The High Priestess and The Empress: Inner and outer worlds

Editor’s Note: 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 tells you how to use the spread. You can visit Sarah’s website here. –efc

By Sarah Taylor

This week’s article was born of a serendipitous slip. I felt prompted to email Eric and ask whether he had any particular ideas for a tarot article, joking in my email that my fingers always want to type “tart” instead of “tarot”. (Rich fodder for those inclined to believe that finger-slips are no accident.) His response started thus: “Tart — What about women in tarot…?”

What about it, indeed. It seemed apt, given the focus on Venus and The Moon in Len’s Daily Astrology postings, and Lisa Roberts’s analysis of the four asteroid Goddesses over the weekend.

The High Priestess and The Empress - RWS Tarot deck.
The High Priestess and The Empress from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck. The High Priestess is the second, and The Empress the third, cards in the major arcana.

So I took my Rider-Waite Smith tarot down from my bookcase, separated out the major arcana, and started looking for inspiration. I found it almost immediately in The High Priestess (card 2) and The Empress (card 3)… who just happen to represent The Moon and Venus respectively. How about that.

This is the first time that I have taken a really good look at The High Priestess and The Empress side-by-side; and I’m wondering why I didn’t see the extent of the correlations and contrasts before. The two, together, give us a picture that embodies the physical and the spiritual, the outer and the inner — working in parallel as two balanced entities of the feminine principle.

Let’s see where our explorations take us today when we look at both cards:

The High Priestess

I have always been drawn to The High Priestess. I think that many tarot readers are, given that she guards the gateway between the spiritual and the physical realms, and therefore has the ability to mediate between the two.

The High Priestess from the Rider-Waite Smith deck is richly symbolic in this respect. At her feet is a crescent Moon, describing the lunar phase where psychic ability is heightened, when the veil between the spiritual and physical worlds seems thinner. The pillars to her right and left are black and grey respectively. I’ve read different explanations for the pillars and the letters on them, but the one that makes the most sense links them to “Boaz” and “Jachin” — the two pillars in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The temple was said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant. In our card, The High Priestess is associated with ancient wisdom, passed from the divine to mankind, and much of her work, psychic as it is, is hidden from view, unable to be fully seen and understood.

The dominant colour of the card is blue. This is the colour of the throat chakra, and ties in with one of the principal challenges that someone who typifies The High Priestess archetype has to contend with: accepting and working from the understanding that the path calls for the ability to speak and live one’s own truth in service to divine will. The path of The High Priestess is not always an easy one, because she often has a greater degree of access to intangible information than most. She might know and understand things that others do not believe. She is an outsider by virtue of the fact that she is not completely of this world. However, if she dedicates herself to a fearless encounter with spirit, and is able to hold the tension between those encounters and her encounters with the mundane, then The High Priestess is in balance.

When she is out of balance as an archetype in our lives, then the shadow of The High Priestess comes into play. She may lack a belief in her own abilities, never comfortably inhabiting her role as intermediary and therefore never giving full expression to her gifts. Or she may lose her bearings and believe that she holds a sense of truth when her message in fact does not come from spirit: she confuses the earthly with the spiritual — an oracle who instead looks at her own reflection and mistakenly draws ‘truth’ from there.

Whereas the figure of The High Priestess, the pillars that flank her, and The Moon at her feet are primarily a single colour each, the screen behind her tells a different story. It is vibrant, bright, eye-catching. It asks for our attention as much as the directed gaze of The Priestess herself. Although it depicts the physical world — pomegranates, palms, ivy — the fact that they are set in a distinct pattern tells me that they are symbolic rather than simply representative of nature. They are nature in service to an organising principle — like The High Priestess herself.

The Empress

By contrast, the pomegranates in The Empress seem to be in service to her. She is not separate from them, but wears them; they are not held in a distinct pattern as much as tumble down her robe. Whereas The High Priestess operates at the juncture between two worlds, and is therefore the messenger of spirit, The Empress holds dominion over the physical world.

On this card, blues and greys give way to yellow, green, red, orange. The lips of The High Priestess are unadorned, and her hair is covered as an act of reverence; while The Empress’s mouth is red, her hair long and loose around her neck and shoulders. In her right hand, she holds a gold sceptre, the handle fashioned into a head of wheat (earthy foil to the cross on The High Priestess’s chest). Her left hand rests on her left knee, legs slightly apart. She is regal, but not subject to the strictures of too much formality. Like nature herself, she has freedom of movement. On her head is a crown of stars — the heavens have a place in this picture too.

The Empress expresses the archetype of The Mother — whether as Mother Nature, or as mother on a personal level. Trees in full leaf range across the background. A river cascades into a waterfall. Ripe wheat jockeys for position in the foreground, ready to be picked. The red of the bolster and throw under her are reminiscent of the blood that gives and promises life.

