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The Hierophant

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The Hierophant Tarot Card 5

By James Donahue

The Hierophant might be compared to a shaman among tribes of the world. He is the teacher of religious and spiritual knowledge, the master of esoteric wisdom, educated in the ways of the spirit. He is, in effect, the high priest of the tribe, the father of his people.

Understanding the role of this powerful figure, we thus follow the Fool on his journey which last involved a visit to The Emperor, the figure of the power of government and social organization, who taught the foundation on which to build his life endeavors.

But as he travels on the Fool is struck with an unexpected fear. What, he asks himself, if misfortune comes his way and all that he has worked for is taken from him, or he fails to be good enough? He has a sudden sense of panic and turns into a holy place for solstice. Here he finds the Hierophant, the wise teacher. The Fool throws himself at the feet of the shaman and reveals his fears, asking how he can be free of them.

The Hierophant is blunt with his answer. “Either give up that which you fear to lose so it no longer holds power over you, or consider what you will still have if your fear comes to pass,” he says. He agrees that material things may be lost at any time during our journey through life, but we never lose the knowledge and skills we have gained, the memories and the experience of having achieved our goals. With these tools, there is little to stop us from starting over and doing it all again, and even better the second time around.

The Fool realizes that the Hierophant is all wise, and that his word is wise. Thus he leaves the holy place and continues his journey, ready to face the world’s challenges once more.

As we study the figure on this card, notice the Hierophant is seated on a high throne with his right hand raised in what is known as the blessing or benediction, with two fingers pointing up and two pointing down. This sign symbolically forms a bridge between Heaven and Earth. He is thus a link between deity and humanity.

He is seated between two pillars representing law and liberty, or obedience and disobedience. The carved symbols on the upper portion of the stone pillars show the “U” sign, and some versions of the Ryder-Waite artwork includes a Hebrew symbol in the lower right corner. This is reverence to the word Vav, which means “nail” or “hook.” The symbol refers to a joining, or fastening of the self to all that we can achieve.

The Hierophant clearly represents royalty. He wears a triple layered crown of gold, is adorned in a robe of reddish-orange, with an undergarment in blue. And over the undergarment is a white garment symbolizing enlightenment. He is seated on a square stone throne. His vestment and position are similar to that of the Emperor except the Emperor wears armor in preparation for battle, and the Hierophant is dressed in the finery of a high priest. In the old decks, both figures once were known as the Pope, which means “Father.” In essence, the Hierophant and the Emperor are not two, but one.

At his feet are two keys, believed to be the keys to Heaven. Some interpret the keys, which are made of gold and silver, to represent knowledge and life. Yet others suggest that the gold key represents the sun and the silver key, the moon.

The staff with three crosses in the right hand is a symbol for the three elements, fire, earth and water.

Hanging from the crown and falling behind the ears and dropping to the chest is an ornament reflecting a yoke. This again is an ancient pointer to the word Vav, or hook.

Two priests, or students kneel before the Hierophant, listening to his words of wisdom. Notice the robes of the man on the left contain a design of red roses while the robe on the right is decorated in white lilies. The floral images symbolize desire and abstract thought. The yellow orphreys, or “Y’s” on their garments are yet another pointer to Vav.

The Hierophant is Key 5 of the Major Arcana. In the occult, the number five represents the essence of things as they are. Five is the number of man. Each human enjoys five senses; sight, hearing, taste, feeling and smell. The number cross sums with Key 14, the Temperance card. While the Hierophant presents spiritual lessons to earth, Temperance guides the soul from this world.


The Mind of James Donahue