The High Priestess: The Word Received

priestessA solitary woman, a somber look on her face, stares at us from the stone slab throne on which she is seated. She appears to be in the inner sanctum of a house of worship, for a cross adorns her breast, and she holds a scroll marked “TORA” on her lap. She sits between two pillars, one black and inscribed with a letter “B”, the other white and inscribed with a “J”. A crescent moon rests at her feet, and her headdress suggests the waxing and waning of that celestial body. Behind her, between the pillars, is a veil depicting pomegranates on a tree.

The Magician may be the First Thought, the Logos, the Word and breath of life that summons forth and animates Creation. But even man in his cleverness has learned how to “summon forth creation” on his own without the aid of an almighty God—witness the genetic modifications to much of our food supply, or the cloning of internal organs, and even of entire animals! What man cannot do on his own, however, is to endow his creations with the immortal spirituality that courses through himself. Man can clone a sheep, but not a sheep that can know salvation. He can build a supercomputer, but not one that is capable of love. We can, of course, create great masterworks of art and literature that contain timeless truths that resonate across generations, but without a preexisting spiritual “guidebook” to inform our appreciation of this, our works of art are merely colors on a canvas or letters on a page. In this vein, a Divine Intellect as strong-willed as The Magician needs an equally dynamic interpreter to provide context to His teaching: The First Feeling, Divine Intuition, the Moon to compliment our life-giving Sun, and the powers of the unconscious to inform, and heal, our conscious mind. If the Magician is the archetype of the mature masculine, so is the High Priestess a representation of the mature feminine. The English occultist Aleister Crowley referred to them in shorthand as the “inner” and “outer” intellect, respectively, and while the description isn’t entirely inapt, there’s a great deal more to these archetypes.   

In the Haggadah, we read that the Torah is the first thing God creates (“written with black fire on white fire”); and this book of history and laws—The Word he intends to be taught to man—is referred to in the feminine: What’s more, “she” actually gives advice to God about how man should behave, and even more impressively, God is well pleased with her for speaking up! For all of us in the modern world who lament our oppressive patriarchal social order, with all its attendant aggression and militarism, we should remember that it wasn’t always thus. Goddess-worship was as commonplace as God-worship among humanity for millennia, and while the advent of monotheism may have played a central role in pushing Goddess-worship to the margins of contemporary spirituality, Goddess-consciousness is still very much alive in the inner life of humankind; as with all things spiritual, we simply need to re-learn the ancient truths. This is, in essence, who The High Priestess is: The guardian of spiritual traditions long abandoned, and the keeper of spiritual knowledge long obscured; note that her Torah is only partially revealed. If we contemplate the card a bit longer, we can find some additional clues.

First, the veil: Look closely at how the figures of the pomegranates are arranged. They are nothing more than a visual representation (and far from the last one we will discover) of the Sephirotic Tree of Life. But why pomegranates? Crack one open, and behold the thousands of seeds, each of which bears the kernel—a genome of sorts—of another whole pomegranate tree. Clearly, then, this is a powerful fertility symbol, and one that would suggest that the secrets behind the veil are related to one of God’s first commandments to His creation: “Be fruitful and multiply” (pun intended). On a planet of several billion people, one that is having trouble feeding itself as things currently stand, this might strike the observer as unwise and outdated advice, but perhaps the “fruitfulness” suggested by the veil is of a different dimension than the material.

Not surprisingly, the traditional “planet” that has been ascribed to the High Priestess is the Moon, and as we’ve noted, lunar symbology covers her from head to toe. The Moon, in mythological terms, is the great countervailing force of the Sun; it is the gravitational power that makes the tides ebb and flow, and which summons the fearful beasts of the nocturne; it is a light in the heavens at night that navigators relied on for centuries; and the moon is the archetypal timepiece of humankind. For millennia, its waxing and waning phases foretold the planting and harvest seasons, and those times were feted with pageants, feasts and supplications. Man might have worked by the sweat of his brow by day, but he was able to eat his bread because of the “night watchman” who augured the seasons on his behalf. Similarly, then, the “fruitfulness” of the High Priestess—that which helps to bring us the manna of “spiritual bread”—can be found in the night-realm of consciousness: In the dream, the ecstasy, and the vision-quest. These “altered states” were once considered to be the province of a select elite of divinely anointed wise men—tribal shamans and temple priestesses—but Jungian depth psychology, among other disciplines, demonstrates that the power to “summon the archetypes” is universal across all cultures and is no respecter of title. We all have the potential to be the Chosen One. As with every other aspect of our being—like our body and our mind—we just need to exercise it regularly to maximize its potential.

The Hebrew letter assigned to the High Priestess is Gimel, which means “camel.” To our sensitivities, that might sound like a demeaning attribution for such an exalted spirit-guide, but as with the “ox” and The Fool, let us pause to remember the camel’s importance to the development of civilization. While the ox relieved man of his labors and provided him with a source of food, oxen are not highly mobile animals and are limited to their seasonal grazing lands. The camel, by contrast, can travel for days without food or drink, and this enabled man to traverse long distances in the desert to reach lands previously unknown. The domestication of the camel, then, was a pivotal moment in the evolution of human consciousness, for it literally “expanded” our awareness of the world around us by giving us greater access to it. The High Priestess performs a similar function for us in our time—by acting as our psychic “ship of the desert,” she can help guide us from the “empty quarter” we inhabit in our mortal physical lives to an eternal oasis of spirit. There, we may drink the “living waters” of expanded self-awareness, and know the true nature of our inner Selves.

Similarly, the path of the High Priestess, which connects Kether in the supernal realm to Tiphareth in the archetypal realm, is known as the Uniting Intelligence. Paul Foster Case draws the parallel of camel-driven caravans of ancient times, which united disparate tribes of peoples across distant lands. In like manner, the High Priestess unites the conscious and unconscious minds via the dream, the vision, and telepathy. Cultivating these psychic powers are at the core of esoteric path-work, and the High Priestess reminds us that we all possess these powers—we just need to exercise them more frequently.

The High Priestess’s numerical designation is 2, hence she is a card of dualities: Take, for instance, the twin pillars labeled “B” and “J.” These are abbreviations of “Boaz” (loosely translated from the Hebrew, “strength”) and “Jachin” (“He shall establish”), the names of the massive freestanding pillars through which one passed to enter into the temple of Solomon at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the first temple of God’s initial Chosen Ones. In this context they can be read as any pair of polar opposites we experience in our spiritual lives—consciousness/unconsciousness, joy/sorrow, fear/love—that the High Priestess is empowered to harmoniously resolve. We, too, can help Her to “restore” the psychic temple of God, that our earthbound ego-consciousness would destroy, by seeking harmony and balance in all things.

As with The Fool and The Magician, the meaning of this card in a reading depends greatly on the other cards surrounding it, but obvious meanings include the power of the unconscious, the realm of dreams and visions, the benefits of psychotherapy and dream analysis, the faith in things unseen which is the foundation of the religious impulse, an annunciation or enlightenment that may occur, or simply, an insight or realization. Negative meanings can include mental illness or depression, the repression of unconscious desires, the misuse of psychotherapy (e.g., “false memory”), superstition and idolatry, or the abuse of drugs to achieve an artificial state of God-consciousness. The power of the dream to transform consciousness is one of the psyche’s greatest and most transcendent powers; we don’t need to tempt the archetypes to turn our dreams into frightful hallucinations.

Dante DiMatteo

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