The Hierophant is a card that often gets a bad rap. I’ve seen many interpretations that seem to give it negative associations or that seem to suggest it’s better when the card is reversed. I have come to understand it as a symbol of things that are necessary and useful.
The more I have come to work with Tarot as a tool for inner work and not just as a vehicle for “fortune telling”, the more I have come to see that the Major Arcana are tools, pathways of experience and “file headings” for consciousness.
These symbols relate to experiences that are vital in our lives and can be positive or negative depending on how we are working with them. In a reading, I have to pay attention not just to the card but what it comes up in relation to with other symbols and also what I am receiving intuitively. The Majors are less about actual circumstances but more the lessons that are running through them. They can provide a lot of insight into what is behind what is going on or what we can draw on to get through things. Often a Major card can show the roles we are playing, projecting, or that we are seeing others take on in our experience.
I think part of the negativity people attach to this card in it’s traditional Rider Waite symbolism (see above), is the idea of fixed dogma and the pope like illustration. I’ve had my own healing journey with this symbol and have come to deeply appreciate it.
Generally, The Hierophant in a reading is an indicator of a person’s underlying belief system coming into conscious view. We all have these patterns of belief. They influence (positively and negatively) how we are moving through life. An unhealthy Hierophant aspect would be things like unexamined knee jerk prejudices. I will admit I have had to look at these things in myself. Oddly in some instances where I was fearing judgement of others before I had had a chance to know them better. Looking at some of these old wounds and defenses was (and is) part of the Hierophant path.
In order to work out these things I had to seek out experience from others. I had to find some positive Hierophants! In group work and in personal examination, as well as accessing therapeutic resources, I found that the responsible people (what some would call elders or in some instances people “of the cloth”, some without formal title) I came into contact with had some structure in themselves and also in how they were prepared to be helpful.
I remember one mentor in a support group had some guidelines. He shared that to get the best results of what we were doing a little discipline went a long way. Simple things like respecting one another, sharing in turn, being prepared for the work we were doing, were not meant to be confining rules but things that made us feel comfortable and to know we were really getting somewhere.
Another resource I went to for a time (that was very helpful) suggested early on that I have some concrete objectives. He said ” I don’t want you to be here indefinitely” I appreciated that – partly as this was a resource that I was paying for. I have seen some people stay in some therapeutic loops for a long time that could have moved on had they not had a crutch.
I also had to find authors and people whose life experience could give me some guidelines. One that I refer to quite often is C.S. Lewis (seen left). I was always a big fan of the Narnia books and as I read more and more his writing on religion and theology I came to appreciate him more. He is a Christian and he helped me reclaim some very important things from that area of knowledge and my family background. One thing that really hit home to me was from a book of quotations ( I think the original source was his book “Mere Christianity”) where he wrote about spirituality being every one’s right to make their journey as they chose. Well I liked that, it validated some things. But he went on to say something that made me squirm and think and do some digging. He went on to say that to be journeying and to ignore that others have made similar journeys and have left us maps is arrogant. Well that smarted, which is sometimes exactly what a Hierophant experience is SUPPOSED to do! It made me realise that I had been just as prejudice to some areas of belief as I had felt they might be to me. this was a profound turning point and the Hierophant in me began to become a bit less childish and reactionary and (just a wee bit) better behaved.
Further to C.S. Lewis’s map analogy; he also said just looking at maps is not the same as having a journey. Just quoting religious or spiritual stuff (and maybe burning a little incense) is not going to get me very far, just as reading “Joy of Cooking” is not going to magically give me chocolate cake. I’ve been in some study groups that dissect and dissect things but don’t get far. That’s been a lesson on the journey too.
Personally, I don’t always do well in some structured settings. There have been some areas of group work where I have had to confront my own distrust, resistance and bull-headedness. Some teachers I have developed respectful relationships with, some I have been a jerk to, some weren’t my cup of tea and some I respect although their path has not been mine or was a path that wove along mine for a limited time. These ALL were positive (but not all of them easy) experiences.
As I came to build some relationships with some really cool people on differing faith paths, I have seen a great reduction of my fears of authority figures. I can respect without being either a sheep or a rebel. I have also had the privilege of doing a little mentoring. Like some who taught me, this is more about wanting to build a peer relationship with the person where they are an equal not a follower. There is a Buddhist saying; “If you meet the Buddha on the road of life, shoot him”. This sounds horrid at first, but what it means (roughly) is that others show us their Buddha nature and we must respect that, but we must also find within us our own. To make someone else that (for me anyway) is dangerous. We all have “feet of clay”.
Here is another thing: As I came to see the Hierophant less as a pulpit pounding persecutor and more as a voice of conscience, I came to have a different appreciation of personal morality. The very word “moral” at one time used to make me cringe. I had reacted to it as part of that old defensiveness. What it means to me now is really what it meant to me as a small and trusting child; the moral of the story. What I trust and believe as a result of experience, my own and other people’s. It has given me back a sense of faith that is both stronger and gentler at the same time.
In the actual study of Tarot for instance, I have had to see where there is a common structure, commonly held associations of the symbols. In short there are systems and rules, same as learning grammar (and that sentence wasn’t perfect)! A person has a perfect right to create any kind of deck they like but some (as far as my opinionated hierophant is concerned) should not be called Tarot! So you see, there is my Hierophant and also the Hierophantic aspect of the Tarot itself!
Maybe if I was to choose a personal iconic image for the Hierophant it would be a picture of Jiminy Cricket, the little voice of conscience I need to listen to. Sometimes when I’m in a challenging situation, I can look at what an elder I respect would do, OR I could look at what I would advocate for someone with less experience than myself. Sometimes having a kid brother or sister along has made me listen more to my conscience than if it was just about my egocentric little idea of ME.
I should mention too that the Hierophant is often more associated with some traditional things like marriage than say The Lovers card. It isn’t necessarily traditional in the sense of what a church or government would dictate. Ive seen the Hierophant refer to commitments that weren’t necessarily traditional and Ive also seen some “traditional” relationships that didn’t have much true commitment (consequently the Hierophant would be ill-aspected there).
It has to do with the moral aspect. Did you know that most dictionaries define commitment as “to morally and emotionally agree”? It’s like agreeing on the rules before you play, or having a design before you build, all stuff that can be part of healthy Hierophant work. It means you are on a good level of understanding in terms of one another’s beliefs and integrity.
One last thing: I was going to mention another little reference. There is a deck of symbolic cards that I occasionally use on a personal, meditative level, called The Dakini Oracle that is similar to Tarot in structure. It’s version of the Hierophant is the Hindu deity Ganesh, who cuts through illusions and guides us in learning. In that traditional path Ganesha is invoked before any study or undertaking. I wont go on about it as I found a blog from someone else that really touched on it quite nicely (and better than I would have), here is the link (and I will do a further post about the overall site):