The Hierophant in the Tarot: unpleasant or not?

Tarotkaarten V De Hierofant uit de volgende decks: Oswald Wirth, Aleister Crowley, Rider-Waite-Smit en Tavaglione

“Do not expect to hear the truth from others, nor to see it, or read it in books. Look for the truth in yourself, not without yourself”

Pyotr Demyanovich Ouspensky

At the start of the “Tarot & Jung” course, I always let students perform an exercise in which they choose one or more tarot cards that they find ‘annoying’, ‘difficult’, or simply ‘unpleasant’. Although this might be different for each individual, the High Priest is invariably in the top 3 of unpleasant cards (it often ends up with IV The Emperor and XII Death). If you’ll take on a Jungian approach, the explanation could be that this antipathy is not our own, but our ancestors’. The unpleasant image has ended up in the collective unconscious and that is why we generally might perceive this image in a negative way.

Death, of course, leads us all the way back to prehistoric times where the primal man & women developed an instinctive feeling that this should be something to avoid because it is ‘dangerous’. The Devil and the High Priest are cards that we generally feel to be unpleasant because of 2000 years of church history that is behind us; We have been collectively made afraid of the Devil while the High Priest reminds us of the (Christian) clergy that obtained much power and wanted to make us walk in line by preaching about hell and damnation. Dogmas, abuse, mistreatment, punishment, inquisition… in the western hemisphere we all carry this in the ‘unconscious’ compartiment of our luggage. The treatment that many of our ancestors received – especially women – is not pretty! At the very least, they are severely restricted in their freedom and development.

Tarot card V The Hierophant is often associated with dogma, the imposition of (religious) ideas, obligation to conform to the norms and values of a group, oppression and intolerance. In the ‘modern’ tarot literature, the card is often linked on a mundane level to keywords such as ‘Communication’, ‘Learning’, and ‘teaching’. When I just started learning about the Tarot, I was not sure how to intepret the Hierophant when it popped up in a spread, and I also thought of the Hierophant as ‘annoying’, ‘difficult’ and unpleasant. I therefore created my own theory about the Hierophant pretty early in my studies;

I imagined that this card was intended to encourage you to take a critical look at your norms, values and religious or spiritual ideas: Are these really yours? Do you still believe in what you have inherited from your upbrining? Are the teachers and mentors in your life still relevant? The question I asked when the card popped up was: “What is sacred to YOU?”. Later I learned that there have already been many who have interpreted the Hierophant in this way. And so I thought it would be nice to share some examples of interpretations that I have found along the way.

Arthur Edward Waite

I will start with Waite, as the association with dogma and religion as an institution might derive from our collective unconscious, but also a bit from Waite. He explicitly states that the Hierophant in the Tarot has nothing to do with philosophy, intuition or inspiration. According to Waite, the Hierophant is also is not ‘religion’, but he does stand for the way religion is expressed in the outside world.

“He is the ruling power of external religion, as the Hight Priestess is the prevailing genius of the esoteric, withdrawn power… He is not, as it has been thought, philosophy – except on the theological side; he is not inspiration; and he is not religion, although he is a mode of its expression….Grand Orient says truly that the Hierophant is the power of the keys, exoteric orthodox doctrine, and the outer side of the life which leads to the doctrine; but he is certainly not the prince of occult doctrine, as another commentator suggested”

Waite in “Pictorial Key to the Tarot” (1911)

In the books he has published for ‘the public audience’ Waite never elaborated much on the basis on which his theses were formed. It is also known that he was never able to completely detach himself from the Christian ideas with which he was raised. In Defense of Waite, I must mention that in his correspondence with ‘initiates’ (such as members of the Golden Dawn or colleagues from other ‘secret’ societies) he substantiated his interpretations more strongly. He did have great deal of knowledge of almost every esoteric pillar of the Tarot. Nevertheless, many writers, tarotists and occultists disagree with Waite on the interpretation of the Hierophant…

P.D. Ouspensky

Personally, I think the book “The Symbolism of the Tarot” by Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky (1878 – 1947) is one of the most beautiful works on Tarot. See here what Oespensky wrote about the Hierophant:

I saw the great Master in the Temple. He was siting on a golden throne set upon a purple platform, and he wore the robe of a high priest with a golden tiara. He held a golden eight-pointed cross, and lying at his feet were two crossed keys. Two initiates bowed before him and to them he spoke:–

“Seek the Path, do not seek attainment, Seek for the Path within yourself.

“Do not expect to hear the truth from others, nor to see it, or read it in books. Look for the truth in yourself, not without yourself.

“Aspire only after the impossible and inaccessible. Expect only that which shall not be.

“Do not hope for Me,–do not look for Me,–do not believe–that I am outside yourself.

