2009 Tarot Study – V The Hierophant
The Hierophant: Seeking Perfection in the Great Imperfect
The traditional title of The Hierophant is The Pope, and in the Tarot de Marseille this card provides a masculine contrast or polarization with card II The Papess, or female pope. In modern Tarot decks these two cards’ titles have changed to, most commonly, The High Priestess and The Hierophant.
The Hierophant is frequently interpreted as a religious, spiritual, or ethical authority figure or mentor, as the inner voice or conscience, or as form, ritual, and ceremony. He is sometimes seen as a bridge to the divine. In Tarot interpretations that view traditional religion as negative, The Hierophant is often given a more patriarchal or authoritative tone, sometimes quite harshly so, and in some interpretations that attempt to see the more positive aspects of this archetype, religion or spirituality may not be mentioned at all. The reasons for both extremes are probably that so many people have had difficult experiences with religion and that so many people disagree about religion.
In the Tarot of Transformation this card is titled “Spiritual Leaders.” In neo-pagan based decks, it’s sometimes the High Priest.
It is the path of spirit in the earthly plane.
Some have said that about the Tarot as a whole.
One could say The Hierophant represents all the ways in which we endeavor, through known forms, sacred images, ritual, dogma, or ceremony — through structure that is very often a metaphor — to keep ourselves on the correct path toward deity or the unknown. The meaning will vary depending on what the individual considers the correct path.
Perhaps it’s the conscious mind attempting, through imagery and form, to access the unconscious. Some archetypes of the collective unconscious are certainly present in many religions, in the form of the Great Father, the Great Mother, the Trickster, and so on. The Hierophant could be seen as the Wise Old Man, a guide for the soul’s earthly journey.
Perhaps we could even consider that XIV Temperance, as V The Hierophant’s numerological shadow (14 = 1+4 = 5), approaches a solution from the other direction. Working without ceremony or outward form, but using internal merging processes, Temperance brings the unconscious, through dreams and active imagination, into balance with the conscious mind, thus effecting individuation. Perhaps Temperance is inner work, or the end result of balance, with preparatory steps taken in the first soul journeys into the unconscious guided by IX The Hermit.
All three archetypes can act as bridges or guides of one kind and another between our waking, conscious world and that of spirit or unconscious.
The most common astrological correspondence made to The Hierophant, that I’ve read of, is to Taurus. In The Astrologer’s Handbook by Francis Sakoian and Louis S. Acker, people with Sun in Taurus are described as striving “for spiritual truth by working with the practical aspects of life,” and later as having “a high appreciation of form.”
There we are again, seeking spirit through form and structure. In that description I can easily see the Taurean or Hierophant as an artist or other creative individual, such as an actor or dancer, working with their hands or bodies and physical form to create a bridge to the divine or to a portrait of the unconscious.
The Hierophant can also represent tradition. In her book The Kabbalah Tree, Rachel Pollack assigns it the pathway between Hokhmah and Chesed and writes, “The Tarot card of the Hierophant represents traditional teachings, including Kabbalah itself, for these teachings connect us both to generations past and to the wisdom discovered long ago.” In The Goddess Tarot, Kris Walderer presents us with a Hierophant card titled Tradition and depicting the goddess Juno, with the keywords (in the companion book) of “Structure, conformity, ritual.”
In Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey Sallie Nichols titled her chapter on this card as “The Pope: The Visible Face of God.” She described how “Jung viewed man’s urge toward transcendent meaning as an instinct” and “as an innate predisposition of mankind — a creative force more compelling even than the urge to physical procreation.”
For some reason I’m reminded by this of a dialog by novelist Anne Rice, in which the main character said something like, “As long as we’re here, we might as well try to be perfect.” I don’t recall the title of the novel, but the idea has stayed with me for years. When we tread any spiritual, religious, or ethical path, that is what we’re attempting, in spite of many religious teachings that such a goal is a form of blasphemy — to arrogantly imagine that we can ever be perfect as God is perfect. Psychologists also tell us that perfectionism is a self-defeating urge. After all, we are only human, and we live in an imperfect world.
But perhaps that’s the point, and perhaps if we keep that in perspective, it’s the entire point of our journey here, both the urge toward perfection and our acceptance that we’ll never achieve it. It’s also, in some sense, flirting with neurosis, a little like the rationalization that “I’m not speeding, I’m keeping up with the flow of traffic.” Still we have this urge to seek the truth we know is hidden somewhere in the great unknown — where and what is perfection, and how do we get close to it? But there is also something beautiful and meaningful to be found in chaos. Order isn’t everything. Kept in perspective, each has its place: order and chaos. The place of The Hierophant seems to be planted firmly in order and form, but with that humble caution against perfectionism.
Most people who study the Tarot adhere to their own or someone else’s attempt to make the Tarot fit into a neat system, either of archetypes, steps on a journey, astrological, planetary or numerological correspondences — sometimes all of these. The major arcana have been linked to the 10 sephiroth or 22 paths on the Tree of Life of the Kabbalah, to Germanic or Nordic runes, to the Hebrew alphabet, to I Ching hexagrams or trigrams, and so forth. I see all of these as both valid and invalid, in that I don’t think the Tarot is designed to fit perfectly into any such system, and it may very well be designed to imperfectly fit them all. It is, I think, a good representation of a person’s incarnation on the earthly plane, in which there is no perfection to be found, and I see no reason why an Atheist couldn’t see it that way as easily as a devout Christian, or someone of any other spiritual persuasion.
What if there is no perfect system that can be applied to Tarot — and what if that’s intentional? What if the Tarot was designed to be a nearly perfect yet imperfect system? On the other hand, what if it is just what it is — Tarot, and not intended to be more than that in any perfect or imperfect way?
I too look for the patterns, the systems at work within it. I think this is natural. I think that we humans are hardwired, as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell observed, to find meaning in life as well as in stories, spiritual paths, and systems like Tarot that seem to be patterned on life’s journey. I don’t personally see that as merely a scientific answer to our quest for spirit. Our minds do strive to order the universe and make it sacred, to see sacred patterns and even to recreate them metaphorically in ritual and ceremony — and in Tarot cards. That is not to say the universe isn’t sacred after all is said and done. In fact that may be the very reason we’re drawn to the sacred, that we really do need to reunite, to return.
Perhaps the Hierophant represents, among other things, the Tarot itself, as images designed to draw and guide us toward the sacred — whether that be a psychological whole, individuation, Self-Realization, God, or the Universe itself, a non-personal whole or unity from whence we came. In all of these I can see the commonality of an urge to return somewhere we don’t consciously remember.
Copyright © 2009 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved.