✨Spoiler alert :: The Mists of Avalon; Earthsea :: The Tombs of Atuan. ✨
If the Magician is our magical forefather, then the High Priestess is our magical foremother. I have a lot of things to say about this misunderstood, special lady.
The High Priestess is the keeper of the tarot and all its mysteries. She’s intuition personified.
“Muffled throughout their history [women] have lived in dreams, in bodies (though muted), in silences, in aphonic revolts.” (Hélène Cixous)
As priestess, she is the mouthpiece of the gods, the words she speaks are never her own. They talk to her and she translates their divine speech into cryptic riddles and verse for the laity. Like her person, her words are veiled. Only the special may earn a glimpse.
The High Priestess is guarded but confrontational. Behind her is a garden of pomegranates, and she holds a book in her lap while her foot presses a thin, crescent moon, subduing her subconscious. She is mistress of all that is in our dreams, the veil lets us know she is at the threshold between the worlds, but also between what is conscious and what’s below the surface. Pomegranates for fertility, femininity, and for Persephone, who ate one ruby red seed in the underworld so was forced to return to it every Autumn as Hades’ bride. They say Persephone’s cyclical death and resurrection every spring carry with it the winds of unseen change.
The High Priestess is at number two because of course she is. As woman, she has the potential to multiply.
She gives us our first blue in the tarot too. Blue for night, for the moon and its light, for its alien beauty and spiritual transcendence. Blue calms, it lulls, it is the color of despair and sadness, “bruises, melancholy, [and] isolation” (The Book of Symbols)
The High Priestess is like a nun, married to the mysticism.
She’s not necessarily childless or chaste though. Sometimes she’s sex magic. But the dark side of sex. Sex without procreation, the sins of the flesh. She is erotism and the invention of the pill.
Back in Ancient Greece, men spent more time in bed with Aphrodite’s priestesses than they did their own wives.
And like Aphrodite, the High Priestess is also a bitch, because bitches get stuff done.
The High Priestess is Morgaine le Fay. The priestesses in The Mists of Avalon use sex in their witchcraft, as sacred communion with the great Goddess. It was during the sacred ritual by the Beltane fires that Morgaine conceives Mordred with her half-brother Arthur. (Neither of them knew what they had done until the next morning.) For Arthur, this “evil” act of incest produces his own death. But for Morgaine, she was supposed to be the vessel that would unite pagan and Christian, usher in an era of peace.
The High Priestess is an oracle, a slave, a portal, a prophesy.
She’s Tatiana, the Fairy Queen, tempestuous and commanding.
She’s Queen Mab messing with your dreams.
The High Priestess is a woman, her power comes from what that means to her.
She is a witch, not a sorcerer.
In fairy tales, she’s often the villain.
In the tarot, she’s set against both the Magician and the Empress. She is dark, evil, slut magic. She is childless and cruel, the stepmother. Temptress, mistress, and murderess. As vengeful, vile, and vain as she is spiteful, deceptive, and ambitious. She’s a termagant. Queen Jezebel.
“Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them.” Leviticus 19:31
She’s jealous Hera. Cursed Cassandra. Beautiful Medusa. Mighty Athena. Passionate Aphrodite. She’s Circe, Medea, and Hecate too.
She’s Lilith, rejecting Adam for hotter, better demon sex, because with Adam, she never got to be on top. She’s Eve, curious unto death. They say that it wasn’t an apple Eve consumed, but a pomegranate, which kind of translates to the many-seeded apple.
She’s the All-Knowing Trash Heap who gives the fraggles riddles to help them figure out their problems. When she’s said her piece, her guardians bar the befuddled fraggles, The Trash Heap has spoken! The fraggles are sent away to interpreted the word puzzles literally until, by the grace of serendipity, the lesson is understood symbolically.
She’s the old woman shaking the runes in Princess Mononoke.
She’s Headmistress McGonagall taking absolutely no shit ever. Her “Have a biscuit, Potter.“
She’s Tenar from Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea. Ursula who once said, “Why did I destroy the whole Place of the Tombs with an earthquake? It’s a kind of huge suicide, the Nameless Ones annihilating their temple in a vast spasm of rage. Maybe it was the whole primitive, hateful idea of the feminine as dark, blind, weak, and evil that I saw shaking itself to pieces, imploding, crumbling into wreckage on a desert ground. And I rejoiced to see it fall. I still do.“
Priestesses were typically young peasant girls dropped at the temple’s doorsteps because their parents couldn’t feed them. As priestesses, they were property of the church. The upside? This was the only way a woman was allowed to read. (Much the same later when mistresses and courtesans flaunted that same concession.) Priestesses did have some power, but not as themselves, never for themselves, only as a conduits for the religion. In other words, passive recipients, or recycle bins.
