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Tarot Reflections

  February 1, 2003

Shadow Essay: The Hierophant
Sandra Thomson


Sandra Thomson's specialty within tarot is that of an author and teacher. She is the co-author of three books (The Lovers' Tarot, Spiritual Tarot, and The Heart of The Tarot), the author of Cloud Nine: A Dreamer's Dictionary, and the author of a forthcoming dictionary of tarot, Pictures from the Heart, published by St. Martin's Press.

She teaches tarot classes at the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) in Los Angeles, where she resides. Although she learned to read with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, she is very fond of the Ancestral Path and the Shining Tribe decks, and uses them for comparative or special readings. She reads online for the ATA reading networks, and privately.


Although in older decks, The Hierophant is sometimes called The Pope, or The High Priest, in the RWS deck, those ideas are rejected by Waite as leading people to assume or identify a very specific person. Certainly the most shallow aspect of the shadow side of The Hierophant are the recent sex scandals of the priesthood, but enough has been, and will be, said about that already that I need not dwell on that shadow aspect here: the betrayal of innocence by one who has been appointed a caretaker of the soul.

There's no speculation about the Robin Wood Hierophant, clearly described as a bishop in the Catholic Church.  He is almost a total expression of the shadow side of the Hierophant in that Wood says he represents repressive conformity, captivity, servitude, and empty ritual.  To show he is not life-affirming, Wood portrayed him with a sallow complexion.  She writes that no breath of fresh air can get through the solid wall of tradition and dogma (gray, block wall) behind him. 

The Halloween Hierophant echoes this feeling.  He is shown as a mummy and described as being as tightly bound by tradition as the wraps of the mummy.  He is the picture of dogma and inflexibility, says Karen Lee, the author of the book accompanying the deck.  But, wait. . .he is becoming unraveled.

The Hierophant is one aspect of the active male principle or father archetype.  The Emperor represents the worldly father.  The Hierophant represents the spiritual fathering aspect, and the religious process whereby we create a certain type of order so that we may cope with the unfathomable.  Finally, after having wrestled with spiritual chaos, The Emperor/Hierophant comes fully unraveled, gets it all together, and becomes The Hermit.  These three cards together show the sequential process that occurs toward developing the internal sacred.  When we ignore that developmental process or fail to listen to the messages of our "internal sacred" (higher self, or whatever word you use) that, too, is a shadow aspect of The Hierophant.

In the Wheel of Change card, followers honor a golden idol, symbolizing the commonality and conformity of our religious perspectives.  By our beliefs we create our reality.  Deck creator Alexandra Genetti, says the card calls upon us to examine and determine our religious perspectives for ourselves.  So, another shadow aspect of this card would be failure to do that, i.e., to maintain those beliefs shared with us (or taught) in childhood without ever questioning whether or not they are still right for us now, today in our lives.

A corollary to that is following them so fanatically that we are intolerant of others who believe differently.  Taken to its extreme, think Osama bin Laden and his followers.  He has become a figure on whom we can dump our collective shadow.  I do not mean to imply that he is not a person with wicked, bigoted, hostile intent, but only that we as a government and country can ignore much of what is shadow within by dumping it on bin Laden.

But, if you want to get in touch with another aspect of your own shadow, ask yourself where in your body does YOUR Osama bin Laden reside and how does it express itself—and don't let yourself off the hook by saying it doesn't.  I scared myself for a month or so when I wrestled with this aspect of my own shadow.  Wherein lies your insensitive bully?

The Hierophant in The Ancestral Path Tarot—I love this deck for its subtle complexities—is the Pythoness of the Delphic Oracle.  Here she is in trance, and represents the spiritual dimension of feminine intuition.  Behind her are the pillars of The High Priestess except that now their coloring makes the distinction between dualities more obvious. 

This card tells us two things about the shadow aspect of The Hierophant archetype.  First, failure to attend to, or acknowledge, that inner feminine intuition is alive and active, whether you are male or female, represents shadow work waiting to be done. 

Second, it touches on the key of shadow work: recognizing and holding the tension of opposites.  Many cards in the tarot deck refer to this theme, and, likely, you will tire of hearing me say it before we are through with this series.  Throw up your hands, but weary or not, our journey through the tarot involves becoming aware of what's operating within and choosing how we will express it rather than being dominated by it. 

The Ancestral Path priestess, in occupying the central position between the two columns of opposites, and listening to her inner intuition, has become the middle way between linked opposites.  She holds the tension of opposites.  The whole purpose of learning to wrestle with that tension is one of the basics of shadow work.  That opposite aspect that we are ignoring (and there are usually many) is a major component of our shadow aspect.  And it is not just as simple as wrestling with some rather well-known polarities, i.e., good vs. evil, create vs. destroy, attachment vs. separateness (although that is a biggie), masculine vs. feminine, integrity vs. immorality. 

Jungian analysts tell us that there are four ways we interact with, and comprehend, the world: sensing, intuiting, thinking, and feeling (each of which is, of course, associated with one of the Minor Arcana suits).  Theoretically, one of these four is more conscious than the others, and a second, known as the "inferior" function, is repressed.  Most of us expend a great deal of energy resisting the recognition and use of our "hidden" function.  This is part of shadow work as well.  

 We talk about the "mysteries" of the Golden Dawn that Waite, Crowley, and others may have hidden in their illustrations.  Yet, I continue to be amazed at how knowledgeable—and sometimes subtle—are contemporary deck creators.  This is part of the mystery tradition of the tarot, and I am happy to see that it continues with contemporary designers albeit with different messages in light of psychological ideas developed after Waite and Crowley.  



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