The Hierophant, or Pope, is the Major Arcana traditionally associated with the Totem Spirit of Taurus.[i] Hierophant (from the Greek hiera, “holy objects” and phantes, “one who shows”), literally meaning “one who shows holy things”, was the title given to the most important priests of the Eleusinian mysteries, based on the worship of Demeter. The Hierophant was the only one who could touch and show the sacred tools of the goddess, while bathed in mystic light and pronouncing esoteric words. The revelation of these sacred objects was part of the secret process of initiation, and their nature has remained unknown. Since Demeter was the goddess of wheat, most scholars believe that the initiatory ceremony involved the unveiling of the ears of grain, the deity’s gift to mankind.
The sacred emphasis on grain later continued with Christianity through the Holy Bread, Jesus’ most prominent gift. The Hierophant then became the Pope, which is also the term originally used in earlier tarot cards to designate the Hierophant.
In the Rider Waite Tarot the Hierophant is portrayed as a solemn figure wearing the Triple Crown (Papal Tiara) and holding a long triple cross sceptre in his left hand, while dispensing the act of benediction with his right hand. He is seated between two pillars, with two crossed keys (the emblem of the papacy) at his feet and two priests kneeling before him. A.E. Waite describes this trump as the ruling power of external religion, the sum of all theologies “when it has passed into the utmost rigidity of expression.” Yet, it also represents initiation into a secret order or mystery school, which is a meaning vividly embodied by the Alesteir Crowley’s deck, where the Hierophant is charged with intensive esoteric symbolism. He sits on a bull surrounded by elephants and the four Cherubim, the rulers of the fixed astrological signs, also associated with the four evangelists. In his heart area there is a pentagram with a naked male child within, while he wears a conic crown. He also holds a wand surmounted by three rings with his right hand and makes the V sign with the fingers of his left hand.
The anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot identifies the central theme of the card in the act of benediction. He describes this act as an essentially sacerdotal act, a descending divine power that transcends the individual consciousness of both the one who pronounces the blessing and the one who is blessed. Here the blessing is the descending process of a double vertical movement, whose ascending counterpart is prayer
Prayer rises towards God, and once it reaches its destination is divinely transformed into a benediction descending from above. Prayer involves whatever we vertically and humanly express through our mind, will and heart. It comprises the definition of our intention, the request of connecting with Spirit, acts of will, hope and faith, as well as all our efforts and release in this respect, including sufferance, sorrow, pain and ultimately forgiveness. Benediction comes as a gift emanating from God, and the multidimensional realms, and provides grace, illumination, peace, love, consolation or whatever is appropriate to the type of prayer involved. It is unconditional and requires only the availability to receive it.
Just as there is a vertical axis, related with multidimensional or divine communication, and a horizontal axis, concerned with human or third-dimensional interactions, there are also two types of breathing: vertical and horizontal respiration. Vertical respiration pertains to our inner life and is based upon the alternation of prayer and benediction. The law of vertical respiration, as the above author puts it, is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.” (Matthew 22:37). Horizontal respiration comprises our ordinary breathing, the way we physically interact with our environment, as well as all our relationships – emotional, mental or spiritual – in this world. At a subtle level horizontal respiration is based on the alternation between attention given to external life and inner life. The law of horizontal respiration is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)
The basic teaching of the Pope concerns spiritual respiration. Horizontal respiration “takes place between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, and vertical respiration takes place between ‘above’ and ‘below’. The ‘sting of death’ or the essential crisis of the supreme agony is the abrupt passage from horizontal to vertical respiration. Yet he who has learnt vertical respiration whilst living will be spared from the ‘sting of death’. For him the passage from the one form of respiration to the other will not be of the nature of a right angle but rather the arc of a circle. The transition will not be abrupt but gradual, and curved instead of rectangular.” (p. 100). Please see images below. Hence when vertical respiration is learned in our horizontal life, once death (the transition from horizontal to vertical) occurs it will lose its sting.
The sting of death refers to the pain brought by death both to the person involved with it and those left behind to grieve. Traditionally it also relates to the torment that death brings to those who “die in mortal sin”. Horizontally mortal sin is generally identified as one of the grave deeds listed in the canons of a given religion, such as adultery, fornication, witchcraft, heresy, murder, etc. Yet at a vertical level, sin is merely the mad illusion of separation. “Sin is insanity. It is the means by which the mind is driven mad, and seeks to let illusions take the place of truth. And being mad, it sees illusions where the truth should be, and where it really is.[…] A madman’s dreams are frightening, and sin appears to terrify. And yet what sin perceives is but a childish game. The Son of God may play he has become a body, prey to evil and to guilt, with but a little life that ends in death. But all the while his Father shines on him, and loves him with an everlasting Love which his pretences cannot change at all.” (ACIM, W-pII.4.1:1-3; 4:1-4) As such the sting of death affects those who identify themselves with their separated self, and the body representing such a self, which is the only bit that truly dies. As Paul writes: “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15: 55-57)
The shift between horizontal and vertical is a multidimensional crossroad that we meet regularly on our path, and not only with physical death. It is a point of balance exemplifying the necessity to move beyond our limited perception. Whenever things become very hard and blocked, when we continue to bump into a wall and there is no way out, these are signs that we have reached the right angle. We want to move forward on the horizontal level, and yet we cannot do it because there is a vertical line that obstructs the passage. The more we hit this line, the more it hurts and destroys us. It does not occur to us that this right angle can become a curve if we elect to move vertically. At a certain stage the horizontal path is blocked and this implies shifting our attention to another level, the realm of our multidimensional self and God. And also in this higher level we may have to shift our motion this time from vertical to horizontal, when we do again meet another right angle.
