Sunday, July 8, 2012

Delphi Blues: A Consideration of the High Priestess and the Hierophant

Special thanks to author and general Tarot diva Barbara Moore for the inspiration for this one.
There's an interesting parallel in these two cards, and their meanings, I've found are intertwined and complementary in some ways. To start, let's consider the High Priestess- here is the regular old Rider-Waite take on the card-
Let's examine first some of the symbols of this card- I chose the R-W version because of its commonly occurring symbols. Perhaps most prominent in this card are the two pillars in the background, marked B and J. This is a reference to the two pillars of Solomon's temple, Boaz and Jaketh. Interestingly, this symbolism also occurs in Masonic circles, where it is said to represent the dichotomy and balance between the two opposing principles that hold the world in balance. But for our purposes, we'll consider them as that- opposites. This concept also occurs in many depictions of the ten Sephiroth, where we find one standing for the Pillar of Severity (that is, restriction and in this way providing structure) and the Pillar of Mercy (the opposite in some ways of restriction, indicating growth and expansion). So in this way, we find a balance- restriction giving structure and form to growth. Too much growth, and we find chaos. Too much restriction, and we find suffocation and oppression. The Priestess sits between these, indicating a knowledge of both extremes, yet also the knowledge of the balance between them.
The High Priestess also sits in a position of authority, like a throne, and bears symbols of her authority. Her headdress (crown?) is one, as is the equal- armed cross she wears. The cross indicates a balance and current between the divine and the more physical world. The Priestess also holds a scroll marked TORA- a reference to the Torah, the group of Jewish teachings, as well as history. Here we have experiences as well as an explanation of divine order in the world- again, the High Priestess understands this and shares that wisdom with others.
A third symbol is the crescent moon at her feet. The Moon has long been tied to intuition and insight rather than entirely logical, analytical thought, indicating that the High Priestess speaks to intution rather than the rational mind.
Overall, the High Priestess is kind of an oracle figure, and is similar in some ways to the Oracle of Delphi, Apollo's prophetic oracle. The Oracle was thought to speak with the voice of Apollo, and would give cryptic answers to questions put to her. The aspect I'm focusing on here is the fact that both of these figures have a direct connection to the divine- in one case, the words of Apollo, in the other, a more general sense of the divine, yet ultimately the same source. The Priestess simply presents us with the information- as in the case of the Oracle, it's up to us to figure it out, to interpret it in terms of the everyday experiences we have, and what's going on in our lives.
Now, let's consider the Hierophant.

This version too comes from the Rider-Waite deck, and has several elements in common with the High Priestess. Notice the two pillars on either side of the Hierophant, and that the Hierophant is seated between them- here, however, the pillars seem to perform a somewhat more practical function, as they are supporting the building. Again, the pillars are a common feature in temples and buildings of a religious nature- the place where we go to contact the divine, perhaps. The Hierophant also bears a symbol of authority at his feet, here the crossed keys of both the Catholic church and of St. Peter. The Christian Bible notes that Jesus said to Peter how what he "bound in Heaven would be bound on earth", indicating, in this case, a connection between the divine and the earthly world. This connection will become apparent shortly. The keys in the Catholic church represent first, a locked door, which is excommunication (the Church has the right to excommunicate members, thereby blocking them from recieving any benefit from the church) and second, an unlocked door, meaning the Christian concept of salvation, offered by the church to those that would choose it. The idea here is that the power of the divine, which is in all of us, has been also given to this figure of authority. As Apollo spoke to his Oracle, so here we see the divine has given authority to those who would pursue it. The Hierophant is not some scam artist, setting himself up as an authority figure with no backing. Actually, the Hierophant is a wise man- he's worked for the knowledge and wisdom he has, and has worked to develop this connection to the divine. It's true that there are corrupt figures of spiritual authority across the spectrum, but here the Hierophant represents an ideal, not an actual person. The card is meant to represent the concept, not a specific person.
The Hierophant also wears a symbolic headdress, and also carries a triple cross on his staff, sceptre or whatever that is. It emphasizes his authority and wisdom, at any rate. The fact that there are three layers to both of these objects is a clue to their meaning. This represents three levels of understanding- the highest, a direct connection to the divine, as the High Priestess herself employs, the realm of ideas and thought, which is an abstraction and interpretation of the world above it, and the third, the material, physical world, where these two higher factors are put into everyday experience and action.
So what does all this translate into? There are common elements here, as well as one very important difference. Both the Hierophant and the Priestess are in many ways between the worlds- they communicate with both the divine and 'mundane' world, and pass messages from one to the other. However, the High Priestess offers no interpretation- her words and offerings are what they are, and it's up to us to discover their meaning. This is why another symbol is present in one card and absent in the other- the veil behind her. The Hierophant has no veil. The High Priestess gives us the words to go beyond the veil, but it's up to us to go beyond that veil- to lift it and see what's hidden there. She also uses these words to guard the way- when we're ready, we can use those words to go beyond that veil and what has been hidden will then be revealed to us. The Hierophant does not have the veil, because he's already gone beyond it, and come back to the other side. The Hierophant is a counselor figure precisely because he can do this- can offer interpretation and insight to the High Priestess' mysteries (try saying that three times fast). But the Hierophant represents authority precisely because of all that he has done and all that he has learned. In some ways the evolution of the Priestess, the Hierophant has learned not only the mysteries, but how to apply and translate the principles of these mysteries to the world we live in. The purpose of the Hierophant figure is not to boss us around, and fill our lives with "thou shalt nots" but rather to provide us guidance, and lead us beyond that veil ourselves.
So from this, you might be thinking, why then do we even need the High Priestess? If the Hierophant is there to explain it all away, why do we need to go beyond that veil ourselves? There are a couple reasons for this. First, I can sit here and tell you about Wyoming, and paint a picture for you. I took the time to actually go to Wyoming, to see what was there, and come back. But if you haven't been to Wyoming, well, then you haven't been to Wyoming. My experience will not be the same as yours, and no doubt things will be different for you. Each of us finds a different experience beyond this veil, and it's different for each of us.
But as John Donne so famously wrote, no man (woman or child, for that matter too) is an island. We don't go it alone, and we all need advice and guidance sometimes, and that's where the Hierophant comes in. A teacher or professor is similar to the Hierophant- they are an authority on a subject, and share their knowledge with us. They don't do the coursework for us, and challenge us to find things out for ourselves, but will however point us in the right direction, and help us to understand the material, having been there before themselves.
There's a further balance between these two cards as well- we can't always go it alone, yet at the same time, neither should we be too dependent on authority. Though there are authorities, and these authorities can help us along the way, this is not an excuse not to think for ourselves. In fact, the most useful and effective authorities are those that challenge our own thoughts and beliefs, and the assumptions that we hold. The Hierophant may make it easier, but in both cases, there's only one person that can go beyond the veil for you, and that person is you yourself.

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