High Priestess from the series of 22 Major Arcana, popularly known as the Waite pack by Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman Smith

High Priestess from the series of 22 Major Arcana, popularly known as the Waite pack, c.1937, Colour lithography, 12 x 7 cm, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Collection, Yale University Library, 2003230, Photo: The Beinecke Library / Public Domain

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Keeper of Secrets

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This iconic High Priestess card depicting a robed, seated woman with a lunar crescent at her feet and the crown of Isis on her head was drawn by Pamela Colman Smith for the popular tarot deck designed by Arthur Edward Waite and first published in 1910 by Rider & Co.

Waite and Smith were both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an initiatory society dedicated to the study and practice of ceremonial magic, and their tarot deck is based on Golden Dawn teachings (Greer 1995: 405–10). Central to the Golden Dawn was the recovery of the divine feminine, whose allegorical form the High Priestess is supposed to embody: seated between Jachin and Boaz, the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 7:21), she keeps the balance of powers; placed before the veil of pomegranates (a fruit traditionally associated with Persephone’s descent and release from the underworld), she guards the key to the mysteries of life and death (Waite [1911] 2005: 29–70).

A hugely influential piece of art created just as the women’s suffrage movement was rising to prominence, Waite–Smith’s deck and the High Priestess card in particular speak to the changing perception of women in the twentieth century (Auger 2004: 13–52). We need only compare Smith’s arresting priestess to early modern depictions of witches—with their delight in the grotesque and the degrading—to recognize an entirely new portrayal of what women’s powers might look like. And yet not entirely new. When read against 1 Samuel 28, the poise of the High Priestess in the Waite–Smith deck reminds one of the least cited but surely most remarkable among the woman of Endor’s attributes: her equanimity.

When, after the spirit of Samuel appears to Saul, the king falls to the ground in a swooning fit, the woman is the first to act, making sure he has regained his strength before returning home. The king’s illness would have given the woman the perfect opportunity to flee the scene: after all, she has been tricked into performing magic that might get her banished from the land. Instead, this ‘witch’ responds with civility and good grace, and not a trace of cackling laughter. It is not difficult to judge which image of woman’s magic she most resembles—the hag or the High Priestess.

 

References

Auger, Emily E. 2004. Tarot and Other Meditation Decks: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Typology (Jefferson: McFarland)

Greer, Mary. 1995. ‘Pamela Colman Smith and the Tarot’, in Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses (Richmond, Vermont: Park Street Press), pp. 405–10

Waite, Arthur Edward. [1911] 2005. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination (Mineola: Dover)


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