Don’t confuse the teacher with the lesson, the ritual with the ecstasy, the transmitter of the symbol with the symbol itself.
Welcome to Part Two of our exploration of 2021 as the Tarot Year of the Hierophant. For details of how I arrived at this, plus some introductory remarks, please be sure to read Part One.
One of the most noticeable features of The Hierophant is his crown. In their book The Secret Language of the Tarot (a must-have, in my opinion, for every serious Tarot person), Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone note that this papal tiara consists of three gold diadems, “signifying divinely sanctioned rule over three kingdoms…” and which may also be a reference to the three initiatory degrees of Masonry.
His three-tiered cross is similarly symbolic.
Certainly, there is much in this card that points to initiatory practices. He sits between two columns that are similar to those of the High Priestess, the columns from the Temple of Solomon named Boaz and Jachin.
The Amberstones point out, however, that the carvings on his columns indicate they are connected to Osiris, the Egyptian God whose own death and rebirth embody the process of initiation itself. Especially since He was restored to life by the Goddess, Isis, whose crown the High Priestess wears.
In many esoteric and spiritual traditions, the initiatory ceremony challenges the seeker to some kind of ego death, after which, having proven a satisfactory degree of rigor and discipline according to some prescribed manner, they are given a transmission of knowledge and insight that will elevate them to a new level of consciousness, even enlightenment.
In other words, through initiation, some form of spiritual and life mastery is promised, and one is given the status of adept. Thus, The Hierophant sits between the two columns at the entryway to the Holy of Holies, challenging and blessing the seeker.
At his feet, there are two tonsured priests kneeling, one wearing the roses of passion, devotion, and the heart. The other is cloaked in the white lilies of sacrifice, intellect, and purity. These are the same flower symbols we see in The Magician, which, to me, illuminate both the connection and contrast between Magician as shaman, and Hierophant as priest.
Shamans and Priests
In the The Power of Myth, an extraordinary series in which journalist Bill Moyers interviewed the famed comparative mythographer, the late Joseph Campbell, Campbell discussed at length the contrast between the shaman and the priest.
Campbell explained, “The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him; while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own.”
But Belden C. Lane, professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University, notes, “Joseph Campbell was uneasy with theology because of its penchant for codes and creeds and its abandonment of poetic language. He cited Jung’s warning that religion can easily become a defense against the experience of God.”
Lane explains, “Raised a Roman Catholic and continually drawn to the image world of medieval Christianity as symbolized in the cathedral of Chartres, Campbell recognized the force of Christian myth. Yet he also harshly criticized Western theology and carefully distanced himself from the church.
“He saw in Christianity a deep distrust of nature and creation, an overemphasis on fall and redemption, and particularly a tendency to be bound within a cultural prison. Christian theology, in his view, needs the intensive and universalizing influences of mythology.”
Birth, Death, and Transformation by Proxy
The huge upsurge of popularity in shamanic studies is driven, in part, by people who would rather bypass the “middle man” (and occasional woman) of traditional religion. Instead, we are hungry for the visceral, intimate encounters with Mystery that shamanism and other ancient belief systems offer.
Direct contact with The One(s) is hard to come by in the mainstream religions. In fact it is forbidden in some of them. Yet with such adventures come tremendous commitment, responsibility, and sometimes difficulties that are not always easy to resolve.
Writing of The Hierophant, Tarot legend Rachel Pollack notes, “We may chafe at the idea of an institutional system serving us our mystical knowledge second-hand. But these institutions were created with good intentions and our permission. The truth is, most people believe they have neither the time, nor the inclination to personally undergo the sometimes terrifying, often life-shattering encounters with Mystery.”
As the face of conventional religious doctrine, The Hierophant offers us access to the Mysteries in forms that we can absorb and use. After all, that is why spiritual epiphanies and revelations tend to condense over time into handed-down customs, stories, and viewpoints.
