The third card in the Tarot’s Major Arcana is popularly known as the High Priestess and in my opinion she’s easily the hardest card in the deck. Isn’t it fitting that an emblem of mystery be so elusive, so difficult to understand? Entire forests of trees have been slaughtered in an effort to explain this quirky card and despite this it took me years — years — to effect a true understanding of just what this mystery represents.
Well? What does she represent?
Read on to find out.
THE GENERIC TAROT
First, a sermon. (In case y’all haven’t figured this out yet, I want to be a minister when I grow up.)
We all get attached to this or that particular Tarot deck, but if you learn Tarot the way I teach it you will be able to kick butt and take names with any deck of cards under the Sun, even a regular pack of Bike cards. While I have my favorite decks to use, I’m equally confident with them all. In fact, just give me any kind of symbol system arrayed on playing cards and I’ll be able to extract meaning out of it, actionable intelligence. How? Because I realize the Tarot is a generic entity. If you find yourself tripping over the images on the cards, then you’re growing hypnotized with the surface topography, you’re falling in love with the edifice’s exterior without having any clue about what’s inside it. I don’t even care about what imagery is on the card. The symbols and images are merely shorthand for the memory. When you have a good memory — when you know – then there’s no need for mnemonic devices.
Verily, I say unto you: the only knowledge that counts in this world is that which you carry around inside your own head, right now. Post-it Notes, flash cards, mnemonic devices…these are useful in the nursery, but I am trying to prepare you to leave the nursery and in order to do that you’re gonna need a system.
This is in fact what all Tarot decks of one kind or the other have in common: an underlying system of occult laws. This is what gives the Tarot any intelligibility at all. The cards themselves are devoid of any inherent power and are not appropriate objects for worship, contrary to many published opinions. The cards, as objets d’art merit scrutiny and contemplation, but you will not believe the number of outrageous techniques I’ve read to “get to know” your cards. I do not possess this luxury. I go through Tarot decks like Kirstie Allen goes through a bucket of KFC’s extra crispy. I wear them out. I can’t help it, I’m a professional Taroist and my cards get a lot of wear, very fast. I do not have the luxury of erecting shrines to these cards. That is for dabblers.
None of the fancy-shmancy visualization techniques will work. I promise you that. You can fantasize all day long that the Fool or the High Priestess is engaging you in conversation, but it will bring you no closer to an effective understanding of what this card represents. In order to truly break through, you need to understand the underlying system.
The differences between Tarot readers are similar to the differences between musicians. On the one hand you have the purely “soulful” musician who cannot read music but who will proudly tout his ability to “feel” the music; then you have the technician, the guy who can not only read music, he has expertise in all branches of music theory — his sin is that he is almost entirely mechanical, with not enough feeling. Both are morons. Tarot readers can sometimes be like that. You have the one reader who “has a relationship” with her cards, and then you’ll have the other kind of reader who is overly-analytical. Obviously, the best approach is a balance between the two. The problem, however, with the uneducated Tarot reader who’s operating on pure instinct is that, well, he can very, very often be wrong.
Depending on the importance of the question, a wrong answer can have disastrous consequences. My clients ask me about high-profile purchases and imprisoned children and infidelities. If you had those sort of questions would you want a Tarot reader who knows what he’s doing or one who has concocted some cockamamie and completely illogical “relationship” with the Tarot that is so invested with personal meaning it has lost any foundation in objective reality?
Happily, all Tarot decks are:
1.) Going to use Numerology. Numerology is a big part of what makes Tarot work.
2.) Going to use astrology. If you are a Tarot reader who does not know astrology, you are missing out biiiiiig time.
3.) Going to use Kabbalah. 95% of Tarot decks today are based on the Kabbalah. The Rider-Waite deck is the most famous. Crowley’s Thoth deck is a close second.
Also — knowing about alchemy always helps. Extra credit for you if you can arouse yourself to study alchemy.
