Arcanum V “The High Priest”


Esoteric Titles:
The Fountain of Mercy
The Eternal Intelligence
Union of Heart & Mind

The 5th trump of the Tarot depicts a religious official, perhaps even the Pope himself, sat on a throne between two pillars, and addressing two tonsured neophytes. The numerical symbolism of this card is extensive, as 5 the number of the 5 senses, the 5 elements, or the pentagram itself which denotes 5 moral and philosophical qualities. It represents a dynamic composed of one truth, acting through one principle, in observance of one fundamental law, under the direction of one agent to achieve one universal aim. It is the individual mind (head) harnessing the collective body, with its two arms, and two legs. In esoteric astrology there are 5 basic planes or subtle bodies in man the physical, astral, causal, mental, and etheric. In aesthetic terms it represents 5 abstract shapes, the square, circle, triangle, oval and hexagon. In purely scientific terms it represents the knower and the known. It illustrates the relative speed of human perception in relation to their sensations that form a hierarchy of 5 levels or dimensions as follows;

Light, travels faster than Sound, is less dense than Matter, which in turn is subject to its Density (Mass), that being consolidated by the surrounding force of Gravity.

The Hebrew letter Vau signifies a Nail reinforces the symbolic qualities of the card, like gravity it holds things down and stops them drifting apart. It is after all a way of joining things together which denotes UNION. The nail therefore also symbolises the solemn bond of marriage, whereby the religious official joins people in conjugal love in the same way as he links human aspirations to God. Moreover it also symbolises the ancient spiritual wisdom of the East (India & Arabia) in relation to the contemporary political and global activities of the West (America & Europe). We can see this principle operating in statecraft from the 5th Sphere on the Tree of Life (Geburah) which is ruled by the previous card – The Emperor. The right hand of the High Priest holds the cross, signifying dominion over the Earth, the left hand confers a blessing or sign of the cross. The two neophytes symbolising the dual forces of good and evil, bow before this authority in faith and humble devotion. They receive the “word of God” not through personal experience but on trust through an earthly representative, in this instance the Pope. A similar idea of complementary or divergent forces drawn together is represented in Arcanum VI The Lovers, representing philosophical doctrines and XV The Devil, representing material forces, although the syntax is altogether different. The High Priest therefore represents the universal and Divine Laws working through the established doctrines of major religious orders. When 5 is multiplied by two we arrive at ten – the number of the 10 Commandments. In Alchemical Symbolism the inverted pentagram denotes chaos and evil, while the upright pentagram stable order and harmony. Traditionally the card is governed by the Zodiacal sign of Taurus, which in turn is ruled by the planet Venus. However, its real esoteric ruler is the planet Jupiter working through the signs of Sagittarius and Pisces (Religion & Faith).

An artist’s impression of Helen and Diomedes escaping from the Trojan camp.
  1. The High Priest (Troillus & Cressida) Vau – Of Love & War

In Shakespeare’s play “Troillus & Cressida” we are transported in time and place to the ancient walls and gates of Troy where the Greek and Spartan armies are mustered by King Agamemnon and assembled in readiness of an assault. Along with them are gathered the Greek commanders Achilles, Ajax, Ulysses, Nestor, Diomedes, and Patroclus whose pavilions, brigades and battalions are pitched outside the ancient city’s walls in readiness for an attack on King Priam of Troy and his sons Hector, Troillus, Deiphobus, and Helenus. The main reason or cause for them being assembled there in such large numbers, was the abduction of Helen, (wife of Menelaus) by Paris. However, during a lull or truce in the fighting when Troillus confesses to Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle) firstly his contempt and disaffection for battle and secondly his secret love or favour towards Cressida (the daughter of the Trojan High Priest Calchas) the romantic tale unfolds dramatically. It seems that Helen is secretly enamoured of Troillus and Cressida on the advice of her uncle accepts that she is fond of Troillus but hopes that he will pursue his suit with greater enthusiasm and ardour. As matters on the battlefield reach a stalemate and as Achilles remains absent from the field it is suggested that Priam’s son Hector throws out a challenge to single combat by any Greek soldier to decide the matter. Consequently the slow-witted Ajax is chosen in a rigged choice of lots to fight Hector and the High Priest, Calchas defects to the Greek camp having prophesised that the Greek and Spartan armies will eventually win the battle and take their prized glory Helen back to Greece. Meanwhile, the Greeks offer another solution to the war if the Trojans willingly return Helen to King Menelaus, then they will call off the challenge and the war itself. The prophetess Cassandra who was gifted with being able to see the future and cursed by never being believed also confirms that Troy will be destroyed if Helen is not restored to her husband. While safely ensconced within the Greek camp the High Priest Calchas suggests that the Greek army exchange hostages for the life of his daughter Cressida, which is agreed and they send General Diomedes to negotiate the exchange. Naturally, having consummated his love for Cressida, Troillus is aggrieved to hear that Cressida will be exchanged for Antenor and his proposed match with her will be marred. He finally agrees to give Cressida over to Diomedes and promises to secretly visit her in future. The scene changes to the actual contest itself where Troillus, Cressida and Diomedes are gathered along with both Greek and Trojan Kings and their assembled armies but there is no satisfactory winner and it seems an altercation takes place between Achilles and Hector who both decide to settle the matter once and for all. In the meantime Ullysses and Troillus secretly follow the movements of Diomedes and Cressida as they return to the Greek camp to spy on their behaviour and fidelity. As Cassandra has prophesised a battle will take place between Diomedes and Troillus as well as between Hector and Achilles so the truce ends and the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans re-commences. With the news of the death of Patroclus, Achilles now enters the battle seeking revenge for his friend. Diomedes captures Troillus’s horse and sends it as a token to Cressida, but he swears like Ajax to fight Troillus to the death. Achilles finally meets Hector and kills him dispassionately with Pandarus being dispirited by the news he curses all the onlookers on and offstage!

