On Tarot Patrons, Part 1: The Hierophant

As long as I’ve been reading Tarot, I’ve had a patron card, a single key from the Major Arcana that represents myself as a reader and my relationship to Tarot. This card is different from my significator (although we’ve also had that discussion here on the blog). This card is something other than myself, something greater, a guiding force for my Tarot practice.

When I meet a fellow Tarot enthusiast, my first question to them is always “What card represents you as a reader?” And what I’m really digging for when I ask this question is the idea of the patron card. What I’m really asking is, “Under whose auspices do you read Tarot?”

I think this is an excellent question, and the answer I receive tells me a lot about my interlocutor. Am I dealing with someone inspired by the whimsy and freedom of the Fool? Someone who wants to nurture and protect, like the Empress? Or even someone who seeks inspiration in the Tower, and just wants to shake things up a bit?

Of course, I think any Tarot reader worth his or her salt connects to all of the cards on some level (although the Two and Three of Wands get a surprising amount of hate). But usually, people are able to answer this question without too much difficulty. Most readers I’ve encountered are able to pick out that one special card with which they have a closer relationship than with any other.

The cards I most often hear mentioned in response to this question are the High Priestess and the Star. No surprise, I suppose, as the themes represented by these cards (strengthening intuition and finding emotional healing, speaking in very broad terms) are the primary reasons that most people start reading Tarot. Personally, I’ve never had an extraordinarily strong relationship with either of these cards. I don’t have anything against them, but they just don’t grab me, and I’m often rather puzzled by the boundless love that so many readers have for the High Priestess. I mean, she’s cool and all, but she’s no Death.

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No, my Tarot patron is not the High Priestess. For me, Tarot has never been about intuition. Sure, intuition is in some way necessary for reading Tarot, but it’s really not the core of what I do. I am a creature of structure, of thought, of tradition.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that my patron is the Hierophant.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking. “The Hierophant! Oh, no, Jack, say it ain’t so! He represents an outdated patriarchical Christian form of authority that anyone with a modicum of decency would reject out of hand. There’s nothing remotely spiritual or enlightened about him!” To which I have a few things to say:

  1. “Nothing remotely spiritual” has never been a problem for me. I’m not a spiritual person.
  2. Of course there’s something spiritual about him. He’s the damn Pope.*
  3. (Most importantly:) The Hierophant gets a bad rap. Yes, he represents authority, tradition, and convention, and at his worst he gets all tangled up in patriarchy and dogma. But not all tradition is male, nor Christian, nor even oppressive. And there really can be something beautiful in the Hierophant if you give him half a chance.

I have many, many thoughts about the Hierophant and his role in the Tarot pack, and now is not the time to go into most of them. (At some point in the future, though, I would really like to put up a post about the differences between the types of spirituality represented by the High Priestess and the Hierophant, and why I think the latter is a necessary complement to the former. Note to self.) What I will say here, though, is that the Hierophant perfectly captures my complicated relationship with authority, particularly as it relates to Tarot.

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I like authority. I like rules, I like following rules, I like being seen following rules, and I like to be commended by the aforementioned authority for having followed the aforementioned rules. Deep down, I’m a brown-nosing goody-two-shoes, and I make no secret of the fact. In Tarot, this has translated over to a passionate love of convention. I read with traditional card meanings and techniques. Always have, and possibly always will. Sure, every now and then I’ll comment on the significance of a butterfly in the corner of a card and what that might symbolize, but for the most part, the floaty intuitive brand of reading-through-imagery is just not what I do.**

Moreover, I read with the elements, with astrology, with Kabbalah and the Tree of Life and the Cube of Space and a boatload of other unnecessary things, because those things are rooted in tradition. I like tracing the history of Tarot. I like looking at its roots in Continental European gambling, in the Golden Dawn, and in the works of authors like Eliphas Lévi and Papus. I cling to all of that because it gives me a sense of stability, of connection. Reading Tarot this way makes it feel like something real to me, something reliable and understandable and of this world. Context is king (as anyone who’s read my Tarot ethics will know), and Tarot becomes infinitely more valuable to me when I have the context of how it was used by readers of yore.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

And yet within me, there still lives the sixteen-year-old libidinous rebel that somehow never dies. And this young whippersnapper refuses to accept authority for authority’s sake. If someone tells me “The tradition is X” and I can trace X back through history to the first person who suggested it–and then, moreover, if I can find that person’s rationale for X and if I agree with it–there’s no problem. But if no reason is offered for X, if no provenance is given, if I’m expected to accept it wordlessly and uncritically? Well, then, we have a problem.

Too many times have I torn hair from my head (often literally) in frustration over some work of Aleister Crowley’s, when it just looks like the bastard made it all up. If he did, that’s fine. But then I won’t apply his thought to my own Tarot practice (and indeed, I’ve made some innovations in my personal Tarot work that would shock more conservatively minded readers). I will never submit myself to the voice of any authority–not even one as great and powerful as the infamous Aleister Crowley–without a damned good reason and an understanding of why I’m doing so.

