Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Secret of The High Priestess: Boaz and Jachin

This is why the Rider-Waite deck is my favourite: it is replete with symbolic significance, much of which is omitted in other decks, yet the symbols on the Rider-Waite reveal so much about the wider context of this card. That larger significance comprises not just the historical aetiology of the card but extends through and further reveals and illuminates the other cards in the Major Arcana. There is so much that could be said so this post will be a snippet gesturing towards the sheer extent and volume of what can be discovered even with just one theme. Each symbol also meshes with others, so this post will content itself with just a small glimpse.

In many more recent Tarot decks not only are the engimatic "B" and "J" inscribed on the pillars of the High Priestess card missing, but so are the pillars! Most obviously, pillars operate as a support structure. In the High Priestess the structure, we can surmise, is the legendary Temple of Solomon. This we can ascertain from the initials "B" and "J" inscribed on each; they refer to Boaz ("in him is strength") and Jachin ("God establishes/founds"), the names of the brass or bronze pillars at the entrance to the Temple of Solomon. That they are only initials rather than the full names reflects back into the general meaning of this card. The High Priestess doesn't give anything away. She is an initial. We are the initiates. To access her closely guarded secrets and hidden knowledge we must go where she is, do what she does - we must access our deepest subconscious, swim through our emotions, feel our way around, explore that which is resistant to conceptualization and as yet unthought. She is associated with what can be learned from intuition; that hunch, that gut instinct, that "inner voice", that sudden and unaccountable piece of knowledge which seemingly comes out of nowhere. The structure lacks a roof: there is no limit or ceiling to her higher connection, the idea here is that she is also divinely inspired; the Divine Feminine.

Perhaps the most obvious significance of the two pillars is their very duality. This is not card number 2 by accident. But this is not so simple in the High Priestess. She is never simple! Yes, it's about balance - the two pillars are black or dark, and white or light - two terminological counter-parts used as metaphors for a whole host of historical attributions. Already we can guess from traditional assignations of gender temperament that the dark pillar is going to be the feminine (the unknown, the hidden, the mysterious, Freud's "dark continent") and that the white pillar is going to be associated with the masculine, just as it has been ever since Plato argued that reason is the privilege only of men. And, since light is a metaphor long since associated with intellection and the "light of reason", that the light or white colour is no accident for the "male" pillar. Straight away we can tell that the separateness of these principles is something of an illusion - the High Priestess is on neither side. She is bang in the middle. The idea is that she not only works with or balances both opposites but brings together what seemed to be apart and distinct. The sun and cresent moons are also realized in form of her crown. In this guise she is also the two Egyptian mother goddesses: Isis ("she of the throne"), and Hathor. Hathor was usually depicted wearing a cow-horned headress with a solar disc. The High Priestess nicely brings the two goddesses together, at various times both Isis and Hathor were said to be the Mother of Horus.

Intrigued with the Boaz and Jachin, mentioned in the Bible and elsewhere (there is plenty of further information online in scattered contexts), I delved a little deeper into the history and came across this 18th Century German Rosicrucian engraving.

