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From ‘Vicarius’ to Hierophant

March 5, 2017

by Tony Willis      

The image of The Pope that graces Trump 5 of the Tarot de Marseilles doesn’t reference any specific pope. It is more a general symbol of the papal office; a symbol of a type that was perfectly acceptable in the fifteenth century, the era to which the earliest examples of tarot imagery are assigned.

05_le_pape_millennium  Arcane-Arcana-05-pape-pope

05 II  Visconti-sforza-05-pope

What did The Pope mean to the Europeans of that age? First and foremost, he was the Vicar of Christ, the word ‘vicar’ coming from the Latin vicarius, deputy or substitute. Put bluntly, the Pope was Christ’s representative on earth. As far as Christians were concerned, Christ was one of the three aspects of God, commonly known as the Trinity. It is for this reason that, on the Ghent altarpiece (see below), God is shown wearing a papal tiara, swathed in papal vestments, one hand raised in benediction, sharing many of the attributes of Pope tarot cards stretching from the first quarter of the fifteenth century to the creation of the Marseilles tarot in eighteenth century, and beyond (see above).


Another of the pope’s titles is Supreme Pontiff. The latter word is another derived from Latin and has a curious derivation. It means ‘bridge builder’, from pons, bridge. The pope, as God’s representative on earth, is, or should be, the organ via which the Almighty makes his will known to the people. In short, he acts as a bridge between Deity and the masses. This is the theological position behind the doctrine of papal infallibility, the idea that what the pope says is in effect the word of God.

In a broader sense Trump 5 represents the office of the priest. It must be borne in mind that in Christian Europe only a priest had the authority to marry people. We shall see in a moment how this affected the interpretation of the card.

Trump 5 has a number of divinatory meanings associated with it in the predictive tarot. They may not seem to sit happily together but all have their roots in the thinking outlined above.

Since the pope is, self-evidently, a man of God, the card can stand for an individual endowed with spiritual or moral authority. It can represent someone possessing the qualities of kindness, goodness, compassion, and generosity of spirit; somebody with an understanding of human frailty, and who at the same time can be relied on to treat others fairly; wise and gentle but firm. The Trump can also indicate an advisor or counselor, some dependable person the inquirer can go to for understanding or guidance.

The Pope doesn’t necessarily represent a person, however. Sometimes the card can mean that a bridge has formed between the Higher and Lower Selves of the individual consulting the cards, and that a message will come through into the conscious mind, if space is given for it to do so. In which case, the inquirer will have a hunch, presentiment or intuition that will lead them to a way out of the difficulties they are currently experiencing.

Because, back in time, only a priest could perform a marriage ceremony, The Pope can forecast marriage. Nowadays, positioned near other cards signifying marriage, Trump 5 can point to a church ceremony. Since marriage is a union, by a linguistic twist The Pope can also indicate a reunion (re-union) of some kind.

In reverse, Trump 5 can highlight the misuse of spiritual or moral authority, the desire to control others rather than guide them. Alternatively, it can signify over-kindness, and the foolish exercise of generosity, such as letting someone off the hook who later proves unworthy of being given a second chance.

Yet another meaning the card can sometimes carry is the opposite of ‘good advice’; thus ‘misinformation’, ‘bad advice’, which may not necessarily be delivered with malicious intent. By the same principle of “reversal of card equals reversal of meaning”, The Pope is not a happy omen for either marriage or reunion.

And, just at the upright card may signify a useful hunch or presentiment, in reverse it may portend a warped inspiration or inner prompting which the inquirer would do well to resist giving in to.

In his book The Key to the Tarot, A.E. Waite gathered together all the meanings he could track down that had been applied to the Trump cards by his predecessors and contemporaries. For Trump 5 – which he calls The Hierophant – he records the following.

Marriage, alliance, captivity, servitude; by another account, mercy and goodness; inspiration; the man to whom the Querent has recourse. Reversed: Society, good understanding, concord, overkindness, weakness.

Most of the areas already explored are to be found here, though the upright and reversed meanings appear somewhat scrambled.

The Waite-Smith design for Trump 5 appears below.

r-w-hierophantIn adopting The Hierophant as the name of the Trump, Waite was adhering to the practice of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which he was at one time a member. The title had a special meaning for members of the Order: all initiations in the Golden Dawn proper, often referred to as the First Order, were carried out by an officer named the Hierophant.

Today’s widespread interest in the tarot was sparked by the publications of French occultists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They regularly assigned the keyword Teaching to Trump 5, on the grounds that, according to the Catholic church, the only place to turn for guidance in matters spiritual was the clergy, priests having received instruction in that notoriously thorny subject, theology. In the Golden Dawn hierarchy, the hierophant was also a teacher. It is worth remarking that not only does the Order assign the meaning Teaching to Trump 5 but its ex-members, such as Paul Foster Case and Aleister Crowley, do also. I have found the attribute useful when the cards are consulted by someone “on the Path”, as occultists say, but not otherwise.

Because the card carries so many apparently disparate meanings, it can be one of the hardest to interpret. Back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, continental Gypsies, having no attachment to Catholic ideology, solved this Gordian knot of a problem with a single stroke. They associated the upright card with “the courage to escape from temptation”, and took the reversed card to counsel wariness, adding the warning “beware of deceivers and intriguers”.

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