Popess or High Priestess
History and Iconography
In the earliest known list of the Trumps (Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis), this card is called La Papessa (The Popess). The title has led to much speculation and many think it is a reference to the legendary Pope Joan. Gertrude Moakley, on the other hand, suggests a connection with Sister Manfreda, who was elected Pope by her followers.
A number of instances of printer's marks depicting a Popess-like figure have also been found, personifying the Roman Catholic Church . Iconographically, the depiction of the Popess also bears similarities to some representations of Sapientia and of Mary at the annunciation.
The representation of this card hasn’t changed much over the course of the centuries. The Visconti-Sforza Tarot already depicts the Popess as a seated woman, crowned with a tiara and wearing long robes. In her right hand she holds a sceptre with a cross and in her left a (closed) book. On the Rosenwald Sheet, which dates back to the early 16th century, the woman has long, flowing hair and holds a large key instead of a sceptre. The Cary Sheet possibly shows the Popess as wearing a mitre and holding a crozier. A tonsured clergyman stands by her side and a book is lying on a lectern.
In the Tarot de Marseille, La Papesse (The Popess) holds the book open on her lap. She is depicted as a kind, somewhat older woman, and a veil hangs behind her. The 18th-century Belgian Tarot replaces this card with Le’Spagnol Capitano Eracasse (The Spanish Captain Eracasse), a character from the Comedia dell’Arte. The Besancon Tarot replaces this card with Junon (Juno).
Number V. represents the Chief of the Hierophants or the High Priest; Number II. the High Priestess or his wife: it is known that the Egyptian Chiefs of Priesthood were married. If these cards were of modern invention, there wouldn’t be a point of having a High Priestess, and even less so with the name of ‘Papess’, as the German card makers have ridiculously named her.
In the Waite-Colman Smith deck designed in the early 1900s, this card is likewise named High Priestess. The book that was shown on earlier decks is here replaced by a scroll with the word TORA, while the tiara is replaced by a horned crown with a sun disc, like the ones worn by Egyptian goddesses, possibly linking her to Isis. The young woman wears a large cross on her chest and has a crescent moon at her feet. She is seated between the two pillars of the Temple of Solomon, Joachim and Boaz – a veil is suspended between the two and is decorated with pomegranates. The presence of pomegranates in the image may denote a link with the Greek Goddess Persephone, who descended into the Underworld for a certain number of months each year because she ate the pomegranate seeds offered to her by Hades.
With decks that are based on suggestions made initially by Eliphas Levi (sometime referred to as the 'Continental tradition'), Bet is correlated. In addition to various possible relations to depicted imagery, one significant manner in which the correlation "fits" is in considering the Popess to be a representation for the 'house' or 'church' of God.
Within Golden Dawn [GD] based decks such as the Thoth deck designed by Crowley and Harris, the High Priestess is associated with the Hebrew letter "Gimel", in part meaning 'Camel', and on the version of the Tree of Life used by the GD is placed on the connecting path between Tifaret and Keter - the quickest path to enlightenment. In this Qabalistic worldview, the path of Gimel between Tiphereth and Kether is the one that crosses the Abyss (often depicted as a desert) - a testing ground for the spiritual aspirant, where one faces inner demons and illusion. The Hebrew letter for Camel is appropriate here, since only a camel can carry somebody across the vast expanse of a desert.
Suggested Divinatory Meanings
The Popess or High Priestess is usually interpreted as denoting intuition and the inner voice of wisdom. She represents spirituality as opposed to the religious conformity of the Pope or Hierophant. As Carole Sédillot writes in Ombres et Lumières du Tarot: "Spirituality isn't defined by the enclosure of the spirit in a dogma - whether religious or otherwise - but by opening the spirit to vast and new horizons that offer it evolution and elevation."
Because of the depiction of the two pillars and mosaic pavement on some decks, 'initiation' is also at times suggested.
Since she is holding a book, she also stands for studying.
These are not accepted outside of those who follow such attributions
Golden Dawn oriented (and derivatives)
Numeral : II; 2
In other languages
- Dutch: Hogepriesteres
- French: La Papesse
- German: Die Hohepriesterin
- Hungarian: Papnő
- Italian: La Papessa, La Sacerdotessa
- Portuguese: A Sacerdotisa, A Papisa
- Spanish: La Gran Sacerdotisa, La Papisa