Here’s a question that’s hit our inbox a couple times, and deserves an answer: Why isn’t there a High Priest card to offset the High Priestess?
To answer that question, we need to dive into a little bit of Tarot history:
In early European Tarot decks there wasn’t a High Priestess card at all. Nor was there a High Priest Tarot card. Instead, there was a card called “The Pope” and perhaps more interestingly, there used to be a card called “The Popess” — a female Pope.
Here’s the Popess card from the historic Visconti-Sforza artwork, dating back to 1450 AD:
As Tarot grew in popularity in the late 19th century, the card artwork went through a long process of artistic and philosophical reinterpretation.
The classical Pamela Colman Smith Tarot artwork (below) which is universally recognizable, was drawn in 1908 — centuries after the Visconti-Sforza artwork above.
It’s interesting to see what stayed the same, and what changed from the original Popess card:
She still holds scripture in one hand. And she still wears an ornate hat of sorts, signifying her status.
Unlike the Popess card however, the High Priestess’ posture is more feminine and relaxed. The more modern card hides her right hand enhancing both the secrecy and the mystery of the High Priestess. Complex symbolism incorporating Egyptian references and Greek mythology was also incorporated into the card.
The interpretive meaning of the High Priestess card also changed. The more modern version of the card came to represent an inner spirituality, a meditative focus and psychic intuition.
At the same time, the traditional Pope Tarot card was replaced with the more-modern Hierophant image over time.
While the Hierophant is still rich in what is obviously Catholic-inspired imagery, the Hierophant card was an effort to broaden the meaning of the historic Pope away from its strictly Catholic roots, to mean more simply: Tradition, and the organized structure of formal religion.
While both Tarot cards deal with belief and spirituality, they differ to the extreme in regards to formality, visibility and the type of power being represented.
So in fact, there is a High Priest card. It’s called The Hierophant. The meanings of the two cards can’t be more different though.
One is spiritual, individual, introspective and magical. The other is formal, conservative and at times, restrictive.