The Hierophant sits upon his throne, giant pillars to either side of him. His crown is that of gold, his robe of red with crosses down along the front. In his left hand is a staff with three crossbars. His right hand makes the sign of blessing or benediction. At his feet are two keys, crossed in an X pattern. Two bald men kneel before the Hierophant, both wearing ornate robes.
The Hierophant is the fifth card in the Major Arcana and is symbolic of organised religion. Although a lot of the imagery and symbolism in the card is that of the Roman Catholic pope, the card’s wider meaning can be taken as any organised religion or system of belief with a hierarchical structure.
Read more: Full list of Tarot Card Readings
Blessing the adepts or priests kneeling before him, the Hierophant makes the traditional blessing sign with his right hand – two fingers pointing up and two fingers pointing down, reminding us that what is above is below and that heaven and earth are linked inextricably. Of course, this type of division serves to uphold the power of the Hierophant. It is an illusion that we are separate to heaven or anywhere else in the universe. We are all one and we all have a divine connection to the Creator and everything else in the Universe! By keeping this illusion that somehow we are separate to everything else, it puts the Hierophant in a position of authority.
There is a contrast here between the manner in which the Hierophant symbolises ‘As Above, So Below’ and the manner in which a non religious, spiritual person might understand it. For a witch, shaman, or non-organised religious person, it means that our actions reverberate throughout the universe and that we are not separate, but part of a greater whole. Our consciousness is reflected in the Universal Consciousness and so what we do, affects everything else. For organised religion though, ‘As Above, So Below’ means that we cannot progress on our journey without special blessings from those in authority or even permission from them. The two ideologies are worlds apart!
The adepts that kneel before the Hierophant have a bald patch on each of their heads – a sign during the middle ages of submission and obedience to the papal throne. Both priests wear different robes – the red and white flowers on each possibly representing fire and innocence. It is this type of obedience that organised religion requires in order to survive, to grow more powerful and to exert more control.
In the Hierophant’s left hand is the papal cross, an emblem for the office of the pope. The three crossbars have been attributed various meanings including the three crosses of crucifixion on Calvary, the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the Pope’s powers and responsibilities: temporal, spiritual, and material. They could also be viewed as heaven, earth and the underworld. The crown of the Hierophant also bears three levels.
The two large pillars on either side of the Hierophant are the two pillars of the Tree of Life from the Kabbalah ~ Mercy and Severity (Free Will and Law). At his feet are two crossed keys symbolising the conscious and unconscious.
This is very much a card that should be compared with the High Priestess. The pillars, guarded entrance, symbols and signs all paint a hugely interesting picture of the true path of The Fool. The Priestess guarded the hidden mysteries (the Tree of Life) and we glimpsed those behind her as she sat in her throne between the two pillars of Boaz and Jachin. Her card was full of natural symbols – the Moon, sun, water, the meaning of life.
In contrast, the Hierophant guards nothing. Like the previous card of The Emperor, the authority of the Hierophant is very much man made. The pillars are empty. We do not get a glimpse of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the card is dull and lifeless. We have this empty Hierophant sitting atop a man-made carved throne, making grand signals and offering his blessings on those who obey him.
Is it all a ruse? Is the Tarot telling us that the grandness of the Hierophant hides nothing but power itself and the true meaning of life can be found in the High Priestess? The High Priestess was all about the natural order of things and the hidden meaning of life. The Hierophant is about the man-made order of things, that Hierophants and organisations may exist to give order to those they rule / those that take part, rather than imparting a genuine mystery.
Even the crosses that adorn the front of the Hierophant’s robe allude to the four quarters of the Universe. Traditionally, the cross was symbolic of fire, water, air and earth – the symbolic elements that make up the Universe. Here we find them adorning the robe – on a deeper level, this is alluding to organised religion borrowing bits of natural truth to make themselves appear more legitimate. This is the reason that you might hear someone say there is truth to be found in all religions.
At a deeper level, truth resonates with our being. We have an ability to sense universal truths. When an organised religion takes on some of these truths, it gives a sense of truth to the religion as a whole. It doesn’t mean that the religion is ‘absolutely the truth’, only that it has borrowed a truth to make it seem that way!
There are dual meanings to the Hierophant in readings that should be considered.
In the first meaning, the Hierophant can signal a desire to remain within the convention and structure offered by an established organisation. The rules, progression and sense of belonging all appeal to us and it may be that now is not the time for forging our own path. This may be in the sphere of religion and spirituality, business or relationships. We may not wish to start up our own enterprise, preferring instead the stability offered by working for another organisation. We may feel safe continuing to circulate within our known circle of friends, instead of joining new clubs and organisations and risking rejection. We like the stability offered by our current job or the sense of safety provided by our relationship.
The card could also be telling us that we need to ‘fit in’ with established custom in order to progress. Upsetting the apple cart should be avoided and perhaps now is not the time to be sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.
In the second meaning, the Hierophant could be warning us that we are chasing ghosts. We have become so inured to the system and its teachings that we cannot see anything else. We cannot see beyond what we are being told and this Tarot card is suggesting that maybe, we should start considering things ourselves. That we should look outside the structures and rules of whatever sphere of life we are inquiring about and attempt to connect with our gut instinct. The Hierophant is all about about the mind – control the minds of people and people will obey. Instead, maybe we should take some time to listen to our heart or our gut instinct about what is being told to us and be brave enough to follow our own lead?
The Hierophant Reversed
The Hierophant reversed indicates that we have become too tied up in established organisations. We no longer enjoy a sense of freedom and the organisation that we once served is stifling us. In this sense, the Hierophant may refer to a system of rules that we have imposed on ourselves. It may refer to our lifestyle, our relationship or even our work.
When the Hierophant appears reversed, it may be time to start breaking convention and stepping on a few toes in order to break free and progress. Traditions, rules and order should be ignored or at least viewed in a light that makes them breakable. Society may be expecting us to act and behave in a certain way and we can find that pressure suffocating as we seek to ‘fit in’.
The Hierophant reversed is telling us that we are in a position where we are unfree. We must obey certain rules and authority and that is not sitting right with us. It’s time to start turning those rules on their heads, to go against the grain and escape from the self importance of others. We are free within, there is nothing that can enslave our soul with the promises of heaven or the threats of hell – perhaps it’s time to bring that soul freedom to our outside actions and world.