- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- TORA on scroll - This comes from Levi’s playing with the letters to
make TORA(H) and ROTA (Wheel) out of TARO(T).
- 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.)
- 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
- 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
footnote 6 for a caveat about assuming that the Hebrew letters can be found
in the Waite-Smith designs.
- 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.
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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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
- 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
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.