2. The High Priestess
The High Priestess is a mysterious, intriguing card, in many ways. Her original name – The Popess – already indicates that this card represents something special. Popess is in fact a non-existent position in the Roman Catholic hierarchy and also touches a sensitive chord; the priesthood is not accessible to women.
The cards of the very first tarot game, the Visconti-Sforza, have no titles, but the image is clear enough: we see a woman with a pontifical tiara (crown) and a staff with a cross. The Pope himself is depicted on his own card with exactly the same attributes. This feels like a conscious provocation and raises questions. The church was not known at the time for her sense of humor. For heresy, in the worst case, you could end up at the stake. The noble Visconti family, who commissioned the cards, apparently felt unassailable enough, but why take risks for a game that is only intended for recreational purposes?
Because, as we will see when discussing the other cards of the major arcana, the tarot was designed as a game, but it was also used as a vehicle for esoteric knowledge, even then. One had to be careful with this. Spiritual theories and beliefs that were inconsistent with the dogmas of the church could not simply be communicated in public. The esoteric symbolism in the very first tarot cards is in many cases subtle and, up to now, recognized as such by few.
The Visconti-Sforza Tarot (1454)
Both the Pope and the Popess of the Visconti-Sforza tarot represent the spiritually perfected person. The official reading of the church is that the pope is Christ’s representative on earth. A person in this position is implicitly expected to have a great spiritual maturity. Ideally, the person with the highest degree of spiritual perfection becomes the leader of the rest. The fact that it does not always work this way, unfortunately, does not interfer with the suitability of the pope to serve as an archetype for spiritual completion. His attributes underline this.
A tiara, a triple crown, stands for the spiritual perfection of body, thinking and feeling. In the Bible we also find this division. For example in the parable of the leaven:
Another parable he spoke to them; The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
The leaven is the kundalini energy or Holy Spirit. It permeates body, feeling and thinking – the three measures of flour – causing the bread to rise (metaphor for an expansion of consciousness). We will further explore the meaning of a tiara when discussing the Pope card.
The staff of high-ranking clergy – an outward sign of authority – is at a deeper-level a symbol of the spine with the awakened kundalini energy flowing in it. We often find decorations on the staff that refer to the process of spiritual awakening: a serpent or pine cone (the pineal gland), for example. In this case we see at the top the staff of the Pope a Greek cross; a cross with equal arms. In the esoteric traditions, this cross is a symbol for the merging of the opposites. For fusing duality into a unity; the end result of a kundalini awakening.
What stands out, when studying the Visconti-Sforza card, is that the woman has the attributes of a pope, but not the matching clothing. She is dressed like a simple nun. Her clothing expresses that she has renounced all her possessions and leads a life dedicated to God. This emphasizes that her crown and staff do not stand for a dominant position within the church, but for her spiritual level.
The Tarot of Marseille, by Jean Noblet
Tarot of Marseille
On the Tarot of Marseille, about two centuries later, the clothing of the Popess is adapted. She too is now dressed as a high-ranking official, just like the Pope. However, the deeper meaning of the card has not changed. The Popess still stands for spiritual perfection; for transcending duality and realizing the divine “oneness.” The staff with Maltese cross of the Visconti-Sforza card has been replaced in the Jean Noblet Tarot by two crossed bands on the chest of the Popess, which in turn are decorated with crosses, to emphasize the symbolic meaning of the bands. (The same meaning as the two raised fingers of the Pope: I made the two into one)
With this interpretation we also find the answer to the pressing question that has left many tarot connoisseurs puzzled. Why did Jean Dodal (also belonging to the Tarot of Marseille) not call his Popess card La Papesse, like his colleagues, but La Pances? Nobody knows. It is an unknown word that resembles – and sounds very similar to – the French word for belly: panse. I think that Dodal with the title La Pances refers to the kundalini energy in the belly of the Popess!
“Allegory of the church”, chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
The keys of the Kingdom of God
The two keys with which the Popess is depicted on some decks are the two keys of the pope that give him authority on earth and in heaven. The church derives this meaning from the Bible passage in which Jesus says to the apostle Peter (who is therefore seen as the first pope):
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Traditionally, one key is silver and the other is gold. Esoterically, silver and gold stand for, respectively, the female (moon) energy and the male (solar) energy. On the card the keys are always held crossed. This too is a reference to the fusion of duality. Some explain the Popess as an allegory of the Roman Catholic Church, because the church (“ecclesia“) is sometimes allegorically depicted as a woman with a tiara and two keys (see photo, above, from the chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome). But this is not the meaning of the Visconti-Sforza card, because the church is never depicted in a habit.
