Keywords for the High Priestess
In the image on the card, we see the High Priestess seated on her throne, dressed in long, silvery blue robes that shimmer in the moonlight. Her throne is simply made, a cube of stone similar to others we see throughout the tarot, which always refers to the same thing: physical, material manifestation in three-dimensional space.
This, combined with the wave-like nature of her dress, which flows into and becomes almost indistinguishable from water as it flows over the moon, shows us that despite all appearances, it is actually subconsciousness which creates and constitutes the nature of the universe.
The High Priestess wears a triple crown, which alludes not only to her typical association with the moon and lunar cycles, but is also a reference to the Mysteries of the Egyptian Goddess Isis. The veil behind her is decorated with red pomegranates, another allusion to ancient mysteries, only this time pointing us to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of life-death-rebirth of Demeter and Persephone.
Although not all pomegranates on this veil are visible, we know that they stand in the same formation as the Sephiroth in the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah.
Further reference to this Hebrew tradition can be seen in the scroll held by the High Priestess, which here reads “TORA,” a reference to the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (typically transcribed in English as “Torah”).
Behind the priestess, her veil hangs from between two pillars, one white and the other black. The letters B and J refer to “Boaz” and “Jakin”, the names of the two main pillars which once stood in the Temple of Solomon. Their black and white color is a reference to the apparently opposite dualities through which we experience our existence.
Similar to the yin and yang symbol, each letter is written in a color opposite to the pillar, indicating that each extreme contains the seed of its opposite. The polarities we too often take for granted are truly only opposing ends of the same spectrum of our one existence.
Interpretation for the High Priestess
Above all, the High Priestess stands for our subconsciousness, and all the mystery that lies beneath the reach of our normal, conscious awareness. It also speaks more generally to a sense of the mystery of life, of the vast wonder and terror that normally eludes us, but remains lurking beneath the surface, ready to rise to our awareness if the right conditions present themselves.
The High Priestess represents one side of the archetypal feminine: that of the mysterious, nonrational, and intuitive elements of women’s being. She shows a part of the divine feminine which has historically been feared: dark, filled with mystery, unknowable through logic or language, connected to a deep wisdom beyond words.
Due to its connection to the unconscious, this card also refers not only to our intuitive capacities, but even to psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance and other types of nonrational knowing.
The High Priestess is also thought to refer to the passive quality inherent in the archetypal feminine (in contrast to the active principle represented by the previous card, the Magician).
Due to the patriarchal culture of which we are a part, the term “passive” typically carries many negative connotations of inferiority, weakness, and is seen to lack value, purpose, or meaning.
However, there is much power in the passive: it is not simply lack of action or existence. This yin quality is perhaps better thought of as being receptive in nature. It can be compared to the receptivity of the womb, which receives the seed of masculine, and generates within itself something new from what has been planted within.
The darkness, receptivity, and inferiority of the High Priestess is the necessary precondition for all creation (as we will come to understand more of in the next card, the Empress).
As such, this card refers also to the vast potential of the High Priestess. When she appears in a reading, the High Priestess may be asking us to pause, withdraw from the busyness and action of the outer world, and go within. She asks us to pay attention to the seeds of our future selves which have lain dormant within us, seeds which need tending to, in order that we may give birth to our highest selves.