Lessons from the High Priestess + a Tarot Spread for Intuitive Development

Lessons from the High Priestess + a Tarot Spread for Intuitive Development

There is perhaps no tarot archetype more beloved by tarot readers and enthusiasts than the High Priestess. Dense with esoteric symbolism and universally attributed with the keyword "intuition," the High Priestess card undoubtedly presents us with a powerful image of feminine spiritual authority and infallible inner knowing. She is the guardian of the gateway to our subconscious, the stoic invitation to be quiet and receptive. Luminous and all-knowing, the High Priestess is the spirit-centered insistence we cease our clamoring for external advice and return to the Self.

I was, of course, elated when the High Priestess emerged as my card of the year at the center of my 2017 Year Ahead spread. By the end of 2016, I had been reading tarot professionally for the better part of a year and finally felt like I had carved out an eclectic spiritual path that was uniquely mine rather than an imitation of what I thought I needed to be doing/believing to be a "real witch." "This is the year," I thought to myself, "that I fully step into my birthright as a Priestess." My expectations for 2017 overflowed with what I realize now were pretty romanticized visions of the High Priestess. I was ready for moonbeams of divine illumination, unlocked spiritual secrets, and a profound intuitive boost as a tarot reader. 

Truth be told, the High Priestess kicked. my. ass. My year under this archetype's tutelage was intense and often times confusing and demanding. Sure, there were moonbeams and divine winks and unmatched enchantment. But there was also a lot of frustrating silence, energetic cord-cutting, and rigorous reevaluation of my own spiritual paradigms and budding identity as a tarot reader. 

Most significantly, the High Priestess demanded I stop splashing around in the shallow waters of "intuition" as a keyword. She dunked me deep into the intuitive sea to learn what that word means as a mode of moving through the world, especially as a queer femme witch whose ways of feeling, existing, knowing have been systematically, historically erased and derided. 

Here are three of the most powerful lessons the High Priestess gifted me (or, more accurately, made me work my butt off for) during our intimate, year-long journey:

 

Intuition is embodied

When we talk about intuitive abilities and development in spiritual communities, we curiously tend to locate it in the head as if it resides (solely) there. This is most clearly evidenced by the focus in New Age communities on balancing and opening the third eye and crown chakras to access intuitive knowing. In this paradigm, intuition lives and is experienced above the neck. There is also some conflation of intuitive and psychic abilities in spiritual circles that feeds into this, which configures intuitive insights as external hits or synchronicities to which we must open ourselves up. In effect, intuition--even when we try to conceptualize it as an inner knowing--gets discussed as if resides in or grants access to "the beyond," or is activated in the realm of the head/mind. 

In my experience, intuition is not about what happens from the neck up. It is a profoundly embodied communication system with my own inner divinity, subconscious, and wise instincts. I am never not in my body. Everything I experience in this earthly life--even the most intensely spiritual, intuitive, mysterious of things--is experienced in and through my body. Intuition, the High Priestess taught me, is not about escaping or ignoring the wisdom of my body. From academic elitism to personal and collective trauma to even spiritual discourses promoting ascension/enlightenment/transcendence,  there are enough forces at work in our lives that encourage us to disassociate from the fleshiness of our existence. This is particularly true for femmes, survivors,  and other marginalized folx. The High Priestess is not one of these forces of disembodiment. On the contrary, I've found that my intuition is fully integrated into and expresses itself through my body.

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Some tarot decks depict the High Priestess as divine and untouchable (the Thoth deck comes to mind), but during my year-long journey with the archetype I found many others that hint to her lesson of embodied intuition. Dark Days Tarot, for instance, offers us an approachable High Priestess (pictured above) who is quite literally rooted into the materiality of the earthly plane. Her body and the soil meet where she is seated, and grass has sprouted between her legs; this Priestess's throne is not ethereal, it is earthly. The faces of her ancestors other divine allies peek through her lush mane, indicating that voices of her guides reside within her. A crescent moon and flower float above her extended palm, and pert flowers sprout from the hand hovering near the place where her nakedness meets the meadow. She is magical and mundane, holding both the mystical and the material in her hands to show us that the binary that has cleaved them is a false one.

Where does intuition live in your flesh? When your inner wisdom is trying to get your attention, where do you feel it? What would it look and feel like for you to embrace intuition as a full-body phenomenon?

