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The tarot card that is named the Hierophant in many modern decks was traditionally titled The Pope. I think High Priest or simply Priest serves well as a cross-cultural name for the card, and that is the name I will use in this article.

The Priest is a symbol of organized religion and all that goes along with it. Traditionally speaking, he can be a religious or moral authority and a spiritual teacher. His teaching, however, is thought of as one-to-many: he addresses a whole community, disseminating whatever spiritual or religious knowledge he deems the community needs.

The card raises many issues for modern Pagans and other seekers outside the mainstream religions. The Priest can be seen as a symbol of everything that is wrong with organized religion: the dogma, the hierarchy, the corruption and hypocrisy. If the card is to be saved at all from this bleak picture, it is likely to be by equating him with some particular teacher whom the reader actually admires, or by seeing him as one’s own capacity to share wisdom with others.

Following along in the pattern of the Emperor and Empress cards, I propose seeing the Priest as the connection between Younger Self and Wiser Self. (Wiser Self is the term I prefer to use for what is often called Higher Self, the part of our consciousness that is connected with spirit and not caught up in our emotional drives and analytical thinking.)

Wiser Self is not an easy mode of consciousness for most of us to engage. We’re not used to rising above our own issues and seeing things more calmly and detachedly. Some people never go there at all. Those who devote themselves to a spiritual practice of some sort are more likely to have taken on that perspective, but it still slips away all too rapidly when we leave the ritual, the journeying, or the meditation behind and go about our daily routine.

So how is the "wisdom" of Wiser Self to find its way into daily life? Traditional religions have often answered that question by translating the insights of Wiser Self into recipes for good living: basic ethical precepts, metaphysical models that remind us that there is a spiritual world beyond the mundane one, and rituals and practices that reinforce the wisdom teachings. Enter the Priest, purveyor of exoteric religion.

Of course, when Enlightenment is translated into a cookbook, it loses its essential character. It can also be easily hijacked to serve other social or political agendas. When Younger Self is hit with the Priest’s moralizing and formalisms, the reaction can range from awe and deference to discomfort and rebellion. Like the Emperor and the Empress, the Priest becomes another "adult" voice telling Younger Self what to do—and scolding when one transgresses.

As it is with the other two cards, the solution is to internalize the archetype. When we engage our own Wiser Self and bring its wisdom back down into our lives, we each become our own Priest. Now, the figure of the Priest is not so intimidating. He is just one of us, striving, as some wit once put it, to "eff the ineffable".

In this conception, the Priest is also the consummate magic worker. (I regard the dialog between Wiser Self and Younger Self as the essential feature of magical consciousness.) The rites and formulas of religion are in origin magical operations, although they are often performed by rote by worshippers who feel no connection to their deeper meaning.

When I pull the Priest card, I look beyond the trappings of priesthood in mainstream religions, and see it as an opportunity to revitalize that magical connection between Younger Self and the world of spirit.

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

Copyright © 2007-2008 Tom Waters