Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols by Robert V. O'Neill The High Priestess

The High Priestess

B/W PillarsGoulinat
Lotus topsGoulinatVachetta
Veil behindGoulinatT de Marseille
Cubic ThroneFalconnierPiedmonteseVisconti -Sforza
Age - YouthFalconnierMinchiateVisconti-Sforza
Black HairFalconnierPiedmontese
Blue DressWirthPiedmontese
Blue RobeWirthT de Marseille
CrossWirthT de Marseille
Horned OrbWirth
Head VeilWirthT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
Part HiddenFalconnierVieville


  1. Sea Behind the Veil - In 1 Kings, immediately following the description of the pillars of Solomon’s Temple (7:21-22), is the description of the "Sea" (7:23-26), actually a huge ceremonial bath for ritual cleansing. The image may also be suggested by Levi, Ritual of High Magic, Chapter 22, who describes lotus floating on the sea.

  2. B & J on the Pillars - These appear in the description of Solomon's Temple, 1 Kings 7:15-22 and 2 Chronicles 3L14-17. The pillars are named Boaz and Jachim. The immediate source is almost certainly the Order of the Golden Dawn and Freemasonry since both use the pillars in their ceremonies. 1 Kings 7:19 also mentions that “the capitals surmounting the pillars were flower-shaped” which may explain the lotus shape found on the Waite/Smith card and earlier decks.

  3. Pomegranates and Date Palms on Veil - These appear in the description of Solomon's Temple.Palm trees were carved on the wooden doors to the Holy of Holies (1 King 6:33-35). Palm leaves were also on the stands in the temple (1 Kings 7:36). Pomegranates were cast and placed on the filigree of each of the two pillars (1 Kings 7:18-20, 2 Chronicles 3:16).

  4. TORA on scroll - This comes from Levi’s playing with the letters to make TORA(H) and ROTA (Wheel) out of TARO(T).

  5. Moon under her Foot - The immediate source is probably the Cipher Document of the Golden Dawn that assigns this card to the Moon. This is a departure from earlier Occult decks which show the moon under the foot of the Empress. In the introduction of Alchemists through the Ages (p 36), Waite says: "The woman of the future will be clothed with the sun and Luna shall be set beneath her feet. The blue mantle typifies the mystical sea." (Note that "clothed with the sun" may be "clothed with the Son" and represented by the cross on the card.)

  6. The bottom of the gown appears to be turning into water. This is the source of the river that flows through the rest of the Trumps: Empress, Emperor, Chariot, Death. It may come from the idea that four rivers flowed from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10).

  7. The Golden Dawn assigned the Priestess to Hebrew letter Gimel = English G = Enochian Ged. Ged looks like a fishook and may be suggested in the folds of the gown, a little less than 3/4 below the Priestess’ hand. However, see The Fool, footnote 6 for a caveat about assuming that the Hebrew letters can be found in the Waite-Smith designs.

  8. Tom Tadfor Little pointed out that the title "High Priestess" first appears (as "La grandpretresse") in the Grandpretre tarot, issued in France probably around 1800 and inspired by Court de Gebelin's book Le Monde Primitif, which launched the occult tarot revival. Before that, the card (when it is not replaced by a completely different subject) is invariably called the Papess (female pope): "la papessa" in Italian, "la papesse" in French. To read more of Little's study on the history of the Major Arcana, please visit The Hermitage: A Tarot History Site.

  9. So how did the Papess card turn into a high priestess? Again borrowing from Little: by the time of the Counter-Reformation, the female pope was often considered an inappropriate subject for the cards and was dropped from many decks, though not from the Tarot de Marseille which was the base for the occultist decks. Some insight into the transition can be gained by looking at a number of suggestions that have been offered as the source for the original 15th century image.

    1. There was a custom of using female figures to depict institutions or abstractions, so a female pope might represent the papacy or the church at large. Kaplan, Vol 2, p 160, shows a reproduction of a painting by Vassari that celebrates the victory of Spain, Venice and the Papacy over the Turks. Here the Papacy is represented by a female Pope. However, if the Papess had been intended to represent such an abstraction, one would expect the card to be labelled “The Church."

    2. Renaissance art also depicts the legendary Pope Joan. For example, she appears among the historical popes in the 15th century Cathedral of Sienna. Joan was an Englishwoman who entered a monastic order disguised as a man. She rose in prominence and was elected pope, only to have her secret revealed when she collapsed in childbirth during a procession. The legend was quite popular during the time of the invention of the tarot, and persisted for centuries. However, Pope Joan is ordinarily depicted as giving birth or holding her baby.

