The High Priestess is the first in the series of Major Arcana that is depicted as a woman, sitting just after The Fool and The Magician. Her role, like the others, has evolved over time, stretching back to Tarot’s beginnings in medieval Europe. Traditionally, she has been a symbol of secrets, mystery, silence, and wisdom.
History of The High Priestess & Pope Joan
Unfortunately, like most of the amount of understanding of the middle ages, there is little written on record. What the High Priestess symbolized to the people of the day is unknown, but we know she was not always referred to by this title. In fact, for centuries, we know that the card we currently recognize as The High Priestess was called La Papesse, or “The Popess.”
You may be thinking, “well, there’s obviously never been a female pope,” but there is a legend of one. Pope Joan, who is said to have reigned as the head of the Catholic Church from 855 – 857 in the 13th century, though we’ve covered previously that those years may not have ever happened anyway…
Assuming they DID happen, who was Pope Joan? Well, legend has it that she was a woman who presented herself as a man. Medieval scholar Stephen of Bourbon, whose surviving work is the largest of the era, wrote that Joan was brought to Athens in the clothes of a man. However, it’s said she had a lover. In Greece, Joan was an exceptional student, mastering multiple branches of knowledge. Stephen claims that she had no academic equal.
Because of her mastery of scholarship, she returned to Rome (still presenting as a man) and took on students. She took the name “John Anglicus.” Her unmatched knowledge at the time led to her rising through the ranks of the city. It’s important to remember that at this time, there was no separation between the church and the state. She was made a Cardinal, and when Pope Leo IV died, she was elected Pope due to her apparent mastery of church scholarship.
However, she had become pregnant as Pope and had suddenly given birth during a procession through Rome. This brought immense shame on the Papacy, and she was burned at on the stake. One fact that I feel required to share with you now is that after the reign of Pope Joan, all future popes had to sit in a chair with a hole cut underneath. This was so that the cardinal could indeed confirm that the Pope had testicles. The cardinal would declare, “He has two, and they dangle nicely.” That’s real.
Back to The High Priestess and Her Symbolism
It is often understood that the High Priestess is Pope Joan, and much of the symbolism surrounding the card can be connected to her. You can draw a direct line from the previously stated symbolism of “secrets, mystery, silence, and wisdom” to Pope Joan.
Joan was clearly a master of keeping a secret, her existence itself is a bit of a mystery, her silence is what allowed for her secret to prevail, and her wisdom is what allowed her to achieve what no other woman before or since could achieve: the Papacy itself. In the Waite-Smith tarot deck to appeal to non-Catholics, the Major Arcana card was changed from “The Popess” to “The High Priestess.”
When seen inverted, The High Priestess represents passion and surface-level knowledge, signifying the betrayal of her upright interpretation.
The High Priestess and Her Place In Tarot
With its number of roman numeral II, The High Priestess comes early in the deck and only after The Magician (and, depending on how you count it, The Fool). The card is almost a companion card to The Magician.
Where The Magician is a seeker of diplomacy, reason, and self-confidence, The High Priestess is one who keeps her wisdom to herself and views secrecy and mystery as higher qualities. She does not keep secrets to be deceptive in a negative sense, but merely to preserve her own well-being, without it coming at the expense of others. The Magician represents men and masculinity. The High Priestess represents women and femininity.