Tarot: Symbolism of the High Priestess

Hermit’s take on Nuin as the High Priestess

Trump 2 in the Revenant Tarot deck
Trump 2 in the Revenant Tarot deck

An old woman might seem like an unconventional choice for this card, but she is everything this card stands for: a keeper of ancient and hidden wisdom, one who values intuition over cold, hard, facts. She is the Allmother, the female embodiment of the Divine, inviting us into more spiritual matters. Nuin is a woman of intense psychic prowess, fertile of mind, if not of body.

In the Rider-Waite deck, the High Priestess is seated between two pillars, one black, one white, the pillars of Solomon’s temple, the two pillars representing darkness and light. Here, Nuin stands between two trees: one dark, probably an Oak, the other light, a Birch. Oak is a tree of self-reliance, strength, and fertility. Birch is a tree of change, release, and rebirth. They are almost opposites, these trees, one being dark, the other light. One being strong, the other flexible. Nuin stand between these two, knowing when to bend, and when to be strong.

In the background of the classical High Priestess is a tapestry with pomegranates on it, which symbolizes Persophone’s sense of duty, eating a pomegranate seed for each month she could return from the underworld. Nuin brings none of the fruit into this scene, but instead carries a staff, a symbol of power and authority. With authority comes duty, and responsibility. However, the shells that have been tied to a hole in the staff give a nod back to the Persephone story, indicating that this staff, a symbol of masculinity, has been tempered by a woman’s touch. The staff is also a symbol of law, be it the laws of man or the laws of the universe, which hints back to the half-obscured Torah in the classical High Priestess’s arms. The rune at the top of the staff is the Ogham rune “Nuin” for the Ash Tree, which is where our main figure gets her name.

The other meaning of the tapestry in the classical tarot is its usage in keeping the uninitiated from seeing into the temple, or stopping casual onlookers from seeing into mysteries they were not meant to have knowledge of. In this card, a spider has spun a large web between the two trees Nuin is standing in front of, catching anything that flies between them. It represents the veil between worlds, which only the High Priestess can see past. Spiders are symbols unto themselves, their webs being the inspiration for Native American dream catchers. They are symbols of fate, rebirth, cunning, and protection, which echo the role of the High Priestess almost perfectly.

Given that the High Priestess has been classically depicted as the Maiden, and a virgin, it may seem odd to have Nuin, a woman who has become the Crone, depicted. Instead of the young woman with wisdom beyond her years, we see the woman who has been through almost anything you might imagine, and shows her wisdom plainly as the wrinkles on her face. She is no longer young, beautiful, or fertile, yet she carries a basket of flowers, a symbol of fertility. She may be a Crone, but she is a Mother to the land, and knows how to use what she takes from it. The yellow finch on her shoulder is her familiar, and a symbol of maiden-like curiosity, and a child’s imagination. She always has her finch with her, which reflects the notion that the High Priestess is not a bearer of child, but a bearer of ideas.

The astrological sign for this card is the moon, which is depicted on Nuin’s staff, under the Ogham rune, and echoed in the shape of her belt buckle. The High Priestess is the moonlight in the Hermit’s lantern, willing to illuminate hidden aspects of life if it is meant to be illuminated. She is the natural force, however, the moon being as much of the night, but instead of the Hermit’s restless seeking of information, she is already a library of knowledge. The moon is a symbol of cycles, time, fate, and woman’s mysteries. Nuin has intimate knowledge with all of these things, and so is a reflection of the moon. Her hair is even the same color as the moon’s disk.

The rune on this card is Perthro, the rune of chance. It represents the Well of Urd, or the Well of Knowledge that contains all that ever was, and all that ever will be. It was the Well that Odin gave up his eye to drink from. Perthro is what is being guarded by the High Priestess, the ever-changing events that become the strings of fate. Nuin herself does not know what they are, or what will be spun from them, but she does have the wisdom to know that such things are not for the eyes of mortals. With the flower in her hand, she reminds us to focus on what we need to know, and what we need to shine light on.

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