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The Female Pope

November 28, 2016

Occultists of the French esoteric revival accepted the Tarot de Marseilles as a much revised version of the famed Egyptian Book of Thoth. It was, therefore, their starting point for any analysis of the cards. The Tarot de Marseilles names Trump 2 La Papesse – the Popess or Female Pope – and that is how she is presented in the illustration on the card. (Figure 1.) She wears the distinctive Triple Crown otherwise known as the Papal Tiara. For centuries this headgear had been associated exclusively with Popes. Its three crowns represent sovereignty over Heaven, Hell and the mundane realm laying between them.

Today, the English-speaking world almost universally thinks of Trump 2 as The High Priestess. This is a modern appellation. The Tarot de Marseilles echoes the very earliest surviving examples of the card from the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The Trumps in these decks did not have names printed on them. Nevertheless, what was represented on the cards was instantly recognizable to audience they were directed at. The late fifteenth century manuscript Sermones De Ludo Cum Aliis readily identifies Trump No. 2 as La papessa. Little wonder, since the oldest surviving tarots created for the Visconti and Sforza families depict the woman on the Trump dressed in a nun’s habit, holding a scepter topped with a cross in one hand, a closed book in the other, and crowned with the papal tiara. (Figures 2 & 3.) Everything about the images in these packs suggests a female pope. Nor are the Visconti-Sforza tarots exceptional in this regard. Three fifteenth century tarots printed from wood-blocks also depict the woman on Trump 2 in the same unmistakable manner.

2papesse          Visconti-sforza-02-popess

         Fig.1. Tarot De Marseilles                            Fig 2. Visconti-Sforza Tarot         

2_papessa_fournier   Trump2HTM

    Fig. 3. Museo Fournier Tarocchi                    Fig. 4. Modern Tarot Design

Three centuries later, the Tarot de Marseilles image lacks the cross, and the book is open on the woman’s lap, but the papal tiara has been retained, again marking the figure out as a female pope. Her status would be indisputable even if the card’s name wasn’t included at the bottom.

Once Court de Gébelin “recognized” that the tarot’s roots lay in ancient Egypt, however, occultists were quick to advocate a change of name. As readers of these articles will be well aware by now, a change of name will precipitate alterations to the card’s design, just as significant modification of a card’s design will usher in the adoption of new name. The card shown in Figure 4 dates from late in this period. It draws upon the version of Trump 2 found in the first of the “Egyptian” tarots produced in 1896 (Figure 5). The “Egyptian” Trump bestowed an Egyptian name on the card. Since the Egyptians knew no pope, they could not possible have had a female pope – so the thinking goes. Accordingly, the card was renamed Veiled Isis, a veil covering the upper part of the lady’s face being conspicuous in the illustration.

2 b of light    Da ath mytree

       Fig. 5. Egyptian Tarot                                 Fig. 6. The Tree of Life

Although the card in Figure 4 is labeled La Papessa, there is nothing about the design that suggests a connection to Christianity let alone Roman Catholicism. The other words on the card are Hebrew. The scroll half unfurled on the popess’s knees is the Tora, the Book of the Law, tora meaning ‘law’ in Hebrew. The pillars are inscribed Boaz and Jakin, the names tradition gives to the two pillars that stood at the entrance to the Temple of Solomon. The crescent moon at the popess’s feet associates her with the lunar forces, as does the Greek cross on her breast, if taken as a reference to the moon’s four quarters. On her head this popess wears a crown mimicking phases of the moon: a full moon in the center flanked by waxing and waning crescents. It is purportedly the headdress worn by the Priestess of Isis in the Fete des Pampylies. (See Frank Lind How to Understand the Tarot, first published in the mid-1950s). The lunar crown links Trump 2 to the Moon on the one hand and the goddess Isis on the other. None of this symbolism is apparent in earlier tarots right down to the Tarot de Marseilles deck published circa 1760, the symbolism of which has been adhered to by all Tarots de Marseilles up until the present day.

When A.E. Waite had Pamela Coleman Smith draw the Trumps of the Waite-Smith tarot, he instructed her to produce an image similar to that shown in Figure 4. (See Figure 8.) The only significant change is to the design on the veil stretching between the two pillars. The symbolic quality of this alteration is lost on most people, as Waite intended it to be. The design is made up of palm leaves and pomegranates. If the High Priestess did not obscure our view, we would see that the pomegranates are set out in the form of the Otz Chiiam, the Tree of Life of Hebrew mysticism (Figure 6). One would have to be familiar with this diagram in order to recognize it as it is depicted on the Waite-Smith card, otherwise one wouldn’t make the connection at all. With the body of the High Priestess in the way, one would have to be remarkably prescient to pick up on the presence of the Tree of Life diagram on the card as so little of it is visible. But in this deck, Waite was as intent on concealing knowledge he believed should be kept secret as he was on explaining the tarot to an audience with little prior experience of it.


Fig. 7. Oswald Wirth, The Tarot of the Bohemians

More than two decades before the Waite-Smith tarot appeared, Oswald Wirth created a set of Trumps for Papus’s Tarot of the Bohemians (1889). Wirth’s illustration (Figure 7) honors the spirit of the early tarots. He names the card La Papesse and crowns her with a papal tiara. His popess not only carries a book, in addition she holds the crossed keys, emblem of St. Peter, the first pope. A short veil hangs between the pillars just as a piece of opaque material reaching no lower than the middle of the popess’s back can be seen suspended between the pillars of the Tarot de Marseilles’ Papesse card. At the top of the popess’s headdress Wirth places a crescent moon, again pointing up her supposed lunar connections.

