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(For a list of all card articles, open March 2008 on the sidebar).

Friday, 7 March 2008

The High Priestess

I knew you'd be here again

stood in the door between what was and the future
between one and another
between me and the veil

you're a line I can't cross and still remain myself
you're the yin and the yang,
you're proof that the world splits in two

you're a weaver
you show me two pieces, you bring them together again.

The Priestess is one of those cards with a mixed-up history; she began as the Popess or Papess, and there's a further question about whether said Papess is Pope Joan or Pope Maria. The former probably never existed, crossed a line, genderfucked, and got caught out by pregnancy, by an indiscretion that could never have harmed a man. The latter probably did exist, championed the Cathar duality of spirit and matter, and was burned for her troubles.

Either way, she exists to bring beliefs into question, and to remind us that there's something on the other side of all things.

The modern High Priestess imagery is based on Judaism (or rather, Judaism as appropriated by 19th-century Western qabalists). She sits between the black pillar and the white pillar with the comical initials, with a Torah on her lap; some say this is simply about wisdom. There is continuity in the veil; for Pope Joan, the veil was concealment, protection of her masculinity; for Pope Maria, the whole world was a veil that covered the divine spark within all human souls; the modern Priestess sits in front of the veil, perhaps telling you not to enter, perhaps lifting a corner and showing you the green world beyond.

The Priestess is that thin patch in a barrier; it shows you the barrier is there, and it shows you how to get across it, but it probably doesn't give you a clear look at the other side. We of the Unholy Three link this to fence-sitting in general; 'playing Priestess' meaning, being sat in the still place in the middle of conflict, trying to give the aid we want to give, collect the secrets others want us to take, without stepping into the line of fire.

Images of the Priestess

The Rider-Waite-Smith Priestess is heavy on moon imagery; I need to scan it, natch, but Amano's is all about the sun instead. The Roots Of Asia Priestess is both day and night. The Mythic Tarot shows Persephone at the steps to the underworld - a Priestess of death and of winter, not just of one turn of the earth.

There are many variant Rider-Waites, each with its own Priestess, but this is my favourite...

I love the One World Priestess. She's the main reason I still have the deck. That's the Priestess under your skin, dividing your energies into details and coming up with more than you originally had.

What I wrote about the Priestess in 2005

[NB: Since I wrote this I've been basically seeing Nemesis, veiled Nemesis, as a bridge between the Priestess and Justice. This precarious crossing is maintained by a fae personage whose name is(n't) Dras Ranatar. On this side of the bridge is Nemesis-As-Your-Special-Antiparticle-Who-Will-Destroy-You.

NB2, 08/2009: Whoever it is who keeps Googling after Dras Ranetar, don't bother - he's just one of the little spirits I know, and is not likely to get a mention anywhere on the internet except on this blog. He's one of those people you find at the crossroads of your soul, walking with you on the strange road on the other side of the veil, and if he's tired of slaying monsters with you it's because he wants to obsolete the entire problem and himself along with it. It's fucked up, but he's something of a father figure to me - the only one I have, really.]

The thing that struck me first about Amano's High Priestess is that, if I understand how this works at all, she's being symbolised by the sun. That's the other way round from what AE Waite has made us come to expect; the Priestess as moon and the Magician as sun, male and female strands of power coming from above and bringing us to, whatever Waite wanted to bring us to. This ain't that. This one's dancing in the daylight. It's a sweet reminder of the subjectivity and ethnocentricism, of such rigid approaches; the sun is red, not yellow, all Japanese children know that, and the sun is female rather than male. This is no moon-lady, but a Priestess as Amaterasu-o-mi-kami. Her veil is called Ama-no-Iwato and was made of solid stone, and there is no peaceful sea beyond it, but the mirror of Uzume, the dance of the dawn.

Years ago I used the Mythic deck, where the High Priestess was represented as Persephone. There is a quite clear parallel; Amaterasu is sunset rather than autumn, but her coming out of the cave she hid in, the return of the sun that it is, is celebrated on the winter solstice. (There's even a bit about eating the food of the dead, though that happened to her 'father's' spouse [also: his sister] in an earlier bit of the story. [which I wrote up here under Death]). The Priestess elements are there in both; division from the world, a barrier, a distorted reflection on the other side of it. Something else, something opposite.

The Fool will tell you that all is nothing, and the Magician will say that all is the same, but the Priestess will tell you that all has an opposite. For everything there is there is something else that cannot touch it, something that is separated from it by a veil.

And now let's do the tarot thing and turn it upside down and see the other lady in the other veil. She ain't pretty. I always used to assume that Nemesis was a function of Justice-reversed, but these days I definitely feel she's actually the other side of the Priestess. An inescapable part of life, yes, but born from divisions rather than from the wide swell of the tide; made from the subjective habits of individuals rather than the law of the flow. There's a beautiful moment near the end of the second half of Kill Bill where Bill speaks of what he did so many years ago as starting something inevitable - personal but inevitable, not revenge but the certainty of retribution. It does happen, on the whole, one way or another in the weave of the world; it isn't Justice, it's rarely 'fair', but there is a lady in a veil out there.

I had this Nemesis-Priestess thought a while ago, but reading Ronin (a 12th-century Zen myth, transcribed to novella in the 1960s by a western Zen nerd; it is the antidote to The Alchemist, if you've read that dear saccharine tome) just made it worse. It was when the Ronin said, to the vengeful young hero whose parents who he had so ruinously ruined, "Your father was a fool and your mother was a slut long before they met me" that I really got firmly attached to the idea. It's a wholly personal, wholly momentary matter. The world is made of Priestesses, after all, little lines between little patches of grey, and what can she do but act from one grey patch onto another?

Pollack associates the Priestess with camels for perfectly rational and theologically detailed reasons. This makes me giggle and throw rigidity to the five winds.

a later addition - here is a (slightly edited) clipping from an email I sent to Agla about Final Fantasy X, which riffed off the crap I wrote here. She wasn't so sure about Auron being the Priestess:

Oh, is he ever! There's the veil, over his mouth and his eyes. About the only time you can see his mouth when he talks is when he's calling out [...The Moon]. There's the positioning between life and death, between Spira and Zanarkand, between past and future, between sorrow and hope - and between Yuna's father and Tidus's father. There's his silences and secrets; he's in on everyone's world, trusted as everyone's guardian and advisor, but he will generally keep silence between people, and not pass secrets from one life to the next. And he's not intervening so much - like he said, whatever secrets he'd told them they'd've all ploughed on to Zanarkand anyway, and they were headed there long before he showed up. What he's doing is guiding them on their way, and THEN playing his hand. They're intervening for him more than vice versa - it's he who asks them to fight for sorrow, not the other way around.

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