The Real Hierophant, that it Seems Relatively Few Know Of
by Race MoChridhe
I find the reputations of Tarot cards fascinating. Just as with the symbols of religions and mythologies, simplifications of meaning are commonly being used as expedient tools for teaching students easily overwhelmed by a surfeit of detail. Which is a valid approach, until those simplifications overwhelm the original symbol and reduce it to a parody of itself. Looking at which simplifications take on such lives of their own reveals a great deal about the society we live in.
One such victimized card is the Hierophant, whose cropping to the boundaries of societal expectation about what “church” and “religious institutions” mean goes too frequently uncorrected for the simple reason that nobody knows what a “hierophant” is, and far too many think they know what a “pope” is, in decks that so name their fifth trump. The Hierophant, associated with structure, tradition, and societal expectations and institutions, has thus developed an unfortunately stodgy image, not unlike the story of the little girl who, when asked who Jesus was, responded that he was a man who scoured the earth looking for people having fun and made them stop.
In a culture enamored of free spirits, rebels, and renegades, the Hierophant often comes off as the person over thirty you should no longer trust. When he is brought into association with another card, it is often to pair him with the cold and inaccessible High Priestess (first paragraph via link) or to oppose him to the following card, The Lovers, with its emphasis on personal values.
This opposition, or perception of opposition, tells us much more about ourselves as 21st century people than it tells us about the medieval figure on the card. The term “hierophant” comes from ancient Greek, meaning literally “one who shows the holy.” The title belonged most famously to the chief priest at the Eleusinian Mysteries, but was used anywhere someone held the sacred function of bringing congregants or initiates into the presence of the Divine. Frequently enough, as at Eleusis, that presence was in some way connected with fertility. Some decks call this card the Pope—a figure whose full Latin title, pontifex maximus, means “the most great bridge-maker”, linking the world of the sacred with mundane reality, but whose common title of Pope (Italian Papa) means “father”.
We are so used to desexualizing this term in religious contexts, applying it most frequently to celibate priests, that we often forget its wider range of connotations. Far from a masculine counterpart to the chaste High Priestess, was have here a figure much closer to the Emperor, with whom he shares this fatherhood association, and the Empress, who is the model of the goddess of fertility represented by Demeter in the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the order of the cards, the Hierophant stands directly after these, and directly before The Lovers, as the one who brings them into the sacred presence of each other—the preparer of the marriage bed. Is this not, in fact, what the Pope does in Christian parlance, where the Church is “the bride of Christ” being perpetually prepared for the Bridegroom?
The Hierophant speaks to us, certainly, of order, tradition, and institution, but not as some external counterpoint to a romanticized notion of “natural” spontaneity and instinct. Rather, he reminds us that, within human nature, the one is never found without the other. Half a world away from the preparation of Christ’s bride we find a startlingly similar image, of the shepherdess Radha being sumptuously prepared for her tryst with the God Krishna by her friends and handmaidens. For all that Radha and Krishna’s love is one of intensity, passion, and transgression, it is also one supported by careful planning and preparation, by strategy in setting and adornment, by art as well as by impulse. To this day, Hindu devotees in sects pledged to Krishna are often urged (men as well as women) to see themselves as the handmaidens of Radha, preparing the meeting of God with His beloved.
An insightful philosopher once observed that the experience of orgasm takes its significance in human life from the fact that it is neither wholly a voluntary act nor wholly an involuntary one. If it were merely a spontaneous response of the body to stimuli, like the reflex of a struck knee, there would be nothing of our heart and mind in it, and so it would reveal nothing of our inner life. Yet if it were wholly something within our conscious control, like the words we speak, it would also tell us nothing, for then it could lie. It is because of its liminal status, as something within and beyond our control, that it cuts to the core of what lies deepest in our souls.
The Apollinian Emperor is a creature of reason and intent who, left to his own devices, would sit immobile upon his block, like Manannán mac Lir set in stone. The Dionysian Empress is less a being than a becoming, impossible to fix in form or to direct in the service even of her own will. It is the Hierophant that prepares their meeting, through the medium of his traditions and his structures, that the one might be led and the other contained until they come together as the Lovers, united within and beyond themselves, neither restricted nor formless, but free—which requires a measure of both.
The Hierophant is not the old priest who scowls at your flirtations with a fellow congregant, but the old priest who conducts your wedding in full and approving cognizance of the wedding night, transforming that impulsive attraction into something much deeper, and much more revealing of your truest desires. He is not the Scottish kirk warden who has you punished for dancing freely, but the village elder who sets your steps into a pattern that dances with your ancestors of a thousand years, and your descendents of a thousand more to come. Like the art teacher who disciplines you to rules that he waits anxiously to see you break, he is the one who reminds you that your unformed instinct is as false as your blind obedience, and that your true self can grow only where air meets earth.
The Hierophant is a liberator, and if we have trouble seeing him thus, it is only because we have confused license with liberty. And that is when we need him most.
Thoth image copyright (c) US Games Systems Inc.; AGMuller; O.T.O.