In my opinion, it’s more than a little difficult to distil one meaning from the Hierophant. On the one hand, this is a card whose meaning is as plainly written as its name. Hierophant simply means “the one who shows, or reveals, the sacred objects and their hidden meanings.” In this sense, the two monks bowing before the Pope are simply bowing to receive his blessing and wisdom, and the card can indicate an oncoming clarification of a spiritual matter the querent has been struggling with. In fact, it can often indicate our larger search for spiritual truth and meaning.
But the spirituality this card depicts is a highly Christian one wherein it is the people higher up in the chain who hold this truth. In that respect, the Hierophant is a card of institiution and organization and the artifices that come along with it, like external authority, codes of behavior and belief, conformity, and conservatism. It means conventional wisdom and all that comes along with staying squarely in convention’s box. To this extent, the card may not refer to anything spiritual at all, but instead to large institutions like medicine, law, or education.
I think it’s well worth examining the specific images on each of these cards to see the different faces of the Hierophant. The Rider-Waite card, for example, is the one that most explicitly connects it with spirituality. Like the High Priestess card, the Hierophant is seated between two pillars, which visually connects it with the deep spirituality of that card. Beneath his outer robes, he also wears the pale spiritual blues of the High Priestess, and at his feet the throne floor is decorated in a rim of black and white checks, which hint that the support of the church is the balance of divine duality that is so much more present in the High Priestess. The card also hints at the Magician, for the Hierophant is externally clad in his red and white (passion/courage and purity/clarity) and his right hand is raised in the gesture of esotericism: two fingers up, two down; another sign of “as above, so below.” The tonsured monks before him are also clad in the Magician’s red roses and white lilies.
But even here the symbols of the deep spirituality cards are twisted into conformity. The pillars behind the Hierophant are not the cosmic Boaz and Jachin in the High Priestess. They do not make the Hierophant the temple. Rather, they support the great weight of the institutional structure called the temple. All the other signs are muted. The spiritual blue is covered up with passion and purity, but those are capped by an institutional crown and are stifled. The roses and lilies on the monks are passion directed outward to a teacher and purity funneled into institutional chastity.
In the Hanson Roberts card, the Hierophant looms larger than life, emphasizing the extreme authority institutions can hold over personal pursuits. In the Robin Wood card, Wood has thrown as much symbolism connoting “conformity” as she can. The Hierophant figure is sallow and disapproving, and his rich robes are rigid, stylized, and wholly artificial (especially when compared with the organic, flowing robes of her Magician and High Priestess!). It is trimmed in red roses and white lilies, but it’s sucked the life out of both of them: the robe is the color of dried blood, not the vivid scarlet of fresh passion. Indeed, the Hierophant is cut off from all life. He wears that robe like a shield, and wears gloves to keep his hands from getting dirty. He’s practically entombed within the great stone walls of the church. Wood is one of the few artists who shows the faces of the monks, and one is smiling and one frowning: the comedy and tragedy masks. In the end, it shows that all this pomp and circumstance, all this manipulation, is just the act of spirituality. There is nothing real behind it.
KEYWORDS: Tradition, conformity, identifying with a group, habit, spiritual blessings
Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Imagine that you walk down a wide path that runs through the woods. It is midnight and the full moon lights your path. As you walk, think about a difficult situation in your life about which you have trouble deciding what to do. As you think and walk, you soon notice that the path comes to a fork. On the left-hand side is a narrow path that seems dark because it is shaded by trees. The small path is curved, so you cannot see what lies ahead. On the right is a wide, easily accessible path, brightly lit by the moon. Which path will you take? From out of the woods emerges the Hierophant. Tell him about your life situation and allow him to guide you to the right path. Ask him which path you should take and why.
Keep the Hierophant card with you at all times today, or place it on your altar. Spend time noticing how you might act from routine. Anything can become routine–even acting unconventionally can become habit, and all habitual patterns should come under the microscope. Question the origins of your routines. Is routine based in fear of the unknown? Is following a routine an easier way to live day to day? Does it help organize your existence? Why does your life need to be organized in any particular way? Try something that breaks your normal pattern or routine today.
The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book The New Tarot Handbook, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin’s Around the Tarot in 78 Days. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website, learntarot.com.