IT’S A FEMININE THING
Now it’s time for our star of the hour, a personage whose nature eschews the limelight — the Priestess. One of the many reasons this card is so difficult to interpret is because in my opinion many people get the attributions wrong. The Kabbalistic decks (such as the Rider-Waite and the Thoth deck) attribute this card to the Moon, and such an attribution is highly logical. It will not lead you terribly astray. But it is not the whole story.
The problem is that the Moon’s symbolism is more appropriate elsewhere. For reasons I explain in another article, I prefer the Moon’s symbolism to rule Arcanum 20 (Judgment) and not Arcanum 2 (Priestess). Why? Well, for one, it’s not fair to the men. True, the High Priestess is feminine but she is not female. It’s almost a reflex to think of the Priestess as being female. I will doubtless refer to her as “she” more times than I can count. It’s natural, but very wrong and I know better.
Another reason the Moon isn’t the best symbol for what the Priestess represents is because it restricts the mythology that forms the heart of this card’s energy. With the Moon we have Artemis and Diana as the archetypal precursors, female predators who capture their quarry through beguilement. This is an important notion to the core meaning of the card, but it’s not the whole story at all. If you’ve been reading the Priestess as a “subconscious truth” or if you’ve been thinking of it as a “veil” between worlds, then you’re understanding a small fraction of this card’s totality.
The Moon isn’t far off, though. It’s close. Artemis and Diana do in fact form an important symbolic basis for what the Priestess represents: huntresses, enchanters. Enchantment is indeed a big part of this card, but it is not a lunar enchantment. It is not the enchantment of the Moon.
Rather, it’s the enchantment of Virgo. Now we have a more robust mythological foundation under our feet. Instead of Artemis/Diana we now have the goddess Isis, the Eternal Virgin. The Moon’s dominion over this card is limited to the maternal origins of this Eternal Virgin. The Moon is the mother of the Eternal Virgin — she is not the Virgin herself. The Moon is not the Priestess.
More on this in a bit. But first, what did I mean when I said that the Priestess is feminine yet not female?
It’s important for me to break you of the habit of thinking that Priestess is female — otherwise, how will you interpret the card when it shows up for a male Querent? Perhaps you will think wholly absurd things like “He needs to get in touch with his feminine side.”
Really? If I pay you money to ask whether I should buy this hotel or not, the last thing I want you to do is tell me I need to get in touch with my feminine side if the Priestess pops up in the spread. That’s about as useful to me as a calculator is to a Lebanese fruit bat.
We turn to numerology for the answer — the Priestess’s number is 2 and 2 is the first feminine number. It is the yin to the 1’s (Magician) yang. It is the container of the Magician’s impulses, the nutritive matrix of what the Magician wants to accomplish. The number 2 is all about polarity — and thus, union. It represents a line, you see. The number 1 is a point. The number 2 is a line. So that even though we have a polarity — a separation, an Otherness, an awareness of an alien external force — we at the same time have a union, because it is a universal law that polarities will try to resolve and merge with each other somehow. Indeed, this is how the 3 comes about. The 3 is automatically formed as soon as we have the Otherness of the 2, because once we have separation we have the memory of wholeness still extant. In other words, in the beginning there was 1. Then the 1 split into 2, such that we have two entities. But these entities have a memory of the original unity, of the original 1. This makes 3.
So we see that the number 2, the quintessential number of relationship, is the Priestess and that she is necessary in order to give rise to all the other numbers. Without the Priestess the Magician is nothing more than a geek with big ideas.
So now we see the Priestess as a force for externalization and separation and even tension and conflict. Attachment, union and nurturing will come later, they’re part and parcel of the process, because the Priestess has a vital part to play in the rhythms of cooperation and partnership. It’s easy to see how this flowing, mutable nature can be confused with the action of the Moon.
But Virgo is a more appropriate fit, as C.C. Zain pointed out in his brilliant The Sacred Tarot. Virgo is feminine. And Virgo embodies many of the qualities that the Priestess has traditionally been said to manifest: passivity, mystery, hiding. Additionally, thinking of the Priestess as belonging to Virgo — Isis, the Eternal Virgin — brings in the concepts of research, labor, science and analysis, and now we are finally striking to the heart of the matter. This is what the Priestess represents. She represents research. She stands for keeping your ears open and your mouth shut. She represents staying silent so you can observe what’s necessary to know before you act. The Priestess will use all of her senses — physical and psychic — to get at the Truth of anything.
