Traditional Meaning of The High Priestess
In the Rider-Waite version of the High Priestess, we see a card that is steeped in mystery and symbolism. The High Priestess is seated on a stone bench between two pillars. Behind her is a tapestry covered in pomegranates and dates, and the pillars to her sides are black and white, alluding to light and darkness, with the initials J and B inscribed on them. These letters stand for Boaz and Jachin, which are representative of the four elements. She is cloaked in flowing white and blue attire, wears a headpiece representing the moon’s phases, and holds a scroll with the letters TORA (the Torah, the sacred Jewish text).
As modern tarot readers, it is sometimes hard to wrap our heads around the symbolism of this card. Honestly, unless you are steeped in Jewish or Kabbalistic knowledge, this is one of the harder cards of the deck to understand. To pull the meaning out, let’s look to Liz Dean’s explanation of the High Priestess card in The Ultimate Guide to Tarot:
She represents the principle of the divine feminine; historically she is the female Pope…Today she might be the psychic, astrologer, or spiritual teacher. Her spiritual path is above material values and earthly relationships. Her gift is wisdom; and knowledge of the world beyond the veil…the High Priestess…tends her inner garden of the spirit in secret, walking between the earth plane and the celestial realms beyond…The Ultimate Guide to Tarot, Liz Dean pg. 38-39
According to this explanation then, we have a card that talks about feminine power, intuitive knowledge, the spirit realm, and psychic experience. In practice, this might include listening to your gut, deciphering dreams, gaining knowledge by going within yourself (so something like meditation), and possibly even using methods of divination that helps us do this, such as using tarot, scrying, automatic writing, or tea leaf reading. What’s clear is that the High Priestess encourages us to go within for knowledge and not to be afraid to put stock in our inner knowing. She tells us to look inward, to take time away from ‘others’, and to get to know our true selves. In some ways, she also encourages us to ignore what others say and trust our intuition.
Sybill Trelawney as The High Priestess
If you’re anything like me, your memory of Trelawney from the series is of a strange, crackpot teacher who maybe had one fluke prophecy that turned out to be true. Well, I’m here to tell you folks, that that reading of Trelawney is just not correct. Yes, we see some of those elements, but when we actually breakdown Sybill Trelawney’s character, you’ll see she is much more of a High Priestess than you’d think at first glance.
If we look at the illustration of Trelawney above, we notice several similarities to the High Priestess card, although the symbols and layout are different. Trelawney is cloaked in bluish attire that somehow feels tied to water (intuition), and the moon (feminine cycles). She stands in her classroom, surrounded by magickal objects of divination: books, teacups, crystal balls, astrological models, candles, and potions. An owl sits to her side, a symbol of wisdom, and on her face are her very large glasses, which (although described comically in the books) can stand as a symbol for her enhanced “second sight”. She is looking directly forward just like the High Priestess, and clutches at the beads on her chest, possibly made of crystals or another substance imbibed with magickal properties.
One thing to remember about Trelawney is that she in fact IS a professor. Albus Dumbledore, the mastermind of the series could have chosen anyone to teach Divination at Hogwarts, and he chose her. Although it may not feel like it in the books, Trelawney does hold a certain amount of authority and power in her position as a professor at Hogwarts, likening her to the powerful role of the High Priestess.
Trelawney teaches Divination class. In this course, we see the students practice divinatory arts such as tea leaf reading, crystal ball gazing, dream interpretation, and astrology predictions. They must climb to the highest, most distant tower on the seventh floor to reach this room, and it is often filled with smoky incense so thick it makes it hard to see. This in and of itself can be a representation of a spiritual journey – we often talk about ‘ascending’ to the higher self, or searching the ‘higher realms’ when referencing the type of work the High Priestess encourages. Sensory depravation is also though to encourage the other senses, so by making it hard to see in the normal sense in the room, Trelawney is encouraging different states of mind and other ways of perception.
Trelawney often talks about being a Seer, having the Second Sight and an Inner Eye. She makes several predictions throughout the books that actually turn out to be true (it seems every prediction made, except for one, actually came true). Despite her presentation by Rowling as a charlatan and a ridiculous parody of a modern-day psychic, Trelawney is actually fairly gifted at what she does. The High Priestess card talks to us about listening to our inner voice and intuition, but as we all know, this can be confusing and often, when we make a determination for ourselves, we are right – just not in the way we expected. It is the same for Trelawney.
Trelawney encourages her students to seek out their inner sight, to practice divination, and to not be afraid of what they find within. Yes, she is dramatic and sometimes silly, and has a drinking problem, but I think that this comes from being overly empathic. She often mentions staying in her rooms is more comfortable for her and doesn’t mess with her Inner Eye; perhaps she truly cannot handle all the information she gets when around everyone. The High Priestess card does often speak to solitude and keeping to oneself, so Trelawney also represents the card in this aspect.
How Trelawney as The High Priestess Helps Us Read Tarot
Trelawney as the High Priestess helps us read tarot because as we think about how Trelawney approaches life and teaching, we can think about these elements in our own life. Let’s look at a few questions about Trelawney from book three onward. They are asked with Trelawney and the High Priestess themes in mind:
- Why do you think Trelawney keeps to herself much of the time? What does this do for her?
- How does Trelawney encourage the students to work their Inner Eye muscles?
- Despite being ridiculed, Trelawney stays true to her self, what does this say about her character and inner strength?
- Why do some students despise Trelawney’s class and others love it? What does this say about their comfort level with their higher selves?
- After looking through Trelawney’s predictions (scroll down to prophecies), what is your opinion of her abilities as a ‘Seer’?
How We Can Ask These Same Questions of Ourselves
As we ponder the above questions about Trelawney, we can turn these questions towards ourselves. This is helpful as a fun way to self-reflect, but more importantly, if we contemplate these questions, we can tie them into any tarot reading where the High Priestess comes up. Whether is for yourself or a querent, think about these questions when the High Priestess shows her face in a reading:
- Could you benefit from setting time aside to get in touch with yourself (meditate, read, write, practice divination, be creative)?
- What types of activities or habits can help you get in touch with your intuitive side? How can you incorporate them into your daily life?
- Do you have a strong sense of self? Do you generally listen to your own advice, or are you easily swayed by others’ opinions?
- Are you someone who is open to the ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ realm? If so, how does this affect your life? If not, what about it doesn’t resonate with you?
- Do you believe you can see your future? Do you believe the future is malleable or set? How does this affect how you live your life?
This post should get your started thinking about the High Priestess, Trelawney’s character, and your own ability to access your intuition. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear any observations you have from the stories or in how this helped you read the High Priestess card in tarot!
Next week we will explore Molly Weasley as card number III, The Empress.
Listen to the podcast episode of Trelawney as The High Priestess :