More than anything else, the High Priestess is the card of binary opposites. This term “binary opposites” has appeared a couple of times before on this blog. But what does it really mean?
To really understand this concept, we have to go alllll the way back to the beginning of time, back to the Creation of the World.
According to more mythic traditions than I care to list, before there was the World, there was nothing, or everything, all mashed up together in an undefinable mess that was neither light nor dark nor up nor down, often called simply “Chaos” or something to that extent.
Then, for some inexplicable reason, Chaos began to fall apart.* Everything split in two. First was the split between Light and Dark, followed by Earth and Sky, etc. etc., all the way down to the emergence of animals and humans, which were split between male and female.
The halves of these splits are called binary opposites. It’s like any other opposite, except they are the most extreme, most fundamental opposites we can think of. Light and Dark, Earth and Sky, Male and Female. The list can go on, but I think you get the picture. The World was created through binary opposition, or so the myths would have us believe.
These myths of creation and the binary opposites they present us hint at an interesting aspect of our collective psychology: we can only understand our reality based on comparisons of opposites. For example, if the weather is particularly hot one day, you can only perceive it to be so because you can imagine what a cold day would feel like in comparison, and vice-versa. The night is only dark because you know the day is light. The extreme ends of the spectrum do not really exist except as concepts in our minds. No human has ever experienced pure, absolute Darkness. Everything we perceive on a daily basis falls somewhere in between the two poles of the binary opposites. It’s like the Yin-Yang symbol; everything dark has within it a kernel of light, and everything light has within it a kernel of dark. This is a reminder that the duality created by binary oppositions is really just an illusion. Everything is all just an aspect of a greater whole.
This brings me back to the High Priestess.** The binary opposites are pictured on the card as the two pillars behind her. This isn’t the only time two pillars are pictured on a Tarot card, but it is the first time, and because one is white and one black, it is clearer here than anywhere else that they represent binary opposites. But the letters on each pillar are not where they ought to be. The letter on the white pillar signifies darkness, and the letter on the black pillar signifies light. This again calls to mind the Yin-Yang. The High Priestess’ position between the two pillars suggests that she understands the mystery of the binary opposites; she has succeeded in reconciling them in her mind. She has a true understanding of the Universe. In order to join her in this understanding, you must traverse the entirety of the Major Arcana. She can only hint at this wisdom; she will not tell you outright.
The High Priestess represents binary opposites as a concept; she is also one in a pair of opposites herself. She represents the Feminine principle of receptivity, which is the other half to the Magician’s Masculine principle of activity.
If the Fool symbolizes the unconscious mind, the Magician and the High Priestess together symbolize the awakening of consciousness through the recognition of binary opposites. By himself, the Magician is nothing but an idea. The moment this idea crystallizes in the mind of a person, it’s opposite or negation is immediately generated as well. Thus, the moment the Magician comes into existence, so too does the Priestess. The number one is immediately followed by the number two. In fact, without two as a reference point, one is meaningless. It is essentially indistinguishable from zero. The Priestess’ place as the second (numbered) card in the Major Arcana is thus very significant, further illustrating the concept of binary opposites.
So, paradoxically, the High Priestess simultaneously represents binary opposition as a whole concept, as well as one half of a single binary opposition. In her role as half, she signifies the Female principle of receptivity, as was stated above. While traditional and outdated gender roles suggest that women are supposed to be passive and men active, the Tarot’s gender roles are based on concepts that transcend earthly reality. In today’s society, it is largely accepted that men and women can possess the traits that used to be reserved for just one or the other. Women can be tough, and men sensitive, to use a generic example. The Tarot does not play the game of gender politics. It’s uses of male and female are symbolic, and not necessarily to be taken literally. As far as the Tarot is concerned, the opposites of light and activity are associated with male, and dark and passivity with female, only because it makes the most sense to do so. Humans, being creatures that can only understand the world through opposites, naturally are keenly aware of the fact that within their own species there exists a duality similar to that which they perceived in the world at large. Light was giving in nature, while dark was receiving. Or the Sky was giving with its rain and rays and sunshine, while the Earth was receiving of those things. Based on the functions of their reproductive organs and nothing else, men were associated with the former, and women with the latter.*** It was only through generations upon generations of social constructs based upon this idea that traditional gender roles came to be.
This is why the Magician is pictured as a man, and the High Priestess a woman. It’s as simple as that. The point of the progression of the Major Arcana is to ultimately reconcile these opposites, to bring back the unity that supposedly existed prior to binary opposition. It implies that even if you are the manliest of men, in order to be whole you have to incorporate so-called female characteristics, or your anima, into your personality, and vice-versa. We see this in the Hermit. He is a man, but he has harnessed the energy of the High Priestess. He is passive and meditative, despite being a man. Or look at Strength. We see a woman embodying the principles of action.