The real meaning of a card – and of the symbols used in it – only comes to light when it is seen in conjunction with its developmental history and with the other cards of the major arcana. The esoteric meaning of the cards had to remain hidden from the general public. The designers have certainly succeeded in this!
The Etteilla Tarot
In a time frame of about a century, three Etteilla decks have appeared, with striking differences between them. Etteilla decks do not have a Popess card, but Etteilla III is the first tarot deck with a card called The High Priestess. That this card represents a kundalini awakening can also be deduced from her predecessor in deck I. Etteilla I has a card “La Prudence” (Caution) on which is depicted a woman who almost stands on a serpent (below). At first glance “La Prudence” seems to refer to looking out for danger in the outside world. The caduceus (symbol for a kundalini awakening) in her hand, however, gives the card a completely different meaning: make sure (caution) that you lift the (kundalini) serpent (up to the crown), instead of allowing him to bite you (use the kundalini for the satisfaction of the lower chakras) …!
The La Prudence card of Etteilla III also shows clear kundalini symbolism. A woman is holding a mirror with a serpent. The mirror stands for self-reflection / self-knowledge (the “Know thyself” on the temple of Delphi). The path of the kundalini serpent from the pelvis up to the pineal gland is shown twice on this card. The pine cone pattern on the woman’s dress also refers to this. An English version of this card is suddenly called The High Priestess. A surprising adaptation that had a major effect: The Popess was replaced by The High Priestess in almost all tarot decks that followed.
The veil of Isis
The Tarot from Oswald Wirth appears at almost the same time as the Etteilla III Tarot. Wirth’s card is still called Popess, but he does introduce a number of new elements that will prove to be permanent. A moon symbol is added to the tiara, making the meaning of this crown more universal (less Christian). Behind the Popess are now two large pillars with a cloth between them. The pillars represent duality, just like the two keys. We may deduce from the moon symbol that the cloth refers to the ‘veil of Isis’, behind which the Greater Reality is hidden.
The meaning of the card shifts to the energetic dimensions. The Popess no longer represents the perfected human being, but rather the divine energy that brings about this perfection. She is known by many names. The Eastern traditions call her the kundalini-shakti. Mystical Judaism speaks about the Shekinah. In Ancient Egypt she was a powerful goddess with multiple faces and associated names, including Isis and Hathor.
Oswald Wirth (1889)
Château des Avenières (1917)
The High Priestess in the chapel of Château des Avenières wears the crown of Isis. Her face is partially hidden behind a veil. This has the same meaning as the cloth behind her. The kundalini can be found both inside, and in the outside world; she is also the divine energy from which the physical reality, as we perceive with our senses, is built. However, what we perceive is an illusion, according to many spiritual traditions. The Eastern traditions call this Maya. Through Maya, or the veil of Isis, we can not see the Greater Reality. During a spiritual awakening, this veil is “lifted”.
High Priestess (1909)
Arthur E. Waite continues with his deck on the themes introduced by his predecessors. The pillars are now marked with the letters B and J; a reference to the pillars Boaz and Jachin of the temple of King Solomon. On the canvas behind the High Priestess we see date palms and pomegranates. The tiara has been replaced by a crown consisting of two crescent moons and a full moon; a reference to the lunar cycle, which in turn stands for a spiritual resurrection or rebirth. Pamela Colman-Smith, the designing artist, has placed an extra crescent moon under the feet of the High Priestess. With two fingers the High Priestess makes the “sign of the sacred marriage”, which means the same as the Greek cross on her chest: the union of the opposites (the pillars B and J). The Bible has been replaced with a scroll with “TORA” on it, which she partially hides behind her robe. In the background we see a calm sea. All these new elements point in the same direction: a kundalini awakening!
Tree of Life
Almost every spiritual tradition has, in one form or another, a “tree of life”: a mythical tree that forms a bridge between our world and the world of the gods. The type of tree can differ, just like the legends attached to it, but in all cases it is an inner tree. An energetic tree with its roots in the pelvic area, and the branches with (often special) fruits are located in the head.
On the veil, behind the RWS High Priestess, we see references to two of these “kundalini trees”. The pomegranates are placed according to the sefirots of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which are a schematic representation of the inner world of man. The upward movement through the Tree of Life – the way back from matter to the divine – is called “the path of the serpent” in the kabbalah.
