Note: I have decided to forgo the format of “Stop” and “Go” as my journey through the major arcana deepens.
The Hierophant can strike discomfort for those who have experienced a limiting dogma associated with Christianity or Catholicism. While this card represents the pope in the same way the High Priestess is the modern form of “La Papesse,” keep in mind— a woman pope was once advocated for, suggesting there was a concerted effort to inhibit the dominating patriarchy emerging at the time. It is evident in contemporary texts of what we know to be the Bible that there is much more to the symbolism presented in Christian allegory. Thus, Christianity in its meaning should not be itself be demonized, nor should Catholicism despite its rife political history. What has prevailed of these doctrines may be relatable avenues for others toward spiritual life outside of the religion’s origin. These systems are of use to those seeking a spiritual path without the extensive research and meditation which would provide deeper understanding. For those on a more agnostic or comparative path, gnostic symbolism is much more obtuse and interpretable, allowing space for us to weave connections to other cultural mythologies and/or religions. Also, as we will see in a future post, the Devil is merely Pan residing over the wild Earth, and the physical world is his kingdom. The demonization of this figure misinterprets the symbolism as the Devil residing over Hell. Here, we come to realize there is no Heaven and Hell, and these, instead, are components of our being more scientifically described as spirit and body.
The Gospel of Thomas states: “Jesus said: Blessed is the lion which the man eats, and the lion will become man; and cursed is the man whom the lion eats, and the lion will become man.” This is synonymous with the Strength card, both in imagery and meaning. At the time that Catholicism dominated, Orthodox doctrine taught that Spirit could dissolve mind:
“Orthodox theologians argue that the mind (reason, rationality) is the focus of Western theology, whereas, in Eastern theology, the mind must be put in the heart, so they are united into what is called house; this unity as heart is the focus of Eastern Orthodox Christianity involving the unceasing Prayer of the heart. In Orthodox theology, in the Eastern ascetic traditions one of the goals of ascetic practice is to obtain sobriety of consciousness, awakeness (nepsis). For humankind this is reached in the healing of the whole person called the soul or heart. When a person’s heart is reconciled with their mind, this referred to as a healing of the nous or the “eye, focus of the heart or soul”. Part of this process is the healing and reconciliation of humankind’s reason being called logos or dianoia with the heart or soul. While mankind’s spirit and body are energies vivified by the soul, Orthodoxy teaches man’s sin, suffering, and sorrow are caused by his heart and mind being a duality and in conflict. According to Orthodox theology, lack of noetic understanding (sickness) can be neither circumvented nor satisfied by rational or discursive thought (i.e. systematization), and denying the needs of the human heart (a more Western expression would be the needs of the soul) causes various negative or destructive manifestations such as addiction, atheism and evil thoughts etc. A cleaned, healed or restored nous creates the condition of sobriety or sepsis of the mind.”
This is correlative to the Buddhist ideal of ascending beyond mind. Once this state is achieved, we no longer suffer our human nature aside from being housed in a physical body. Buddhism cites the thinking mind as the source of suffering. Thoughts themselves are creative. Personally, I do not adhere to the goal of “no mind”, or even “don’t know” mind, all of the time. But accessing this state is essential in magick, which is why most modern courses in ritual begin with cultivating a meditation practice. We cannot create from a place where our unconscious thought patterns are the seeds which inform our personal realities. We must weed out what grows automatically from seeds carried by chaotic winds we were subject to in our formative years, buried deep within our being. These weeds may also be our karmic reaping, which we can alter through awareness. We must do the work of turning the soil, and plant what we want to see grow and blossom. Once this is achieved, under the right conditions and with a little love and maintenance, the garden eventually grows itself.
Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, perpetuates the illusion of duality or separation, suggesting that Christ is both human and divine (Christ is the human son of God, not God himself), while the bishops of Egypt, Syria, and Armenia held their belief that the divine can fully dictate our biological passions. I understand this relative to the idea that “God” is not separate from the physical world, but is everything. It is difficult to discuss the point of separation here, as the illusion of separation is necessary to discuss the concept of oneness, and therefore it is difficult to express that the whole is the sum of its parts, without first showing the parts. But, the reality beyond words is that there are no parts, in the same way there is no spoon!
We must abandon linear thinking in general to attain wisdom. You are trained to do this with the alphabet. There are twenty six letters in the English alphabet. When we are very young, we learn these letters consecutively and in song form. We are taught throughout our entire education to abandon learned order to form words. Words and speech become our mode of communication. Abandoning linear thinking in this respect allows for millions of fictional worlds to be built and imaginary characters to be born. It allows us to learn anything and everything anyone chooses to literate. It enables us to download emotions into writing style and poetry, and so on. This is also how we approach music theory. We do not play notes consecutively despite our understanding of how it is structured. Nor do we use the color spectrum consecutively in visual art. Again, this is how we must use tarot, and it is how we must begin to perceive how things really are.
