The High Priestess: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

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The High Priestess is one card that mystics, romantics and advocates for a benign (or at least neutral) view of the tarot archetypes love to put on a pedestal as a lofty example of purity and virtue. She is obviously as pristine as the driven snow, never mind that she is also as crystalline as an ice cube and as abstemious as a Vestal Virgin. She is seen as an exalted feminine role-model to aspire to, remote like the Star but also somehow less abstract and more approachable at a mystically intuitive level (must be the lunar connection). Readers who value inductive over deductive methods are especially enamored of her, mainly because she keeps the higher truths concealed and only glimpses of wisdom are offered on which to base conclusions. They content themselves with meager scraps of knowledge and leave the difficult path of ascent to her altar to the more assiduous. One thing that is almost certain, though: our mundane objectives are almost never her immediate concern, so we might not understand her even if she did condescend to speak with us.

I agree with Arthur Edward Waite that the High Priestess is essentially a card of “hidden knowledge,” information that the seeker is not yet privileged to know; this exclusion is symbolized by the veil between the two columns behind the High Priestess. The ideas of “change, alteration, increase and decrease, fluctuation” are all connected to its association with the Moon and its monthly variations. This is one of two cards that convey the secretive and often illusory quality of lunar light (the other being the Moon card itself), and the implication is that something is not necessarily what it appears to be but won’t remain unchanged long enough to be properly identified. In either case, there may be uncommon insights in store, but those of the High Priestess are more likely to be uplifting than those of the Moon card. She is of a higher order of spiritual consciousness and clarity of vision, untainted by the nebulous and potentially calamitous distortions of the unsteady Moon. The High Priestess epitomizes all of the inward-turning qualities that encourage “moon-struck” seekers after enlightenment to keep trying to “sneak a peek” beneath the veil: silence, secrecy, mystery, subtlety, complexity, intimations of occult wisdom and the like.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the High Priestess, mainly because she knows how to keep her mouth shut. She is the Guardian of the Veil, beneath which the uninitiated are forbidden to peer. The implication in a reading is often that the querent isn’t ready to receive her wisdom, and perhaps isn’t worthy of it because he or she hasn’t put forth an honest effort to comprehend the situation without the need for coaching or hand-holding. My impression has always been that she has no patience for slackers, and is exacting in her expectations for spiritual refinement in her supplicants. She will turn a deaf ear to the undeserving.

Some writers have described the scroll or book she is holding as the Akashic Record, in which the past, present and future of every human being are recorded, a cosmic ledger that few are privileged to see. This “gate-keeping” role makes sense to me in light of her profoundly enigmatic nature, and it’s also understandable that she is the ideal custodian to keep the knowledge under wraps. (As an aside, Alejandro Jodorowsky makes the unorthodox comment that she is “offering” this book rather than simply preserving its secrets.) Meditation, not petition, is the way to her confidence, and forbearance in seeking her favor is essential. She will impart her knowledge in her own good time. I see her pursuit as a kind of vigil, in which one must be alert (and grateful) for any hint of a momentary parting of the curtain. She will not open the gates without testing the mettle of the aspirant, and her standards are high. It’s vital not to misconstrue her shrouded insinuations as actionable advice without squaring them with other impressions from your own experience. You might only be seeing an artfully redacted intimation of the truth.

The High Priestess may express the “higher vibration” of the Moon, but — in the words of the Robert Heinlein novel — “the Moon is a harsh mistress” — or at least a confounding one. Her saving grace is that, although both instances of the Moon in the Major Arcana can indicate the likelihood of encountering surprises, those of the High Priestess are likely to be more enlightening and less unpleasant. But she still obscures more than she elucidates. Her mode of revelation is the slow drip and not the flood; the dawning realization and not the sudden epiphany; the insightful dream and not the lightning-bolt of illumination. Inspiration often comes by night and pales in the morning sun. Blink and you might miss it.

There was once an ongoing debate on the Aeclectic Tarot forum about the astrological assignment of the High Priestess to the Moon that is instructive here. First some background that will bring this into focus. Someone asked about the difference between the Moon’s mode of expression in the High Priestess and that in its namesake card. The consensus was that the former embodies a more exalted form of the lunar energy, cleansed of all taint of impurity, while the latter is associated with Pisces, the last sign of the zodiac and therefore something of a “psychic cesspool” where all manner of toxic emotional garbage accumulates. Even though I’m well aware that Aleister Crowley considered the waning Moon to be the polluted domain of Hecate and not the realm of Diana, as an astrologer I couldn’t let that last one pass. Since I had already been exploring a realignment of the Golden Dawn’s astrological correspondences to the Major Arcana, this exchange brought me back to the High Priestess. Here are the thoughts I came up with at the time, which earned me a rather bristling response from the traditional Qabalistic crowd:

The High Priestess as Pisces

Regarding my proposed reassignment of Pisces to the High Priestess, although I’m “devoutly non-religious” (one of my favorite oxymorons), I got going on “Christ consciousness” and the idea that the channel for Christ’s manifestation and “repatriation” would have been from Keter to Tipharet and back, and Christ’s was an eminently “Piscean” individuality, while Pisces is a sign of service and sacrifice. Rather than collecting psychic garbage (or at least not concentrating and holding onto it), the Piscean path at its best might be seen as a way of transmuting, purifying and sublimating it. (I hear the Pisces types out there cheering.) Also, I kind of take issue with the “last sign” notion; astrology is perfectly circular so there is no “last sign.” Pisces dumps all its waste right back into the head of Aries. Or how about this: “The High Priestess (Pisces) makes the Emperor (Aries) ‘lick her boots’.” More cheering!!!

Also, in this life the principle value in the Tree would seem to be the Way of Return; thoughts on emanation come across as just that: an abstract mental exercise, however edifying and elevating. Leaving Tipharet by way of Pisces strikes me as a perfect expression of leaving the grosser aspects of the Ego behind to continue the ascent.

Finally, back in the ’70s when I first encountered Crowley’s allocation of the modern planets to the Sephirot, I never liked putting Neptune in Chockma because it just seems too feminine to represent the Father. The deity Uranus, as “Father Sky” and father of Cronus (Saturn/Binah), and the planet Uranus as the modern “ruler of astrology” seem to make more sense as a replacement for the Wheel of the Zodiac.

With no argument about Pluto at Keter, that left Neptune to Da’at, which seemed to immediately resonate, since Neptune is an obscure and nebulous presence, a “now-you-see–it-now-you-don’t” kind of thing. Coincidentally, Pisces is ruled in modern Western astrology by Neptune, and having Pisces on the path crossing the Abyss at just this point makes loads of sense to me. I like the “mystical” feeling of the combination. Also, the Moon as the astrological expression of emotions, moods, routines and habits doesn’t have much of a “higher wisdom” dimension to it; it’s more about urges and flows, a “tidal” presence in our lives.

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