role of females in that time period, I feel there’s something more illustrated here. See, after reading Mary K. Greer’s blog post on Manfred Visconti, I can’t help but feel there’s the underlying theme of the Church involved. Specifically, in this case, the Catholic Church and its role in society.
What sets the High Priestess apart from The Empress in tarot largely is the archetypal differences between Priestess and Mother roles. To be blunt, The Empress focuses on motherhood, while the Priestess focuses on intuition and bridging the conscious and subconscious. In other words, the Priestess is seen as virginal, while the Mother is seen as sexually fertile. This is reflected in numerous understandings of the tarot. In terms of the Occult, the High Priestess is often seen as Binah, or Understanding. In Greek Mythology, this is the embodiment of Hera or perhaps her mother, Rhea. It is worth noting that Hera, Rhea, and the aspect of Binah all contain an emphasis on water. Expanding this idea, Hera and Rhea are especially linked to the “flow of time”, “birth water”, and, in many cases, child birth. Binah in some traditions is also linked to water and the womb.
Considering this, there’s an interesting interplay that takes place in the legend of Pope Joan and the figure of Manfreda Visconti. Before the Visconti-Sforza tarot was commissioned, a female figure illustrated in a similar manner may have been popular. This figure however, was a depiction of the Church itself. The Church has always, to my knowledge, been conceived as a female concept. Now, this may be a stretch, but I wanted to share my personal observations nevertheless. It’s important to keep in mind that artistic depictions of biblical scenes or figures during the time period of “Pope Joan” was critical, especially in the countryside. A significant portion of the population could not read, and their understanding of Christianity came from the Church or art, which was probably commissioned by or for said Church. Alright, now to my analysis.
If we assume many saw Manfreda Visconti, or a female Pope, as an embodiment of the Church, it would have been important for that figure to be virginal. It wouldn’t be surprising for more righteously inspired storytellers to add morals to the tale of Manfreda. Here is a woman elected Pope, a woman who is virtuous and supposed to usher in a new spiritual movement. Instead, she has “absorbed” the “original sin” of womanhood, and thus, gotten pregnant. For her sins she must atone, and the only way to do this is then, childbirth. However, for her blasphemy, she dies in the complications of labor instead. Thus, the integrity of the Church is restored as God would never allow such a thing. The moral? Women should remain devoted and chaste. Outdated? Absolutely. But when examining archetypes and myths it is important to consider outdated rhetoric and ideals of the time period in question.
What’s interesting about the High Priestess tarot card is it restores the very essence of Divine Feminine. If my speculation is true and Manfreda Visconti became Pope Joan in legend, how much more amazing would the High Priestess’ symbolism be? Mary K. Greer seems to ask something very similar in her blog post. I think the High Priestess speaks to this mystery. There is plenty to see in the card, and thus, plenty to understand in the symbolism itself. In the High Priestess is embodied elements of the Shekinah, the Virgin Mary, and even ancient concepts of Divine Feminine like Isis. How you connect to the High Priestess largely depends on your connection to your inner feminine. And that, well that sums up the very nature of the card itself.