 

The High Priestess, Patron/ess of Banished Knowledge

In Modern Tarot, author Michelle Tea writes that the High Priestess is "the most mysterious, the most radical, the most feminist card in the tarot…the High Priestess represents the female individuals who in antiquity were crowned pope, or popess. She is the female or transgender person who passes as male and was unwittingly crowned pope until their body betrayed them; she is the nun brazenly elevated to pope by her radical community and then burned at the stake as a witch for her wisdom and power... The High Priestess is a powerful, radical card that disrupts gender dichotomies and oppressions and makes space for banished knowledge” (32-33). Referencing the myth of Pope Joan, who rose to the top of church hierarchy and was ousted by the Vatican, Tea is placing the archetype of the High Priestess in a lineage of real and fictive gender outlaws. 

Though this card is in some ways one of opposition--its numerological association is 2 and the traditional Smith-Waite rendering of the High Priestess depicts her flanked by the black and white pillars of the Temple of Solomon--Tea's insights push us to reconsider the High Priestess as a figure that troubles and transgresses gender polarities. The High Priestess is a potent image of female spiritual authority and, as a foil to the Hierophant, represents an alternative to dogmatic patriarchal religious codes. Even the traditional Smith-Waite High Priestess hints at the disruption of dichotomies: the High Priestess is seated in the space between the oppositional pillars. Beyond a figure of feminine intuitive receptivity and female spiritual leadership, during my tutelage under her, the High Priestess revealed herself as the midwife of intuition. She is the passageway from the conscious to the subconscious mind, the portal from the mundane to the magickal. The High Priestess is liminality personified. In these ways, the High Priestess is pretty damn queer.

The Oracle from the Slutist Tarot

The Oracle from the Slutist Tarot

Though this card is in some ways one of opposition--its numerological association is 2 and the traditional Smith-Waite rendering of the High Priestess depicts her flanked by the black and white pillars of the Temple of Solomon--Tea's insights push us to reconsider the High Priestess as a figure that troubles and transgresses gender polarities. The High Priestess is a potent image of female spiritual authority and, as a foil to the Hierophant, represents an alternative to dogmatic patriarchal religious codes. Even the traditional Smith-Waite High Priestess hints at the disruption of dichotomies: the High Priestess is seated in the space between the oppositional pillars. Beyond a figure of feminine intuitive receptivity and female spiritual leadership, during my tutelage under her, the High Priestess revealed herself as the midwife of intuition. She is the passageway from the conscious to the subconscious mind, the portal from the mundane to the magickal. The High Priestess is liminality personified. In these ways, the High Priestess is pretty damn queer.

A handful of contemporary independent tarot decks are tapping into and highlighting the High Priestess's genderqueer, genderless, all-gendered magick through a retitling and artistic reimagining of the card. Both Slow Holler Tarot and the Slutist Tarot, for instance, rename it "the Oracle," a beautiful gender-neutral revision that retains the card's original titular meaning. The Slutist Tarot depicts the Oracle as a fierce, witchy trans POC (pictured above). While I have some reservations about using trans bodies and images of gender/sexual nonconformity as visual metaphors in tarot decks, I definitely appreciate the burgeoning commitment of some deck creators to diversify the tarot's imagery and explore more radical interpretive possibilities for the 78 cards. 

In addition to its life-affirming, binary-busting queer magick, the High Priestess card presented itself to me more generally as the keeper of banished wisdom. In mainstream tarot theory, the High Priestess's epitomization of a type of knowing that defies intellect is often interpreted generically as an invitation to reclaim and trust our intuition. This is undoubtedly vital in a world that prizes rational thought above all other ways of knowing, yet not everyone's intuitive truths have been equally discredited. The spiritual lifeways of indigenous people the world over have been and continue to be genocidally erased and appropriated. The vibrant ways of thinking, feeling, being, thriving, and surviving in communities of color are systematically suppressed. The High Priestess, as the keeper of banished knowledge, is the patron tarot saint of marginalized people in all of our grit, brilliance and resilience. 

If you are not queer, a person of color, and/or indigenous, I invite you to meditate on the potentially difficult reality that intuition is not apolitical. Some people's reclamation of intuition and spiritual authority is made all the more challenging and important due to ongoing legacies of oppressive violence that attempt to divorce us from our own personal and collective truths. Some of us--femmes, women, queer kin, survivors, POCs, First Nations people--have been taught to distrust our inner guidance even more than others. If you are a marginalized person, I invite you to take stock of your relationship with the High Priestess and explore the possibility of regarding them as the patron/ess of the banished wisdom you seek to reclaim.

