Il Papa/Le Pape/The Pope/The Hierophant in Tarot
Obedience and tradition are fundamental for the Tarot Pope’s authority. Just as the papacy as an institution has been in place, basically unchanged, for nearly two thousand years, the image and the interpretation of the Tarot Pope has remained remarkably stable for at least five hundred years. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that the name and depiction of the Pope shifted in response to popular culture.
The Fifteenth-Century Pope
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Emperor and Pope were rival centers of gravity in European politics. The division between red and blue states in the US is nothing compared to the political divide between Italian cities that owed their political allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor and those that were allied with the Pope. The Pope was as power hungry and ruthless as any war lord — with an added edge. Not only would his mercenaries sack your city, he could excommunicate you, sending you to a very uncomfortable place for eternity. The Emperor and Pope cards represent these two powerful men who were competing for supremacy at the time Tarot was emerging in the 1430s.
These woodcuts from the late 15th century show how Popes appeared in the popular imagination during the century when Tarot was invented. The triple tiara, representing the Pope’s authority, appears in nearly all Tarot decks. The number of cross bars on his staff is variable, but the Tarot Pope carries a triple staff unless he’s holding a shepherd’s crook. The Popes shown here hold a book, like the Tarot Popess, an attribute not usually associated with the Tarot Pope.
Just as the Emperor card in the Visconti Sforza deck may depict an actual Holy Roman Emperor associated with the Visconti family, so the Pope card (shown at the top) may depict Felix V who is known as the last anti-Pope. During a political scuffle in 1439, a group of dissenters elected the Duke of Savoy as Pope Felix V in an attempt to depose Pope Eugene IV. Pope Felix V, who was the father-in-law of the Visconti Duke of Milan, didn’t get much respect and ended by slinking off to a monastery in 1443. All this happened just as Trionfi was becoming popular in northern Italy, and may be commemorated in a hand panted deck.
Early Italian and French Decks
Printed decks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries displayed a narrow range of papal symbols. In the earliest block printed deck we know of, the Budapest Tarot, the Pope wears a double crown. His staff is a simple cross, and the keys of Saint Peter are on a shield held up by two servants or acolytes. The Catelin Geoffroy Pope wears a triple crown symbolizing three levels of authority. He holds a triple cross in his left hand and one large key in his right hand. He faces right, as in the Tarot de Marseille decks of the next century. This is one of few Popes not accompanied by acolytes. The Vievil Pope has a bishop’s mitre and crosier, emphasizing his role as Bishop of Rome. The two smaller figures wear cardinal’s red hats.
Tarot de Marseille
In the Tarot de Marseille pattern that gradually emerged during the seventeenth century, a bearded Pope wears a triple crown and red cloak while holding the triple cross symbolizing his authority over spiritual and temporal domains. The Pope faces right, raising his hand with a cross on the back in a gesture of blessing. Two small figures with tonsures, typical of certain religious orders, look up at the Pope. The pillars behind the Pope may be a simplified throne, although some suggest they are Kabbalistic or Masonic symbols. The Noblet Tarot is an early Tarot de Marseille where the Pope holds a shepherd’s crook, symbolic of a bishop. Two cardinals stand before him, as in the Vievil card. The Vievil and Noblet cards may represent an alternate tradition where the Pope is depicted as the Bishop of Rome shepherding his flock of believers.
Traditional card interpretations rely on seeing this figure as the pinnacle of religious authority, and therefore the highest authority in any hierarchical organization – a church, synagogue, corporation or educational institution. As Pontifex, the bridge between man and the divine, the Pope interprets the mysteries of the universe to his listeners. In our secular age, this can refer to scientists who understand the mysterious laws of physics and make them understandable to laymen; or a doctor who explains complicated procedures to his patients in a way they can understand. The Pope is a spiritual advisor, and by extension a mentor, therapist, philosopher, doctor, lawyer or any type of counselor. His teachings are based on traditional belief and are rooted in the norms of his society. He speaks directly from his lived experience, rather than deriving his wisdom from books or subjective intuition (like the Popess). Negative interpretations of the card emphasize a tendency to be dogmatic, judgmental, narrow minded and authoritarian.
Substitutes for the Pope
The Pope was replaced many times in tarot’s history, either because Catholics thought the card was a sacrilege, or members of other religions didn’t want to see Catholic figures on their cards.