The Hierophant is not necessarily the masculine counterpart to the High Priestess, although it is a valid, albeit exoteric, understanding. Rather, he is the culmination of the previous cards and the ensuing cards. With the Emperor, the king of “Below”, The fifth, sixth, and seventh keys are unlocked because Above cannot exist without its reflection. When explaining this to a friend recently, she recommended the movie Arrival (thank you Lauren!). This movie is a beautiful depiction as to how things actually are. This film also espouses that language and the way in which we think about things determines our experience, which is the territory modern psychology is heading toward.
Louise, played by Amy Adams, harbors the archetype of the Hierophant in being able to decode this language, which gives her the “weapon” or power needed to not only save humanity, but other beings in the “future.” Furthermore, she does this by accepting her own unfortunate fate— an individual sacrifice made for the greater good of others. The Hierophant has working knowledge of the immaterial influencing the material, and vice versa. Leigh J. McCloskey states:
“The Hierophant is both active and receptive, symbolizing the point of convergence between to polarities, i.e. the commingling of universal conscious energy, The Emperor, with the imaginative generative powers of the unconscious, the Empress. The assignation to the Hierophant of the fixed earth sign Taurus, ruled by Venus, the planet attributed to the Empress, symbolized this dual aspect in its outwardly masculine expression of organization, structure, and materiality, while retaining the inwardly feminine capacity to be impressed upon from within… He is the divine pedagogue, which functions as the voice of god within, knowing all modalities and channels through which divine mind manifests or makes itself known.”
With this knowledge he recognizes his capacity and duty to bring it to others. This is the beginning of the Great Work in Western Occultism. Similar to McCloskey’s sentiment regarding the Emperor and Empress, the Hierophant is only masculine in that the High Priestess is immaterial and the Hierophant is the outer embodiment of the High Priestess, as all physical form is essentially masculine. The body itself is the house of the Shekhinah, the arc of the covenant, which is the innate knowledge we all harbor in the microcosmic universal womb. As we continue on from the Hierophant into the Lovers, we find union with the divine which combines our dual masculine and feminine nature (whereas the Devil splits it— and is focused on protecting and addressing the physical apparatus), and onto the Chariot, representative of directing our Will in accordance with Divine Will, and finally Strength— Spirit dictating the passions of the body.
Of note in my recent exploration of the Elder Futhark system of runes, is that its symbolism tends to ascend toward the well-being and higher consciousness of humanity, or at least regional community. For example, the rune which represents joy, represents ultimate joy within the community or family, not personal joy or revelation. The major arcana itself implies a more solitary journey and community is referenced in a more nuanced fashion in the supporting numbered cards (such as the three of cups, the ten of cups, or the ten of pentacles, the two of cups etc.).
A criticism of Maslow’s Higherarchy, a Western psychological theory of development, centers around the fact that this cannot be applied to all human development, since community in most other cultures is paramount to the individual. In Zen traditions of Buddhism, for example, once “enlightened”, one has a duty to enlighten others. This is how I see the Hierophant. Once knowledge is gained, what then? The tarot clearly indicates depth beyond the fifth arcana. With the Hierophant we have completed initiation and it is now our responsibility to act in accordance with the Great Work in a relatable way. Like Jesus on the cross, we are sacrificing ourselves to pursue the greater good of humanity. Knowing is only half the battle, as the Hierophant exists half way in the Western numerical cycle of ten.
The Hierophant, then, is essentially the adept or Buddha nature—one harboring Christ consciousness. He is not the justified adept, necessarily (as we have yet to meet Justice), but is the potential for all mankind to become one. A mundane example of the Hierophant is the student who is ready to teach, but has yet to secure tenure!
If this card appears in a reading, it may represent your expertise is enough to teach to others. It asks you to trust your experience. If there is doubt, or imposter syndrome is present (that sneaky five of swords appearing again and again!), the Hierophant alleviates this fear, suggesting you have what it takes to attain a higher position of mentorship. If you are uncertain about advancement in a career or spiritual progress, it may also represent coming in contact with a teacher or guide who can assist you in this fashion. If we are The Hierophant in a specific scenario, it indicates that teaching or mentorship may help us access the ensuing keys, as we move through the meaning of the Lovers through Strength, and approach the wisdom of the Hermit. This relates to the common notion: if one wants to become an expert in something— teach it.
Personally, I see the shadow aspect of the Hierophant opposite of what most sources indicate.
