Tarot Card Meanings: The High Priestess

The High Priestess (“La Papesse”) – Card II

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of her wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” – Khalil Gibran

There’s this great word that I find essential when talking about The High Priestess. That word is “liminal.”

A liminal state is one which exists between two other arguably more fixed and concrete states:

Q: When does a child become an adult?
A: After passing through the liminal state of adolescence.

Liminal states can often be fleeting. They’re threshold places and in-between intervals. The crepuscular, twilight periods of dawn and dusk are liminal. Doorways and bridges and corridors are liminal. So are catwalks and stairwells and elevators. The interstitial white spaces that divide one panel in a comic strip from another are liminal.

And this is all important to understand, because The High Priestess presides over all that which is liminal. She sits between black and white, between life and death, and between the conscious and the unconscious minds. She’s keenly aware of dualities and polarities and binary choices, but she’s not about taking sides in any of these things. Rather, she’s a counselor, a source of great wisdom and guidance, and she can offer assistance and teaching when we approach her in her liminal realm.

There’s a notion that’s popular in modern metaphysical thought about a vast sort of astral library called the Akashic Records that holds the encodings or every human life that’s ever been lived. Some even say that it also contains the lives of every person who could have lived but didn’t, and all those who have yet to be born. The Akashic Records is like a repository of wisdom and experience that transcends Space and Time…and as I like to see it, The High Priestess is the Librarian-Goddess who runs the show there. Meet her with respect on her own terms in that astral site, and she may just grant you a library card and a guided tour of the stacks!

Tarot scholars have long equated The High Priestess with various Goddesses from multiple mythologies. Some see a distinctly chaste vibe in her, and so equate her with such perpetually unmarried and unmated Divinities as Artemis and Athena. The bow and arrows lying in her lap in the Thoth deck’s depiction of her further solidify the association with Artemis, who is the Greek Goddess of the Hunt (and also of the Moon, which is another primary High Priestess symbol). As the Greeks’ Goddess of Wisdom, Athena also seems to have some natural kinship with Tarot’s Cosmic Librarian.

Another enduring association for The High Priestess is Persephone, the Greeks’ Queen of the Underworld. In the Greek tales, Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, the grim ruler of that Underworld, and through a series of events, she ends up obliged to spend six months out of every year below the surface of the Earth with him, while she’s free to pass the other six months up above in the sunlight with her mother and the other Olympian Deities. This means that in highly liminal fashion, Persephone is always cycling between light and dark, and between life and death. She’s also strongly linked with the pomegranate – eating its seeds while in Hades’ custody is the thing that ends up keeping her bound to the nether-realms – and in a move that surely was no coincidence, Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith made sure to adorn the curtain that hangs behind their RWS version of The High Priestess with a visual motif that features…the pomegranate.

The great and popular Egyptian Goddess, Isis, is another figure from mythology who is consistently identified with The High Priestess. In both the RWS and Thoth decks, the Priestess wears the same distinctive headdress that’s so often attributed to Isis. This particular Goddess also feels relevant here just in terms of her associated themes and concepts, since Isis is considered to be a Goddess of Magic, a discoverer of the greatest mysteries (such as the secret name of the Sun-God, Ra), and one who was even able to unlock the cage of death itself in order to resurrect her husband, Osiris, after he was murdered by the dark God, Set.

It should therefore be pretty obvious that when The High Priestess appears in a reading, she can signify a rather spiritual or mystical time ahead…

In her more negative or challenging manifestations, she can indicate periods of indecision, murky vision, coldness or aloofness, someone or something remaining unreadable or inaccessible, the hoarding of secrets, or a lack of passion and intimacy in a relationship.

In her more positive appearances, though, The High Priestess can herald some very great things: incoming knowledge, the uncovering of secrets and mysteries, success with meditation or other trance-states, greater access to the messages of the subconscious, grace under pressure and the ability to remain calm in times of stress, maturity, a strong link with the Divine Feminine or Goddess-Energy, benefits flowing from a contemplative or reflective state, boosted importance of dream activity, and enhanced intuition and even psychic experiences.

When The High Priestess appears, it’s time to focus on the pause between breaths, and to listen for the small, quiet Voice that’s always there Guiding you from beneath the daily uproar.

Previous entry: The Magician
Next entry: The Empress
Main Tarot Card Meanings Page