The Hierophant and the paradoxes of Eliphas Lévi

Religion is the collective poesy of great souls. Her fictions are more true than Truth itself; vaster than Infinity; more lasting than Eternity; in other words, they are essentially paradoxical

Eliphas Lévi

Tarot card ‘The Hierophant’ has been occupying my mind for some time now; When I started studying the Tarot, I thought it was the least sympathetic card. And even when I had already learned a lot about the Tarot, I still thought of the card as being annoying. Although I don’t think The Hierophant is unsympathetic anymore, I still think of this Tarotcard as being difficult. Especially when this Tarotcard shows up in a reading one tends to attribute a variety of meanings to it (which do not seem ‘logical’ to me)

However, in the last year that has changed. Especially since I started reading the work of the ‘old’ occultists again. I studied the books by authors who were contemporaries of Waite – or a generation after him – and tried to look at the Hierophant with fresh eyes. I am very fond of the work of the ‘oldies’ because I can imagine they had to stretch their minds in order to in order to be able to write about symbolism of the Tarot. Because Tarot is organic and ever evolving, I also enjoy ‘modern’ authors. However, when it comes to The Hierophant, a number of them do still stick with the interpretation of Waite & Smith.

In the blogpost “The High Priest: Sympathetic or Not?” I wrote about what the thoughts of Paul Foster Case, Marcel Belline and P.D. Ouspensky were about this Tarotcard. Yet I kept wondering why Waite and Smith chose dogmatic and Christian symbolism for the Hierophant.

We know that Waite was attracted to Christianity; At least to the idea that there is one god and/or that a ‘creator of the Universe’ exists.  He himself wrote that he turned his back on the Theosophical teachings of Blavatsky (because the ‘image of God’ was not sufficiently highlighted in Theosophy) and that he focused more on Freemasonry (where the condition is that you believe in an ‘architect of the Universe’). But he has deliberately deviated from the symbolism used by the Golden Dawn and has clearly given this Tarot card a ‘Catholic look and feel’.

And so I thought maybe I would find the answer in the work of the occultists who inspired Waite. One of them is Eliphas Lévi (1810 – 1875). Lévi was held in high regard by Waite. Before he became an occultist, Lévi had been a Catholic priest and he uses many biblical quotations and analogies. I came across a small book that I have never read before,  entitled: ‘Les Paradoxes de la haute science‘. (The Paradoxes of Higher Science). The book was published in 1856 and translated into English by the Theosophical Society in 1883. In 1922 it was republished, this time with commentary by a mysterious ‘Eminent Occultist’ (Abbreviated to E.O.). No one knows who E.O. is, but some claim that it is none other than the founder of the Theosophical Society herself: Helena Blavatsky (1831 – 1891). This seems very credible, since she often commented on essays by Lévi. Blavatsky is even said to have been partly inspired by Lévi and, like Waite, she also had a high opinion of him. For example, the following can be read in a preface to an article by Lévi – which was shared with the members:

“The three essays – the first of which is now given – belong to the unpublished work Of the late French Occultist, a series of whose other Lectures on Secret Sciences is being published serially in the Journal of the Theosophical Society. These three papers were kindly copied and sent for this Magazine by our respected Brother, Baron Spedalieri of Marseilles. We hope to give, in good time, the translation of every scrap ever written by this remarkable ‘Professor of High Transcendental Sciences and Occult Philosophy’, whose only mistake was to pander rather conspicuously to the dogma’s of the established church – the church that unfrocked him”

Eliphas Lévi, Helena Blavatski and Arthur Edward Waite
Eliphas Lévi, Helena Blavatski and Arthur Edward Waite

Lévi’s Paradoxes

The reason I came across this book by Lévi was because I was watching a video on a Tarot channel on You Tube, in which it was stated that the two priests on Tarot card The Hierophant symbolize “Reason” and “Liberty“. Reason and Liberty? Where did that come from?

Tarotcard V The Hierophant from the Waite-Smith Tarotdeck

I browsed the internet to see if there are more people who assign ‘Reason’ and ‘Liberty’ to the two priests in this Tarot card. There weren’t many. I did see ‘Action’ and ‘Liberty’ a number of times. ‘Love and Liberty’ was also once attributed to the two figures. I think the idea behind this seems to come literally from Lévi’s book about the Paradoxes. In The Paradoxes of Higher Science, seven paradoxes are described. And of course you will see quite some ‘Tarot’ symbolism in the descriptions.

The seven Paradoxes are:

  1. Religion is Magic Sanctioned
  2. Liberty is Obedience to the Law
  3. Love is the Realisation of the Impossible
  4. Knowledge is the Ignorance or Negation of Evil
  5. Reason is God
  6. The Imagination Realizes What it Invents
  7. The Will Aclompishes Everything, Which it Does Not Desire

At first, I thought it quite difficult to read and understandt. But in the end, I did see ‘the punch line’ and perhaps the symbolism of ‘Reason’ and ‘Liberty’ in Tarot card V The Hierophant! I have tried to pick out a number of relevant quotes below and explain them in a way that I have understood.

“In the principle is Reason, and Reason is in God, and God is Reason.  All is made by it, and without it is nothing made”

With this paradox the most confusing is that Levi  seems to be speaking of both reason in the form of ‘thinking’/’intellect’, and  reason  (in the form of: ‘the reason that something exists’).

Lévi states that without reason – or intellect – nothing can be created or nothing can come into being. If God is the creator, god is reason. Everything has a right to exist, including irrationality. This is the counterpart of reason and also has a purpose. The same purpose as the dark has for the light: After all, without light there is no shadow!

