Fern Mercier: The High Priestess, The Hierophant, and The Future
Report by Diane Wilkes

This workshop was simply excellent. Mercier combined history and sociological  material into a totally digestible strand of information that continued to engage my brain long after the workshop was over. Fern focused on the relationship between the High Priestess and the Hierophant, and their roles in our lives. For example, as the teacher of the class, she served as Hierophant, but when she does readings, she is the High Priestess, whom she reminded us is the "older sister" of the Hierophant (II comes before V in all the numbering systems I know).

If we break down the Hierophant's name in Latin, he is the gatekeeper to the sacred (hiero), but the word hierarchy is another derivation. He represented moral government and authority in the time of Tarot's creation (Renaissance Italy) and even the most powerful abbess (High Priestess) had to go to him to receive salvation. During that time period, even nuns, the holiest of women, had to overcome the defect of their feminine gender. You can see the dynamic of conflict and power immediately, and it continues today in terms of individuals who use their "moral authority" to deny power to the High Priestess tarot readers among us, not to mention the role of gender in the Catholic Church clerical hierarchy.

Mercier offered some fascinating information on the "myth" of Pope Joan (since myth often tells us a lot about a culture), and her relationship to the High Priestess. Pope Joan literally disguised the "defect of her feminine gender" in order to ascend to the highest rank in the Catholic Church. Mercier quoted Brian Williams, who wrote in his book on the Renaissance Tarot about the myth of Pope Joan: "If it's not true, it ought to be."

Mercier also talked about the likelihood that Sister Manfreda was the role model for the Visconti-Sforza High Priestess, as she was a member of the Visconti family. Sister Manfreda was a powerful woman whose religious order offended the more powerful Vatican, and she was burned at the stake. Women in general during the Renaissance and afterwards could achieve quasi-priesthood in mystical, ascetic traditions, but their power culminated at their deaths. Originally, convents were environmentally very open, but slowly and surely they became more confined and secluded. They emphasized chastity, poverty, and scholarship. Heretical sects abounded in the 13th and 14th centuries and were "spirit cells" that eschewed external structures, emphasizing a direct connection and communication with the Divine. You can see that Big Sister and Little Brother had some major conflicts!

The context of the role of gender during the time of Tarot's creation was a major part of this lecture. Women were caught between two roles - Eve, who was weak, disobedient, lusty and the source of man's fall from grace and Mary, who was beautiful, obedient, pure, and chaste. No man was ever as evil as Eve or as pure as Mary. "Sisters of Eve" became witches at time when there were many more women than men, and people had no access to medicine. All there was to turn to was herbalism, love magic, and lay healing, all of which were women's knowledge. They served as folk therapists. As these women's powers increased, misogynists named them "witches" that needed to be destroyed.

All of this information leads us to Mercier's conclusions - as tarot readers/High Priestesses, we're the oldest profession (wise women) and the Whore of Babylon. Feminine gender, in and of itself, makes us deviant, the lone operators without benefit of the moral authority of the Hierophant, the gatekeeper of orthodoxy and extended power. Inquisitor, bureaucrat, ex-communicator, and confessor--all of these are the role of the Hierophant.

Fern acknowledged that this is just one way of looking at these cards, one narrow aperture into the vastness of the archetypes. The cards have some things in common, obviously, such as both are extensively involved in teaching and learning.

All of this fascinating information was a springboard to looking at tarot readers today as High Priestesses, outside of the mainstream, but also retaining qualities of the Hierophant. For example, we frequently hear "confessions" from querents who are seeking absolution, believing readers can offer it in some form. Additionally, there is also the performance aspect, where readers often decorate their stage with candles and wear a costume appropriate to a priest or priestess. Incense and ritual are associated with the Church and tarot readers alike, both involving the creation of sacred space. Mercier noted that many of her friends have similar roles in their jobs, such as mental health workers who have established a guild (hierarchy).

Mercier also shared a list of other roles of a tarot reader (one example: Lost Property Officer who can locate missing objects). Finally, she spoke of reconciling the two cards (Can this celestial marriage be saved?), asserting that the High Priestess must honor her own rebel traditions, and learn from them before looking to the Hierophant for advice. At this juncture, the Hierophant still maintains all the power, but the ideal dream would be for the two to walk in peace together.

All of these ideas tossed and shuffled about my brain, particularly as they relate to the framework of tarot certification. I don't have any answers, of course, but I feel this workshop has given me a foundation to develop my own thoughts on this very thorny subject.

Photograph of Fern Mercier as "World" (the High Priestess and Hierophant dancing in peace together?) 2002 Chris Asselin
Report and page 2002 Diane Wilkes