By Sarah Taylor
According to numerology, 2012 is the ‘Year of The Hierophant’: 2 + 0 + 1 + 2 = 5, The Hierophant being the fifth card in the tarot’s major arcana. Like his feminine counterpart The High Priestess, The Hierophant sits enthroned between two pillars. Unlike The High Priestess, who inhabits the space between the physical and the spiritual, the pillars in The Hierophant represent the physical world — more specifically, a world of discipline and formal observance.
The Hierophant card draws significantly upon Roman Catholic symbolism, notably the Papal Cross in The Hierophant’s left hand, the triple crown on his head, and the cross-keys at his feet. His right hand is giving the benediction. It is the most overtly religious of all the tarot cards in the Rider-Waite Smith deck — which strikes me as a little odd, given that many of the other cards (The Magician and The Chariot, for example) are esoteric in nature — tarot itself being an esoteric art.
Therefore, if we take the surface interpretation of The Hierophant, we might focus on the idea of organised religion, or adherence to doctrine of one form or another. Seen in this way, The Hierophant signifies spiritual discipline — one that is seated in the collective, given that the church is community-based. His authority also has its origins in the collective, conferred on him as it is by a man-made structure that deems him God’s representative on Earth. Whereas The High Priestess is self-appointed and answerable to no-one but spirit, The Hierophant is appointed by rule of law and is answerable not only to spirit, but to the Church as well.
The Catholic Church is currently fighting a battle to save its image in the eyes of many people in the modern world — although this battle has been fought over hundreds of years in one form or another: The Pardoner’s Tale, one of The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century, paints a damning picture of a ‘pardoner’ who extorts money from those who wish to atone for sins against Rome and God:
Of avarice and of such cursedness
Is all my preaching, for to make them free
To give their pence, and namely unto me.
For mine intent is not but for to win,
And nothing for correction of sin.
Therefore, it can prove challenging to look past negative associations and see the card as a positive indictment of devotion, dedication, and the situating of oneself in something that is greater than the individual and which transcends ego. But that association is there for me when I am able to look at the card objectively.
On the other hand, the shadow aspect of The Hierophant is inextricably linked to our own notions of the shadow aspects of religious authority: dogma, the patriarchy, unquestioning conformity, and the corruption that can stem from these. I would suggest that this shadow is engaged when The Hierophant no longer accepts his submission to a higher authority, instead putting himself in the place of God.
And what of the two monks in the bottom corners of the card? The one on the left wears a cassock decorated with red roses, the one on the right a cassock decorated with white lilies. Eric suggests that they represent two distinct paths of service:
The Hierophant is the destination or maybe the journey. I think one key to the card is that the two monks who make it there are adorned in red and in white flowers: red on the left, white on the right (roses and lilies). This represents what you might call Red Tantra, the path of passion; and White Tantra, the path of purity. They both lead to the same place. Balance is implied.
This is borne out by several other articles I’ve read on The Hierophant that associate it with Temperance (the 14th card in the major arcana, the 1 and 4 making the 5 of The Hierophant), which itself is about the need to achieve balance in a dualistic existence.
And so room is made for a meaning that is more inclusive than one that is representative of one particular belief system. For example, The Hierophant is associated with marriage — two people joined in the eyes of the Church who are asked to adhere to its covenants — but I also see this idea being extended to the idea of the ‘internal marriage’, which I wrote about last year:
The Hierophant is also associated with the ‘marriage of the Self’ — a cornerstone of Jungian analysis — where wholeness is achieved by journeying within rather than through the search for something outside us. Furthermore, it speaks to me of discipline on that journey. Not intractable discipline, or dogma, but the commitment to the full and conscious participation in our own unfolding nature — that is, the gradual discovery that at the heart of all creative processes — no matter how challenging, how hidden to us, how painful sometimes — is love. We express it fully when we surrender to its moving through us without resistance, or fear, or the need to hold on to it. Our journey towards love of self leads us to love for others and, by extension, love for all creation.
If we see The Hierophant as a multi-layered card in terms of its meaning, we are given access to a sense of freedom that a purely orthodox view of the card is not as easily able to afford us. A phrase that comes to mind when I think of The Hierophant in this light is the one that suggests that we must first learn the rules in order to know how to break them. This process of discipline and assimilation might feel limiting and proscriptive at the time of our instruction (whether formally through some form of education, or informally in the ‘school of life’), but it is when we are able to learn to apply ourselves and to commit to a path of learning that we often find the world expands and takes on new forms.
In his blog entry on the Year of The Hierophant, James Wanless expands on this idea when talking about the cards in The Voyager Tarot deck:
This suggests a year of learning and growing as we manage the various number 5 card “lessons.” These are the 5 of Crystals, “Negativity,” 5 of Cups, “Disappointment,” 5 of Worlds, “Setback,” and 5 of Wands, “Oppression.” These cards are red flag “watch outs!” Watch out for getting negative, holding onto to unrealized expectations, getting stuck in a setback, and limiting and holding ourselves back. Relish these lesson-learning cards in your readings because it’s a time of growing on your spiritual path.
And remember that these so-called negative cards have a positive side to them. Reframe “Negativity” to the positive use of “no.” Transform “Disappointment” into higher understanding and acceptance. Use “Setback” as a strategic retreat to take one step back to go two steps ahead. Turn “Oppression” into structure and discipline.
Maybe there is more to The Hierophant than first meets the eye. Working in parallel with this, perhaps we have more freedom than we might believe — a concept that can be as discomfiting as it can be liberating. But, to return to The Hierophant, by exploring, moving into and embracing freedom with a sense of reverence and surrender to an authority (whether inner or outer) that is able to guide us, it might be that we become better travellers in the process.
If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article explains how to use the spread.