The Hierophant: The Religious Impulse in Man

hierophantA priestly figure is seated upon a throne between stone pillars inside a temple of worship. His gaze is serene if rather distant. He raises his right hand in the traditional Orthodox priestly blessing, with three fingers raised to symbolize the Holy Trinity, and in his left hand is a triple cross that designates his role as interpreter, arbiter and lawgiver of church doctrine. His three-layered tiara is adorned with twelve precious stones, and three nails protrude from the top of it. Beneath his sumptuous red robe are white undergarments and shoes; in The High Priest’s wardrobe, Christ’s (red) blood literally covers our (white) salvation. Beneath him, crossed on a red carpet decorated by the image of four coins, are the keys to the kingdom that Jesus gave to Simon Peter; and kneeling before him, two acolytes, their heads shaved in the manner of the initiate, listen raptly. One wears a robe festooned with roses, the other a garment with lilies. Symbols of the Trinity abound: The triple cross, the three crosses in the high priest’s mantle, the three layers of his golden tiara.

The Hierophant’s name derives from the Greek hierophantes, which means “reveal the sacred,” or “he who reveals.” And this neatly explains his logical place in the order of the Trumps Major:

0. God calls His Creation (The Fool) from out of the void.

1. The Magician gives Creation its first awareness, the powers of perception and intellect.

2. The High Priestess gives it the powers of dreams and prophecy.

3. The Empress gives it the Garden, from whence the message of God’s love takes root.

4. The Emperor gives it the will to make God’s message manifest.

5. And the Hierophant is the instrument by which God’s message is revealed to man.

The astrological sign traditionally assigned to the Hierophant is Taurus, the sign of fixed earth, immutable and unchanging; and for this reason, his path, which connects Chokmah and Chesed, is known as the Eternal Intelligence. His earthy nature also suggests that while the message he preaches may emanate from the angels, the intended audience of the message is located in the here and now. This can pose some potential problems; for as there have been Popes, there have also been anti-Popes, and the believer must always be on the alert for the encroachment of false teachings and heresies. Similarly, the willingness to re-examine our own beliefs from time to time applies equally to our own psyches as much as it does to any pronouncement from a pulpit. The best example of this in religious practice would likely be the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement. Unlike most religious holidays, which are accompanied by feasts and songs and celebration, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and quiet meditation, as the believer reflects over the past year of her life, and resolves to walk in a more loving and righteous way over the coming year.

The Hebrew letter attributed to the Hierophant is Vav, which means a “hook” or “nail.” This explains the presence of the three nails we see on top of his crown. Paul Foster Case adds that vav, in spoken Hebrew, is used as the conjunction “and.” As a building or structure is held together by nails and other fasteners, the Hierophant, then, is the spiritual “nail” that joins the consciousness of man and the consciousness of God. Compare this image to the High Priestess.

Screen shot 2015-03-28 at 7.36.59 AMShe also sits between two pillars in a temple, and she too possesses great knowledge—greater, arguably, than the High Priest: She is the Torah, after all, and he is only a teacher of it. But her plane of existence is dim and quite removed from our own. With the Hierophant, we enter now into another, brighter stage of consciousness; the Torah, once cracked open, allows the light of God’s love to pour out onto us.

Some esotericists and adherents of various so-called “New Age” mystery schools have trouble with this card because of its obvious connotation with Christianity, and with Roman Catholicism in particular; some argue that the card doesn’t have a place in a Kabbala-based curriculum since many of Kabbala’s central teachings are anathema to much mainstream Christian exegesis, not to mention the Bible’s express ban on “divination.” Further, The Hierophant is assigned the numeral “5” in the Trumps Major, and this number has traditionally augured trouble and strife in kabbalistic teaching; for in the act of “creating” the number “5,” one takes a perfected work—the “4,” or square—and renders it imperfect, which weakens and destabilizes the structure of the kabbalistic Tree, and by implication, our place on it. An upright pentagram, the geometric representation of “5” stands for the five senses and the five extremities of man, and as such it can be used in ceremonial magic to invoke good spirits, and to banish malign ones; but an inverted pentagram—well, we’ll be getting to that in time. (By contrast, you can’t invert a perfect square.) One of God’s most gifted messengers must have had similar thoughts in mind about a “world out of balance” when he warned his disciples that “from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three” before man would earn his redemption.

