Tarot Cards I might not invite home to dinner (Part 2)…

The Hierophant.

The Hierophant, courtesy of Rider, Waite, and Smith...
The Hierophant, courtesy of Rider, Waite, and Smith…

Your primary question upon encountering this character will likely be something along the lines of, “Huh?? What the hell is a ‘hierophant?!’” And hey, fair enough – it’s not like you hear that word in conversation every day (not outside of Tarot-themed gatherings, anyway)…

But our good friends at Wikipedia provide a terse and tidy definition that should serve us pretty well as a launching pad for further discussion: a hierophant is “an interpreter of sacred mysteries and arcane principles.” The word is derived from Ancient Greek roots that would translate, more or less, as “to show the holy.” Basically, a hierophant is someone who serves as a sort of intermediary or bridge, connecting the general population with the Divine.

This may put you in mind of the types of people in modern society who bear titles such as “priest” and its various synonyms…and you wouldn’t be far off. In fact, in the earliest decks, The Hierophant was often seen under his initial guise of “The Pope.”

"Le Pape" -- Nicolas Conver version, Tarot de Marseilles, circa 1760.
“Le Pape” — Nicolas Conver version, Tarot de Marseilles, circa 1760.


And now we’re getting toward the heart of why I believe that I, personally, tend to find this card, and this character, so initially off-putting. There is of course inherent in the Hierophant much of the same kind of male authoritarian energy that I admitted to disliking in my post about The Emperor. For those who missed that one, here’s an uncharacteristically succinct recap: I don’t care for it when dudes try to tell me what to do.

But on top of my knee-jerk distaste for guys in positions of power, I have to admit that there’s also the issue of The Hierophant being so strongly associated with religion. And this association, I’ve come to realize, does seem to rub me the wrong way…

So, is it the fact that The Hierophant might be just a bit too specifically Christian in his overtones for even a not-practicing-very-hard Jewish boy like me? Would I like him better if he came packaged as, say, “The Rabbi?”

That’s another fair question…but after much consideration, I don’t believe that’s really it. I have to admit here – as I face outward into the harsh Klieg lights of the internet assembled – that I’m not ultra-relaxed about any modern religious body (or its representatives) getting too involved in the arranging of any given citizen’s life. And I suppose it’s pretty telling that before the figure on the Hierophant card has even had the chance to say or do anything at all, I’m immediately assuming he’ll be sticking his nose into everybody’s business all unsolicited and intrusive-like, ladling out the guilt and shame, and demanding tithes and obedience in return for all this high-toned encroachment.

So I’m confessing it outright: I have an instinctive distrust of organized religion. This is not necessarily good or fair. I do know that we humans are an eminently fallible lot, ultra-prone to screwing things up, and that we often seem to be at our very worst when we gather together in greater numbers. We have no shortage of historical cases stacked up behind us in which people have used religious ideals as justification for committing atrocities against other people. Salem Witch Trials, anyone? The Inquisition? The “Holy War” of your choice?

"Arresting a Witch" by Howard Pyle.  Yeah, this is sure to go well and fairly...
“Arresting a Witch” by Howard Pyle. Yeah, this is sure to go well and fairly…


And my bleak outlook on human supervision of other humans isn’t limited to organized religion, either – I feel the same about The Law (and to be clear here: that’s not whatever “Law” came down from one or more mountains carved into one or more stone tablets – I’m referring to the law that we humans promulgate all by our lonesomes, so that we might, in theory, govern ourselves…).

But so okay, I can be a suspicious curmudgeon, great. But does that mean that the law, or governments, or religions – or the individuals who act as spokespersons for them – are all necessarily all wrong, all the time…?

You know, honestly, even I can’t say that that’s the case. I can take a dim view of our species at times, but even I freely admit that we can also be capable of greatness: kindness, wisdom, poetry, compassion, courage… And Tarot cards are, after all, supposed to capture a full spectrum of meanings each, ranging from the negative to the positive, and varying from one reading to the next, depending on context and other ever-evolving forces. So if I step back, then, from the instinctive storm-clouds of skepticism that generally gather above my head at almost any mention of organized religion, can I see some upside to a Hierophant figure? And if so…what would that upside look like…?

Interestingly enough I can, in fact, see some of the finer qualities of The Hierophant (and the people and things he stands for). It does help me to start by looking at all the brighter things that other people do get out of their involvements with organized religions. It also helps me if I can uncover a deck that features a Hierophant image I actually like – there are a few, and these are virtually always more non-denominational renderings, often starring characters who are more the indigenous Shaman-type, or who seem drawn from pure fantasy worlds…

One of my most favorite Hierophant images ever, courtesy Luigi Di Giammarino in Lo Scarabeo's Tarot of Metamorphosis...
One of my most favorite Hierophant images ever, courtesy Luigi Di Giammarino in Lo Scarabeo’s Tarot of Metamorphosis…


And what are those finer Hierophant qualities that I mentioned, then…? Well, The Hierophant offers comfort. He offers common ground, community, tradition, security, and an ever-growing storehouse of recorded knowledge and experience…

There’s a different spiritual seeker-figure on another card known as The Hermit, and it’s been said that where The Hermit asks questions…The Hierophant tries to provide answers. The Hierophant lives adjacent to the Divine every day, so that other people without the inborn wiring for that kind of interface don’t have to expend vast amounts of time and energy inefficiently trying to make it happen on their own. With the Hierophant holding down the spiritual fort and interceding for his people, they can go on about their more secular business. Again, this all builds community.

The Hierophant, then, is anyone or anything that openly and actively takes up a place at the dividing line that separates the mundane and “natural” from the supernatural. At his best, The Hierophant translates for us as needed, and offers ideas, suggestions, and resources, so that we might advance along our spiritual pathways toward happy growth and evolution. And when put that way, even I can get on board. Although, unless he (or she or it) is dressed up in ways that don’t trigger my uneasiness about organized religions, I’m still not sure I’ll race to invite a Hierophant home to dinner…

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