    3. Gertrude Moakley (The Tarot Cards, 1966) has called attention to a small heretical sect, the Guglielmites, which was active in Milan about a century before the tarot cards were invented. They elected one of their members, Manfreda, as pope! Manfreda was a relation of the Visconti family who ruled Milan and commissioned the earliest surviving tarot cards. On that deck, the Papess is shown in the habit of the Umiliata, the order that Manfreda belonged to. However, beyond the deck specifically produced for the Visconti about 1450, the local Milanese phenomenon of Guglielmites is unlikely to be the source for the image on earlier decks, for example, the 1442 deck mentioned in an inventory of the Este estate in Ferrara.

    4. Little ( The Hermitage: A Tarot History Site) develops the idea that the Papess did not represent an individual person so much as a dualistic principle to balance the male Pope card, just as the Empress forms the female dual of the Emperor. This dualism, evident in many of the Tarot trumps, may stem from Catharism, a popular dualist heresy that flourished in the city states of northern Italy.

      As a public entity, Catharism was eradicated by the Inquisition by the middle of the 14th century (Lambert, M. 1998. The Cathars. Blackwell, Oxford) but dualistic concepts continued to influence Italian culture well into the 15th century and beyond. This explanation is appealing because it helps explain why the Papess evolved into the High Priestess even as its dual, the Pope, evolved into the Hierophant.

    5. However, there are also hints that the Papess image was associated with a Pagan goddess/priestess from the beginning. For example, the Papess may represent Isis who was very much a part of Late Medieval and Renaissance thinking. Peter Comestor wrote an influential history of God's People in 1160 that discusses Isis as the inventor of letters and writing. Isis also appears as a complete chapter in the History of Jacopo da Bergamo (1483). And we should not forget Plutarch's influential work: "Isis and Osiris" from which we can get the modern associations with the crescent moon and water seen in the Waite-Smith deck.

      An image of Isis appears in the Appartmento Borgia in the Vatican (Yates: Giordano Bruno, plate 5). She is seated on a throne between two pillars with a veil stretched between them and a book in her lap. There is also a Renaissance image of Isis with the orb and horn crown (Shumaker: Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, p 247).

    6. There is a figure of the High Priestess of Venus in Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499). She appears in Chapter 31:

      There are also images at:

      This image may be completely unrelated to the Tarot image but does suggest that the High Priestess of a pagan goddess was part and parcel of the Renaissance imagination.

    7. The Papess image may also represent a Sibyl. The Sibyls were pagan prophetesses who were believed to have predicted the Virgin Birth and other aspects of Christianity. Although unfamiliar to us, the Sibyls were an important part of late medieval and Renaissance culture because of the Sibylline Books, the earliest dating back to the 4th century. Cohn (The Pursuit of the Millenium, Oxford University Press, 1970, p 33) points out that "uncanonical and unorthodox though they were, the Sibyllines had enormous influence - indeed save for the Bible and the works of the Fathers, they were probably the most influential writings known to medieval Europe.

      They often dominated the pronouncements of dominant figures in the Church, monks and nuns such as St. Bernard and St. Hildgard whose counsel even popes and emperors regarded as divinely inspired...From the fourteenth century onward translations began to appear in the various European languages...these books were being read and studied everywhere."

      Imagery derived from the books was widespread and therefore available to the illiterate. Finiguerra's "Picture Chronicle" ~1460 (99 images representing history) shows Sibyls. Phillippus de Barberiis "Opuscula" (1481) has illustrations of the 12 Sibylls. They are found on French Cathedrals of the period. The church of San Francesco di Rimini (~1450) has images of Sibyls as does the Cambio of Perugia and the study/library of Pope Julius II in the Vatican. They were common illustrations in prayer books (Books of Hours). Sibylls are in the pavement of the Sienna Cathedral. They were probably a part of the original floor plan (~1400) and were executed ~1480.

      The easiest access to images of the Sibyls is in Levenson, Oberhuber and Sheehan Early Italian Engravings from the National Gallery of Art. There you will find, for example, the Sybil of Persia: seated, elaborate robe, book in her lap, face partially covered by a veil.

Based on original research by (in alphabetical order) T. Little and R. O'Neill. To add to this collection of information, please email Robert V. O'Neill.

The Fool
The Magician
The High Priestess
The Empress
The Emperor
The Hierophant
The Lovers
The Chariot
The Hermit
Wheel of Fortune
The Hanged Man
The Devil
The Tower
The Star
The Moon
The Sun
The World
Introduction to Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

Additional Tarot History Resources Related to
Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

Holly's Rider-Waite Site A. E. Waite
The Hermitage: A Tarot History Site Villa Revak