5. The Hierophant: Those who came before us

It is likely that learning Tarot is the first time you’ve heard the word ‘hierophant’. What even is that? My spellchecker doesn’t even think it’s a word. According to Wikipedia, hierophant is a word from Ancient Greece meaning a kind of chief priest or religious leader. It is most associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, so when I say priest, it’s not originally in a Christian context. However in many Tarot decks, this card is named The Pope, so there is no one religion to tie him to.

Guala Tarocco Piemontese

So far, the impression we get of The Hierophant is that he’s maybe a little stuffy, and certainly traditional. But he is also a wise teacher. Let’s look at the cards:

Middle: Rider-Waite-Smith, Top left: Sasuraibito, Top right: Star Spinner, Bottom left: This Might Hurt, Bottom right: Modern Witch. 

In many of these depictions, he has his right hand raised and the position of his finger reminds us of The Magician: As above, so below. He’s also holding a papal cross, showing his authority as a religious leader. You might also notice in some of these images he has a pair of crossed keys. These are the keys to the gate of heaven. It’s a lot of arcane imagery. What stands out to me, is that he seems to be mediating between two people in front of him. He’s teaching them, or helping to resolve a dispute maybe. He is clearly well respected, and it makes me think of the people in our lives who are maybe older, maybe not with us anymore, people who taught us when we needed guidance.

Remember, we’re on the Fool’s Journey. we’ve seen the Fool realise his potential as the Magician, introspect as The High Priestess, be nurtured by The Empress, and establish boundaries with The Emperor. He can’t learn everything on his own, and he needs a teacher to guide him for a while before he sets off to discover who he really is.

Many of us have had negative experiences with authority, whether a cruel teacher, or being shunned by a religious congregation. But let’s abstract this meaning out to be ‘those who have come before us’.

If you’re part of the LGBT+ movement, look to the wisdom of those who rioted at Stonewall. If you’re a woman, look to the endurance of the Suffragettes. Maybe you have a grandparent who taught you how to bake a cake, or a teacher who introduced you to a new book. What can you learn from those who came before you? Listen to your ancestors, whether biological or not.

If they’re still around, The Hierophant tells you to talk to them, to ask them questions. If they have since passed, find remnants of who they were and what they had to tell the world. Books, letters, belongings. Maybe you can look into geneology, or learn about the history of the area you live in, or were born in. If you were born somewhere your bio ancestors did not come from, also look into their lives, if you can find out. Again, it doesn’t have to be about biology, but anything you feel a connection to.

I learned about a beautiful word today: hiraeth. It is a Welsh word, and has no English translation. It means a combination of yearning, homesickness, and longing for a time in the past. It’s a nostalgic grief for somewhere you can’t return to. Maybe the people who made that place home are gone. Maybe it only exists in your memories. If you pull The Hierophant, let him help you to unlock those places by reminding you to connect to the past, in any way you can. And use that wisdom to guide you forward.

Who are your ancestors? What did they think, and what can you learn from them?

My personal connection to this card is that it is one of my birth cards. Birth cards are quite fun, as everyone has two and they can give you some guidance at any time in your life. All you have to do is add up the numbers in your birthday. As an example, say you were born on the 13th November 1991. 13 + 11 + 19 + 91 = 134. Then you would do 1 + 3 + 4 which equals 8. The 8th card is Strength. To find your other birth card, you just expand 8 out into 1 and 7 so your second card would be 17, The Star.

If one of my birth cards is number 5, The Hierophant, my other one is 14, Temperance. Strength, Temperance, and The Star are all wonderful cards that I will be covering soon, so feel free to subscribe using the sidebar on the right if you’d like to follow me on the Fool’s Journey. Next time, we’ll be learning all about The Lovers.

3. The Empress: Mother Earth

NSFW warning: female nudity in this post.

On August 7th 1908, a workman found this figurine while excavating a Paleolithic site near the village of Willendorf in Austria:

Venus of Willendorf, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

The figurine was about 11cm tall, carved from limestone, and coloured with red ochre. The limestone wasn’t from the same area that the figurine was discovered. It was named the Venus of Willendorf, but it was carved much, much longer ago than the Goddess Venus, or Aphrodite was worshipped. It is estimated to have been carved more than 30,000 years ago, sometime between 30,000 and 22,000 BCE.

It is thought that the Venus of Willendorf could have been carved to represent fertility, as it has somewhat exaggerated sexual characteristics. But a more interesting idea is that perhaps the artist was a Paleolithic woman carving a representation of herself. In the journal article Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines by
LeRoy McDermott, we see an interesting comparison of what the Venus figurine looks like from above, compared to what a pregnant person might see when they look down at their own body:

venus and pregnant woman
Top: 6 months pregnant woman, bottom: Venus of Willendorf from above. Current Anthropology
Vol. 37, No. 2, page 240

This idea of self-representation allows us to wonder if rather than being simply an object for reproduction, perhaps the paleolithic woman had the agency to simply be curious about her own body, and create something artistic from it.

Another figurative carving whose original meaning is largely unknown is the Sheela na gig. They depict a woman displaying her genitals in an almost mocking way:

12th century sheela na gig, Herefordshire, England

She doesn’t have any visible breasts, so perhaps it is not an erotic carving. There are many theories of why these sculptures exist, from representing a Pagan Goddess, to a protection against evil, or maybe a warning against lust. If you are interested, you can find Sheela na gigs on churches and cathedrals across Europe, especially Ireland and the UK.

What can we learn from The Empress?

Upper left: Sasuraibito, Upper right: Star Spinner, Middle: Rider-Waite-Smith, Lower left: This Might Hurt, Lower right: Modern Witch

When thinking about what The Empress means, I like the idea that she has this agency and freedom to be proud of her own body. In a world where many people are taught to be ashamed or embarrassed about their bodies, The Empress reminds us to nurture ourselves, the way a mother might. Not everyone has a mother like this, but that’s okay. In season 2, episode 3 of Root Lock radio, Weston introduces us to a form of Psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems. Put simply, it is a method of taking all those parts of yourself that you hear inside your head, and making sure that they are giving you helpful messages, rather than criticising you. It can help you to heal from trauma, and be more in tune with your own self.

How might an inner mother, or nurturer look? You don’t have to identify as female to have this inner nurturing figure. Looking at the depictions of the Empress above, we see she has a dress of pomegranates. We saw that with The High Priestess, and it can represent fertility. But fertility doesn’t just have to mean having babies. Not everyone can, or wants to reproduce, and that is valid. Fertility can also be of the mind, of the imagination. You can produce art, or books, or grow herbs. Any idea or opinion you have is you producing something.

The Empress is a very earthy and grounded character, and I sometimes see her as Mother Earth. She is usually depicted with wheat growing around her, which evokes thoughts of the Greek Goddess Demeter. She rules the harvest and agriculture. The Empress has a crown with 12 stars, each representing a month of the year. In this way, she can represent cycles: the seasons, the year, life and death and rebirth. Many people resent these cycles, as they grow older, as they lose loved ones. How can you honour these cycles in your life? Remember that death makes the ground fertile so that life can arise again.

I think possibly the first thing you notice when you see The Empress though, is the female symbol in a heart-shaped rock. That’s the symbol of Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the Goddess of Love. The Goddess that the Venus of Willendorf is named for. And I think most of all, The Empress tells us to love ourselves, our friends and family, and the world around us, the way that she, as Mother Earth loves and nurtures the whole planet. So when you pull this card, fill your day with compassion for yourself and others, and let that inner mother take care of you.

What is your inner Empress like? Is she free and proud like the Sheela na gig, or more grounded and earthy?

Rose Quartz