Tarot Card Meanings: The Hierophant

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The Hierophant (“Le Pape”) – Card V

I’m not claiming Divinity. I’ve never claimed purity of soul. I’ve never claimed to have the answers to life. I only put out songs and answer questions as honestly as I can… But I still believe in peace, love and understanding.” – John Lennon

“Hierophant” was the name given to certain High Priests in Ancient Greece. The word is built from two roots: “hieros,” meaning “sacred,” and “phainein,” which means “to show.” A Hierophant, then, was someone whose calling was to show the sacred to those who needed help in perceiving it more clearly.

Creators of early Tarot decks made the decision to depict their Hierophants as Pope-figures…which may not have helped overall in establishing the card’s full range of meanings with readers, many of whom are not specifically Catholic, or are not even generally inclined toward notions of religion as something that should be organized and formalized. In modern times, the concept of a Major Arcana card being devoted to Catholic iconography can be actively off-putting to large numbers of readers and querents alike.

Which is a shame, as the Hierophant has a lot to offer as an archetype. Some modern decks have taken to reimagining the card’s main character as less a Catholic priest, and more a shamanic figure. Removing the trappings of any one specific religion in this way can be a helpful technique for making The Hierophant more accessible to all.

The basic thrust of the Hierophant card is aimed at capturing the essence of anyone who devotes their life to somehow purifying themselves, and then serving as an intermediary who strives to connect the general public with the Divine. Obviously, of course, definitions of “purifying” and “the Divine” will vary wildly from one person, group, or region to the next, so it’s important to keep that fact in mind when dealing with this card…

In general terms, though, The Hierophant is someone who – like John Lennon, quoted above – finds themselves in an exalted position, with the masses looking to them for guidance on matters of the spirit. This exalted position can arise from membership in some official clergy or other, service as an indigenous shaman or equivalent figure, or at times, even by achieving acclaim as an artist. The traits that these figures all hopefully share, regardless of time period, locale, or exact vocation, include a drive to examine humanity’s place in the Universe, and to study and nurture our relationship with what we might properly label “Divinity.”

And even more hopefully, the people we treat as our Hierophants will be more inclined to work as guides and teachers, than to use their positions to simply help themselves. As Lennon points out, the goal is not for people in such positions to confuse themselves with the Divinity that they’re communing with, or to set themselves up as some sort of sweeping authority. The goal is, instead, to cultivate humility and selflessness in order to do good work as a living interface between humanity and the Godhead. Or as the onetime Beatle put it, the goal is to answer questions as honestly as possible, and to believe in the values of peace, love, and understanding…

In a reading, the more problematic showings of The Hierophant can represent such concepts as conformity, intolerance, an overly conservative or even reactionary stance, a dogmatic approach to interactions, blind adherence to established ways of doing things, closed-mindedness, repression, the use of fear or shame as tools for controlling others, abuse of one’s own power, poor ethical/moral integrity, and the drive to force others to adopt a certain belief system or way of doing things.

In more positive appearances, though, The Hierophant can signify finer notions, such as skillful teaching, benevolence, effective guidance, consolation, mentorship, accumulated knowledge, the application of wisdom, a sense of community, compassion, a healthy spiritual life, aspirations toward higher values, and the more helpful aspects of structure and tradition.

The Hierophant helps us to better imagine, and to better sense the spirit dance unfolding…

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