The Priestess




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The tarot called now usually titled “The High Priestess” was traditionally named “The Papess” (female pope). The card is an enigma for tarot historian. Did it represent an actual female pope (perhaps the legendary Pope Joan or the heretical Guglielmite pope, Sister Manfreda)? Or did it represent a generic archetype of female religious authority, completing the symmetry of Emperor and Empress in the ecclesiastical domain? Or does it reflect influence of some other religious tradition, now obscure or uncertain?

Whatever the original motivation for this card and image, The Priestess is undeniably one of the most evocative and fascinating tarot symbols for us today. Modern Pagans see her as a symbol of goddess spirituality and pre-patriarchal religion. Psychologically astute tarot readers see Carl Jung’s “anima” archetype: the feminine alter-ego dwelling within a man’s personality.

In the model I’ve been using in this series, the Priestess becomes the connection between Younger Self and the body, between the imagination and the physical world. Whereas Emperor, Empress, and Priest all link parts of the individual’s personality together, the Priestess is a link between the personality and the tangible world of matter and the senses.

This is a role for the Priestess that resonates deeply with the image of priestess in the Pagan religions: she binds humanity to nature, engaging and embodying the cycles of Moon and Sun; of life, growth, and death; of matter and spirit. She is not a communicator of abstractions like the Priest; she revels in the tactile particulars of real life.

By being a conduit between the imagination and the physical world, she is also a worker of natural magic, attuning her imagination to nature’s way, and giving her intentions physical form.

For many of us, imagination and nature have become disconnected. We regard our senses as a data stream for mental processing (or perhaps a stimulus for a transient emotional response), rather than nourishment and sustenance for a rich imaginative life. Perhaps we have taken our worldview from religious traditions that deny or reject the body, the senses, and the physical environment. Perhaps we are immersed in a secular worldview that teaches us to regard the physical world with indifference, as something of no intrinsic value beyond its usefulness as an exploitable resource.

The Priestess challenges and rejects such understandings of the physical world. For her, our physicality is our connection; it joins us with other living things and with the cosmos. The glow of a moonrise, the caress of a lover, the fragrance of freshly tilled earth, the salty taste of a sea breeze: this is how we experience the sacred when we take the Priestess to heart.

The Priestess card is a reminder to keep imagination and sensation in communion, to appreciate the gifts of world and body, and to explore the richness present in each moment of experience.

Tarot Wisdom is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007-2008 Tom Waters