The date palm, also on the veil behind the High Priestess, was already regarded a sacred tree in Ancient Egypt. And later, in Judaism and Christianity, this tree kept its special status. This can be traced back to a number of specific properties of the date palm, which make it very suitable as a metaphor for a kundalini awakening. First of all, like most trees of life, it is green all year round, a reference to “eternal life”. Her long bare trunk, with only leaves at the top, is a beautiful representation of the spine. In addition, palm branches have a special feature: the lower leaves deform into spines, so that the lower part of the palm branch resembles a spine.
Furthermore, dates – the fruits of the female palm tree – resemble the pineal gland in terms of shape. Pamela Colman-Smith has emphasized this symbolic value of the date by adding a yellow date to the center of the crown of the palm trees, in addition to a few hanging red dates. The Latin name of the date palm is also significant: Phoenix dactylifera. “Phoenix” confirms that in ancient cultures the date palm was associated with the process of spiritual rebirth.
Both the figure of the High Priestess herself, and the tree of life, represent the kundalini energy. Water is another universal kundalini metaphor. The lower part of the dress of the RWS High Priestess looks like flowing water, and a calm sea extends in the background of the card.
On the wall painting from an Egyptian tomb (below) we see the deceased man drinking from a water source near a date palm.
Mural painting in the tomb of Irynefer (TT 290), Luxor, Egypt.
Saint Bruno, by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th century.
To attain eternal life with God, the ego must first die. On the engraving with Saint Bruno (left) we see an unusual crucifixion scene: Jesus hanging in a palm tree …! The artist Hieronymus Wierix knew, and wanted to communicate, that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, on a deeper level, stand for the death of the ego and a spiritual rebirth. By placing the palm tree with Jesus on a skull, Wierix also indicates where this process takes place: in the head. With the middle fingers of his right hand he makes the sign of the sacred marriage (2 = 1) that took place in Jesus.
The pillars Boaz and Jachin
In the Bible book 1 Kings we read about the legendary temple that King Solomon built for God. This story is not about a real building, but about making yourself into a “temple” for God to live in. One of the indications that we should not take the story literally is the curious fact that no sounds were heard during the construction of the temple:
The house, while it was being built, was built of stone prepared at the quarry, and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any iron tool heard in the house while it was being built … and they would go up by winding stairs to the middle story, and from the middle to the third.
(1 Kon. 6:7-8)
The temple of Solomon with the pillars Jachin and Boaz
The side rooms are accessible by a spiral staircase; a beautiful metaphor for the spiral movement of the rising kundalini. It takes Solomon seven years to construct the temple, referring to the opening / activation of the seven chakras. He has two huge copper columns placed against the entrance hall of the temple and gives them names: Jachin and Boaz. The two pillars represent the two energy channels (named ida-nadi and pingala-nadi in the yoga tradition), that connect us to duality, and that flow on the left and the right side of the spine. It is these two pillars that must be unified (the sacred marriage) by the spiritual aspirant to complete the kundalini process
In ancient cultures the pomegranate represented fertility, abundance, rebirth and eternal life. It is a fruit full of seeds, so associations with fertility and abundance are easy to understand. The pomegranate also stands for the “divine seed” dormant in our sacrum. Partly, she owes this to her red color, which corresponds to the color of the first chakra, where the kundalini is located. This explains her symbolic meaning of rebirth and eternal life.
The RWS Fool
Pomegranates are also depicted on the clothing of the RWS-Fool. An additional element – in addition to the discussed red feather, the symbol for ether, and the eagle – that refers to the spiritual potential of the first card of the major arcana.
The woman with the moon under her feet
The crescent moon under the feet of the High Priestess refers to a quote from the book of Revelation, which contains the visions of the apostle John:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.
The woman is clothed with the sun, the text says. The sun stands for the divine, for immortality. The ever-changing moon represents physical reality, duality, mortality, the illusion of matter. The woman has the moon under her feet: she has gained mastery over matter / duality. Her crown with stars stands for an opened crown chakra and the number twelve symbolizes spiritual fullness. Colman-Smith used this twelve-star crown on the following card of the major arcana: the Empress.
John’s vision are images of the kundalini awakening that he is experiences. The child who is about to be born is the divine child who is born in his soul. With the addition of the crescent moon under the feet of the High Priestess – a new element – Colman-Smit wants to emphasize what this card stands for: a kundalini awakening!
The High Priestess represents the divine mystery in our pelvis. The knowledge regarding the kundalini energy has always been hidden anxiously from the general public, to prevent abuse. This is the meaning of the only partially visible Torah role on the RWS High Priestess. Both in the Bible (in which the Torah is included) and in art, this knowledge is covered by symbolism.
Only for those who sincerely long for God and live a pure life, will the High Priestess lift her veil.
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree…