Who else thinks that depictions of the tarot High Priestess are just too damn tame?
Sure, all those pomegranates look like vaginas, and that must have made people blush in 1910 when the Rider-Waite-Smith was released, but it’s 2015 and we’ve been through several waves of feminism. In decks of the RWS persuasion, the High Priestess is typically just sitting there. To her credit, the crown and scroll she carries — indicative of her immense esoteric knowledge — are probably really heavy. But the two pillars are symbolic of her ability carry that weight, and her positioning between the pillars hints at her ability to cross the threshold and travel between worlds. In other words, this woman is strong and fucking witchy as hell. I’d much rather see her IN ACTION.
My frustration with the High Priestess depictions has been foremost in my mind since earlier this week when I revisited the holy pages of Diane di Prima’s Loba. For those of you unaware, Loba is an epic poem that celebrates the feminine by exploring aspects of the wolf goddess / wild woman archetype. (If you love Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with the Wolves, you’d probably be down with Loba.) My first encounter with the collection (alongside of H.D.’s Trilogy) was instrumental in my development as a woman and a poet. Although I had read poetry that pushed conventions of form and intimacy, this book blew the doors wide open. Here was rawness, wilderness, love, and violence; a powerful embrace of what is ugly and dangerous and beautiful — an ambitious 300+ pages of it! And by a woman. Honestly, you don’t realize just how much the mostly white, male literary canon infects your consciousness until you’re given a great big dose of kick-ass feminist literature.
When I opened Loba to a part titled “Her power is to open what is shut / Shut what is open,“* I couldn’t help but think of the High Priestess at the threshold between worlds. The title is a quotation from Ovid, speaking of Carna, a protective goddess associated with the flesh (Carna, carne, carnal… yeah you got it), who he conflates with Carda/Cardea, goddess of the hinge. Of course, in the poem, Loba takes on the characteristics of both Carna and Carda. Because that’s how Loba rolls.
In the opening, we are met with the unbearable tension of Carda’s liminal space: “Her power is to fall like razors / on the fine wind of yr spirit / Still water / in the current, / unmoving air / that the wind blows through; / hers is the fire that clings, but does not / consume, dark fire that does not / light the night.”
And later she is the ferocious Carna: “She gleams / in the wildwood where you have not dared / to walk. Wild yew & blackberries / tight, dried meat / of skinny winter deer, these / she holds out, like a key.”
The “key” is typically an image used in the Hierophant card. Two keys are placed at his feet, symbolic of the notion that, as mediator between God and humans, the Hierophant holds the keys to heaven; however, because they are crossed, I also associate him with a guard at the gate. (Hault! Who goes there? You must adhere to the following protocol if you wish to gain admittance.) But in the poem, Loba offers food as if it were a key. Like the guard’s weapons, the food holds its own dangers: A yew berry is edible, but the seed inside the berry could kill you quickly (rumor has it that, like many plants that bring you close to death, yew also may have hallucinogenic properties). You have to be cautious when foraging for blackberries, too; I learned this summer that poison ivy likes weave itself in those bushes! However, maybe the risk of stepping into the wilderness and possibly eating poison is worthwhile… because the food is potentially life-sustaining and, hey, you are being asked to dine with a goddess.
So, all of this is to say that I’d like to see a High Priestess card with a little more Loba — witchy and wild and dangerously delicious. Hopefully I’ll stumble across one (or some) soon.
*Page 43 in the 1998 edition.