The Hierophant, Number 5 in the Major Arcana, is a prime example- perhaps even the best possible example- of how differently the various designers of tarot cards interpret individual cards.
I am presenting four vastly differing world views here, along with four different interpretations of this controversial archetype, whom almost everybody loves to hate these days.
A very mainstream view of the Hierophant is simply the Expert. S/he is an authority figure who oversees rites of passage, manages the structural forms of accepted beliefs and philosophies, and guides the studies of those who wish to learn about the history, reasoning and systematic practice of those beliefs.
After the turmoil of the last few decades, people interested in subjects such as tarot tend to view authority with a somewhat jaundiced eye, but the fact is, authority figures serve an important purpose in life. They offer validation and support at times when our knowledge is insufficient and untried. They point us to rich archives of information, and keep us from having to reinvent the wheel by giving us the benefit of their experience, thus effectively shortening our process of gathering knowledge for ourselves. They provide a rootedness, linking us with the past, and giving us a means to climb up onto the shoulders of those who came before us, significantly increasing our access to broader vistas of possibility, yet also giving us the means to focus on the details of principle that anchor us, and increase our ability to integrate our beliefs into our every day lives. They stand for discipline and constancy, stability and groundedness. Of course, this is when they are functioning honorably in their roles as guides and mentors, without greedy agendas or egotistical posturing, as has too often been the case in human history right on up to the present day. We witness the Hierophant gone wrong, corrupted and stifling, when we hear or read about the abuses committed by leaders in religion, government and academia, persons in whom we have been taught to place our trust.
It is a given that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But, does it really have to be that way? In ancient times, the shamanic practitioners who led their tribes would regularly and deliberately put themselves at risk to test themselves, and keep themselves honest, to shake their own foundations so they would not grow rigid and complacent. I think this is an excellent practice that we should revive to some degree. We don’t have to actually risk our physical safety to shake things up and blow some of the dust out. We DO have to get out of the seductive ego traps that are always lurking, and keep channels open for healthy change and fresh insights. Flexibility, and openness to innovation keep living structures stronger, and give them the adaptability to survive. Key functions linked to this kind of authority would be expressed as values, principles, codes of ethics, rules to live by, protocols, traditions, accepted procedures, rituals, teaching, mentoring, initiating, officiating, using correct grammar, and simple courtesy. Negative expressions would be in such terms as conformity, rigidity, adhering to the forms rather than the spirit of religious, courtly or legal practices, smothering, excluding, pidgeon-holing, profiling, intolerance, and even hypocracy.
Notice how the individual cards differ as we progress through this series.
A very positive view of the Hierophant can be found in the Transparent Tarot.
This card diverges from traditional images of a priestly figure, usually portrayed as a human male, but it expresses the concept very well anyway. This card shows a magnificent Oak tree, venerable and massive with age. It is firmly rooted in the earth, and it’s enormous, sturdy branches reach up to the sky, where they are loaded with vigorous growth. Swirls of power are hidden in the bark of it’s trunk, showing that vitality is present in all of its being, no matter how solid and immovable it may seem. Looking at such a magnificent tree, one must remember that these giant beings are hosts to teeming life forms that depend on them for support, shelter and sustenance- very much like the communities that form around dynamic spiritual leaders. You can tell a great deal about their ethics by the way these communities behave- are they open and supportive? Do they welcome new ideas and have generally positive attitudes? Do they manage to do all this, and yet have the anchoring stability of the patient and sheltering oak? This is a healthy community, formed around a leader who can usually be counted on to be approachable and compassionate. That doesn’t mean s/he’s the right leader for everyone. Remember that the fruits of the oak- acorns- feed multiple animal communities, but are too bitter for human consumption- at least in their natural state. A community, a leader, a philosophy, a path- does not have to be all things to all people, to be worthwhile and valid for those who find their spiritual home there.
Another friendly role model can be found in the Hierophant of the cosmic Tarot. This handsome, somewhat androgenous figure is a Master of Ceremonies. He leads a colorful and varied congregation in an elegant setting, with charisma and style. His focus is very specific, but also clear and distinguished by a beam of light. He holds a card very similar to the one he appears on, indicating that he is guided by a specific set of guidelines for the role he has taken on. A dove soars in the distance, signifying that structure can be freeing, because it provides a supportive platform from which to take off and land. There is room in this tradition for the spirit to take flight and also soar. High, arched windows in the ornate wall are shown in the background; the structure has openness designed and built in, so that channels for light, air, creativity, communication and spiritual insight are open. This is the Hierophant at his civilized best- cultured, erudite, able and willing to serve and guide his community. He is disciplined enough to balance his power with responsibility, and holds strong against the temptation to become the figurehead in a cult of personality.
Moving on to a slightly less friendly interpretation of the Hierophant, we come to the Mystic Dreamer’s Oracle. Heidi Darras has portrayed a handsome, dashing figure, younger and far sexier than we usually find cast in this role. His face shows intelligence and health, but also a certain arrogance and cynicism. He has the polish of a man born to wealth and position, yet you can tell that he’s reachable if you can appeal to his interest with charm, with wit, with the offering of gifts or new information- but you’d better not bore him! Books are stacked near his chair, and brightly burning candles light his space, so you know he still holds at least some of the values he attained while training for this position. His “office” is open to the outdoors, so there is still access for light and fresh air, representing new ideas. Yet, it’s the fading light of evening that comes into this space, and his self-conscious expression shows a person growing overconfident and complacent in his position. He has begun really believe in his superiority, and take it for granted. None the less, there is something still curious and searching in that gaze, something that is aware of all this, and perhaps craves a renewal of mystery and wonder- before he settles irretrievably into the trap of rigidity and routine formality. His hand is raised in a beckoning gesture, as if to challenge the watcher to come and blow some of the fog away, to introduce a little fresh air into the room- but his face says he will not make it easy to do so.
Finally, we come to the Robin Wood interpretation of the Hierophant. This is truly a non-conformist’s nightmare of the priestly role model. Grey faced and gorgeously attired, with an unpleasant and disapproving expression, he displays every evidence of being rigid and cold. His hand is raised in benediction, but the very attitude of the gesture shows its emptiness. He exemplifies the often predatory practices of those leaders who use indoctrination to take advantage of seekers who are often young and naive. He’s sheltered by the stone edifice he inhabits. Columns flank him, showing that he is considered “a pillar of society”. Outwardly respectable, holding his staff partly inside his robes, he is protective of his power and position, rather than supportive of his followers. He places himself above all others, and looks past and over them with narrowed eyes and a disdainful expression. It’s important to remember that while his stance is one of someone in a position of power and established stability, he is still on the defensive. He is hollow, and has forgotten how to access the spiritual flow that keeps faith vital and alive. All the symbols of growth are motifs embroidered on his attire, or carved into the stone of the structure that houses him, all representations of a flowering that is only a dim memory now. This is a power on it’s way to obsolescence. The outer structure will persist for awhile, like a dead tree, needing more and more assistance to prop itself up. After awhile, even that scaffolding will be scavenged for other, more useful purposes, and the dead wood will either be hauled away to fuel another system’s fires, or left to decay and fuel new life in other ways- much the same as fallen trees host colonies of fungi, mosses, insects and rodents. It’s the irresistible cycle of life, and all comes to an end, no matter how powerful and firmly established it seems to be in the present.
And that is the conclusion to my ruminations on the many faces of The Hierophant. Many thanks to the artists Emily Carding, Norbert Losche, Heidi Darras and Robin Wood for their inspiring and beautiful depictions of this card.