Listening to Silence: The Promise of the High Priestess

Her eyes do not speak; they suggest.  The figure on the second trump of the Major Arcana looks at the card player or the fortune teller and poses the question of her singular existence:  she sends a message to look inward to the mysteries that lie at the heart of everyone’s soul (even those people who seem most distant from or ignorant of this quiet magic).  More than any other card in the Tarot, the High Priestess holds an air of silence and stillness, of some knowledge that lies beyond action.  A card of wisdom, it is also a card of paradoxes:  although in most decks she appears as a young woman and virginal, she is as old as the water behind her veil and the moon at her feet.   She has emerged from her ancient metamorphosis, that retreat inward, thousands of times, but always unchanged.  How do we reconcile her youth with her rank, her virginity with her knowledge?  To answer this question, we must listen to the silence suggested by this mysterious woman.  

The High Priestess sits in front of her meditative pool surrounded by the symbols of the three religions born of Jerusalem—the Torah of Judaism, the crescent of Islam and the cross of Christianity.  As a woman, her voice has rarely been encouraged to speak in these patriarchal traditions.  The earliest versions of this trump were called the “The Popess” or “La Papesse”; one can imagine that a female pope would need to remain silent or face death, and that the historical or legendary popesses that were the inspiration for this card (Pope Joan and Sister Manfreda of the Gugliemites1) were but the rare vocalizations of a mute song that has been sung since the covenant of Abraham but heard only by those willing to meet its quietude with their own.  The religious symbols in her card are not just artifice but parts of her life, her spiritual devotion as well as her subjugation in a male-dominated world.  Silence has always been part of spiritual practice, but is she silent by choice or by necessity—a voiceless woman in a male world?  

She may appear to be just another picture of the passive woman so common in Western culture, but the implicit authority and rebellion in the card is often overlooked.  The title of the card, “The High Priestess,” conjures images of powerful pagan priestesses receiving the devotion of adoring initiates.  For the Catholic Church, the title of “Popess” is heretical, a subversive joke that mocks authority every bit as much as the Sex Pistols or the Rolling Stones ever did.  The card protests established tradition and threatens male authority.  How can this challenge be reconciled with her silent spirituality and passivity?

This is not just a question of rarefied history or theology; she asks us how we reconcile in our own lives the need to be  quiet and the need to speak up.  Although the concept of a popess or a high priestess seems so distant from our lives, full of computers, SUVs and pop music, she has a special message for our age.  In the twenty-first century, the individual is often forgotten, and we become numbers in a database.  Confronted by our growing anonymity, we have much in common with this quiet woman. 

The origin of the High Priestess or Popess card is unknown—it may represent a historical female pope, the classical goddess Venus2, the Holy Spirit, or all of these.  The Holy Spirit, also known as Hagia Sofia, is the feminine balance to the Father and the Son in the Christian Trinity.  However, if this is the feminine aspect of God, why such a low number in the Major Arcana?  Perhaps because that lowliness fits with the humility and self-effacement of the card; it does not want to impose itself.  More than that, the card represents only inner wisdom; in reality we must reach out and pass through—and be touched by—the joys and sorrows of life.  We grow, by degrees, as we move through the procession of triumphs, to the World Dancer.  Only after accepting all the cares, lessons, and wonders of life can the High Priestess rise from her throne, cast off her robes, and dance with freedom.  The High Priestess is not the goal—but she is a promise.

The card does not demand a response from us—in fact, anything so direct and authoritarian as a demand would be counter to its nature—but it does invite us to be aware of the contradictions in our lives that mirror the contradictions in the card itself, between the urge to conform and the urge to rebel, between the need to turn inward and the need to assert ourselves, between the desire to fit in and the desire to be free.  The High Priestess invites us to rebel, like her, against the autocracy of society’s expectations by finding within ourselves that deep pool of wisdom and love and the courage to laugh in the face of any authority that attempts to define us.  

And so we return to our original question:  how does someone so removed from the world gain such deep knowledge?  Within her, as within all of us, there is a divine substance that has remained unchanged since the moment we were born, that is full and rich and humorous and loving, but which for far too many of us has become obscured by the scars and shames that life has saddled upon us.  The High Priestess represents this inner beauty and joy in all of us, and shows us the path to rediscovering this magical land within ourselves, the path back home.

1.  Place, Robert.  The Tarot:  History, Symbolism and Divination.  New York, New York:  Penguin Group, Inc, 2005, p. 132-1332.  Ibid., p.133.

2007-11-16