The Secret Commonwealth. If you have read Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust series, you might recognise that name. To see where Pullman got his inspiration from, we will have to go back in time to over 300 years ago.
In 1691, minister of Aberfoyle, Rev. Robert Kirk wrote of a land of fairies, or sith (pronounced shee) in his book The Secret Commonwealth. Rev Kirk believed he had met mythological creatures such as elves and fairies, and there’s no better place for such meetings as Scotland, where the veil between our world and the ‘other world’ is thin. Whether this other world is heaven, the underworld, or the land of the fairies, it is thought to be mysterious and you only tend to stumble upon it by accident.
One of the most famous Thin Places is the Isle of Iona. Before it was known for Columba’s arrival in the year 563, some theorise that this island was named Innis nan Druidhneach, which means Isle of the Druids. Druids were pre-christian priests, philosophers, lawmakers, and teachers. There isn’t much known about them, since there was a concerted effort by early Christians to wipe indigenous religion out, but there is no doubt that the idea of a veil between worlds has been a potent one for potentially thousands of years. The previous leader of the modern-day Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, Philip Carr-Gomm has in fact written about the Isle as a sacred location. The Celts thought that the veil was thinnest at Samhainn (pronounced saw-in), a Gaelic festival day beginning at sunset on the 31st October until sunset on the 1st of November.
So what does The High Priestess have to do with Thin Places? Let’s have a look at her depiction in a few different decks:
In most of these depictions, you can see a pomegranate patterned veil behind The High Priestess. She is the guardian of the veil between our world and some other world. I see The High Priestess as telling us that there is always more to a situation, always more to learn. She is holding some kind of scroll but we can’t see what is written on it.
Along with the two opposite-coloured pillars next to the High Priestess, the veil teaches us an interesting lesson. There is more than one side to a story. The High Priestess is asking us to understand that there is nuance in every situation. The veil is the gap between what you know, and reality.
Learn the difference between your own feelings, and how others may perceive the same situation. You can’t have all the answers, and being humble and accepting that is a step towards better communication. Using this method can help you to step beyond the veil, and learn a different perspective. Be receptive to new knowledge even if it doesn’t immediately align with what you think.
In a way, The High Priestess is like The Magician, but she is focused inwards, rather than outwards. She deals with what we think and feel, rather than what we do. If you pull this card, take a moment to step back and see if there is anything you’ve missed, something you have misunderstood. Although some people focus on the gender duality between The Magician and The High Priestess, or The Empress and The Emperor, others do not see that as useful, as there are aspects of femininity and masculinity in all people, regardless of gender.
I thought it would be fun to mention some of the mythological characters that The High Priestess is associated with, as her card has some rich imagery that evokes legends you may have heard of.
Persephone: There is a myth that the Goddess of the springtime, flowers, and vegetation, also became the Goddess of the Underworld when she was kidnapped by Hades. Hades tricked her into eating some pomegranate seeds from his realm and so Persephone became bound to the Underworld for a third of the year. It is said that because she is gone from the world above during the winter, that is why we don’t have vegetation and flowers during those months.
Pope Joan: The High Priestess card used to be known as The Popess, and there is a legend that during the Middle Ages, a woman managed to become Pope by pretending to be a man. The ruse was unfortunately up when she inconveniently gave birth during a procession.
Isis/Hathor: The High Priestess’ headdress resembles that of Hathor, and Isis’ role helping the dead enter the afterlife is somewhat similar to the story of Persephone. Both of these Goddesses are also seen as a manifestation of the divine feminine.
Artemis: The moon evokes thoughts of Artemis, Greek Goddess of the hunt, the moon, and protector of girls. She famously turned Actaeon, a hunter, into a stag when he was caught peeping on her while she was bathing. As he ran away, his dogs chased him and tore him to pieces.