Being an ever-practical Capricorn, I've never had a close relationship with The High Priestess card. But lately, I've been actively seeking her wisdom. Even though I believe I've made progress, The High Priestess still seems like a challenging card. She's not exactly easy to get to know! But she is, ultimately, worth the effort. Not only is she fascinating in her own right, but she reveals worlds within ourselves that can be astonishing.
In Rachel Pollack's Tarot Wisdom, Rachel Pollack gives an in-depth look at the historical, esoteric, and mythological aspects of The High Priestess. She also discusses psychological approaches. One of the most intriguing features of The High Priestess is the fact that she (traditionally) sits before a veil. The whole question is "What is behind the veil?" Often (again, traditionally), there is just a glimpse of water just barely visible on the other side of the veil. Pollack believes that these waters represent the unconscious. By this she means, "[t]he vast sea of life beyond our personal experience, needs, and desires. Myths, inspiration of divine wonder, dreams that seem to come from a deeper place than the usual anxieties—these all give us glimpses of the unconscious behind the veil of everyday existence." She points out that this is different from our subconscious, which is "the mass of repressed, thought, desires, and emotions that the conscious ego does not want to acknowledge."
That vast sea beyond our personal understanding is one part of this card. And in a way, it is not the main point of the card. Getting to that knowledge or understanding is the end result. This card, I believe, is about the means, about getting to that point. It is about method. The High Priestess is often paired with The Magician, and that pairing serves a purpose. However, she can just as well be paired with The Hierophant. They share a common trait. He is about studying and learning the accumulated knowledge of humankind; he is a teacher. He is about a way of learning, just as is The High Priestess. But she is not a teacher. As Pollack reminds us, a priestess is not just a male priest. A priestess plays a different role entirely. She "brings people to the inner levels where they can discover their own mysteries."
If we look at various cards of The High Priestess with an eye to understanding initiation, we'll find some interesting things. The very traditional image depicted in The Universal Tarot shows a portal. We must face the enigmatic High Priestess with her scroll of secrets, her veil of symbols, and moon crown before we can pass through. To certain people, this is all obvious, with its associations to the Tree of Life and Greek mythology.
The High Priestess from The Tarot of the Elves is probably one of the most controversial images in tarot. Many people were appalled and had a very strong negative reaction to this card. Yet, people don't have a problem associating The High Priestess with the Greek goddess Persephone. She was kidnapped by Hades, the god of Death, and taken to the underworld to live. In short, she was killed, kidnapped, taken against her will. Keep this in mind and also remember that for most mystery religions and even for many modern pagan and shamanic traditions, recreating an experience is the most important part of initiation. Study (a la The Hierophant) comes first, followed by experience. There are things, truths of the universe, which cannot be learned; they must be experienced. Many initiatory experiences recreate a symbolic death. Could it be that to experience these truths, the ego must die? And despite the calm, peaceful demeanor of most High Priestesses, I cannot imagine that such a death is easy or clean. For this reason, the pain and immediacy of this card draws me in, even as it does, as it is meant to, repels.
The Tarot of the New Vision has a unique take on the cards. It shows all the cards (using traditional imagery) from the back. Since finding out what is behind the veil is a key element in The High Priestess, a card showing just that should be fascinating. Take a look and see what you think. The Mystic Faerie Tarot's High Priestess is very shamanic and focuses on a deep connection with the earth as a basis for reflection. Compare The High Priestesses from The Gilded Tarot and from The Legacy of the Divine Tarot. These are by the same artist, Ciro Marchetti. It is interesting to note the relationship to water in each card—just barely sweeping it versus almost fully submerged. Whatever deck you use, take some time and just consider what it may be telling you in terms of initiation as a way of learning.