Besançon style decks, that were popular in German-speaking Protestant areas of eastern France, Germany and Switzerland, replaced the Pope with Jupiter, the highest-ranking Roman God. In Belgium and northern France, decks like the Vandenborre showed Bacchus, the Roman God of wine.
Bologna is known for its unique, 62-card Tarot deck, called a Tarocchino. In 1725, a Tarocchino designed to teach geography described Bologna as having a “mixed” government. Since Bologna was actually a Papal state, the Pope was very displeased and decreed that the Empress, Emperor, Popess and Pope in the deck were to be replaced by four Moorish kings. The Moors are still a distinguishing feature of Bolognese Tarocchino decks today.
The twentieth century saw even more substitutions as the Pope was re-imagined as a coven leader, guru, alchemist or wise counselor among others.
Becoming the Hierophant
The Pope was called the High Priest publicly for the first time in Antoine Court de Gébelin’s 1781 book of pseudo-anthropology Le Monde Primitif. De Gébelin firmly believed that the Tarot deck is a picture book preserving ancient Egypt’s most profound wisdom; therefore Christian imagery had to be a later distortion. He made it his mission to return the Tarot deck to its original Egyptian purity. De Gébelin renamed the Pope and Popess Le Grand-Prêtre and La Grande-Prêtresse (High Priest and High Priestess) and said they were a married couple, like the Egyptian religious leaders who bore those titles.
Someone who must have read de Gébelin created a more radical design, probably in the 1790s. The anonymous designer also called these cards Le Grand-Prêtre and La Grande-Prêtresse. Both figures are standing, dressed in elegant clothing, laurel wreaths on their heads and holding a palm branch. There is only one known copy of this deck in an American collection. It didn’t start a new tarot style, but it shows that as early as the 18th century, people were imagining a radically different Pope and Popess.
French Occult Tarot
In 1856, the ceremonial magician Eliphas Levi described his vision of each tarot trump in his book Transcendental Magic, giving them an Egyptian flavor. He called this card the Grand Hierophant, and described him sitting between two pillars of Hermes and Solomon with two “inferior ministers” at his feet. A Hierophant is one who presides over sacred mysteries in the ancient world. Even though Hierophant is meant to evoke ancient Egyptian priests presiding over mysterious rites, in most esoteric decks he still looks like the Roman Catholic Pope, while his attributes are re-interpreted esoterically. The Hierophant is the Initiate of the Mysteries of Isis, and sits in her sanctuary between two columns of Law and Liberty. The columns are green to indicate a living tradition. The triple cross is re-visioned as a lingam penetrating three levels of reality. The hand raised in a papal blessing is reinterpreted as making an esoteric sign.
In the French tradition, the Pope is associated with the Hebrew letter He, the breath which animates life and binds the spirit to a body. The Pope/Hierophant’s role is to transmit traditional metaphysical teachings in spoken words that ordinary people can understand. The two people at his feet represent two ways of receiving this knowledge: theology vs. piety. Oswald Wirth began the tradition of putting these figures in robes of contrasting colors. The active figure strives to understand. He asks questions but does not think outside the box of his orthodox tradition. The passive figure in black humbly submits and accepts the teachings without question.
The Golden Dawn
After Tarot crossed the English Channel, The Golden Dawn assigned the Hebrew letter Vav (Nail) and Taurus to this card, emphasizing stability and tradition. The Pope was renamed The Magus of the Eternal Gods and was seen as a teacher and channeler of occult wisdom. Pillars are conspicuously absent from this version of the card, and the shepherd’s crook, signifying mercy, softens his sternness. The scroll contains the Logos, the words used to speak creation into being, and may be a reference to the French occult association of this card with breath.
Although the Golden Dawn’s Hierophant is no longer the head of a vast religious organization that has lasted for two millennia, he is still seen as the transmitter of traditional religion and ethics and one who translates divine wisdom into human terms. He represents conformity, respect for authority, obeying the rules and staying within traditional norms and values.