The High Priestess has connections with many other cards. The Hermit was already mentioned; she shines with the inner light of the Moon, and the Hermit has captured that aspect with his lantern. His wisdom doesn’t run as deep as hers, but he’s closer by far than any other card. If we consider the Hermit to be Odin, the Scandinavian god of Wisdom, the High Priestess can be his wife, Frigg. Odin was said to obsessively search for wisdom, often disguising himself as an old man wandering about the wilderness. He was the wisest of all. It was said in the Edda,**** however, that his wife Frigg was wiser still. She knew everything in the world, past, present, and future, but she would not divulge this information, even to her husband. Sound familiar? The Hermit might represent the archetype of the Wise One, but the High Priestess is Wisdom itself.
Her relationship with the Magician has also been discussed; together they literally represent two halves of what makes a human personality. She is the passivity to his activity. The passive/active dichotomy is the most fundamental of the binary opposites.***** Every other opposite we can think of boils down to this, hence the Magician’s and Priestess’ places as one and two of the Major Arcana. She has a similarly binary relationship with the Hierophant. She represents the secret inner, individual spirituality, while he represents the external, shared spirituality of the masses. In fact, in many decks, the High Priestess appears to be more closely related to the Hierophant than to the Magician (in the TdM, for example, she is called the Popess, and the Hierophant is the Pope).
Alternatively, we could look at the Female aspect, and subdivide it in two. Then we get the Empress and the High Priestess, or the light and dark aspects of Woman. If you are familiar with Sumerian myth, you’d recognize the Empress in Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, and the Priestess in her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Perhaps more familiar are Isis and Nephthys of Egyptian myth.
This brings to the surface a rather scary aspect of the High Priestess: a Goddess of the Underworld. Many people don’t associate her with this type of darkness, but it is an aspect of her nonetheless. Darkness is darkness, after all. It might hide you from what may be hunting you, but it also hides the hunter. She protects you and terrifies you, all at once. Which brings me to the final correlation I’ll make in this post: the Moon. This is a natural association, considering all of the lunar symbolism of the Priestess card and her astrological association with the moon, but it deserves some thought beyond the obvious. Behind the Priestess, hanging between the pillars of light and dark, is a veil. What is behind that veil? We can’t see for sure, but we catch a glimpse of the waters of the subconscious. Well, that card of confusion and terror, the landscape of the Moon, is what waits behind the Priestess. For all the peacefulness we see on the surface, there is the pure darkness of uncertainty underneath; this is the other side of the coin of passivity represented by the Priestess. As I’ve discussed in my post about the Moon, it’s not hopeless, and it is a necessary part of the journey. But that doesn’t make it any less scary, and while the Priestess is generally considered to be benevolent, if somewhat stoic and mysterious, she hides a much darker aspect than we might realize at first glance. This is precisely why she withholds her wisdom from us until we’ve experienced the rest of the cards. If we gazed behind her veil and saw the landscape of the Moon so early in our journey, it would destroy our sanity, like a Lovecraftian horror materializing before our eyes. We are just not prepared for that yet.
Luckily, in her infinite wisdom, the High Priestess does spare us from such a nightmare. She puts up the veil, and diverts our attention from it with her secret scroll. We’re meant to think that the scroll holds all of the secrets. She knows better, just as she knows that we’ll see the real secrets behind the veil in due time.
When I go to the Tarot for divinatory purposes, I believe it is with the High Priestess that I am communicating. The cards are the mediators, moved by the invisible hands of the archetypes represented in the pack by the Hermit and the Magician. But they only move the cards according the the Priestess’ direction. And I am but the Fool, sitting on the other side of the spiritual divide, awaiting her cryptic advice.
*The driving force behind the dissolution of Chaos into Order is one of the great mysteries of all time. Most myths and religions give credit to some kind of deity for the creation of the world, but no one can seem to figure out what created the deity (or the deities that created it, or the forces that birthed them, etc. etc….). Creation myths are early mankind’s attempt to figure out where we came from, and how the world got to be the place it is today. Of course, there are no answers to these questions, only an endless regression – a chicken or the egg type of conundrum, if you will.
**The imagery described in this post is almost entirely based on the RWS version of the High Priestess. This card is not the most extreme departure from tradition to be found in the RWS, but it is different. I chose it because, while the basic symbolism is the same in most versions, the RWS Priestess is the most vivid in its depiction.
***While this was generally true of the ancient world, it was by no means universal. For example, ancient Egyptians believed the Sky was a female, and the Earth male.
****The Edda by Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson was written in the 1200s, a couple hundred years or so after the majority of Scandinavia had converted to Christianity, as a textbook on poetic form and subject matter. It is commonly called the Prose Edda to distinguish it from the so-called Elder or Poetic Edda, which is an anonymously compiled collection of mythic poetry. Many of the stories relayed in the two works coincide with each other, and together they contain the majority of the known Norse canon of myths.
*****Actually, the active/passive dichotomy can be further reduced to positive/negative. There is nothing more basic than this pair of opposites. However, I refrain from using them here because they have certain connotations, especially the word ‘negative’. Most people assume negative means bad. Of course this isn’t true, but I don’t use them anyway, because the last thing I need is some clown giving me crap for calling all women negative.