The Hierophant is a strange name for this card. It’s a term from ancient Greece for a priest of the Mystery cults. But the figure here doesn’t look like he’s from ancient Greece.
Some decks call this card the Pope. And, yes, this man has all the trappings of that office: the papal crown, the triple cross and the Keys of Heaven. Those are the crossed keys at the bottom that represent Jesus’s words to Peter in Matthew 16:19—and further represent each pope as Peter’s successor, cementing their legitimacy.
The pope’s hand is raised in blessing, with two fingers pointing up and two fingers pointing down—a blessing that seeks to mediate between heaven and earth or perhaps even to unite them. He’s seated between two pillars, with two worshipers before him: one with red roses embroidered on his robe, the other with white lilies embroidered on his.
Red roses and white lilies are a recurring theme in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. (We’ve seen them in another Major Arcana card: The Magician.)
The two pillars, plus the red roses and the white lilies, are arguably Hermetic touches—drawn, possibly, from Kabbalistic or alchemical sources. But even so, this is a card of traditional, public religion.
That’s why naming this card the Hierophant feels inappropriate to me. This is not the card of mysteries known only to initiates, or the card of mystics or spiritual seekers who find or forge their own path—that spot is filled by the High Priestess, which serves as a companion card to this one. This is, instead, the card of institutional religion, with all the mixed blessings that suggests.
On the positive side, an institutional religion can provide spiritual sustenance, foster community and encourage charitable giving. On the negative side, an institutional religion—especially one with political power—can be a source of oppression and even persecution. And the papacy, back in the day, had religious, political and military might. A terrifying and sometimes deadly combination for anyone who wasn’t in the Church’s good graces.
So how to use this card in stories? If the Hierophant is inspiring your Muse, the dominant religion of your story-world is likely to play a prominent part. Is your character a devoted member of that religion? Is it a place of refuge for him? Maybe he finds it suffocating instead.
Or he might be standing on the outside, as part of some minority. How much power does the dominant religion have? Enough to persecute your character or those he loves?
What role does religion play for your characters in general? My contemporary stories tend to feature either Jews or Catholics. Some of these characters are religiously observant, some aren’t—but, either way, their Judaism or Catholicism tends to influence them. Is your character at peace with the religion of her birth? Is she conflicted about it? Is she rebelling against it? Or has she lapsed so far that she’s indifferent to it?
How do you feel about the Hierophant? Do you have a different interpretation of this card? Do you see yourself drawing from it for a current or future story? If it inspires a meta of your own, please leave a link!
Next week’s Tarot Tuesday won’t feature a specific card. Thanks to a comment from Quintessential Editor, I’m going to list some books that I’ve found helpful in studying the Tarot instead. Hope you enjoy!