Monday, May 24, 2010

The High Priestess

THE HIGH PRIESTESS: going back in time

In considering the role of the High Priestess in Tarot—let’s go back to basics—back in time to an age when a High Priestess performed sacred rituals in the temples of early religions. Her most popular appearance today is based on what scholars have uncovered in papyri and tomb painting of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom. We can see her on the walls of the tomb of Nefretari at Thebes. And we know she performed rituals in Greek and Roman temples such as Athena’s temple in Athens. Myths telling her story written in cuneiform have been found in even earlier cultures from Uruk, Mesopotamia (Iraq). Throughout history there has always been a temple or shrine of some sort for the worship of gods and goddesses, God, or other invisible supernatural beings, and there were priests and priestesses acting as intercessors between the people and the gods.

Egyptian priestesses led rituals of chanting, singing and dancing in reverence of the local god, where they presented libations, food and ritual objects. In most early cultures, these forms of religious practices existed from ancient Egypt to the Asian continent. Magical incantations and rituals invoked the gods’ best intentions toward the people. The role of a priestess was to beseech the gods for fertile land, abundant crops, healings, and banishment of evil beings. At Thebes, the High Priestess of Amun performed sacred rites for the goddess Hathor. After the 23rd Dynasty, her rituals were centered on reverence for Isis. Here, she was considered a celibate, “the god’s wife” of Amun.

In Asian folk religions, such as Korea, a female Shaman dressed in colorful clothing, performed elaborate rituals to dispel evil forces and bring peaceful blessings upon the kingdom from heavenly gods. While interacting with the common people, the Shamaness interpreted dreams, cast fortunes, and provided worshipful seekers with magical spells and charms.

So what about the Tarot? Why is the High Priestess there? In Sylvia Brinton Perera’s book “Descent to the Goddess” (Inner City Books, 1981), she discusses the myth of the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna and her Priestess Ninshuber, who assisted Inanna in her descent to the underworld. Ninshuber waited at the gates to the underworld while Inanna went to meet her sister Ereshkigal (Queen of the underworld, death). However when she arrived she was killed and hung on a hook. Later Ninshuber sees that she is rescued and resuscitated. Ms. Perera relates this story to the process that occurs in psychotherapy or self-analysis. The role of High Priestess in Tarot is similar. She acts as a guide in the process of initiation into the mysteries of life as one proceeds through the other Tarot cards. She symbolizes someone who assists in dealing with both the positive and negative aspects of an inner life, comparable to a therapist.

In contemplating the High Priestess card, there are times when we may be prompted to think about dealing with our “dark side.” By pointing the way to an inner universal spiritual language of feeling and intuition, she sends us a “wake-up call” through the symbols and metaphors that are continued in the rest of the cards. A place is stirred in our hearts where we can tap into buried images and memories associated with the complexities of our lives. When the High Priestess card comes up in a reading, it is an invitation to go through the portal of one’s inner recesses into a realm of other-worldly associations and dream-like images. Based on what we learn there, we can build on these perceptions and recreate ourselves through ritual, art, music, writing and dancing—a form of remembering that helps us find meaning in our lives.