The Light & Shadow series – what happens when we pull difficult cards?
It’s common to fear darkness, the unknown or the less known… these cards don’t end at dismay, fear, and calamity. They are raw potential. The energy needed to transform.
What does the Hierophant mean?
A client asked this on a call just a few weeks ago. How meta to ask this about the proverbial meaning-maker of the tarot. The most traditional representations of this card will have three people in a church, fancy religious items, lots of clothes, brick everywhere. It looks cluttered. When I first picked up tarot over 20 years ago, I’d pull the Hierophant and go blank.
Nothing would come to mind.
Even once I understood this card, for a long while, I still loathed it. My birth card, who I am and what I can’t stand, all in one. Once I understood, 10,000 things came to mind when I pulled it. The Hierophant floods the senses: subjugation, hierarchy, that time I was dragged to church and pushed to my knees in front of a preacher ‘for my own good’, looking very much like one of the smaller figures in this card.
Tao gives birth to one,
One gives birth to two,
Two gives birth to three,
Three gives birth to ten thousand beings.
Ten thousand beings carry yin on their backs and embrace yang in their front,
Blending these two vital breaths to attain harmony.
This is the Taoist creation story. The Tao, in this passage, is the origin of all things, nothingness, void. You’ll often see the word “things” interchanged with “being” here, because the 10,000 refers to all of creation, everything manifest – not just animate beings. At the time this was written in the Tao Te Ching, 10,000 was a huge number and so equated with infinitude.
Religions are meaning-makers.
Every religious doctrine will have its creation story. They answer questions for the masses: where did we come from, why are here, how should we live? This is what the Hierophant is about and what it does. Innocuous in and of itself, but some of what religious organizations have done to defend the meaning that they have made is horrifying.
Even though religious/spiritual symbolism can suggest safety, belonging and purpose, it’s easy to see why for many of us it doesn’t and how it instead conjures quite the opposite. That’s a lot to parse in a single card.
It seems like more than enough: a card that represents the systematization of spiritual experience, the structuring of spiritual knowledge, the practice of disseminating and inheriting that knowledge, and the tribe identification inherent in subscribing to this or that belief. But, in fact, it doesn’t stop there.
My interpretation of this card blew open when I first saw the Osho-Zen version:
My self-created keyword for the Hierophant at the time was “the 10,000 things”.
Meaning all societal structures and beliefs, all desired items and the sense of worth they secure, everything that makes up the known world. It’s what I thought of every time I saw the clutter on the card. And considering its association with the sign of Taurus, ruler of the 2nd house in astrology – concerned with owned ‘things’, money, and one’s sense of worth – this isn’t a bad start as far as interpretations go.
What then, was I to make of this blank version?
All religion seeks to bridge the gap between the mundane and that which is ‘holy’, spiritual, or transcendent. To talk only about structure, items, dogma, or beliefs is to miss half of this card. To talk about or master (as the Hierophant does) matters of spirit, we attempt, even when it’s futile to do so, to articulate that which precedes the physical world. The ether, the void, Tao, “No-thingness”.
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…”
All and nothing. The Hierophant affixes the two.
Affix is an important word here. The Hierophant connects – with the Hebrew letter “Vav” according to Paul Foster Case’s Key to the Wisdom of the Ages – that which joins structures together. This card is the gateway through which the spiritual passes to the mundane, into the hands of masses. Similar to how the High Priestess serves as a spiritual gateway.
“Ten thousand beings carry yin on their backs and embrace yang in their front,
Blending these two vital breaths to attain harmony.”
I’d call the High Priestess yin and the Hierophant yang; two sides of the spiritual coin.
Where the High Priestess sits with the moon at their feet and the natural world in the background, the Hierophant sits in a human-made building covered in money and holding court with an audience.
The thing about spiritual/religious wisdom is that it relies on humans to convey messages about things that cannot be articulated, like a cosmic game of telephone sponsored by specific subsets of society.
I used to separate the spiritual from the religious, holding the natural, inwardly-focused realm of Goddess worshipping spirituality – the realm of the High Priestess – higher than the patriarchal church that I inherited from family – the realm of the Hierophant. I’ve since learned that depending on the languaging, sponsoring, and the potential for persecution, this can be a false duality.
Context is everything.
While patriarchal systems have a huge head-start on religious persecution, believe you me, the seeds of bigotry already germinate in the ‘new age’. No belief system is beyond reproach. As soon as we identify with a religion, group of people, ideology, as soon as we believe one teaching or perspective is infallible it becomes natural to defend the tribe, belief, or teaching to the detriment of our inward-derived sense of values.
In the same way that a pastor can shame or shelter those different from them, so can the new age guru and the bruja. Those that wear the mantle of the Hierophant – the healers, teachers, witches, diviners, root workers, and holy people of all kinds – will always run the risk of attaching to their roles the importance and grandness of their task of soothing, supporting, enlightening, and empowering the masses.
This is especially true for the Nintendo (my) generation. The generation where we started to judge our value based on the things we had rather than character traits. Then monetary value supplanted our intrinsic sense of worth.
When you see the Heirophant..
Watch for the ego, the small and insecure human who can’t live without the role that makes them seem larger than life. Watch carefully; you could be that human.
You could be the human with the knowledge to share with the masses, or this card can refer to such a human. Watch for the responsibility that comes with disseminating knowledge. Watch for the opportunity for words to bring peace to many people when used wisely, the right speech, the well-timed lesson.
There is a charm in this card, the charisma of a fantastic orator or poet. The medicine is in the hearing as long as the one speaking is focused on the goal of union, of existence beyond duality and tribe identity.
Look at the labels you use, the temple you pray in, the alters you keep, the beliefs that were passed down to you or that you chose, the identities, and ask, “Do they serve the largest union? What do they ultimately bring together?” This is the Hierophant’s question. You’d be surprised how little can stand up to it.
‘My teaching is like a raft.’ A raft is meant to carry you across the river; once you have crossed the river, you leave the raft behind on the shore…
-The Buddha as quoted in “A Mind at Home with Itself…”, an examination of the Diamond Sutra by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
What does the Hierophant mean to you?
Answer in the comments or use #difficultcards
I had so much to say about this card. At least two more blogs worth. Sign up for my newsletter to hear when I continue this dialogue. While writing, I ended up revising the first Face Up tarot spread I created, before I even referred to it as “face up”. I’ll share that revised spread next time in this column. Keep in touch.
Featured decks: Dust II Onyx by Courtney Alexander, Black and Sage 2017, Osho Zen Tarot, Padma, St. Martin’s 1995, Centennial Smith-Waite, US Games 2013, Margarete Peterson Tarot, AGM Urania 2014, Transparent Tarot by Emily Carding, Schiffer 2008, Thoth Tarot by Crowley and Harris US Games 2012