The Magician and The High Priestess (Major Arcana #I and #II)

Contributed by Jack Peredur

I’ve used many Tarot images from the Yellow Corridor tapestries as illustrations in the Ravenwood books and hope someday to publish them as a complete deck plus a guidebook. In the meantime I’m focusing on one or more cards in each Newsletter, working my way through the Major Arcana more or less sequentially though with exceptions where cards not in sequence still seem closely akin.

These tapestry images often differ substantially from classical ones such as the Marseilles Tarot or newer ones like the Rider/Waite/Smith deck most of us probably know best. Those differences and similarities may offer new insights about their meaning.

Such a pair, immediately following The Fool in nearly all known decks and in the tapestries as well, are The Magician and The High Priestess.

The Magician (Major Arcanum I) appears in the 17th-century Marseilles deck as “Le Bateleur”: literally “The Street Performer,” though exactly what he is performing is not clear from the design. The wand in his hand suggests some sort of “magic” of the sleight-of-hand variety, likely involving the cups, knives, what appears to be a purse, and various small unidentifiable things on the table before him. Are they meant to be representatives of the four Lesser Arcana suits of Cups, Swords (the knives), Pentacles (possibly coins from that purse) and Wands (in his hand)? Perhaps only the original artist, probably long dead by the time the Marseilles cards appeared, knew for sure.

The contrast with the Marseilles deck’s version of The High Priestess (Major Arcanum II), “La Papesse” (“the Lady Pope”) could hardly be more stark.

“Pope Joan,” according to Medieval legend, reigned sometime in the 9th or 10th Century. Disguising herself as a man she followed a lover into the Catholic priesthood and rose through its ranks all the way to the top, taking the name “Pope John VII” (or in another account “Pope John VIII”)…only to give birth, and with her gender thus revealed, to be dethroned and imprisoned or executed.

The story was widely believed throughout Europe up at least through the 16th Century, subject of course to much condemnation by the Church although popular opinion seems to have been quite mixed. Some saw Pope Joan as the Virgin Mary come back for a new millennium. Her legend has since, though, been disproven to most historians’ satisfaction.

“La Papesse” on the Marseilles card appears with all the religious trappings of her role, the robes and the triple crown of a Pope with part of a throne visible behind her. In her hands is an open book, presumably a Bible, though her gaze is turned not downward as if reading from it it but rather forward as if to challenge the world and its stereotypes.

In designing and drawing the better-known Rider/Waite/Smith deck first published in 1909, Arthur Waite and “Pixie” Smith drew on the teachings of the Order of the Golden Dawn to recast “Le Bateleur” as a dignified Magician, his wand formally raised to the sky as if summoning down power. His floppy-brimmed hat has transformed into the sign of infinity hovering halo-like over his head, while the objects on his table are now clearly a Pentacle, a Cup, a Sword, and a Wand in the form of a staff like the Wands appearing on most of the cards in that Minor Arcana suit. The card’s focus has thus clearly shifted from the mundane to the sublime.

La Papesse has been similarly transformed, her focus shifted from the outer pomp and ceremony of the Church to quieter inner mysteries. She sits now not on a Papal throne, but on a simple squared block between two Egyptian lotus pillars. Her Bible has turned to a scroll half hidden by her flowing robes, and the crosses embroidered on the hems of those robes to a single equal-armed cross representing either the Sun or the Four Elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Her crown is now the disk of a full Moon flanked by its waxing and waning crescents – a well-known sign of the Triple Goddess with Her aspects of Maiden, Mother and Crone – while a larger crescent stands at her feet much like another at the feet of Our Lady of Guadelupe in the famous image from Mexico.

Is this Figure indeed a mortal woman still, or the Goddess Who on Her sacred hill of Tepeyac long ago asked Juan Diego “Am I not here, I Who am your Mother?”: She Who when descended into mortal flesh in the Wiccan rite of Drawing Down the Moon declares “I am the Mother of all things, and My love is poured out upon the Earth”?

We suspect she is meant to be both in a single body: mortal indeed, initiated into the Golden Dawn’s deepest mysteries, but in one of its higher rituals lending her fleshly form to host and manifest the Mother Goddess, “the Soul of Nature Who giveth life to the Universe.”

The versions of both cards on the tapestries in the Tower Room, the Yellow Corridor’s antechamber where through the King’s arcane technology most visitors first arrive on Thale, differ dramatically from both the Marseilles and the Golden Dawn versions and clearly form a complementary pair.

The origin of these images is unclear. We found the tapestries already in place (and indeed just a little dusty!) when we first discovered the Corridor in 1971. Some designs closely resemble their counterparts in the Golden Dawn deck, while others are quite different. This pair in particular clearly depict a Priest and Priestess of a Pagan tradition not greatly different from the one taught to Alaine’s Aunt Theda by a coven in England shortly before World War Two.

