The Pope and the Hierophant: Tarot in the New Aeon

It’s often said that humans are machines of pattern recognition, inventing meaning in the randomness of chaos. It’s the principle argument of skeptics and detractors of the occult, a chief commandment of atheism. Yet it hasn’t stopped millions of human minds from seeking wisdom in these patterns, many of which predate our written histories. Archetypes and allegories teach us about people, events, and imperatives that contribute to our development as both individuals and members of society at large.

We see this play out in tarot. What began as a simple playing card game became a deeply nuanced system of symbolic language with the addition of the Triumphs (later Trumps). In gameplay, they mimicked the constant domination and submission of characters and events: the Triumph of Love as a parade of brilliance and beauty, the Triumph of Death indiscriminate of status or wealth, the Triumph of Eternity and the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom. But to occultists like Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as Etteilla, they were encapsulations of astrological and alchemical imperatives. Etteilla and his School saw larger cosmic patterns in tarot that changed not only their use, but the cards themselves: tarot was no longer simply a plaything or pastime — it would forevermore be a tool of inner wisdom.

“Le Grand Pretre” of Etteilla’s tarot

When we discussed the Hierophant at the beginning of this year, we focused mainly on his role as spiritual bureaucrat, a holdover from his position as the Pope in older decks. To understand the evolution of this card and unravel its astrological association with Taurus, we need to start with Eliphas Levi. Like Etteilla before him, Levi saw the tarot as symbolic of the magical path. Each card in the Major Arcana — or Grand Secret — related explicitly to a pathway along the Tree of Life, embodying unique lessons for the seeker. Levi saw no coincidence in the number of Trumps — certainly, the 22 cards corresponded with the 22 letters of the Aleph Bet, a cornerstone of Kabbalistic tradition. In his work with the Tarot de Marseilles Levi linked the Pope to the letter Heh, the fifth card to the fifth letter. In the mystic traditions, Heh is a composite letter representing both the material and the spiritual — each stroke works together to unify our experience of the divine with the world around us: its topmost horizontal stroke represents the sameness of soul and source, its downward stroke one of the sovereign word, while its left leg is that of action, which remains detached as a reminder of the ongoing effort to choose benevolent acts. This kind of mathematically derived moralism may be exactly what the Pope delivers to the two acolytes who kneel before him, himself a symbol of the divine reorganized and structured into human systems of order and importance. Levi emphasized the energetic connections between the two pillars and two acolytes, installing the Pope as the highest point of a Pentagram composed of law, order, liberty, and action. The Pope becomes the topmost stroke of his letter, the elevation of these imperatives through union with spirit.

“Le Pape,” Marseilles tarot

But tarot remains a living system, open to interpretation by different minds with different priorities. To esoteric scholar Israel Regardie, the card mirrored the path of Golden Dawn initiates. With his triple cross and triple crown, the Pope sits between two pillars installing his own form as that of a third. They believed these two pillars to be the knowledge of Hermes and Solomon, but with the Pope himself centered between them they become another echo of the Tree of Life — the Pillar of Severity lies to the left, the Pillar of Mercy to the right, but the Kingdom, the Crown, and all Beauty lies on the Middle Pillar. In the newest incarnation of tarot, the fifth card of the Major Arcana came to represent the path between Wisdom and Mercy, an initiation into righteousness. This Triumph did not belong to the figurehead of the Roman Church — the Golden Dawn needed their own initiating officer.

Enter the Hierophant.

the Hierophant, Rider-Waite tarot

The Hierophant was named for the Golden Dawn’s highest initiating officer, a spiritual successor to the chief of the Elusian mystery school, a title which translates to “one who shows sacred things.” Within their organization the Hierophant’s role was to assume the energy of Osiris, one of their most sacred archetypes, and bring junior members into the elevated understanding that came with initiation. He became a human vessel of sacred creative energy, of masculine potency — to the Golden Dawn, the phallus was not only a physical tool of creation but the key to divinity and power: it was through Osiris’ severed phallus that Isis impregnated herself with Horus, creating the holy family of the Golden Dawn’s canon. This association was cause for another great shift in the card, moving it from the path between Wisdom and Beauty on the Tree of Life and installing it between Wisdom and Mercy. Here, it was no longer a representation of Heh, Unity, but Vav, the Nail, connecting the spiritual to the physical.