Most sources interpret the Hierophant as meaning academic knowledge, rather than sacred knowledge. Thus the reversal of it, or the negative connotation means inner knowledge. In the same way many biblical symbols are misinterpreted via their exoteric nature, thereby negating their true sacred meanings, the Hierophant is also misconstrued. In light of this misrepresentation, its reversal becomes its esoteric meaning.
I do not typically read reversals, but the Hierophant within its shadow context likely communicates that one is not ready to step into the role of mentor, guide or teacher, and perhaps may benefit from a mentor or class to improve their understanding or skills. Thus, with consideration of the actual meaning being sacred knowledge, the shadow aspect suggests we familiarize ourselves with exoteric or academic learning as an avenue toward developing an understanding of a deeper meaning which we are not yet prepared to receive. For example, it is easier to channel the muses effortlessly (notice I did not say impossible) through guitar, when one learns first how to play the instrument.
The Number 5
Five indicates a half way point and is therefore a number of movement. This is also why the information housed in the Hierophant is to be disseminated. It implies action, travel, unpredictability, and yet it is on its way to stability; within its nature its opposite is automatically implied. Chaos naturally moves into order if not interrupted. For this reason, five is also the number of growth. It relates to Temperance, an alchemical card related to harmony (think: Philosopher’s Stone).
I see five as a “phase” card. This is how things are now in their unfolding process, but it is not a card that implies stagnancy. The fives in the suits may be seen as “negative” because they indicate suffering in the form of growing pains. We must be mindful that unless we are halting our own progress, things will work themselves out. Resistance, ignorance, externalizing and lack of willpower are some examples of what hinder our progress. Compassion, acceptance and strength move us through challenging times, and therefore contribute to our spiritual advancement.
Five also represents things as they are in the present moment. This refers to the experience of meditation and being, and the Eastern teaching that the only constant in life is change. Hence, as mentioned before, attachment and aversion are what impede development toward a higher consciousness.
Symbolism (Please note: I have chosen not to reiterate meanings of symbols that can be easily be learned through a Google search, and choose only to expound on ones that inspire further reflection)
Gray Pillars: Gray is the combination of black and white. In life, we are often asked to see "gray" areas. When we fail to do so, we fall prey to the illusion of separateness—an all or nothing mentality which impairs healthy functioning within ourselves and in relationships with others. This is representative of the penultimate knowing the Hierophant holds within: All is one.
The two pillars do not have a veil like the High Priestess does. While one source states this represents exoteric knowledge, I disagree. Considering the pillars are gray, I believe this suggests revealing the secret that, unlike in the High Priestess card, black and white are illusions. Thus, the High Priestess suggests a more exoteric presentation of which we must seek a deeper meaning beyond. As an example: The High Priestess may give us a vision of the Ichthys symbol and by her very nature tells us that it is not what it seems, but the Hierophant reveals its true origin as the vesica piscis.
The symbols on the pillars remind me of a womb with ovaries, as do the horns of Hathor, representing the divine feminine. The horns of Hathor represent the astrological course of Venus during the year. Thus, this form could also indicate a midpoint between Heaven and Earth, which reflects the meaning of the fifth key. Furthermore, this is another curious example of how above reflects below: the female reproductive system taking the same shape as the course of Venus, the planet known for love and sexuality.
Roses and Lilies: Red roses represent desire, while lilies represent purity of thought. This suggests utilization of will as it correlates with Divine Will, and also spirit over the physical (as in the Strength card: notice the white tunic adorned with roses, as well as the lion being the color red). The use of roses and lilies is a recurring theme throughout the deck.
Crossed Keys: The silver and gold crossed keys indicate again the duality of moon and sun (also applicable to gold and silver in alchemy). The X shape is also found (four times) at the feet of the Hierophant. This could be one of many Egyptian symbols that adorn the major arcana. Read more about the symbol of X
X: The Gebo rune in the Elder Futhark
is strikingly similar to the concept of the Hierophant. In Taking Up The Runes, Diana L. Paxson states: "... the primary meaning of this rune is exchange. This includes giving, sharing, receiving power; psychic joining of two or more people to rcreate a physical or magical result or exchange between gods and humanity... it may also involve sacrifice (including self-sacrifice)."
Heimdallr brings forth the gift of the gods to the humans - Nils Asplund
(Note: There are some archetypal correspondences of Heimdallr to the Hierophant which may be coincidental, namely that he governs the spaces in-between gods and humans, and is said to have keen hearing (also an attribute of the Hierophant, associated with ability to listen to one's inner voice/truth). However, I find uncanny correlations in meaning in the Elder Futhark as they appear also in the major arcana, the suggestion being that both systems hold the key to development of higher consciousness, according to natural Law.