In the earlier decks she was the Popess. This is a strange mystery in itself, as we have no solid historical basis for a female Pope. However, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the legend of Pope Joan , a female pope who rose through the ranks by disguising herself as a man, was accepted as unquestionable fact. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that the legend had been debunked as myth. Since the earliest known deck of tarot cards is from somewhere between the fifteenth and sixteenth century, somewhere between the time the legend was accepted then not accepted, the Popess in tarot came to be during a liminal time as well. Tarot scholar Gertrude Moakley, author of the 1966 tarot history book, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family: An Iconographic and Historical Study, pointed out that The Popess who appears in the 15th century Visconti-Sforza Tarot is most likely Sister Manfreda, a cousin of the Viscontis was elected Popess by the Gugliemites, a suppressed Catholic sect named for Guglielma of Bohemia (d. 1281), who was believed to be an incarnation of the Holy Spirit. The Guglielmites thought that Guglielma would descend to earth in 1300 to inaugurate a line of Popesses to replace the Popes, and preparations were made for Popess Manfreda to celebrate Mass in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. However, Manfreda was burned at the stake in that year and the sect was exterminated by the Inquisition. Of the approximately 30 members of the sect from about 7 Milanese families, women outnumbered men, but 10 of the most fervent members were male. The sect had an interesting social life in which there was equality of the genders. There was no emphasis on virginity in the sect, though a good number of the female members were widowed or unmarried. What is interesting, is that the members of the sect crossed social boundaries. There were very wealthy people involved as well as poor servants.
Which leads me to one other point about the High Priestess: her sexuality. Some would like to say she is asexual. Associating her with the Christian virtue of chastity is probably laying too much of the patriarchal expectations of women on her. One might assume that she is a Pope in drag with all the attending vows of chastity that come with the priesthood. And while it is true that early female Christians would take vows of celibacy, refuse to marry, or leave their spouses to enter a society of chaste Christian women, they did so as a means of tossing off patriarchal rule, having no other "head" but Christ. This allowed them freedoms they would not otherwise have known in their society. They were able to study, to teach, to preach, to travel unaccompanied by men, activities deemed unsuitable for single or married women who were not involved in religious orders. However, even in the legends of Pope Joan, she is outed as a woman by the birthing of a child, something only women do, but also a natural result of having had sexual intercourse with a man. The High Priestess is a woman unto herself. She is free to engage in activities apart from men, free to expand her own horizons, free to choose with whom she will have sex with, or not, as she pleases. Sexless? I think not. Independent? Yes.
The point being, The Popess/Papesse or High Priestess represents the divine feminine, the human God/dess mediator. Throughout history we will not let her go, not entirely. The legend of Pope Joan persisted and persists today through all attempts to deny and debunk her. Whether or not she literally existed isn't what matters. The story itself and its longevity reveals that there is something in human socio-spirituality that insists on her presence. Tom Tadfor Little over at The Hermitage expressed this need in this way:
"But human needs find expression, even when the imposed doctrine does not make it easy. The feminine face of religion reappeared in the popular adoration of the Virgin Mary, who now, more than Jesus, became the mediator through which the oppressed might commune with God. The Tarot Papess is not the Virgin Mary, but both tap into the same substrate of human imagination and human need. They are psychological/anthropological "safety valves" for a culture whose religious institutions had become too hierarchical, and too male."
So here she is, the feminine face of God/dess. She often appears in deck renderings as almost Mona Lisa like, smiling just a little, calm and serene. She is of the moon, the water, the earth and the undercurrents that direct the tides.
Ok, so is all that a bit too woo woo for you? Still having trouble when she shows up in a reading? You're not alone. Often, she sits there quite knowingly as you stare blankly at her serene face, hiding her secrets, and you just want her to speak up already. Say it!
What do I need to know?
She answers, "You already know."
Oh, for pity's sake.
"If I knew, would I be asking you?"
"Quite right," she says, "do you need to?"
"Um, I thought I did, hence the cards," sarcasm leaking around the edges of my remark.
"Hmmm," comes her bemused reply, "and what are they telling you?"
Great. Just great. Now I have to figure this out myself?
"Not a whole lot just now, thanks to you."
"Wait for it. It's there, just close your eyes. No peeking." She waits. Then she goes on, "What do you hear?"
"My own questions, over and over."
"Ok, move past them, go deeper. What do you hear?"
"Still nothing. Can't you just tell me?" Ok, I know that came out with a little whiney tinge to it, but I'm getting impatient.
"If I did, you wouldn't hear me either."
Now, what is that about? Was I just insulted? I think I was just insulted.
"Ok, it's quiet in here now. Now what?"
"Now, open your eyes. Look at the cards around me. There is your answer."
And so I do and I begin to read between the cards. Yes, between the cards, in that liminal, marginal space between what I see and don't see but know without seeing.
She's funny that way. Sometimes she does tell you straight up, she's not always so evasive. In some ways she acts similarly to a court card in that you might ask yourself, if she is in a position of advice, what would the High Priestess do? You act as the High Priestess would by assuming her manner and characteristics, by getting in touch with one's subconscious, one's intuitive nature, by feeling and knowing rather than acting overtly without checking in with your instincts first.
Hudes Tarot Deck by Susan Hudes Published by US Games Copyright 1995
Haindl Tarot by Hermann Haindl US Games. 1990 Printed in Belgium.