Contemplating the High Priestess

I’m procrastinating writing an essay on the Ten of Swords, so here’s a thing I wrote yesterday about the High Priestess.  It’s written for Wald Amberstone and not a general readership, but I think the points still stand.  Fair warning: I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Judith Butler (whom I don’t even pretend to understand most of the time).  Also, for those of you who don’t know, I’m working exclusively with the Rider-Waite tarot illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. Most other decks are simply reinterpretations of her work, so it stands to reason that, in a thorough study of tarot, we should cut out some of the middlemen.  At least for now.

So onward:

Before our last conversation, I would likely have delved into my contemplation of The High Priestess saddled with associations developed through my role as a high priestess.  You pointed out that when I’m functioning as such in a coven setting, what I’m really doing is more akin to the work of The Hierophant, and this was a profound realization for me.  This card, more than any so far, has posed a great challenge, because I have so much invested in what I think it means even before I really begin to study it.  I have to consciously let a lot go in order to engage in contemplation.

When I do, the central meaning comes to be about boundaries.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, not just between the twin pillars or between the world and the abyss, but at all boundaries.  And just as the melting point of ice is simultaneously the freezing point, boundaries are simultaneously a point of uniting and a point of division.  Boundaries sometimes feel harsh to us—they keep us out or keep us in—but without them we lose the ability to engage the world in meaningful ways.  We lose language, and, as a result, we lose identity and selfness.  As you said to me over the phone, there is no distinction without contrast.  Duality may be arbitrary, but it is necessary.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, beyond which lies the Holy of Holies, the Mystery, the Abyss.  To gaze upon these is to be destroyed.  Without boundaries, there is no self.  I is no longer an I.

Still in contemplation, having had the above realization, I initially thought of the figure of the witch.  The witch is sometimes described as a “hedgerider”—a boundary-crosser.  She passes out of the town and into the wild places, produces unguents that separate soul from body so that it might travel to unseen places, and uses otherworldly magic to alter reality.  But that’s too easy, I think.  Boundaries like that allow her to retain her self-ness.  By engage in these activities, she actually reinforces her identity as a witch.  Paradoxically, by crossing boundaries, she reinforces them.  The Mystery guarded by The High Priestess is beyond that.

In the Archetypal Description, you state that, “She answers the questions that cannot be asked in words.”  Further, the Transcendent Interpretation reiterates this theme of silence.  The High Priestess is beyond words because there literally are no words.  Beyond the boundary, there can be no language.  Not only does the category of “witch” cease to exist, but so too do all categories: woman, human, self.  The question was, “Who is The High Priestess when The High Priestess is you?”  The answer is that The High Priestess is at the root of everything that makes me a self.  Every identity category that I occupy (student, woman, American, witch, daughter, coffee drinker, cat lover, on and on) only exists because it stands in contrast to something else.  I become The High Priestess every time I make distinctions, think of myself as an individual, use language, or otherwise exist in a world defined by duality.  Paradoxically, I am also The High Priestess when I don’t do those things (at which point I cease to be).

4 thoughts on “Contemplating the High Priestess

  1. Good old HP. She’s come up a few times for me lately and this certainly helps me interpret her.

    Your description actually reminds me of the Evangelion movie, where the boundaries that make people individuals are destroyed and everyone coalesces into One Consciousness (or in this case, Two Consciousnesses). In some sense it speaks to me, thinking back on it now, of the “Death of the High Priestess.”

    It makes me wonder, if there is a point in the future where All are One (in the more literal sense) and all distinctions cease to be and all that remains is pure consciousness…will We choose to do it all over again? Rebuild those barriers and boundaries that create individuality? Are we all the result of some spiritual Big Bang, where the All becomes Many and then falls back in on itself to become All once more?

    And if so, what’s the point of it all?

  2. Kyle

    HI Thorn,
    I read this as well as your post on The Magician/ Will and find your approach to Tarot very interesting, are there any Tarot resources (Books, articles, anything really) that you could recommend to someone looking to learn about reading and symbols?

    Thanks for your time – Kyle

    1. Hi Kyle! Hmm. Just as an easy place to start, I enjoyed Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone’s “The Secret Language of Tarot,” which is all about symbols (admittedly, I’m also biased because Wald is my teacher, but he’s a smart guy). Further, I’d recommend just looking more generally into the Golden Dawn, where so much tarot symbolism originates. Sallie Nichols’s “Jung and Tarot” might also be useful to you, if you’re interested in archetypes (which, of course, also come to be important in how we think about tarot symbolism).

      Hope that helps! Thank you for commenting!

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