“Within your soul build a lefty tower by which you may ascend to Heaven. Do not believe in external miracles, expect miracles only within you. Beware of believing in a mystery of the earth, in a mystery guarded by men; for treasuries which must be guarded are empty. Do not search for a mystery that can be hidden by men. Seek the Mystery within yourself.

“Above all, avoid those towers built in order to preserve the mysteries and to make an ascent to Heaven by stone stairways. And remember that as soon as men build such a tower they begin to dispute about the summit.

“The Path is in yourself, and Truth is in yourself and Mystery is in yourself.”


Marcel Forget – known as Marcel Belline – published his Grand Tarot de Belline in 1966. It is said that he had discovered the prototype tarot cards that had been designed by Mage Edmond more than 100 years earlier. This is one of my favorite decks because it looks like all kind of notes and clues have been scribbled on the cards (actually, my copy of the deck holds scribbles from the previous owner that I did not notice when I purchased it)

Tarot Card The Hierphant from the Grand Tarot de Belline

Belline has named the Hierophant “the Master of the Arcana”. The most important keyword is ‘Inspiration‘; Other keywords are voyage (journey), Paresse (which literally means ‘laziness’ but here should be seen more in the context of ‘not acting‘), Philosophy and Repos (answer). The text at the bottom of the card reads:

Your future is under the influence of a good or a bad genius. Retreat in silence and solitude ; an inner voice will speak to you: let your conscience answer.”

At the very bottom is the word ‘Terre’ (earth) is written upside down. The previous owner of this Tarot deck scribbled ‘lower instincts’ on the bottom of the card,  but I do not think this to be accurate.

Earth is the element of the astrological sign Taurus. Taurus is attributed to the Hierophant by most Tarotists. Taurus is assigned to the the neck, which connects the head to the body.  The Hierophant symbolizes the connection between the earthly, material and the higher, intellectual & spiritual. This Tarotcard is not so much about speaking, but about listening. Listening to an inner voice, also known as intuition.

Paul Foster Case

Paul Foster Case (1884-1954) also assigns ‘intuition’ to the Hierophant:

“Psychologically, the Hierophant represents Intuition, which follows reasoning, and adds to it. Intuition is subconcious response to reason, whereby, through laws of association at work below the concious level, throught-relations which go beyond the results attained by reason are attained. Usually these are perceived by interior hearing. Intuition, it should be noted means literally inner-tuition”

Many people attribute intuition to Tarotcard II the High Priestess, but this is not completely correct; As it is demonstrated by – amongst others Papus – it could be regarded in a way that  “powers” of the High Priestess (including one of them being memory) are supplemented by the Hierophant and that the union of the two provides the ability to be able to hear the inner voice. The connection (between mind and body, conscious and unconscious) is also addressed By Paul Foster Case. He assigns the Hebrew letter VaV (WaW) to the Hierophant, which literally means “hook” or “nail.” A hook connects things to each other and you can also hang something on a hook. With a nail, you can nail things together. The letter VaV in Hebrew is literally the word ‘and’ with which you connect words and ideas when you speak. It is this letter that is displayed on the crown of the Hierophant from waite’s deck (and not waite’s initial as some think); Although Paul Foster Case often agrees with Waite, he does not in the case of the Hierophant:

“We do not agree with Dr. Waite that het Hierophant is the ruling power of external religion, exoteric orthodox doctrine.. the outer side of the life which leads to the doctrine.. On the contrarty, he is the pontifex, the ‘bridgemaker’ who provides a connecting link between outer experience and interior illumination”

Tarotcard the Hierophant from the deck of Paul Foster Case (B.O.T.A.)
Tarotcard the Hierophant from the deck of Paul Foster Case
Tarotcard The Hierophant, also called 'The Master of the Arcana' from the deck of Augustus Knapp and Manley P. Hall
The Hierophant from the deck of Augustus Knapp and Manley P. Hall
The Hierophant from the deck of Paul Christian. Also called 'the prince of occult doctrine'
The Hierophant from the deck of Paul Christian. He names the Hierophant ‘the Prince of occult doctrine’. Waite was referring to Paul Christian as ‘another commentator’

There is so much more to tell about the Hierophant. But for now, I hope that this blog article will make some feel better about the Hierophant and that it will ease up interpreting the card in a spread. To summarize:

  • The Hierophant can literally connect 2 other cards.
  • A person can be a connector or bridgebuilder.
  • Something or someone can give you inspiration to try to hear the voice of your inner wisdom.
  • The High Priest invites you to use your knowledge, experience AND your inner compass to judge whether you want to conform to established standards.
  • Reflect and look for what is ‘sacred’ to you and what is ‘right’ – in both the ideal world and in the real world. And then you’re ready to make choices with your head and your heart (but that’s the next Tarotcard).

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