The image of the earth-mother-goddess is central to a lot of New Age mythology, hence the attraction of this figure today, but the High Priestess has another, more straightforwardly formal role: she twins or mirrors the Hierophant and the Magician, the former by her role as religious leader (though the Priestess focuses worship and knowledge in a somewhat non-priestly way), the latter by her 'guarding the Mystery' posture. The Waite-Smith Priestess is seated between the pillars Boaz and Jachin, straight out of the Temple of Solomon, but that's not of much interest to secular readers; neither is the now-familiar Egyptian drag, nor the cross, nor the sephiroth beyond, except as Generic Religious Such-and-Such for Good Measure.
In the Marseilles deck she's a straight-up female pope, i.e. Pope Joan - the one who snuck in under false pretenses, penetrating (in a nice image-inversion) the theretofore exclusively male Catholic mystery-cult and inadvertently dropkicking the whole 'papal infallibility' schtick.
Indeed, the 'High Priestess' name seems to be an 18th century solution to the problem of earlier tarot decks depicting a female Pope. Folks do get touchy about their religious iconography, modern occult/New Age types not least among them. That's part of the appeal of the nondenominational 'High Priestess' name: it cancels out the reader's private religious baggage, leaving a Choose-Your-Own-Inner-Adventure activity behind. Which is part of the point, you might say; though you might again say otherwise. If the tarot is an autoanalytic tool, better (I guess) that the card float free of religious-historical specificity; on the other hand, no one complains about the Kabbalah nonsense the way they complain about the Catholic nonsense.
Which is to say, the tarot is embedded in a set of interlinked historical discourses, continuities, and controversies, and knowing about them can only help.
So maybe I should reconsider my dismissiveness and antipathy toward the Egyptohebraichristianity of the whole thing.
I love this version, which features THE POMEGRANATE VULVA OF KNOWLEDGE, complete with hoot owl.
Actually I love everything about this version of the Priestess trump, from the surprise-filled 'Tarot of the New Vision.' The solemnity and nocturnal/oceanic vibe of the Waite-Smith card remain, but the praying women 'backstage' nicely invert any 'power behind the throne' image: they're not skulking, they're in deep ritual devotion. Wild birds, ripe fruit, the moon, the sea, nuns, waves lapping on a lonely beach: the priestess's job is to sit quietly and know, and to offer aid to petitioners. Bit of the Virgin Mary in there. From memory, Catholic boy, take it away:
'Remember, o most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence I fly unto thee, o virgin of virgins, my Mother. To thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O mother of the Word incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me, AMEN.'
And so a little of the ol' pagan flavour emerges from the ol' Catholic image-structure; we forget that part of what pissed off the Protestants was Marian/saint worship, the may-as-well-call-it polytheism that makes Catholicism such a nice fit in Latin America...
Behind every strong woman there are...more strong women.
Alright, so she's the Tree of Life and so forth. (Vulva!) Keeper of the Temple. (Vulva!) Smith paints her robes ocean blue, soft folds falling, foaming wavelike. (Vulva!) Pomegranates (vulva!) decorate her soft curtain (vulva!) which conceals the mystery between two pillars. (Vulva!)
There's a theme here but I'm not sure what it is.
The Priestess kicks off the run of portrait trumps: first (least?) in a line, you might say. Robert Place's tripartite trumps schema seats the Priestess in a group of four ordered earthly powers (papess/queen/king/pope), which are very early stages/obstacles between the Fool and his apotheosis. (Is there a Dante's Divine Tarot, with earthly figures populating hell, symbolic transformations populating Purgatory, and celestial matters marking the way through Paradise?)
In most renderings she's all alone, waiting to dispense wisdom like a supporting character in a video adventure game. The Gaian Tarot deck extrapolates the Priestess's role to 'women's wisdom' in a pretty straightforward way; I'm reminded, or prompted to think regardless of the facts, that the wizened old crone/young priestess combination has a certain cachet that old/young male dyads aren't usually afforded. I have a sense that combination old/young male characters don't usually appear in myths, that it's one or the other, but mythical women are age-switching this way all the time. Is that true? I can't remember, can only feel it, but I wouldn't be surprised to find I feel it wrong...
The Priestess is a worldly figure, a repository of some power. The King and Queen get theirs from royal heredity, wealth, a mercenary army; the Pope is appointed by God (kidding!); but the Sacerdotisa has to sit alone on a beach (or a Delphic cliff-cave) inhaling hallucinogenic fumes and devoting herself to the esoteric, the divine. Threshold of revelation and all that.
(The role of High Priestess in Angels in America is split, ironically-appropriately, between a young married woman and an old crone: Harper and Mother Pitt share Average Joe Pitt, and act to restore some balance in the wake of his departure. Mother Pitt comes back down after her orgasmic ascension, though; I can't remember whether Harper ever returns to earth. Maybe she just gets on a plane? Mustn't they land, in time? But why?)
The Bechdel rule applies to the tarot deck: it's not serious unless two women talk about something other than the Fool's Journey. Well, there you go: Three of Cups in Waite-Smith, check. I like that the New Vision deck restores an interpersonal dynamic to the Priestess. You can imagine the three women taking turns as Priestess, like the guardians of the Temple of Offler the Crocodile God...
In the last hours of my wife's labour with our son, I'd have sworn that there were 10,000 years of women gathered in the room with us. It was a holy feeling, and such oceanic feeling, not its (imaginary) referent, is what the card depicts: the Priestess isn't hiding anything from the petitioning Fool; rather, he needs to understand that her wisdom resides precisely in her acts of devotion and community. The women who guard the temple are the secret. To be a servant, even when alone. You can't possess a Mystery.
You come into possession, or rather it comes into you, through submission. The first step is not-willing-to-remain; what stronger symbol, for a young male Fool, than a woman whose authority matter-of-factly disrespects the border between the sacred and the profane?
So come back, finally, to the Asia-drag, the Hebraic mumbo-jumbo: they're there precisely to signify ideational wildness, the long-forgotten and -overlooked tributaries that once fed the river that is Approved Faith. The tarot's value is secular, I insist, but the cards emerge from an extremely Catholic 15th century culture, and were refined by Waite et al. at the turn of the 20th century in England. The iconic polyphony of the cards is part of what matters, not because the crescent and star trigger a specific memory or opinion in you, but because they yank your symbol-reading out of any simplistic religious course. Everybody else's god-ideas are as wrong as yours, and as scary; but there she is on the shore, and she sees something. The moon, if nothing else. But then when did you last look, really look, at the moon?
If it were a carburetor or a glass of 7-Up you'd still have to answer the same question. When did you last look hard, and why not since then? Once you authentically give a damn, you're...well, you're still a Fool, but oh the places you'll go...