The High Priestess: Meaning & Symbolism
Nestled between two great pillars she sits, awaiting the arrival of those who seek for her. On her head is a crown of times past and in her hands she holds the scroll of spiritual law. Hers is the great mystery of self, and she beckons those daring enough to look deeper. Behind the veil she guards is the sacred pool, ever flowing, ever constant. For hers is the beauty of the stars and all they govern.
Keywords: Individuality, Feminine Mystery, Intuition
Correspondences: Water, Moon
The High Priestess is a complex card filled with various symbols and thus interpretations. At first glance however, she is the Great Queen of the Heavens. Even to time, she is unmistakable. For many, the card would then symbolize all aspects of the female mysteries. These female mysteries often mean different things to different people. For some, it is the flow and record of time. For others, it is the great mystery of the subconscious. Still to others, it is the intuitive knowledge of the spiritual. Perhaps for this reason alone, it is difficult to put any one interpretation on the High Priestess. Luckily, we can touch on many aspects through the symbols depicted on the Rider-Waite Smith tarot card specifically.
The planetary and elemental associations of this card are unmistakable in its symbolism. Lunar Energy is written throughout, and thus, brings with it Elemental Water. To some, the Crescent Moon stands out as an indicator of the lunar energies. Peaking behind the veil, we see water. But, the High Priestess’ gown should not be overlooked. The gown is flowing water, a continuous stream of it. Both the Moon and Elemental Water are used to symbolize the subconscious self. Some women however, have added another aspect to this symbolism linking the moon phases to that of a woman’s natural hormone cycle. Both are, perhaps, lunar mysteries.
Taking a step back from the High Priestess, we see she is framed by two pillars. While different in design, these are Boaz and Jachin, the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple. The pillars represent Strength and Beauty. It should be noted that Beauty here is not the common conception of beauty. Instead, the meaning meant here is linked to Stability. There is beauty in prolonged stability, permanence, or refuge. Interestingly, the two pillars are said to have been made of bronze, but also decorated with lilies and pomegranates. While these pomegranates are not on the pillars in the High Priestess card, they are depicted on the veil itself.
Pomegranates are a wide ranging symbol in their own right. Since the High Priestess card is designed with Christian symbolism, we can assume the pomegranates then, represent wisdom. A deeper symbolism that is traditionally understood links pomegranates to the passion of Christ. While this symbolism may not be for everyone, it illustrates an important aspect of the High Priestess, that of the Virginal Mother. Today, this is a complexity that’s difficult to understand. However, to the ancients it was a mystery as deep as time itself. Figures like the Shekinah, Virgin Mary, Rhea, and Nut all represent similar understandings of this Virginal Mother paradox, some more than others.
But what of the veil? This veil is typically understood as representing the Temple Veil. If the two pillars represent the entrance to Solomon’s Temple, then it makes sense to conclude the veil would also correspond to the Temple of King Solomon. The Temple Veil once separated the common man from the Holy of Holies, or where God was said to dwell among men. Applying this concept to the tarot card, we can peak behind the veil to see a pool of water representing the subconscious. All this then, represents the bridge between the conscious (where men dwell) and the subconscious (where God dwells). To some, this is the mysterious Third Temple. This is the mixture that results in a “Fire-Mist” or what is understood to be the first beings. In Christianity, this is perhaps why the body is said to be like a temple.
The surprising theme of Christian imagery on the High Priestess card continues to encompass many more themes. To many, the scroll the High Priestess holds represents the Great Law. This is something confusing to understand for many, but the Great Law is what A.E. Waite calls, “the second sense of the Word.” To me, this is nothing more than Esoteric Christianity. It is an intuitive understanding of the Universal Law, and as such, an understanding of the Divine. A.E. Waite is also quick to mention another symbol of the scroll noting, “It is partly covered by her mantle, to show that some things are implied and some spoken.” Clearly, the Great Law is not exclusive to written down doctrine, but instead, also contains oral tradition or teachings.
One symbol that is difficult to touch on is the crown of the High Priestess. In the Rider-Waite Smith tarot, it is similar to that of the headdress worn by Isis or Hathor. Many have come to see the Moon in the headdress, which is completely understandable. However, this was not the original design advised by A.E. Waite for his tarot. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, A.E. describes the High Priestess’ crown as, “a horned diadem on her head, with a globe in the middle place. The distinction here is extremely important, because it impacts the meaning of the card immensely. There’s a complexity here, mainly because I haven’t seen the topic discussed too often.
But, historically, diadems were nothing more than circular crowns worn by royalty. A.E. Waite adds the requirement of the horns. Why he does this is not known, but perhaps he did want to invoke allusions to Hathor or Isis. What is strange in any case, is he asks for the globe in the middle place. The globe, horns, and allusion to Isis all point to solar themes within this card. It’s strange to consider, but the emphasis on the solar is definitely there. An explanation for this might be in the solar cross on the High Priestess’ chest. This cross usually is understood to represent the seen and the unseen. To many, this fits within the themes of the High Priestess then. The solar energy is conscious and the lunar energy is subconscious. The High Priestess allows the two to exist together.
As I stated earlier, the High Priestess is a complex card. In a reading, the High Priestess more than likely corresponds to strong feminine energy, or the female mysteries. There is also a strong likelihood that the card indicates a burst in intuitive knowledge. To some, the High Priestess can usher in a time of Esoteric or Gnostic Philosophy. To others, the card symbolizes delving deeper within ourselves. The theme of personal awareness is strongly rooted in the High Priestess card. This is a time of individuality, and with it, probably comes immense change. This is the first balance, and it takes place within the individual. The High Priestess embodies an energy of strong emotions, and understanding.