 

You are your own spiritual authority

As a baby witchling with a penchant for academic excellence, I spent a majority of my teens and young adult life trying to study my way into my spiritual practice. The higher the pile of New Age books towered, the more estranged I felt from my own inner divinity. I thought my altar needed to be just so, my words of power perfectly ordered, my magick a precise reproduction of what every Llewelyn author outlined. Of course, this is by no means a unique experience, and I am delighted to hear more and more people with popular platforms in the spiritual community encourage newcomers to follow their own paths. 

It wasn't until my High Priestess year that I fully let go of my impulse to defer to other (smarter, famous, cooler, more experienced) people's spiritual authority. The High Priestess emboldened me to literally dismantle my altar and reorganize it in a way that lit me up, which was profoundly liberating after years of trying to discipline my sacred space into a tidier, structured, and more Wiccan-centric setup. Though I was not raised in the church and have few hang-ups around religious doctrine, I was surprised by just how hard it was and how long it took to realize that I am my own spiritual authority. Other marginalized people might struggle with this for the reasons I discussed above, and people who were groomed in strict religious communities might similarly find this High Priestess lesson confronting. Once I stepped into my spiritual authority and stopped looking elsewhere for instruction, I found that my whole path transformed. I allowed myself experiences that pushed me closer to polytheism than my previously pantheistic heart thought possible. I continued to read voraciously and listen to others closely, but became the arbiter of my own truth and practice.

This, I discovered, is the crux of the High Priestess card: you are your own spiritual authority. This is both your birthright and responsibility. 


Even if you are part of a coven, grove, or spiritual collective, tradition, or lineage, you are on your own unique spiral path. Arrange your altar within your tradition or however you damn well please. Or, don't have one at all. Believe in your own personal gnosis. Don't submit to other people's policing of your magick. Do follow your curiosity and intuition. I'd like to insist, however, that this is not an invitation to be an uninformed and appropriative practitioner. That, too, is irresponsible and, when you are being honest with yourself, you know the difference between sovereign power and spiritual sloppiness. Remember that the High Priestess possesses the scroll of esoteric wisdom but isn't limited by it. The High Priestess, in my mind, isn't opposed to spiritual study but encourages us to read with a critical, discerning eye. So study widely with a curious mind, accept the guidance of trusted teachers, and experiment with various techniques. But ultimately, you are the priest/ess of your own path. Instead of trying to fill the cleric's chair with books, Instagram posts, gurus, and so forth, take a seat in that throne of sovereign spiritual power. It is yours. Reign. 

 

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While under the High Priestess's tutelage in 2017, I developed a 6 card tarot spread called "The Priestess Within" inspired by the Smith-Wait symbolism. This spread, which is detailed below, illuminates that our intuitive abilities and experiences are unique to us in many ways by identifying your intuitive gifts and offering personalized guidance on how to better hear, trust, and utilize them. 


If it serves you to check in with a professional tarot reader for fresh insight and collaboration, it would be a privilege to shuffle the cards for you. You can book this reading with me here. I also invite you, as your own spiritual authority, to use this spread on your own to check in with your intuitive development. 

The Priestess Within: A 6 Card Spread for Intuitive Development

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Center: The High Priestess, consciously pulled out of your deck as the anchor for your reading (alternatively, if you’d like to read with a complete deck, pull the High Priestess out of another deck if you have one).

1. The Scroll: the progress you’ve already made on your path of intuitive development.

2. The Veil: the primary blockage impeding your intuition. This is what inhibits you from hearing and trusting your intuitive voice.

3. The Sea: the intuitive potential and untapped psychic gifts you possess beyond the veil of the blockage.

4 and 5. The Pillars: practical guidance on how you might support and strengthen your intuition.

6. The Crescent Crown: a final spiritual message of guidance as you continue down your path of intuitive development.

 

If you would like to learn this spread in greater detail via video tutorial and listen to more of my thoughts on the High Priestess, you can watch/listen here:

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Of course, my journey with the High Priestess did not conclude at the end of 2017. As an eclectic witch and tarot reader, I will forever be pushing aside the folds of her pomegranate veil and diving deepdeepdeeper into her mysterious waters. My love for this archetype--in all of her stoic, ass-kicking, intuitive queerness--is bottomless and I know that my understanding of it will only continue to unfold. 

What has the High Priestess taught you? Do you have interpretations of her that defy or complicate conventional tarot knowledge?

Dark Goddess Knocking

Dark Goddess Knocking

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