The High Priestess: Waite’s Symbolism

We continue our series of posts regarding the symbols in the Waite Colman Smith tarot deck. We compare Waite’s descriptions in the Pictorial Key, the textual descriptions by predecessors and contemporaries such as the Boot T and Mathers, as well as any “undocumented” symbolism in the illustrations, which may represent enhancements to Waite’s instructions by Colman Smith, or the latter’s own ideas.

For other posts in the series, click here or on “symbol” in the tag cloud.

2: The High Priestess

ID symbol meaning
PRS lunar crescent General knowledge attributes femininity as associated with the moon. Waite states, “She is, in fine, the Queen of the borrowed light, but this is the light of all.” Note that the Book T states an association with “increase and decrease, fluctuation,” as in the phases of the moon.
PRS palms Though Waite specifically mentions the palms on the veil, he makes no further remarks. The palms may be intended to recall the life of Jesus, especially since it was less than one week after Palm Sunday that the veil of the temple, also mentioned, was rent.
PRS pillars Waite: “The spiritual justice which is involved in the idea of election… the High Priestess is and can be only the Church.”
PRS scroll Waite: “The (Torah scroll signifies the) Greater Law, the Secret Law and the second sense of the Word… the Divine Law and the Gnosis… the Secret Tradition and the higher sense of the instituted Mysteries.” Note the difference with Mathers who refers to a “Book of Science open in her hand.” Whereas the Book T refers to the key as representing “occult wisdom or power.”
PRS veil The temple veil is the barrier to the “holy of holies.” Waite states “she has been called occult Science on the threshold of the Sanctuary of Isis, but she is really the Secret Church, the House which is of God and man.” Again, a difference with Mathers who states “She represents Science, Wisdom, or Knowledge.”
PRS horned diadem General knowledge attributes power to the diadem as a symbol. Note that the horned diadem in particular may refer back to Rome. Mathers cites other decks as illustrating her with “A woman crowned with a high mitre or tiara.” In this respect, Waite’s attribution of the High Priestess to the church of Rome may be cited again, though he does not mention the horned diadem in words.
PRS pomegranates Though Waite mentions but does not explain this symbol, general knowledge attributes fertility to the pomegranate as a symbol, stemming back to the story of Persephone.

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot? 😉