The Papal Cross, which the Hierophant gently holds in his left hand, is characterised by three horizontal bars close to the top, in decreasing order of length as they approach the top. These three bars are associated with several elements, such as the Trinity, the Pope’s triple role as leader of worship, teacher and community, the three crosses on Calvary, etc. Here, as I see it, the cross emphasises the priority of the vertical (whose length in the cross is extremely pronounced) and the awareness of the three horizontal worlds or levels of consciousness, through which the seeker voyages in order to retrieve the fragmented parts of his soul and integrate them into the unity of the vertical. As the seeker ascends the horizontal bars narrow until they become one with the vertical. When each of the three horizontal axes meets the vertical axis it forms a right angle, which constitutes the gateway to the vertical. This is a critical zone since if I am caught in the separated reality of the horizontal I will experience the vertical as a blocking wall. At this stage a radical shift in perception is required allowing me to shift from a horizontal to a vertical motion. If I insist to move horizontally I will experience the vertical as a block. I will disown my true multidimensional nature, just as Peter, the first pope, denied Christ three times. “Simon Peter said, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus replied, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now; you will follow me later’. Peter said to him, ‘Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ ‘Lay down your life for me?’ answered Jesus. ‘I tell you most solemnly, before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.’ (John 1336-38) Nevertheless, and perhaps just because he had the direct experience of these three blocks, Peter was charged with the task of building the Church.
In astroshamanic terms the Basic Ritual of the Sacred Cone is an exemplification of the Papal Cross. The first and second stages of the Ritual represent prayer, as we express it in our separated reality based on polarities and opposition. Hence we pray through the expression of our luminous intention and invocation of Spirit (first stage), as well as through releasing grievances and forgiveness (second stage). The third stage of the Ritual is the stage of benediction, where we become receptive to the blessing that descends from above.
With reference to the bars of the cross, the first stage is the long middle bar, which relates to our conscious awareness and intention, our will to contact God and forgive. This is where we start from. Then, with the second stage, we descend into the long lower bar and become aware of our unconscious and hidden or disowned grievances, which are then elevated to the long middle bar, the heart or conscious centre of forgiveness, and are released through ascension to the short higher bar. In the third stage the energy, having reached the top bar lays there as compost for transformation into blessing. This final bar is crucial as it functions as a sort of compost bin, which transforms grievances into fertiliser for the blessing that descends from the apex of the cross. Once fertilisation occurs, benediction moves downward through the vertical axis and reaches the middle and lower bars, reunifying the horizontal to the vertical. On each of the three stages or bars the energy risks to be blocked if it gets stuck on the horizontal level and does not find its way through the vertical. The function of the Pope is to make sure that the movement of the triple cross flows and benediction is assured.
In all spiritual and shamanic traditions there are constant references to the above process. For example, in today’s mass reading (on Maundy Thursday, i.e. the day I am writing this article), from John 13:1-15, we can see an exemplification of benediction, when at the last supper Jesus kneels and washes the disciples’ feet. “Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table” The Father here represents the higher bar, or head, whose blessing descends into Jesus’ hands, corresponding to the middle bar. Then Jesus moves the blessing into the lower bar (feet) when he “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.”
It is interesting to notice that Peter (the one who will deny him three times and that after repentance will become the first pope) objects to Jesus stooping down to wash his feet. “Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand’. ‘Never!’ said Peter ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me’. ‘Then, Lord,’ said Simon Peter ‘not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus said, ‘No one who has taken a bath needs washing, he is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are’“ When he had washed their feet and put on his clothes again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’ he said ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.”
The above is one of the most powerful exemplifications of the Pope, as Major Arcana, and of forgiveness. Its meaning is overt, as well as subtle. I will not comment on it, yet I leave it open to you, my friends, to give feedback. Actually my invitation here is to employ the Ignatian method of prayer, which is one of the most shamanic Catholic spiritual exercises. This method, devised by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, involves the participation of all our physical sense and is typically Taurus in nature. The practice entails using active imagination and placing oneself in a Biblical scene, and then totally engaging in a direct experience. It works exactly as an astroshamanic journey. Here we take the episode of the last supper, and move in that environment as a participant, noticing what we see, hear, smell and feel, including the touch of Jesus’ hands on your feet. You can identify yourself with one of the apostles or whoever is there, and even Jesus himself. You can also bring anyone you wish to be into the company of Jesus, so that they may partake of his blessing.
