The High Priestess and the Moon
The High Priestess is the name of the Tarot card that corresponds to the Moon in astrology. (I will simply refer to her as the Priestess for the remainder of this article.) She is multifaceted and many-phased, just like the Moon, and by learning about her, we learn about ourselves and how we relate to the world and make our way through life.
The Priestess can be described as the seat of wisdom, the officiator of inner ritual, a guardian of the portal between worlds. In the Rider Waite Smith deck, the Priestess sits on a pedestal between the pillars of Boaz and Jachim, guarding Solomon's temple. Solomon was known for his great wisdom, and it seems that the Priestess might be the portal into the temple. She is sitting in front of a curtain, behind which we see a glimpse of the ocean, and she is wearing pale blue robes and a crown over her veil. I won't go into the specifics of the card symbolism in this post, but will proceed to look at her meanings and then discuss her phases, in accordance with the Moon.
Jeremy Hush, creator of the Hush Tarot, describes the Priestess as one who sits between the light and the dark, with a balanced wisdom. This is compelling, since we can think of the Priestess working more with the dark than the light, because of the correlations with intuition being a shadow sense, as opposed to rational thinking which is associated more with the Sun.
It makes sense, though when you consider that the Sun truly does disappear at night, on the other side of the horizon, but the moon is visible both day and night, simply in varying degrees of intensity based on relative darkness and the current phase. In fact, one of the key words Hush gives the priestess is “reasoning.” Modern society equates reasoning and rationality almost exclusively with the light of day, but the Priestess represents true reasoning and rationality with her balance of the seen and unseen.
In The Goddess Tarot by Kris Waldherr, The Priestess is equated with the four-armed Hindu Goddess of Wisdom, Sarasvati. In each of her four hands she holds items representing her areas of dedication, a book for knowledge and recorded wisdom, a musical instrument representing the power of sound for creation, prayer beads representing the power of meditation, inner reflection, and spirituality and a water container representing the river she sits over, and also healing, abundance, but also poetry and eloquent speech.
Like the Priestess, and the Tarot as a whole, the symbols of this Goddess are replete with meanings and levels of interpretation.
Maura McMahon, Tarot reader and founder of Mystical Trinity, says of the Priestess, “She’s the keeper of secrets, the all-knowing - ego-less powerhouse of our subconscious. I see her as the gatekeeper to the akasha.” When I asked Maura which deck held her favorite Priestess, she admitted that it was impossible. She said, "I don't think I have a favorite priestess card, they're all different and bring up different things for me." Can you relate?
Elizabeth Garfunkel, Tarot reader and author of L’art du Tarot de Marseille*, describes the Priestess as wisdom, mystery, and connection to God/Spirit. She equates her with inner peace, meditation, studying and reading, intuition and clairvoyance. Notably, she sees the Priestess as an example of the serenity of a deep and abiding faith.
*Visit Elizabeth's site for a free PDF version of her book! I've read it. I learned a few things about Tarot that I didn't know because I didn't have the experience with the Marseille deck.
The Faces and Phases
Because the Priestess represents the astrological Moon, there is much we can learn about her for our Tarot readings by imagining who she is in each of the eight phases of the Moon.
Dark Moon – The Priestess is completely veiled. This is her time of introspection. She has gone within, taking all that she has learned from the previous cycle, along with all that she hopes to see and accomplish in the cycle to come. Even a new moon is visible during a solar eclipse, so she isn’t completely unseen, but this phase is as important as any other.
This is a time of rest, and healing. There is much happening despite the stillness, despite the silence. The macrocosm is quiet, but the microcosm lives fully cycles of its own within her. In her solitude, she enters the infinite mystery and meets the ineffable.
The Priestess, in her silence, dreams. She dreams of what she wants to manifest. She develops the vision that she will focus on as she emerges from the darkness. She sees it in her mind’s eye. She feels it in her body.
Waxing Crescent Moon – The priestess allows a little light in, with which to see the progress around her. Things are flourishing, blossoming. The Priestess detects a gathering of manifesting energies, working with her to aid her growth and progress, and the pursuit of her goals.
The light is faint, but the Priestess gathers strength and courage to see things through. She mustn’t give up before she has even started. Difficulties and challenges inevitably arise, but her fortitude comes from within her, but also from some ineffable power outside of her. Indeed, it comes through her from some greater place.
First Quarter Moon – She dances with the light that enters into her window. There is more work to be done. She is methodical, not too fast and not too slow. The Priestess knows that life is struggle, and the seedling must push through apparently impassable barriers to reach the light. She is embodying her own seedling nature, meeting the challenges as they come, as she is able. Every time this cycle comes around, she is stronger.
She might notice that there are some things she is needing to let go of in order to focus on what really matters. She may also see now that there are things in her way. The angular light can be harsh and illuminate issues that need to be addressed. The light is impartial; the priestess exercises the wisdom to make tough decisions. She wisely chooses where to allow the light to shine, revisits the vision of her purpose and gets back to work.
Waxing Gibbous Moon – Revisit and regroup. The Priestess has walked the road from darkness to light. She has almost reached the culmination of her current journey. She can see more and more every day what is happening right before her eyes. Her creations are taking shape. She must stay the course.
