The Hierophant, aka The Pope, aka The Patriarchy.
Not the most popular card in the deck. Potentially triggery, potentially anxiety-inducing.
If you’re looking at the Rider-Waite-Colman Smith Hierophant card, or reading traditional interpretations of the card, it’s easy to interpret the Hierophant as a stand-in for the institutional structures that further oppression and inequality, like:
- Organized Religion
- Higher Education
Consequently, it’s far too common to interpret the Hierophant’s appearance in a reading as a sign that you probably just need to work on your authority issues in order to become at peace with the way things are.
But that’s the easy reading.
And we don’t do easy.
Reading the Hierophant When You’ve Failed at Organized Religion and Graduate School
The Hierophant’s most potent associations are with organized religion and higher education. I’m an ex-Christian (of the super right wing, Middle America evangelical variety). I’m also a PhD dropout. The Hierophant? Very predictably not my fave.
My animosity towards this card did not keep it from stalking my ass during my early days of tarot reading. The other card that stalked me during that time? The Hierophant’s inverse, The Devil. (Both, incidentally, are my birth cards.)
During those “early days” of tarot reading, I was thinking about leaving grad school. Pretty much all of my friends were grad students, or ex-grad students, and lots of them also did tarot. So we read together. And y’all. Y’all. The Hierophant stalked all of us.
The Hierophant was the stand-in for our frustrations. It was our advisors. It was the failing institutional structure that kept (and continues to keep) graduate students and adjuncts poor and overworked. It was the ultimate lie of higher education in 21st century: that job stability through tenure is possible if you only work hard enough, get published, teach a few classes, write a brilliant dissertation, and get out on the job market early.
@@The Hierophant was the system, shilling false hope.@@
At the time, I couldn’t see it as anything else. Partly, my clouded interpretation was due to proximity to the situation.
However, that interpretation was reinforced by traditional interpretations of the Rider-Waite-Colman-Smith, that affirm how the Hierophant is tradition, authority, The Man, and that you, little girl, just need to figure out how to live with that.
What was I, as a queer feminist, supposed to do with this card? Taking the traditional interpretation of the Hierophant, there was no way out of the system. No way around. The card felt limiting, confining, frustrating.
Here I was, desperately shucking off the remnants of a faith, a marriage, and an education that no longer served me, and this card kept coming up like “Fuck you, you failed.”
it seemed to suggest that in rejecting the Hierophant's (powerful) systems, I was rejecting the possibility of a spiritually and intellectually fruitful life.
A New Direction (obvs)
But time passed. Eventually, as I decisively left my PhD program, started Bluestockings Boutique (my first business), and made plans to move in with my partner, the Hierophant faded to the background. Other cards came out to play more prominently; other cards “stalked” me.
The Hierophant let me alone, for a while. Or perhaps it just knew that I was determined to ignore it and its implications, that I was too hardened, too closed off for a reading to be effective.
Almost nine months ago, I got my “newest” tarot deck. (I know. I know.) I honestly forget how I first discovered the Book of Shadows: So Below, Volume 2 deck, but it struck a chord with me in a way no other deck has. Two cards, specifically, have something to do with that: The Emperor and The Hierophant.
In this deck, the Hierophant is a woman. The first time I saw this card, I almost cried. It issues a direct challenge to the Rider-Waite tradition; it celebrates the alternative paths to wisdom in our society (e.g., the paths not formed by patriarchy). For anyone who grew up hearing that women could never hold spiritual authority, the Hierophant as a woman is fucking powerful.
This card, simply put, shows a woman who owns a business, advising a customer.
@@The Hierophant is a mentor.@@
She is a teacher.
She is an entrepreneur, but with roots: someone who knows what she’s about and who can help to guide others.
She embraces old traditions. She makes her own. Tradition is just a word, and there are powerful, magical traditions that go just as deep as Christian ritual.
She is a leader, but someone who leads by example. By fostering community, not competition; individual growth, not conformity to her way.
A servant leader in the best sense of the word.
She presents the path forward without the trappings of academia, of religion, of top-down authority, of patriarchal structures.
She is, simply put, everything I aspire to be in this life.
The Hierophant’s True Lesson
What I could not see years ago, when The Hierophant was stalking my ass post-divorce, post-faith, and (soon to be) post-grad school, was that it was showing me the way forward.
The Hierophant was trying to show me what I could - and hopefully will - become. I just needed an explicit representation in order to see it.
Ultimately, the Hierophant pushes us to examine our relationship to authority, yes—in order to create healthier structures in our own lives.
The Hierophant is unyielding in her questions, because she asks us to address the very foundations of our lives.
Authority as a concept isn’t going anywhere. Neither is tradition. What the Hierophant reminds us is that we have agency over how we interact with and implement authority and tradition in our own lives.
The Hierophant highlights that these are places in our lives where we can take initiative, where we have the potential to assert authority, where we can challenge authority, where we can make our own traditions.
The Hierophant says,
"This is what you will be. This is what you are working towards. You are letting go of the old to make way for the new."
You've got this.