The exact correspondence between the Trumps and the planets and the signs of the zodiac is hotly disputed in esoteric circles. However, most occultists identify Trump 2 with the Moon. And if not with the Moon directly, then with water, for as is well known, the Moon’s gravitational pull affects the ocean’s tides. The High Priestess in the Builders of the Adytum tarot (Figure 9), designed to the instructions of Paul Foster Case, dispenses with the crescent moon at the priestess’s feet, though in all other respects the illustration conforms to the pattern of the Waite-Smith card. Instead, the BOTA High Priestess’s robe dissolves into water as it descends to the floor. The curiously horned headdress is retained, a clear indication that Case, like Waite, associated Trump 2 with the Moon.

r-w priestess 2      BOTA HPS

Fig. 8. Waite-Smith Priestess                    Fig. 9. BOTA High Priestess

For French occultists of the nineteenth century, la Papesse was Eve to le Bateleur’s Adam. (See previous post.) I mention this because these attributions affected divinatory practice in most countries speaking a Romance language. Not only did le Bateleur represent the first man but all men descended from him. Likewise la Papesse stood for Eve together with all “daughters of Eve”. Therefore some diviners took Trump 1 to signify the male inquirer and Trump 2 to signify the female inquirer. Papus makes this designation in The Tarot of the Bohemians; the concept can be traced back to Eliphas Levi. These attributions were sometimes encountered in Britain, for instance in Fortune-Telling by Cards by P.R.S. Foli (1904), wherein Professor Foli repeats Papus’s ideas concerning divination with the tarot. The attributions were included in The Complete Book of Fortune, first published in 1935 and still in print. More recently the American author Zolar, like Foli, recycles Papus’s meanings for Trumps 1 and 2 in the booklet that comes packaged with Zolar’s Astrological Tarot Fortune Telling Cards (U.S. Games System, Inc., 1963). These examples of the French tradition being conveyed to the Anglophone world notwithstanding, the use of la Papesse and le Bateleur as significators has never taken hold in English-speaking countries.

In fact the alterations and adjustments to the design of Trump 2 had little effect on the card’s divinatory meaning until the mid-1960s. Up till then the predictive aspect of the card was more influenced by the esoteric belief that the Trump was allied to the Element of Air, symbol of thought and intellectual pursuits. When I was learning the tarot, Trump 2’s positive virtues were summed up under two headings: intellectual control of a situation, and mastery through understanding. These qualities produce results in the predictive tarot in the following ways. The Trump may signify that the inquirer is in the process of constructing a plan that will alleviate her troubles, solve her most pressing problem, or significantly promote her ambitions. Alternatively, it may indicate that a scheme has already been formulated and is ready to be put into action, or that the inquirer is about to embark on new project. Either way, she will have planned astutely and pragmatically and in consequence the project will have every chance of being successful.

In reverse, Trump 2 has three possible indications. The inquirer’s scheme may be hare-brained, it may be predicated on misinformation, or it may be based on too little information. It is not a plan with realistic hopes of bearing fruit and the inquirer would do well to reassess and if necessary reformulate it.

A good many books on divination I’ve looked at assign meanings to Trump 2 that are not helpful from a predictive angle. They often refer to the card’s esoteric or mystical facet. Frank Lind, in How to Read the Tarot (c. 1949), assigns Trump 2 an assortment of meanings: Science, Art, Profound knowledge, Critical faculty, Penetration into the Mysteries. None of these can be applied directly in a predictive setting. The tarot reader has to adapt Lind’s meanings if she is to forecast any concrete occurrence. She must say, for instance, that it will be necessary for the inquirer to employ his critical faculty if his search for a solution to his problem is to bear fruit. Or that it is through the exercise of profound knowledge on some level that he will attain his goal. These are little more than re-framings of meanings already encountered, the former corresponding to “mastery through understanding”, the latter to “intellectual control of a situation.” “Penetration into the Mysteries” alludes to the esoteric aspect of the card. While this is a valid meaning for the Trump, it hardly ever applies predictively as most inquirers aren’t interested in initiation into the sacred mysteries even if they have heard that such a thing exists.

  1. Wayne permalink

    During five years of wandering the tarot forums and blogs, the most common, current predictive meaning of the High Priestess I’ve seen is “hidden knowledge” (highlighting the significance of the”veil” and of subconscious apprehension), or a “secret,” something you don’t know about the situation but probably ought to for your own good (unless, of course, your not knowing is the whole point – “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”). If “profound knowledge” means knowledge that is difficult to comprehend, the correlation seems reasonable; Reversal could mean that the knowledge is not only even more elusive, but possibly unreliable. If it emerges unbidden into the light of day (as trump-card influences are wont to do), it might signify something surprising but not necessarily unpleasant (unless you despise any kind of upset), which would seem to be more of a risk with the Moon card’s chancier revelations . Lately I’ve been thinking that the Moon, as the second most important astrological body, really belongs with the Moon card to complement the Sun/Sun card association, and Pisces – as the sign of deeply intuitive sensitivities – would be a better fit for the High Priestess, if only from the standpoint of signifying insights that may not be entirely conscious.

  2. Rebecca Sharp permalink

    The predictive tarot is event-oriented. Hidden knowledge isn’t an event. Profound knowledge isn’t an event. Phrases like this have to be expanded to become event-oriented. A secret isn’t an event though the revelation of one is.

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