Both figures are skyclad, ritually nude, for as the Lady commands “Come to Me not in harsh robes of penitence, in garments which bind and hide and proclaim your body shameful, for they are but tokens of slavery. Cast them aside! Be free in body, in token your spirit is free as well. For old or young, male or female, your skin is My own rich livery, and the Wise are not offended.” Exceptions in the images are Craft items, which are much as in Alaine’s tradition: a Horned Crown with solar disk and some sort of pendant on The Magician, a Crescent Crown and Circle of Rebirth necklace on The High Priestess, and a Band of Law on the left thigh of each signifying the attainment of at least the Second Degree so each is qualified as a full-fledged Priest or Priestess before the Gods.

Like Le Bateleur and the Golden Dawn’s Magician, both figures stand behind tables bearing symbolic objects. Here they are clearly the same table, an Altar holding lighted candles, a Chalice and a Pentacle, set up in “a place wild and lone” with a view of the starry sky. The Magician has taken the Skull position representing the God, his arms crossed before his chest and his gaze turned slightly downward, and holds the Wand and Sword, traditionally “masculine” Working Tools, upraised in his hands.

Rather than passively sitting as in the earlier cards, The High Priestess here takes as active a role as The Magician. Her upright body forms the Crescent Sign representing the Goddess, arms upraised with hands empty and palms and face upturned. She seems to be in the very act of Drawing Down the Moon, inviting the Goddess to come share her body and speak through her to others in her coven. The Wand and Sword stand unused to one side while the Chalice and Pentacle lie close at hand before her.

Eden Gray (1901-1999), a former actress who was possibly the foremost authority on the Rider/Waite/Smith deck, in The Tarot Revealed (Inspiration House, 1960) wrote that The Magician “represents the personal will in its union with the Divine, which then has the knowledge and power to bring things into manifestation through conscious self-awareness.”

If that sounds a lot like the rite of Drawing Down the Moon, it is probably no coincidence since it is not the Priestess alone who sometimes hosts the Divine. At the start of the Greater Sacrament (sometimes called the Great Rite) which physically manifests the union of God and Goddess, the High Priest and High Priestess invoke and call down those Deities into each other. That Rite, however, is not for public viewing. In Alaine’s tradition, at least, following a full-coven ritual it is conducted in a bower set apart from the Circle where the Priest and Priestess complete the Sacrament in private.

In a card reading, Gray says The Magician indicates “will, mastery, skill, occult wisdom, power, diplomacy. The ability to take power from above and direct it through desire into manifestation.” Reversed in a reading, the card means “The use of power for destructive ends. Weakness, indecision.”

As for The High Priestess in the Golden Dawn deck, Gray wrote that she is “the balancing power between initiative and resistance – thus she sits between the pillars. The veil between the pillars [indicates] the subconscious is only potentially reproductive. Only when this veil is penetrated by conscious through desires (sic) can creativity be actualized.”

In the Yellow Corridor design, though, the active High Priestess seems the female counterpart and fully the equal of The Magician as High Priest. It would in fact be an easy guess that the two represent a matched couple: not only co-leaders of a coven and physical lovers, but mates also in spirit having reached together the Third Degree which is a true union of souls. The “veil” separating male and female, active and passive, Chalice and Blade, conscious and subconscious has been not merely “penetrated” as Gray wrote, but torn completely away as the pair have united as God and Goddess not just symbolically but also in truth.

In a reading, Gray wrote, The High Priestess signifies “unrevealed future, silence, mystery, duality. Hidden influences at work.” Reversed, the card means “accepting surface knowledge, sensual enjoyment, conceit.”

These designs from the Corridor tapestries suggest new interpretations for both cards through the eternal pouring down of the Divine into every affair and aspect of our lives.

The Four Watchwords of the Magi, fundamental principles of power, are “To Know,” “To Will,” “To Dare” and “To Keep Silent,” or in Latin Scire, Potere, Audere and Tacere. They correspond respectively to Air, Fire, Water and Earth.

The High Priestess with her open, accepting stance suggests the active quest for and acceptance of power through Knowledge and Daring. The Magician, on the other hand, through his self-contained position with weapons ready for use suggests power already summoned down and contained through Silence until the time and place are right for its release through Will “to bring things into manifestation.”

Together, combining their complementary powers and abilities, we suspect there is little in this world or any other this duo cannot accomplish.

Jack Peredur

Jack Peredur

Merry meet! I’m Jack Peredur, author of Ravenwood: A Seeker’s Memoir. You’ve probably read my bio on the main Associates’ page, so I won’t say more here. If you want to know, read the books or ask me in the Forum. Got lots of random knowledge to share!