Placement: The Major Arcana


Some decks call this card The Popesse, and many aficionados claim that this is a reference to the legend of Pope Joan, who rose up the ladder of the no-girls-allowed tree fort known the Vatican, while living as a man. According to the legend, she blew her biology’s cover by accidentally giving birth in public, in the middle of a procession, while on horseback. Since this was the early Middle Ages and none had a camera to record the event for posterity (let alone camera-enhanced telephones on their person at all times) the crowd opted instead to physically attack her.


Do not misunderstand me; we unquestionably need more women as world leaders, and I would not at all be surprised if a woman did rise to the rank of pope at some point, either in the future or historically or preferably both. A pope giving birth on horseback, however, strikes me as unlikely.

Let us say for the sake of argument that Her Holiness gave in to carnal temptation after a night of sacramental wine with her favourite cardinal. Such things are well within the realm of possibility. For the purpose of discussion, let us call this hypothetical cardinal Chad. If Joan were clever enough to get herself voted in as leader of the entire pre-reformation Christian world, she would also be clever enough to notice a distinct lack of menstruation over the previous months.

Of course, one may say, code red was seen as punishment for Eve’s crime against fruit trees. Perhaps Joan made prayers of apology for her indiscretion with the alluring Cardinal Chad and believed that the Lord responded kindly by removing the burden of her shark week. I will concede to this possibility, or that she may well have been one of those individuals who only rarely found a jam sandwich in her lunchbox. However, she would have been the most powerful person in Europe, and therefore in a position to make changes to that day’s procession if she were experiencing physical discomfort. Instead of a horse, she could have opted for an enclosed carriage,* or cancelled her appearance due to illness and allow the delicious Cardinal Chad to represent her ceremonially until she felt better. He owed her at least that much.

My apologies, fans of Pope Joan. As horror fiction, it works on its own merits, but I do hope that I haven’t spoiled the tale for anyone who would rather believe that a real-life mob tore a mother and newborn child limb from limb in the street.** Perhaps the part of the story that piques your interest is her affair with that magnificent stallion Cardinal Chad, their loins stirring under their holy robes and so on and so forth.

But I digress.

Other tarot enthusiasts identify The High Priestess as Virgin Mary or as the Egyptian mother goddess Isis, or as a reference to a Sister Manfreda Visconti of Pirovano, who was elected Papess by a feminist sect in Milan called the Guglielmites. Before Sister Manfreda could be crowned in 1300, however, the Inquisition caught up with the group, slew her followers, and “celebrated” Manfreda with a bonfire.

In several versions of this card, she sits between two pillars, a black pillar decorated with the letter B, and a white pillar with a J. Potentially obscene jokes aside, the letters stand for Boaz and Jachin, the name of two pillars that stood out front of Solomon’s Temple, which either means she had her portrait taken for the card on holiday while the temple still stood, or she has Biblically-themed furniture in her sitting room.

Right side up:

The High Priestess card upright carries the theme of holy mystery, intuition, and non-dogmatic spirituality. She is the keeper of the secret path and the metaphoric labyrinth and an infinite source of women’s wisdom. She follows hunches. So… assuredly not Pope Joan.

According to many interpretations, The High Priestess is a virginal teenager who is sensitive and psychic and has a wonderful and perhaps terrifying untapped power.

Upside down:

The High Priestess reversed indicates shallowness, impatience, and generally being full of herself. She will spew platitudes about spirituality and babble for eons about acquiring riches by concentrating mentally on the riches themselves and by ignoring other people’s suffering because the suffering is their fault for lacking positivity. Someone with the attitude of the High Priestess reversed genuinely believes that misfortune befalls an infant because the universe dislikes their crying.

*Some theorize that the current Popemobile was designed for a safer and more comfortable birthing experience in the event that a pope carries to full term.

**No I don’t, you monster.

Classic The High Priestess deaths:

  • Sacrificed in a ritual you organized, and for which you made hors d’oeuvres
  • Historical erasure
  • [add any number of verbs here] by the patriarchy
  • Electrocuted by your own awe-inspiring girl power
  • The wrath of a misunderstood telekinetic drenched in pig’s blood at the prom