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Crowley bears a lot of resemblance to the Wizard of Oz. They’re both bald, demagogic charlatans. But perhaps I speak too harshly.

This is the eternal rub for me, between wanting desperately to submit myself to authority and refusing to let that same authority rule unquestioned. It’s about holding to tradition for a sense of authenticity and continuity, but also about knowing when to let tradition pass away. And no card has ever captured that tension better than the old stuffed shirt himself, the Hierophant.

But I feel a change coming on the wind. The Hierophant, who’s been my patron for as long as I’ve been reading Tarot, is starting to give way to the influence of a different card. But I’ll save that for the next post. This one has been about what was, and why. The next will be about what’s yet to come.

So now, to leave off, I ask you the same question that I ask everyone. Who is your Tarot patron? And why?


*Yes, I understand the irony of that expression. It was largely intentional. Sue me.

**This is, in part, derived from the fact that I learned Tarot on a deck that not only had unillustrated pips, but that didn’t even have divinatory imagery on the Majors. It was literally just a deck of playing cards. As a consequence, reading with that deck, I learned to trust traditional card meanings, numerology, elemental dignities, and similar structural components of a reading rather than anything having to do with the specifics of deck art.

[For those of you who don’t recognize the featured image from this post, it’s Tevye from The Fiddler on the Roof. There’s a glorious song from that musical, which deals with (you guessed it) Tradition!]

 

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14 thoughts on “On Tarot Patrons, Part 1: The Hierophant

  1. This is interesting ! I can see why you would like the Hierophant. I always see the Hierophant in readings when the seeker is somehow questioning authority and traditions. So I agree, the Hierophant can be a really cool card ! In regards to my personal Tarot Patron, I had never really asked myself that question! I guess I do like the Star card very much (yes I’m predictable that way haha), but recently I have been taking a big liking for The Moon (which I feared at first). I feel like the Moon really sums up a Tarot reading : the seeker comes in looking for answers he/she has an idea about them but doesn’t see them clearly, and with the reading he/she understand the shadows and the darkness. He/she understands what is reflection and what is light. I feel like that really sums up my way of approaching the Tarot… a game of light and shadow and finding the answers within. As always great post ! 😀

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  2. I’ve never drawn the Hierophant for myself, but I do think it’s a great card and I really liked this analysis of it (and yes, Fiddler’s “Tradition” is a great way to feature this post). The cards I’d ideally like as patrons are the Wheel or Strength, but if I try to connect them to myself, something seems off, as if the fit of the card with me is not quite right. In truth, I think I really use Tarot with the Fool as my patron. I tend to do a reading in order to push myself past my fears and perform an action that I’m usually not brave enough to do. But I don’t want to rule out the option that another patron might present itself someday, either…

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    1. Ah, the Fool. Such a lovely card for all querents at all times. On the inside of the box of the Prisma Visions Tarot, there’s a short poem that includes a couplet about him: “The Fool believes he is someone he’s not / Wading through waters for something unsought”. I’ve loved that poem since I first saw it, and now I can never think of the Fool without mentally reciting it. Thank you for sharing!

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  3. I really enjoyed this post, and I liked the division between patrons and significators. I’d never made that distinction before, and you’ve helped me make sense of the connections I feel with the Major Arcana that I’d confused with significators in the past.
    I have two patrons: The Hermit and the Magician. There is a reason for this – to be brief, I believe they are two sides of the same coin. I would go in more depth about this, but you probably don’t need my endless digressions in your comments section, and as it happens, the draft I’m currently working on is about this very subject. So please stay tuned…

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  4. I haven’t thought of having a patron card really and it’s really hard to pick just one. Empress for her creativity? Justice because justice? something entirely different? Hard choice.

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  5. This is very interesting, and I agree with you on the dichotomy of tradition vacillating between adhering and changing. I have never thought of Tarot Patrons, I have cards that symbolize aspirations etc., but on patrons I had not thought of. The Devil reversed is a powerful card for me, The Devil card itself and all it embodies, virile energy, enlightenment, carnality, the human experience, etc. Consciously approaching the Tarot with The Devil as the patron I can imagine my readings being imbued with vitality, reaching depth, life-altering, connecting deeply with the human existence.

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      1. Yes, that is a tricky card, admittedly when it shows up in a spread it’s function is very revelatory and occasionally disturbing. Your post made me think of tarot patrons, how I read tarot and its uses. Always very insightful.

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  6. Great Post. My Patron is probably just the higher level version of my sig. Strength. She has the lamniscate of the Magician, suggesting eternal forces at place but in remarkable balance with one another, she has taken the tools on the table and has completely and utterly internalized that sweet magic. So much so that her animal self, the planet, the raw power that barely remains restrained below all civilization walks alongside. I like the shift Strength as an archetype has taken over time, too, from being one of subjugation to one of interrelation which I think is a fine evolution in the spiritual value of that card. Completely apt to the warm and empowering but hands off approach I take as a reader.

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