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  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.
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.  2005. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination (Mineola: Dover)
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the wizards out of the land. 4The Philistines assembled, and came and encamped at Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboʹa. 5When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at Endor.”
8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments, and went, he and two men with him; and they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit, and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” 10But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13The king said to her, “Have no fear; what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.
15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress; for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, David. 18Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord, and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amʹalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 19Moreover the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”
20 Then Saul fell at once full length upon the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel; and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your handmaid has hearkened to you; I have taken my life in my hand, and have hearkened to what you have said to me. 22Now therefore, you also hearken to your handmaid; let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23He refused, and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he hearkened to their words. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed. 24Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour, and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25and she put it before Saul and his servants; and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.