The Priestess looks around to see what life is teaching her on this stretch of the journey. She makes micro-adjustments and hones her craft. Her manifestations are bulging with possibility and potential now! She must stay in the flow of momentum, and even begin again if necessary. New ideas may come to her in this moment, seeds for another journey!
Full Moon – Fully unveiled, the Priestess is celebrating the full glory of all that is, of all that she has accomplished. She reaps her reward, gathering in the wisdom from all that has passed. She is dancing and singing without a care for who is watching. She celebrates it all, even the naysayers, even the challenges and traumas. She celebrates everything that has brought her to this very moment, taking note of all the emotions that are passing through her.
She also revels in delight at possibilities still awaiting their time of manifestation. Some dreams take longer than others to come to light.
The Priestess realizes too, that there are things that she must let go of. A project or journey finished can be exhilarating, but can also create angst and even grief. She learns to bless what is, and bless what isn't.
Disseminating Moon – The Priestess breathes out in gratitude. Her dancing slows, but her joy does not wane. She must begin to process and release it all, the good and the bad. It should have no bearing on how she enters the next cycle, but she takes her time. She begins her journey back to the stillness of the Dark Moon.
The Priestess learns that forgiveness is one aspect of letting go. She may need to forgive herself, or others, but wisely she finds that no one is untouched by pain. She recognizes anything toxic in herself, and flushes it away. Her soil must be ready soon to receive new seeds. Again, the priestess breathes out in gratitude.
Last Quarter Moon – The Priestess does not confuse joy for happiness. She is not always happy as life is not always pleasant. She doesn’t always put on the face everyone wants her to put on. Releasing pain is part of the process of growth. The Priestess knows that this releasing process is personal; the when and the how cannot be dictated by others. She has been here many times, and she knows you have too. She will not belittle the process nor patronize you. She holds space for her own healing and for yours.
The priestess accepts 'what is,' as she continues to retreat. She is used to carrying things she doesn't need, often not recognizing the weight, and it can be difficult to let go, but there is no use in taking baggage into the sanctity of her darkness. She uses the remaining light to navigate the crossroads of challenge and change.
Balsamic Moon – The Priestess prepares to enter the apex of the restorative and healing phase. She reflects on all that has passed and surrenders to the process. She has learned, through time, that there is a need for “not doing.” She is learning the art of “just being.” The Priestess is not afraid of expressed emotions and she moves through hers as necessary.
The Priestess bathes herself in self-love and self-care. She knows that she needs to enter the darkness wisely to make the most of it. Too much busywork, too much self-recrimination, too much blame - these are all things that make a nightmare of the darkness. This is a time to find peace before she completely lowers the veil.
New Moon - This is the alternative name for the Dark Moon, although some people consider the very first sliver the New Moon, thus giving the Moon nine phases instead of eight. Truthfully, the Moon is always moving and thus phases are simply our ways of marking time, not hers.
The Priestess again, lowers the veil and goes within, and the cycle begins anew.
Using the Phases in Tarot Readings
When the Priestess card comes up in a reading, it can be useful to consider the phases with regard to the card placement and assigned meaning. In a Past, Present, Future reading for example, the Priestess in the Present position allows for myriad gleanings of wisdom and it is recommended that the Tarot reader work with the querent to explore what the Priestess means to them, given the context of the other cards and the situation overall.
Seat of Wisdom Spread
I recommend using the Major Arcana for this spread, except for position 4. See below for details. Alternatively, use 2 decks and pull the Priestess and 8 pips from one deck, and then shuffle the other deck for all other positions.
O. Lay out the Priestess card from your favorite deck as the significator for the reading. This layout is inspired by the symbolism of the Rider Waite Smith Tarot's High Priestess card.
- The Heart of the Matter. What do I need to know about the root of my issue?
- What is my source of strength and where does it come from? (Boaz is biblical and means "He is my strength.")
- What will be established? What should I be grateful for, now and in advance? Where do I need to keep my focus? (Jachim is biblical and means "He will establish, but one source indicated a meaning of gratitude.)
- What is the current phase I am in with regard to this issue? What do I need to know about this phase? (Roll an 8 sided die, or draw from any 8 pip cards numbered 1 through 8. Disregard any symbolism on the card drawn, and refer to the phase, as described above, along with intuition, for meaning.
1 =Dark Moon, 2 = Waxing Crescent, 3 = 1st Quarter, 4 = Waxing Gibbous, 5 = Full Moon, 6 = Disseminating, 7 = Last Quarter, 8 = Balsamic.)
- My crown of wisdom? What can I learn from this situation? What do I already know? What am I failing to see?
- What lies beyond the veil? What else promises to be revealed to me, now or in time? (Watch over the next few days for anything that feels significant to the card in this position. How does it shed light on your situation?
WHEW! I think I went through all 8 phases just writing this post! But, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. How about you? I'd love to hear your thoughts, and if you try the spread, tell me how it went for you!
Runa Heilung is the founder of Old Soul Alchemy. She uses imagery and the imagination in meditative formats for healing, illumination, and transformation.