Symbolically, in the traditional binary, women were exiled to the mysterious, dark continent of question marks. They are shadow queens, the moon to man’s sun, the patient egg to his charging sperm. This binary is represented in the black and white B and J pillars. (B for Boaz, meaning “in his strength,” and J for Jachin, meaning “he will establish.”)
The dark continent, of course, referring to Freud. Freud who thinks the genesis of repression is castration. So, woman by nature would be less repressed, the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious would be blurred, collapsed even; meaning woman was therefore freer to move and create.
Hélène Cixous’ écriture féminine (women’s writing) (wo)manifesto The Laugh of the Medusa has strong High Priestess energy. “The Dark Continent is neither dark nor unexplorable. It is still unexplored only because we’ve been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable.”
But in Waite’s binary, the High Priestess is about input not output. Which is not terrible advice. All great writers come from great readers. Read as much as you can.
The High Priestess is a Sibyl, a Christian fantasy about a pagan presence from the past, and as such, she fulfill a certain function in thinking about the secret, forbidden, forgotten, buried, lost matters.
The High Priestess is cold, not maternal, generally childless. She is outside of the lady box, therefore, surplus, a danger to society, shunned, burnt. She is other.
“Otherness, which our culture confronts with worship or fear, love or loathing. As ‘Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,’ she mediates between the male artist and the Unknown, simultaneously teaching him purity and instructing his degradation.” (Madwoman in the Attic)
The High Priestess is the madwoman in the attic, wanting and wanting.
(But she’s also the sensible Jane Eyre who believed marriage between equals was possible.)
She’s a writer.
“As to all that nonsense Henry and Larry talked about, the necessity of “I am God” in order to create (I suppose they mean “I am God, I am not a woman”)… this “I am God,” which makes creation an act of solitude and pride, this image of God alone making sky, earth, sea, it is this image which has confused woman,” said Anaïs Nin.
(When woman creates does she not also think herself a god?)
So as all symbols are multisided, there is a facet where this archetype is an ambitious lady of determined action. She’s Ursula’s eye on the trident, the Evil Queen’s despotic ascension. She and her apple dipped in the Sleeping Death, are a present for the girl who needs to learn her own desire, needs to intimately understand that all desire is tied up with death. She is a demonic feminist ruining the party. Gross with her own desire and vanity, she wants a life of significant action, a Magician’s lot.
She’s the girl becoming in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The heart-shaped blood stain on her forehead, the devil’s mark, a scarlet letter, hers is a reminder what happens to curious little girls who don’t do as they’re told. Bluebeard told her not to look, that she didn’t need to know, it’s her own fault (says the Hierophant).
Silence, memories, passivity, waiting, they’re all part of the invisible.
I’ll stay away from overly salting this and go back to écriture féminine :: Luce Irigaray says that woman’s self, her sexuality, is auto-erotic, in that the woman is constantly touching herself since her vagina is composed of two embracing lips. She says that within herself, woman is already two, not divisible into one, and she translates this feminine auto-eroticism into feminine discourse or writing. The opposite of 1 is not 0, it’s 2. Women represent multiplicity, not lack.
In the unconscious, in that cosmic chaos soup, the ego can dissolve into a collection of voices, each blending harmoniously into the next.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s poetic Dictee is a lovely personification of this feminine heteroglossia. Using multiple perspectives, speaking through multiple women in multiple languages, through multiple timelines, Cha writes through trauma’s contagion and the ubiquity of feminine silence and compliance. Cha describes the pain of waiting inside a pause, – inside herself – as unbearable. “The wait from pain to say,” she says, the mute diseuse, who secretly waits within their structure, multiplying, wrapping every word in tinfoil or black lace. She lives inside this void, inside the terrifying in-between structure, the space where she makes her voice, gets the strength to speak. Just to speak.
When you pull the High Priestess be like the Evil Queen and turn to your mirror, look within yourself, that’s where the magic is.
✨ The Book of Symbols; Reflections on Archetypal Images. ✨Twelfth Night. Shakespeare. ✨ The Farthest Shore. Ursula K. Le Guin. ✨ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. J.K. Rowling. ✨The Laugh of the Medusa. Hélène Cixous. Trans: Keith and Paula Cohen. ✨ Madwoman in the Attic. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. ✨ The Sex Which is Not One. Luce Irigaray. Trans: Catherine Porter. ✨ Dictee. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
Bust out some good old fashioned free verse writing. Stream of consciousness. Fifteen minutes. Do this as a journal entry, or do it for your fictional world. Write down any thought, symbol, or idea about your story that pops into your head.
Do that same exercise, but from your character’s perspective. Take any of your characters – doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist – and give them fifteen minutes of uninterrupted id writing. You will unearth some of your richest character insights.
Keep a dream journal for nine days. Let that be the first thing you do every morning. Keep your phone away from your bed this week. If you’re like me and you need your Audible, then just resist the temptation to check your notifications.