The High Priestess

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The High Priestess or The Popess (II) in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck

The High Priestess (II) is the second trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks. This card is used in game playing as well as in divination. In the first Tarot pack with inscriptions, the 18th-century woodcut Marseilles Tarot, this figure is crowned with the Papal tiara and labelled La Papesse, the Popess, a possible reference to the legend of Pope Joan.

Description[edit]

An untitled Popess on the "Rosenwald Sheet" of uncut Tarot woodcut designs, late 15th-early 16th century (National Gallery, Washington)

Rider-Waite symbolism[edit]

In the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck, upon which many modern decks are based, The High Priestess is identified with the Shekhinah, the female indwelling presence of the divine. She wears plain blue robes and sits with her hands in her lap. She has a lunar crescent at her feet, "a horned diadem on her head, with a globe in the middle place"[1] similar to the crown of the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor, but with the horns having a shape more like half-crescents, and a large cross on her breast. The scroll in her hands, partly covered by her mantle, bears the letters TORA (Torah). She is seated between the white and black pillars—'J' and 'B' for Jachin and Boaz—of the mystic Temple of Solomon. The veil of the Temple is behind her: it is embroidered with palm leaves and pomegranates.[2] The motif that hangs behind the High Priestess’s throne, veiling what ever mysteries she guards, is suggested in the pattern of The Empress’ gown. The two are sisters, one bringing life into the world, the other inviting the living to the esoteric mysteries. Further behind all of that is what seems to be a body of water, most probably the sea. The water flows through most of the cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot.

Tarot of Marseilles symbolism[edit]

In the Tarot of Marseilles it is noticeable that she wears a blue cape and red robe, in contrast to The Pope, wearing a red cape and blue robe.

History[edit]

La Papessa[edit]

This Tarot card was originally called La Papessa, or "The Popess". Some of the cards directly linked the woman on the cards to the papacy by showing the woman wearing a triregnum or Papal Tiara. There are also variants which, along with the triregnum, also show a key reminiscent of the keys to the kingdom that are a traditional symbol of the papacy.[citation needed] In Protestant post-reformation countries, Tarot cards in particular used images of the legendary Pope Joan, linking in to the mythology of how Joan, disguised as a man, was elected to the papacy and was only supposedly discovered to be a woman when she gave birth.[citation needed]

Other variants[edit]

However, not all cards clearly linked the card with the papacy. Other variants on the card associated the woman with the Virgin Mary, Isis, the metaphorical Bride of Christ or Holy Mother Church.[citation needed] In Swiss Troccas decks, she is called Junon ("Juno"), the Roman Queen of the Gods. The "Flemish Deck" by Vandenborre (c. 1750-1760) refers to this card as Le Espagnol Capitano Eracasse ("The Spanish Captain Fracasse"), after a version of Il Capitano, a character from Commedia dell'Arte.

Sister Manfreda[edit]

La Papessa in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot has been identified as a depiction of Sister Manfreda, an Umiliata nun and a relative of the Visconti family who was elected Pope by the heretical Guglielmite sect of Lombard. In The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, Gertrude Moakley writes:

Their leader, Guglielma of Bohemia, had died in Milan in 1281. The most enthusiastic of her followers believed that she was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, sent to inaugurate the new age of the Spirit prophesied by Joachim of Flora. They believed that Guglielma would return to earth on the Feast of Pentecost in the year 1300, and that the male dominated Papacy would then pass away, yielding to a line of female Popes. In preparation for this event they elected Sister Manfreda the first of the Popesses, and several wealthy families of Lombardy provided at great cost the sacred vessels they expected her to use when she said Mass in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Naturally, the Inquisition exterminated this new sect, and the "Popess" was burned at the stake in the autumn of 1300. Later the Inquisition proceeded against Matteo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan, for his very slight connections with the sect.

This identification has been supported by other Tarot historians, such as Michael Dummett in his book The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards.

Interpretations[edit]


Commonly this card is associated with the card reader or the querant, because it is also focused on 'secrets' it also interpreted when a secret is kept or revealed, when you are holding on to the truth or revealing it, the card associated with mystery, when powerful feminine influences and support currently in force for the querant. It can also represent the perfect woman in a man's life, and to a woman it can represent being independently solo perhaps without a man.

Alternative decks[edit]

In pop culture[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A.E. Waite (1911).
  2. ^ Juliet Sharman Burke (1985). The Complete Book of Tarot. London: Pan Books Ltd. ISBN 0-330-28974-8. 
  3. ^ Ogre Battle - Tarot Cards

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1910 book Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Edward Waite. Please feel free to update the text.