The reasonable believer, according to Lévi, is he who believes in a reason greater than knowledge and is aware that ‘absolute wisdom’ is non existent. “Thinking” or “Intellect” is a means and not an end. It is something that is always developing and that is always growing. When you reason ill, it will become unreasonable.But it is not then reason that should be distrusted, but your own judgement. The danger is lurking that you will blindly believe your own prejudices and judgments. It is therefore advisable to go to someone who knows more than you,  as long as you don’t blindly follow them! In short, you should always think for yourself and not take things at face value, even if you have good reason to believe that someone else is “superior” in a certain area.

According to Lévi, it is not ‘weird’ to believe in something you have never seen or touched. There are a lot of things you’ve never seen but  know  exist. I tried to think of an example and came up with ‘gravity’. I can’t see gravity, but I know it’s there. For example, there are a number of ‘laws’ and ‘rules’ that you only know by reasoning and that everyone – religious or not – should submit to because they cannot be changed. They can be laws of nature, but according to Lévi they can also be moral ‘laws’. Unfortunately – says Lévi – the Christian Church has tried to eliminate reason and that makes people believe ‘blindly’ in something they do not know. It doesn’t come from within (by reasoning):

“To conjecture, at random, what one does not know, and then believe blindly in one’s own conjectures, or in those of others, who know no more than ourselves, is to behave like madmen. When we are told that God demands the sacrifice of our reason, this is to make God, the ideal or despotic idol, of folly”

Liberty is Obedience to the Law

“The true Piety is the Piety that is independent. The true Faith is the absolute Faith which explains all Symbols and moves above all Dogmas. The true God is the God of Reason, and his true worship is Love and Liberty”

Because man has intellect, he has freedom. However, this is not ‘for free’, as we have to do something for it in return (take action). For example, by practicing science, pursuing inventions that will lead to progress of humanity. At the moment, however, this is not yet recognized; The “freethinkers” do not tolerate ecclesiastical authority, and the Church does not tolerate freethinkers.

On the one hand, it is your duty as a human being to make use of your intellect and your freedom. On the other hand, you have to deal with those in power who are not happy about this. There are priests, kings, laws, powerful groups, etc., who want to stop things. It doesn’t do you much good if you protest against this all too loudly (and then get burned at the stake). The smartest thing to do is to ‘obey’ on the outside as long as you KNOW what is going on inside. You continue to progress and develop, so that one day – for example the generation after you – it will become a fait accompli and the rulers will also have to move forward. Or, as Lévi puts it, “It is full time for the shepherd to rise when his flock goes off..”

This Paradox also refers to Tarot card XV The Devil (also a Christian symbol). So keep an eye on this blog for the sequel!

Religion is Magic Sanctioned

“Comprehension of religion is the emancipation of the spirit, and the Bible of the hierophants is the Bible of liberty. To believe without knowing is weakness; to believe, because one knows, is power”

Here, too, Lévi emphasizes ‘Reason’. People are forced to “believe” and worship God. The Church frightens them (fear God himself, the Devil, hell, etc.). True Magi, according to Lévi, are those who worship God without fear because  they know that they have the same powers as God. To worship without fear is Love, to worship with fear is hate. Magi lean on religion, but religion does not weigh on them.

According to Lévi, it is the uncritical worship of God (without thinking for oneself) that is to blame for all the terrible crimes committed in the name of the Church (or religion alltogether) over the centuries. People ‘mindlessly’ participate in the Christian ceremonies without focus and without understanding why. This leads to (religious) fanaticism (which we unfortunately also still see today). This also applies to various ‘occult’ groups; They consider themselves freethinkers, but in the meantime they are searching for ready-made remedies, miracles, and knowledge about the future in cards/dice/crystals/tea leaves etc. They try to communicate with the dead in order to find out ‘the truth’. But that’s not Magic according to Lévi:

True magic is a scientific force placed at the service of Reason. False magic is a blind force added to the blunders and disorders of Folly

To control will-power and to subordinate it to the law of intelligence – this is ultimately the great work of our priestly art.


I do now see much more in this Tarot card as the symbolism is much more lively. The High Priest holds a Christian symbol (the ‘true’ Cross) in one hand and the other hand makes an occult gesture. In my opinion, the two listeners play a bigger role than just being students or listeners. The keys lie between them, perhaps symbolizing that ‘the keys’ lie in  ‘Reason and Liberty’. But even if it is ‘Reason and Love’, ‘Love and Liberty’, ‘Reason and Action’…. it doesn’t matter. The “reason” that Waite and Smith portrayed The Hierophant in such Catholic way is clear. I think they were definitely inspired by Lévi’s Paradoxes.

According to the Theosophical Society, Levi would have had great difficulty in letting go of the “dogmatic” idea of the Catholic Church. When you read the paradoxes, it seems as he is indeed struggling; The many twists and turns he makes as not to deny Catholicism (and other religions). And at the same time, he tries to critisize the same church and wants to explain the occult meanings.

However, I think there is much more to it. I think he goes to great lengths to convey what he sees as the esoteric symbolism behind religion(s). And that’s something you ‘know’ but can’t explain so easily!

The book is still published today and available in many (online) stores. Copies are also available online (and as far as I can see this is legal). I have created a PDF of the complete text for everyone to read. Feel free to leave a comment about your understanding of the text.

The Hierophant in the Tarot: unpleasant or not?

“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.

Continue reading “The Hierophant in the Tarot: unpleasant or not?”