Upon reflection, however, we can view the Hierophant as representing the religious impulse in man rather than standing for any specific doctrine that polarizes one sect of believers from another. This innate impulse, having been abandoned or misinterpreted by billions of people over the past 200 years, has been a leading cause of our collective mental illness.

Human Consciousness for Dummies: For scores of millennia, man lived out his existence, generation after generation, in much the same fashion that his ancestors did. Whether he was a peasant tenant farmer or a member of the landed gentry, his perceived relationship to his family, his community and his God went largely unchanged. Occasionally, a Galileo or a Copernicus might come along to shake up the perceptual apple cart, but by and large, man viewed his world in much the same way for centuries. And a rigid and vertical world it was! God was above, hell below, and the powers and principalities of the air were to be feared and appeased. It didn’t require much of an education to understand this simple hierarchy, and it gave man a sense of purpose and place in the whole of Creation. In retrospect, though, man was like The Fool of our Tarot deck, walking innocently along the path of ignorant bliss for hundreds of lifetimes—until one day a little thing called the Industrial Revolution came along, and he fell off a psychological cliff.

Within a single century, virtually all of man’s core belief systems that he had passed down for generations, and that had governed his collective psyche since the dawn of history, were shattered. The world, the heavens and the universe we perceived were no longer fixed in space and time but were fluid and relative, as were space and time itself; metaphorically speaking, the power of the Magician was upended by Albert Einstein. The presence of spirit-forces in the mind was a symptom of neurosis, and could be proven by analysis and observation; goodbye High Priestess, hello Sigmund Freud. In the Garden of Eden grew opium for the masses, and man’s worth could be determined not by a Divine fraud but by a materialist dialectic; Karl Marx, your limo has arrived. Looks like you’re taking the bus, Empress! The will to power? That could be explained either by genetic adaptation (Charles Darwin) or through psychological striving (Alfred Adler): in either case, the Emperor became nothing more than a decorative suit of armor standing in the corner of a drawing room at some country estate.

Which brings us to the Hierophant. Now you would think that all of the developments in science and technology that the last 200 years have brought us would have rendered Christ’s vicar on earth, and his message of hope and redemption, dead and buried, as Nietzsche so famously predicted. But a Swiss psychoanalyst named C.G. Jung happened onto the scene, and over a lifetime of research established (as clearly as any metaphysical principle can be established) that the religious impulse in man is universal across all cultures and all eras; and that the inward and outward manifestations of that impulse—the symbols of the cross and the mandala, the myths of Creation and of the dying and reviving Gods—were likewise universally experienced by the whole of humankind. Man can no more divorce himself from the impulse to serve, to worship, and to love for its own sake, Jung argued, than he can divorce himself from any other of his basic human needs—for food, water, sex and shelter—and dissociating ourselves from such an essential component of our psyches explains the presence of so much unrest in our world, despite the fact that we are better educated, have higher living standards, and live longer, healthier lives than any previous generation of humans. By any rational measure, we should be happier than ever! But a hundred years have passed since Jung wrote Symbols of Transformation, and it is increasingly difficult to take issue with his theory when we realize that for all the ways that science, education and technology have revolutionized our lives for the better, the past century from which we’ve recently emerged was far and away the bloodiest and most savage in all of human history—and our new century hasn’t started off too promisingly, either. For all the wonders we humans have worked in the classroom, in the laboratory, and even in outer space, something is terribly wrong with us.

The Hierophant, then, reminds us that spiritual path-work is essential to a healthy inner life. Whether it is accomplished through prayer, meditation, exercise, church attendance, bearing witness to others, or all of these is of secondary importance. Meanings in a spread can include esoteric or exoteric knowledge, Divine inspiration or intervention, an abundance or a lack of faith, religious fundamentalism and all its associations, faith, hope and charity, or worship of false gods—of which there is no shortage in our time. Take another look at the Hierophant’s outstretched hands: Is he calling us to prayer, or could he be struggling to prevent the pillars of the temple from toppling over? Our post-millennial world is badly in need of spiritual healing. Let us resolve, then, to be used as fasteners to fortify the House of God, that all men would one day lay down their weapons of war and enter into it with praise; for when we rebel against God as we have done for so long, we invite all manner of suffering unto ourselves.

Dante DiMatteo

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