The Waite Smith Deck
A. E. Waite followed Levi closely when he designed his Hierophant card. The keys of St. Peter return from the earliest decks; but here they represent exoteric doctrine and the worldly life that leads to this doctrine. The heavy pillars, raised throne and ecclesiastical robes give this Hierophant an aura of magnificence worthy of the Roman Catholic Pope. He’s the supreme authority of any organized hierarchy, especially a religious or spiritual organization. His raised hand is making a symbolic esoteric gesture. Red roses and white lilies on the robes of the priests at his feet refer to the Magician and to the fact that the Hierophant presided over Golden Dawn ceremonies where these symbolic flowers were present. At the top of his crown, what looks like the letter W is actually the Hebrew letter meaning “nail”, signifying the Hierophant is the link between humans and the divine.
According to Waite, the Hierophant is the highest authority in any hierarchy, especially spiritual organizations. He performs optimally as a religious leader channeling divine grace through traditional institutions. At his worst, he can forget his spiritual connection and become power hungry, controlling and authoritarian.
The Contemporary Hierophant
Eden Gray, the mid-20th century tarot popularizer, gave us our most commonly accepted modern meanings for this card: conformity, bondage to social conventions, traditional religious teachings and a preference for ritual, dogma and the outer forms of religion. Contemporary images move between the poles of the rigid upholder of tradition, the benevolent spiritual advisor or the transmitter of divine energy.
The New Tarot, designed in the 1960s at Esalen, the counter-culture vanguard in Big Sur, California, channels the deck creators’ hostility toward the establishment. The hooded figure holds a triple cross in one hand and raises the other in a blessing. Symbolic items associated with the Roman empire are on either side: the fasces and ax, symbolic of the implacable authority of the law, and the laurel wreath of military victory. The gears at the bottom symbolize the impersonal machinery of government bureaucracies and capitalist industry that are trademarks of our modern world.
The Witch’s Tarot brings us back to the spiritual side of this card. The High Priest of a coven draws down divine power as he enacts the Great Rite of the Wiccan tradition. In the Tarot of the Crone, a set of nesting dolls depicts continuity over the generations and the direct transmission of tradition.
The Hierophant can be the leader of an established religion, a fringe sect, a secret society or a secular religion like communism. Your interpretation of this card depends on your relationship to authority, and is colored by whether you see conventional morality and social norms as a secure framework or a repressive system. This card asks us to consider the advantages and drawbacks of submitting to an established tradition and adopting its values as our own.
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Read about the Moors and Bolognese Tarot in the Emperor article
Symbolism of Papal regalia: https://religion.wikia.org/wiki/Papal_regalia_and_insignia
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List of Images:
I Tarocchi dei Visconti, Il Meneghello, Milan, 1996.
Trippin’ Waite Tarot. James Abrams, 2019. Tarotcollectibles.com.
Two wood cuts from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber Chronicarum) published by Anton Koberger, Nuremberg, 1493.
Budapest Tarot, late 15th century. Recreated by Sullivan Hismans, Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Catelin Geoffroy Tarot. Lyon, c. 1557. Collection of Museum of Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt.
Tarot de Jacques Vieville. Paris, mid-17th century. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française. Facsimile produced by Editions SIVILIXI, France, 2016.
Jean Noblet Tarot, Paris c. 1650. Restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy, 2007. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
Claude Burdel Tarot, Fribourg, 1751. Restored by Yves Reynaud, 2015. Collection of the MuCEM, Marseille.
Jupiter, Tarocco di Besançon by J. B. Benois, Strasbourg, late 18th century, reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan, 2000.
Bacus, Tarot Flamand Vandenborre, Brussels, 1762. Restored by Pablo Robledo, Argentina, 2018.
Moor, Tarocco Bolognese Al Mondo, 1725. Facsimile by Marco Benedetti, Rome, 2020. Collection of The British Museum.
Le Grandprêtre. Kaplan, Stuart R. The Encyclopedia of Tarot Volume II, p. 337. Stamford: U.S. Games Systems, Inc, 1986.
Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1887. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
The Golden Dawn Tarot. Robert Wang and Israel Regardie. U.S. Games, Systems Inc., Stamford, CT, 1977.
The Centennial Waite Smith Tarot Deck. London, 1909. U.S. Games System, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2009.
The New Tarot Deck. Jack Hurley & John Horler. Self-published, Sausalito, CA, 1974.
Witch’s Tarot, Ellen Cannon Reed and Martin Cannon, Llewelyn, 1992.
Tarot of the Crone. Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. Arnell’s Art, 2017.