This Middle Pillar Hierophant sounds altogether different from the Pope of the Marseilles but its redesign still bears distinctly papal cues. His clothing is somewhere between ecclesiastical and magickal: red robes over his white tunic are reminiscent of papal vestments for apostolic feast days and under his feet are the keys of Saint Peter, from whom all popes are symbolically descended. But the red and gold robes are also similar to those worn by the Golden Dawn’s own Hierophant, his nemyss and crown-topped scepter swapped for triplicate accessories of his earlier incarnation. AE Waite himself acknowledged the “woeful admixture” of symbolism attached to the card, less the esoteric authority so many would wish to see and more the exoteric expression of theology. The Hierophant, he suggested, may be the wooden representation of his own power. One can’t help but feel his growing cynicism against the Order itself in Waite’s words: in pursuit of the Middle Pillar and all it promises, ceremony often turns to pomp and erodes doctrine, no matter how sacred.

WB Yeats’ Golden Dawn journal

This is the cynicism with which many of us are introduced to the Hierophant. We approach him as nothing more than a figurehead with all the reverence of a modern Vatican tourist. The Hierophant feels like an obstacle to wisdom rather than a guardian. In a way, he’s an echo of the Golden Dawn itself — dogma and ritual turned rigid. As the century turned, it brought a New Aeon — and a New Aeon requires a New Hierophant.

The Thelemic Aeon of Horus was one of individual freedom and Aleister Crowley did not hesitate to exercise his personal judgement when he undertook his own redesign of the tarot in 1938. His Hierophant still occupied the path of Vav, indicated by the nails which affix the window behind him, but he is far from the papal bureaucrat we knew before. The Hierophant of Thoth is an energetic evolution of the Emperor, a Priest King empowered by the Aeon he ushers in. Crowley associated Chesed, Mercy, with the Law and Chokmah, Wisdom, with the Father, imbuing this Hierophant with a supreme authority over both the eso- and exoteric. Venus, an unseen ruler of the card’s zodiacal association in previous decks, materializes before him with a wild ferocity. Here she’s the Scarlet Woman, both the sovereign feminine and mother of monstrosity. The nine nails tie the card to Yesod, Foundation, and the Moon’s exaltation under Taurus, while the deep inky blue is the colour of Nuit, the infinite Thelemic goddess. Indigo is also the colour of Saturn and as such represents both Space and Time, which the Hierophant honors with his three-ringed wand — all aeons converging. Despite this pervasive femininity, the Hierophant remains a masculine energy and is himself a phallic symbol, a generative force of initiation. Crowley returns to the pentagram Levi emphasized in the Marseilles’ Pope, now manifested not in mere suggested shapes but in outlined currents of energy that bring forth the Puer Aeternus, the God of the New Aeon. This is not the passive, wooden figurehead of stale ceremony: this is an individual in active communication with his True Will. There is no ritual for ritual’s sake but a stretching of spiritual musculature for greater achievement and understanding.

The Hierophant, Thoth tarot

However, the Aeon is still young and birth is a violent experience. The transition from one age into another is necessarily marked by turmoil and schism.

This is the Hierophant archetype that feels present in the current time. There’s a distinctly Uranian energy to the Hierophant’s new incarnation, as much an instigator as an initiator. Amidst the turmoil of a new aeon, the Hierophant unifies old traditions with new energies, initiates us into freedom through communion with the ancient. He is the new face of a timeless force, a convergence of time and space both familiar and novel. The Book of Thoth remarked

it is impossible at the present time to explain this card thoroughly, for only the course of events can show how the new current of initiation will turn out.

It remains, as ever, a card in the process of evolution, an eternal microcosm intent on emphasizing and embodying its macrocosmic force.

You can watch a version of this essay on YouTube here

Fairlie Theta is a professional astrologer and a lifelong student of esoterica, marrying symbolism, semiotics, and psychology || See more at MoonandMajesty.com

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