I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries lately, both in the abstract philosophical sense and in the more practical, personal sense. In popular culture and in the hoobedy-hoobedy world specifically, we talk about Halloween as a time where the boundary between life and death is blurred.* And in the buildup to Halloween (excuse me: Samhain) this year, I found myself participating in a number of beautiful and challenging rituals that forced me to confront and question many of my own personal boundaries.
The act of walking right up to the line that divides comfort from discomfort, acceptable from unforgivable, is by nature unpleasant. It’s a harrowing process. Sometimes, it makes us realize that the lines we’ve drawn in the sand are arbitrary–or, worse yet, that we drew them out of ignorance, hate, fear, or closed-mindedness. Other times, we find that we really have drawn the line in the right place, but we only discover that by seeing it crossed and dealing with the consequences.**
In Tarot, the ultimate arbiter of boundaries is the High Priestess. In my first-ever Tarot journal, the keyword I jotted down for this card was “threshold”, a reference to the Guardian of the Threshold in Joseph Campbell’s (in?)famous monomyth. The High Priestess stands on the line between this world and the next, and we have to come before her in order to pass beyond it.
This can mean a variety of things in practice. The High Priestess can be a teacher, someone who exposes us to knowledge that transforms us on some fundamental level. She can be a psychopomp (and in one recent Tarot reading I did, this card represented literal death).*** She can be all manners of mentor, initiator, and guide.
But just as she aids us to step across various thresholds, the High Priestess also tells us which ones are not to be crossed. She is the one who tells us “Don’t go there” or “Don’t look behind that curtain”. Sometimes, she withholds things from us because we’re not yet ready for them, and we can only come to them in time. Other times, there are things that are simply not for us. There are secrets we never get to know. There are sights we never get to see. There is a limit to our experience, to what we are capable of, and the High Priestess is ultimately the one who tells us what is and is not ours to see, know, touch, and taste.
When we meet the High Priestess, we hope that she will take our hand, lead us behind her fruity veil,**** and reveal her mysteries to us. We don’t know what’s beyond the veil–we can never know until she shows us–but we do know that having seen it, we’ll never be able to go back to the way we were before. This is what we hope to find in our meeting with the High Priestess. We hope to push past our boundaries, our limitations, and become something greater.
But not everyone gets to see what’s on the other side of the veil. (Well, I mean, if we think of the veil as a metaphor for death, then maybe that’s not true, but I’m talking here in terms of Higher Knowledge™). That’s what makes the experience meaningful. When we come before the High Priestess, we know that we are asking to see something that most people will never see, to know something that most people will never know.
In mundane terms, this Higher Knowledge™ often comes in the form of self-knowledge, although that’s certainly not the only role the High Priestess fills. With her, we learn things about ourselves that other people will never learn simply because they don’t live in our heads. Just as we don’t have access to their inner lives, so too do they not have access to ours. But we still need the High Priestess to help us.
Well, because we have inner blocks. We have barriers in our own minds that hold us back from understanding ourselves, from healing past trauma, or from confronting our own (dare I say it?) shadow selves. The High Priestess is the card that forces us to break those barriers down, cross those boundaries, and see ourselves in a way that we hadn’t previously. It’s an unpleasant, uncomfortable process, but it transforms us.
And yet there are some boundaries that we still do not cross. Cannot cross. Must not cross. The clearest example of this would be boundaries set by other people (e.g. “I need some personal space”), but there are even boundaries within ourselves that are untouchable. The most obvious and extreme one I can think of is committing murder. When we find ourselves standing on these lines, we come face to face with the High Priestess, as surely as when we stand on the others. These are the times we find the High Priestess not as a guide but as a guardian, a fearsome protector. She blocks our path like some great Tarotistic Gandalf facing down the Balrog. When this happens, we are foolish not to turn back.
Why? Because the mysteries that the High Priestess guards will change us forever. Each line we cross marks a change that can never be undone, a bell that can never be unrung. With the blessing of the High Priestess, we can trust that we will be changed for the better, but not all transformation is good. When the High Priestess tells us to turn back, we do so. Maybe some day in the future, we will come back and find that we have changed enough for her to guide us across the threshold, or maybe we never will. Regardless, we know that in the present moment, that boundary is best left untouched.
It’s sometimes hard to know whether we have the High Priestess on our side, whether we shrink from something because it’s truly wrong for us or simply because it’s scary and difficult. I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on various boundaries in the past week or so, testing them and trying to understand which of these camps they fall into. The answer is invariably unclear. So I sit with the High Priestess and I wait, trusting that eventually she’ll guide me forward or back.
*We don’t often have the same conversation around Beltane, which I personally find rather interesting.
**And then we still have to deal with people telling us those boundaries are silly and that we’ll eventually grow out of them. If you’re reading this, you know who you are. I adore you, but you know who you are.
***Note to self: A post on the types of “death” represented by this card versus Death might be worth exploring.
****That sounds much more sexual than I had intended it to, but I’m going to leave it there because it amuses me.