Thus, he makes available spiritual awakening through prescribed, time-tested methods, rather than through the isolation, rigors, and risks of a personal shamanic initiation. And he endures because what he offers works.
But can our free-wheeling culture accept and live by creeds handed down by long-dead teachers and guides? Tradition is a word that chafes for many. We moderns may equate tradition with the stodgy, the outdated, or stiff-necked rigidity.
And it is also true that in this Pluto in Capricorn time, our established religious institutions are undergoing scrutiny never dared before. In some cases, their practices and principles are grotesquely outmoded and deserve to be permanently sent to the Underworld.
However, such matters represent The Hierophant in his reversed, or shadow aspect, not his upright form.
At his best, The Hierophant is the person who is the priest, priestess, counselor, and/or arbiter who both leads and serves the common good. He holds the keys of initiation, he is the channel for truth. He represents those whose knowledge we can trust for guidance, and he carries forward the laws, myths, and faith of our ancestors.
After all, how strong are make-it-up-as-you-go-along belief systems invented on the fly, when life tests us hard? Like in an unimaginably tragic pandemic, or the many other unpredictable dangers we must navigate, as the dinosaurs of the unraveling status quo come angrily crashing down around us.
Author Caitlín Matthews warns, “There are those who have little or no purchase on any tradition. Rather than finding the tree of tradition, they cling to the wind-blown twigs and leaves of the –isms, -ologies, and self-help theories, the very tattered remnants of tradition that bear little relationship to the tree on which they once grew.”
A Bridge Over Troubled Waters
The Hierophant offers the reinforcement of group experiences and understands our deep soul need for belonging, which can lure us into brutal, cultish situations, or bring out our most shining spirits of co-creation and collaboration.
The fully evolved and benevolent Hierophant supports, preserves, and interprets the lessons of humanity across time. He shapes this knowledge into ceremonies, patterns and systems of behavior that serve the greater good.
Above all, he understands that he is a humble servant. He transmits the laws of the Divine, as he has been taught, in order to benefit others, and does so impartially, without prejudice.
Caitlín illuminates this powerful guidance further:
The Hierophant is one who shows forth what is holy. He is primarily associated with the flow and transmission of tradition, a concept that troubles a few in our free-thinking times. Let’s remember that ‘tradition’ derives from the Latin traditio or ‘I hand over.’ Tradition is not fixed, but is an ever-flowing wisdom in every generation.
The ancient Tarots make this card a Pope, while the more recent ones return to an older tradition of the hierophants of the Greek Mysteries. Both Pope and Hierophant draw upon earlier traditions and represent important concepts. Drawing upon pre-Christian Roman religion, the Pope is called the pontiff or bridge who, in his own person, bridges this world and the other.
(Quoted with her kind permission).
Thus, as we undergo this turning of the era and its many profound changes, The Hierophant acts as a guide and a bridge to a new way of relating to our culture, and to one another.
When Norms and Traditions Are Burned Down
This year, we are challenged to make peace with The Hierophant, and bring ourselves into a healthy, respectful balance with him. We must not elevate him to a position of spiritual tyranny, or sacrifice our own volition to him. But we imperil ourselves when we stubbornly turn away from his wisdom, just because it is old, or different, or not from our direct experience.
We have seen, to our sorrow, how destructive it can be when social courtesies, traditions, and norms are destroyed. Rules and laws must evolve and they benefit from our scrutiny and review. But they must not be dismissed out of hand, for they are the guardrails of civilization, and shape our culture in deep, important ways.
The formality of rituals, groups, traditions, and institutions are important and natural to humans. Choose wisely when to give your trust to the guru, expert, or spiritual leader, and when to follow your solitary path, finding your own way.
Tomorrow, I’ll add some thoughts about how The Hierophant may be a personal ally for you in the days to come.
Need to catch up? Here’s Part One:
Welcoming 2021: The Year of the Hierophant, Part 1