So now we can bring in Mercury, ruler of Virgo. The feminists may bristle at my attempt to attach Mercury and his sign to the Priestess, but I remind everyone that Mercury is androgyne. And thinking in this way, it’s easier to see the Major Arcana progressing naturally. Going from Mercury/Magician to Moon/Priestess is a bit of a leap. But going from Mercury/Magician to Mercury/Virgo/Priestess is highly logical to me. It’s a natural progression that will be rendered more radically feminine in the next Arcanum, the Empress. The Priestess’s number 2 is feminine, and its maternal nature will be realized in the Empress. The Eternal Virgin, Isis, will birth the Son of God in the next Arcanum. But first, she needs to do research, she needs to labor and analyze.
One reason I scolded everyone for assuming the Priestess is totally female, as in, some sort of woman living inside the Tarot card somehow (superstitious nonsense!) is because men make use of the Priestess’s energy all the time in relationship. The strong silent type? That’s the Priestess. It ain’t Clint Eastwood, trust me on that one. Nine times out of ten? When a woman client comes to me with relationship problems and the Priestess comes up? It’s telling her to keep her piehole shut. It’s saying that she’s talking too much. It’s telling her to increase her allure and enchantment by simply not gabbing so much.
It is really the very soul of simplicity as far as relationships are concerned — and not just romantic relationships but all human relating. He who speaks/texts/writes the most, loses (said the guy who routinely writes thirty pages and then has the gall to pass it off as a blog, ugh). Seriously. Want to increase your power in any situation? Simply do not say anything. The other party will break his mind trying to think of what you’re thinking about, and then you’ve got him. You’ve got him right where you want him.
Keeping your big trap shut has other benefits too. It allows you to research. Instead of always transmitting, you’re now receiving. Remember, the Priestess is all about research and science (Virgo, remember?). By not talking so much, you’re forcing yourself to truly observe the Other. How can you ever possibly enchant anyone at all if you know nothing about him? Let’s say I want to enchant Bank of America into giving me a mortgage. If I know nothing about the corporate culture of Bank of America, I’m at a disadvantage. My best bet is to gather prospectuses, to talk to other mortgage customers of that bank, to scour the Internet for customer reviews and employee comments, etc.
Or, suppose you meet a new romantic interest. Your first impulse might be to fill his head with your words. This would be a huge tactical error in most cases. Better to let him talk so you can make observations like, I see, so you’re into feet, eh? That could be useful or I see, so you’re into painting landscapes in watercolor, hmm, that could be useful to know or I see, so you believe that the winners of football matches should be allowed to kill and eat the loser? You must be a big sports fan then, I’ll have to remember that.
Do you see? If you’re happily babbling away about that one guy who stalked you freshman year at Depaw (it is my opinion that some women feel they are not at all female unless they’ve been stalked by at least one male) then you’re going to miss all that. He’s going to be researching you, learning all about your likes and dislikes and before you know it the balance of magnetism will be in his favor and you’ll be wondering just what in the hell happened.
If there’s one thing you take away from this analysis of the Priestess, it’s that the scientific research and analysis and data-gathering she does is vital for the pregnancy of the Empress later. In other words, if you can’t shut up and listen to the Other, then there will be no real relating with that Other — or, at the very very least, you will not possess the required information to exert any magnetic pull over others and you will not attract anyone to you. The Priestess, then, is nothing less than the secret to the law of attraction. That’s the big mystery, the big secret that the Priestess has: to attract the Other through knowledge of that Other. Do this, incorporate the mysteries of the Eternal Virgin into your relating habits, and you will become a veritable powerhouse, a Devastatrix capable of pulling anyone into the inexorable inertia of her orbit.
The next time the Priestess shows up in one of your spreads, ask yourself how the Virgo energies of analysis, research and silence can apply to the question that your spread is answering. And feel free to comment below and apprise me of your progress!