And yet a flowing of blood is also evocative of death, and this is also inherent in The Empress. As ruler of the physical, death plays its own part in the cycles over which she presides. Death and life are the dual experience of this card — though in this image death seems to reside in the ‘spaces between’: it is an absence, implied, rather than a presence. Perhaps the stars on The Empress’s crown also express this aspect: the stars as souls in the sky; the stars that we become when we lose our physical form and ascend to the firmament.

The idea of death also comes to the fore as the Shadow Mother — who denies life rather than nurtures it, who murders her young, or abandons them to fend for themselves. We evoke the archetype of the Shadow Mother, for instance, when we eschew our role as caretakers of our environment, instead choosing a route that mines the planet of its resources and then pollutes, rather than replenishes, it. Given that The Empress concerns herself with the cycles of nature, we wander astray when that cycle is either broken or distorted.

The High Priestess, The Empress. Spiritual, physical. Contemplation, sensation. Midwife, mother. Care of the soul, care of body. Liminal, absolute. Both are aspects of the feminine that we all embody, whether consciously or unconsciously. When we are unconscious of their archetypes at play in our lives, we can fail to see the transformative opportunities that they offer us, whether through living them out positively, or confronting their shadows within us. When we do so consciously, we begin to bear the burden of personal and collective responsibility, but with that come deeper meaning and an expanded sense of self.

12 thoughts on “The High Priestess and The Empress: Inner and outer worlds”

  1. I thought it’d be worth a mention with gratitude – as I have just re-saved this article:

    that is to say, I check back each day on your Tarot articles, Sarah, to see if there are new responses. Then I resave as .pdf to my “Sarah at PW Tarot” file – I find the conversation following your article valuable addendums to your original thoughts and like to keep those as part of my reference library of your articles.

    Thanks to all.

  2. Hypnotic, there are sunflowers in The Sun card. I think there might be others, I can’t think of any at the moment.

    I’m investigating pomegranates/roses further, looking for some source material about the iconography of The Empress (Rider or Mathers would be best). But I’m not coming up with much. Most “reformed” tarot systems like BOTA don’t have any symbols on The Empress’s robe, representing her with color only.

  3. The Queen of Hearts,
    She made some tarts
    Upon a summer day;
    The Knave of Hearts,
    He stole those tarts,
    And took them quite away.

    The King of Hearts,
    He missed those tarts,
    And beat the knave full sore;
    The Knave of Hearts
    Brought back those tarts,
    And vowed he’d steal no more.

  4. rucognizant –

    Your painting and your friend’s poem are both juicily delicious! Thank you for sharing. (I love your giraffe painting above that too – it reminds me of South Africa.)

    Just as an aside, and out of personal curiosity, when you throw your cards for the year, do you use the whole deck, or just the majors?

    — S

  5. Empress, my card for the month. (We throw 12 each Jan 1)

    Here is my painting of pomegranate, titled Persephonie’s Downfall

    scroll down through the blogspot it is the 6th image down, with a lovely poem written by a friend of mine!.And please become a follower if you wish.

    And yes, respectfully, Charles, I am seeing too much evidence of the power of persephanie in chart readings to call the items on the Empress’ robe, roses!

  6. h, I definitely equate seeds/fruit with fertility and therefore the divine feminine in these cards.

    I’m going to take a closer look at the flowers in the cards after your comments. There are so many layers to them, it is wonderful.

  7. As always, you are so welcome, Len! And thank you, h.

    And thank you for your explication of the water, Charles. I hadn’t noticed that.

    … I’m sticking with pomegranates, though. šŸ™‚

  8. Charles,

    Actually, they are pomegranates. If you have the deck you can see there are seeds in them. Most of the earth like cards have pomegranates in them.

    I only see roses in IX of swords, I The magician, VIII Strength

    [off subject: Sunflowers in the Queen of Wands (again, a fruit/flower with seeds) — I dont see those in any other card in the deck?]

    (goddess power)

  9. The symbols on the Empress’s robe aren’t pomegranates, they are roses. They are rather crudely drawn, but that shape of rose appears on other cards.

    The High Priestess is a card of dualities, the palms and pomegranates on the veil are symbols of male and female (respectively). Look very closely to the sides of the drape in the High Priestess. You can see a horizon line, with water in front of it. She sits in front of a body of water, representative of the subconscious. If I recall correctly, there is only one other card with water in the background like that, the Two of Swords.

  10. A very very Rich analysis, Sarah, of the two tarts .. um… I mean,

    Seriously, I truly admire the depth of your work.

  11. Sarah,
    Thank you for the kind words. The force is definitely with you and it’s amazing to read how you wield it. Thank you for this inspiration.

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