The last supper is particularly ideal for Taurus because is an event in which the physical body plays a major role. Despite the foot washing, there is also the act of having a meal, as well as the Eucharist,[ii] eating bread and drinking wine, which all involve using the Taurus-ruled mouth to take in food and liquids. Please send comments or a brief account of your experience following this practice.
In this article I have made various references to Peter also because in Robert Place’s Tarot of the Saints, he represents the Pope. Peter, as we know, was appointed guardian of the gate of heaven: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19). On various occasions, besides the episode of the denial, Peter showed signs of human weakness, yet Jesus officially appears to have valued him as the head of the apostles and of the Church.
According to the scriptures Peter was also the only apostle that was married. It is likely that also the other apostles, except John, were married when chosen by Jesus, yet Peter is the only apostle whose marriage is given for certain in the New Testament through references to his wife’s mother (Matthew 8:14-15; Mark 1:30-31). Some authors sustain that the Christ deliberately chose him to head the Church knowing that he was married. Although he left his wife to follow Jesus for about three years, he returned to her after the Christ’s death. According to various accounts Peter brought his wife with him to Rome, where she played a major role in preaching and promoting Christianity. She was then martyred during Nero’s persecution and became known as Saint Perpetua. Therefore, Robert Place concludes that Perpetua can also be considered the first Papesse.
The Pope stands as the guardian of vertical respiration, alternating prayers and blessings, human efforts and divine grace. As such, he is the visible representative of the vertical axis, strenuously operating as a link between man and God. The Tarot was devised before the Reformation, when the Pope was regarded as the supreme authority on earth, with the power to represent God and also to grant authority on emperors. Being the fifth Major Arcana, his numerical association is five, the centre of will holding the four elements which grant mastery of the horizontal level and the capacity to operate as intermediary between the two axes. Five also relates to the pentagram and the five senses.
According to the unknown author there is an evil pentagram (the human will separated from the unity and God) and a sacred one (the human will united with God’s will) and, as for the five senses they are seen as five open wounds, or stigmata, through which the limited perception of the objective world imposes itself on us.
The Pope is the guardian of the sacred pentagram and the five wounds. His function is to ensure that spiritual respiration takes place and that there are always people who breath accordingly, while also embracing the three traditional vows of obedience, poverty and chastity. “Obedience is the practice of silencing personal desires, emotions and imagination in the face of reason and conscience; it is the primacy of the ideal as opposed to the apparent, the nation as opposed to the personal, humanity as opposed to the nation, and God as opposed to humanity. […] Poverty is the practice of inner emptiness, which is established as a consequence of the silence of personal desires, emotions and imagination so that the soul is capable of receiving from above the revelation of the word, the life and the light. […]” Chastity is “the state of the human being in which the heart, having become solar, is the centre of gravity” and “does not concern solely the domain of sex. It bears equally on all other domains where there is choice between solar law and dulling intoxications”, including all forms of fanaticism. The above is discussed in full details in Meditations on the Tarot, and we are not going to treat it further here.
The association of the Pope with the sensual and down-to-earth Taurus may appear out of place here. Yet the Pope’s function is to ground the spiritual on the physical level, to operate in persona Christi (as the physical representation of Christ) and for this purpose he needs to firmly dwell on the earthy realm. The solidity of the Church, with all its cathedrals, monastery and monuments, as well as its primary sacrament of the Eucharist based on bread and wine, are all tangible aspects in our reality. The only flaw is that, similarly to Taurus, while at its best he can be comforting, patient and sensible, he can become inflexible and fundamentalist at its worst.
This card is usually not a popular one among most New Age tarot readers because it evokes all the rigid clichés attributed to the Pope and the Catholic Church. Yet if we are open to move past our prejudices the Pope-Hierophant emerges as a wise teacher, a close friend who is only there to help and assist us once we face the right angle, the critical threshold between the horizontal and the vertical. “He is the leader of salvation for the human race at large. He is the order and head of the recognized hierarchy, which is the reflection of another and greater hierarchic order.” (A.E.Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot).
[i] There are currently several systems of correspondences of the Major Arcana to zodiac signs and planets. In these articles I strategically employ the model of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I adopt this system because it is the most popular in the western culture. This does not necessarily mean that it is the best. For a similar reason in astrology I employ the tropical zodiac instead of the sidereal zodiac, and I refer to Christianity rather than other religions. Likewise I write PAN in English, and not in Sanskrit or Latin, although there are editions of PAN in Italian and Spanish. Hence PAN is also open to other models. Yet rather then focusing on finding the right model or language, the aim is to use the existing models to do what, as I healingly see it, is needed.
[ii] The Eucharist is one of the major enactments of the act of benediction, and also canonically develops according to the process of the triple cross. Since due to lack of space it is not possible to refer here to this liturgy, I invite you to attend a mass or read the description of the various stages of this sacrament, also as a way of deepening your understanding of the Pope.