The Hierophant: Waite’s Symbols

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.

Note that I am taking the Hierophant out of order, so that I may place him between the High Priestess, and the Emperor, both of which are referenced in the notes to this post.

5: The Hierophant

ID symbol meaning
HIE gesture Waite: “With his right hand he gives the well-known ecclesiastical sign which is called that of esotericism, distinguishing between the manifest and concealed part of doctrine.” We should note the gesture, since we’ll be comparing it to the gesture of the Devil later on. Waite is very close to Mathers regarding the gesture: “with his right hand he makes the sign of esoterism, and with his left he leans upon a staff surmounted by a triple cross.” We note also that the description of a gesture made with two hands is in common with the Magician.
HIE keys Waite: (The keys are) “a particular application of the more general office that he symbolizes. He is the ruling power of external religion, as the High Priestess is the prevailing genius of the esoteric, withdrawn power.” We can note that Waite assigns a much more powerful and active role to the Hierophant than the Book T, which states “He is the reflective or mystical aspect of the masculine. He is the thinker as the Emperor is the doer.” Mathers says “He is the symbol of Mercy and Beneficence.”
HIE pillars Waite: (He is) “seated between two pillars, but they are not those of the Temple which is guarded by the High Priestess.” Though both Waite and Mathers generally equate the office of the Pope with the Hierophant, this is the one statement of Waite that may vary from that thought. At this point it is worthwhile to quote Wikipedia’s article on Hierophant:

A hierophant (Ancient Greek: ἱεροφάντης) is a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy. The word comes from ancient Greece, where it was constructed from the combination of ta hiera, “the holy”, and phainein, “to show”. In Attica it was the title of the chief priest at the Eleusinian Mysteries. A hierophant is an interpreter of sacred mysteries and arcane principles.

HIE triple cross (Another papal symbol; see keys, above, and triple cross, below.)
HIE crown Specifically, the triple layered crown. Waite: “He is the order and the head of the recognized hierarchy, which is the reflection of another and greater hierarchic order.” Here, Waite draws attention to the Pope’s authority. This is not too unlike The Book T’s statement: “His colours unlike those of the Emperor vary considerably. Red, orange, maroon, deep brown, and chestnut brown, suggest veiled thought, interior power, endurance, contemplation and reconciliation. This card frequently indicates the hidden guardianship of the Masters.”


At this point, after just a few cards, I think we can start seeing patterns; not only betweeen the archetypes portrayed in the cards themselves, as we’ll see when we compare Hierophant and High Priestess, but in Waite’s departures from the viewpoints of his contemporaries and predecessors. From here forward we can provide a “Conclusions” section. After all, we can’t expect you to read this blog without providing more than just a regurgitation of others’ work.

As you may already know, the Book T contains descriptive detail regarding the symbolism of all the minor arcana cards, but for the majors, the keys, they contain a mere sentence or two each. Mather provides further descriptions of the major arcana, but we note that he does so mostly in context of illustrations from older sets of Tarot cards, such as the Marseille deck. Therefore we can note of Waite’s work:

  • He is augmenting the symbol sets at least partly based on the relations between cards as he interprets those relations.
  • The High Priestess/Hierophant relation is an excellent starting point to demonstrate this hypothesis. As already noted, in the Pictorial Key he describes the relation in contrasting words (“secret church” vs. “recognized hierarchy”), respectively. The new symbols we find in the deck (palms on the veil of the High Priestess, possibly referring to Palm Sunday and the papal keys, respectively) visually represent the links.

One last point, for context: recall that Waite broke from the Golden Dawn group specifically to form another group (the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross) to interpret the tarot from a more “Christian” viewpoint. Though he had left the Roman Catholic Church many years earlier, we know from his writings that he still was drawn to its rituals We find, though we’re only a few cards into the deck, that many of the new symbols we’ve found are of a specifically Christian nature. We can point to items such as the palms mentioned above, and the lemniscate of the Magician, which possibly refers to the Holy Spirit.

The Hierophant

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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?