The Philosopher's Compass
Jachin represents the elements of fire and air (Wands and Swords) whereas Boaz symbolizes water and the earth (Cups and Pentacles). Recalling the traditional gendered renditions of light and dark, above the pillar of Jachin we have a little sun, and correspondingly a moon over the Boaz pillar. In between we have the other five planets of astrology, partaking of both the sun and the moon, the light and the dark (there were only five astrological planets at that time). The rays are refracted through prisms of the cosmic alchemical principles of sulphur and mercury (also found, together with salt and water, in the Wheel of Fortune). These rays influence everything that lies below. The important aspect of this is not, as we may have thought, in the opposition or even intermingling of the male and female "principles" but  rather in what is generated through the dynamic interaction of the two. For the Rosicrucians the concept of polarity is magical because in the union of the opposites it is transcended, giving birth to a new polarity on a higher level. They called it "Conjunction". This also tells us something about the "Threes" in the Tarot: they signify birth or the creation of something new, a third factor. The Two gives birth to the Three. If you are familiar with the philosophy of Hegel, this will also recall his notions of Thesis, Anti-thesis, the opposition and finally marriage of which gives rise to Synthesis. In his 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit, we have a kind of bare metaphorical figure or character resembling the Tarot  Fool, who, as simple "consciousness", is only sure of what its senses tell it, like a baby. As the figure develops it then becomes "self-conscious" and meets other people and objects which the character considers to be external and in opposition to itself. It then realizes that this is mistaken, these objects are also a part of itself and how the mind constructs the world. And so this little character undergoes a journey of determinations and overcomes or transcends (aufheben) these "differences". The differences are retained but internalized as part of who the character is. That's a simple gloss missing many complex steps but you get the general trajectory. And so back to the Rosicrucians (Hegel was partly influenced by Rosicrucian thought): they believed the Conjunction also applied to the union of subject and object (brilliantly illustrated in Hegel). All polarities, that is to say, are false "takes" on the world. This also includes the ultimate union of Heaven and Earth, the holy and the profane, within and without - you can come up with entire taxonomy of binary oppositions here, all of which the High Priestess speculatively conjoins. This is another aspect of the "hidden knowledge" or secret of the High Priestess. The Three is also highly significant in Freemasonry: the triangle represents the two sides of a duality and the third is the reconciling force or balancing power. Look out for how often the triangle appears in or appended to the clothing of the figures in the Major Arcana. It a ppears that Arthur Edward Waite (in The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, 1924) considered Rosicrucianism to be the superior discipline in reviving the truths of the past and ancient knowledge whereas Freemasonry he seems to have viewed as a more preparatory level.

Here is another Rosicrucian engraving, this time showing the astrological wheel of the Zodiac together with the Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water).  Again, the astrological signs, whilst different from one another, are also parts of the same whole. In the foreground are the steps of wisdom and learning we must ascend in order to reach the higher level of Conjunction. 

In the Tarot the birth of the third is illustrated by the separation of the masculine Jachin and the feminine Boaz in the next two cards. Number Three is the Empress, followed by card Four, the Emperor. This is not only because we need to fully understand the opposing principles, but also because the lesson of the High Priestess is not one she will teach or preach: we have to go through the journey ourselves. It is as if the High Priestess configures and transcends dualities - which also, represented as pillars, form barriers - but in order to fully appreciate this wisdom we must undertake this process ourselves and "live" it. In her hands she holds the scroll of the Torah. She knows the Law but we must pull back the veil ourselves in order to enter her Temple and reveal what is behind it. 

There is one last twist exemplifying the union or conjunction of opposites. The High Priestess herself. A woman cannot be a Priest. In the older Marseille deck we have the same transgressive theme; she is La Papesse. An impossible female Pope. Could it ever be possible? And that is the even greater secret of the High Priestess - it relates to the opening of a whole cosmos of possibility. But we have to discover and create these possibilities from within ourselves and through our social space. 

Feel free to post your observations on symbols in the Tarot! One great book on the general symbols is The Secret Language of Tarot by Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone (Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC, 2008). You can get a copy at

Engraving Ilustrations courtesy of Francis King, Magic: The Western Tradition (Thames and Hudson, London, 1975)

©  Donna at Tarotdon Tarot


  1. excellent review, thank you for your insight and knowledge of tradition, very good description - love it

    1. Thank you, Simon, although I certainly don't know as much as some do about the nuances of the tradition.

  2. Shouldn't your statement be Jachin represents Wands and Swords for fire and air?

  3. You are absolutely right! Thank you. I will correct that as soon as I have access to a computer.

  4. Great article, very informative! There are two pillars in this style at a small park near my house and they always fascinated me...

  5. Thanks David! I've since discovered a lot more.
    Perhaps one day I will polish up and add to this post.