In the Tarot sequence 1-22 the High Priest precedes trump 6. The Lovers and where the total value of 2 cards when added together form an even number (ie: 10), then the midpoint or unifying principle can be deduced by the division of 2 thus:

(4. THE EMPEROR) + (6. THE LOVERS) = (10. THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE) While 10 divided by 2 = 5 THE HIGH PRIEST. In Tarot symbolism the High Priest is attributed the Hebrew word Vau, meaning a nail that which joins two pieces of wood together and traditionally a priest is the means of joining two people in holy matrimony. In effect he is an official, an intermediary and witness in human affairs as well as presiding ritually in the major rites of birth, baptism, marriage and finally death. The word nail is mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays including “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, “Henry IVth Part Two”, “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “The Tempest”.

“What, is the old king dead?
As nail in door: the things I speak are just.”
The clown in All’s Well draws out numerous analogies:
“As a pancake for Shrove Tuesday, a morris for May-day, as the nail to his
hole, the cuckold to his horn, as a scolding queen
to a wrangling knave, as the nun’s lip to the
friar’s mouth, nay, as the pudding to his skin.”

“Yea, yea, my lord: I’ll yield him thee asleep,
Where thou mayst knock a nail into his head.”

In particular “Two Gentlemen of Verona” where Proteus advises:
“Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.”

This phrase is taken directly from Arthur Brooke’s poem “Romeus & Juliet” (1562) a major literary source for Shakespeare’s play viz:
“And as out of planke a nayle a nayle doth drive,/So novell love out of the minde the auncient love doth drive”.

The Judgement of Paris which led to the Trojan War

Divinatory Meaning of this Card:

The 16th path on the Tree of Life links the sphere of Chokmah (Uranus-Intelligence) to Chesed (Mercy-Jupiter), purely on the right hand, masculine side. It is known euphemistically as the “Eternal Intelligence” born of glory and delight. Astrologically, it denotes the zodiac acting through the sign of Taurus, which is ruled by Venus, upon the sphere of Jupiter. The gestalt image of the “nail”, a device that joins two separate objects, suggests a means of achieving the union or reconciliation of two disparate elements by means of penetrating, persuasive mediation or arbitration. Within this path there is no conscious attempt at clear definition but an internal link to, or appeal to human conscience, thereby channelling or transposing one sentiment or idea into the world for appreciation. In this sense truth or reality is not always a matter of black and white, of right or wrong but must be tempered with the deeper insights of the subconscious self. On a mundane level it also represents what is being said and how a statement, when reflected upon is entirely and properly understood. The ability to listen as well as speak, suggested by the Tarot image of a High Priest is highly significant to the understanding of this path. For the inner voice to be heard or made manifest, a sublime calm or silence must be present which can only be achieved by certain contemplative methods or attitudes. Acting upon the impetus of this still voice is acting according to the requirements or demands of the human conscience and not those needs or sentiments often imposed by others. However, in this sense also, other people’s feelings, reactions and obligations must be taken into consideration.

Positive: Good counsel or advice, mastery over philosophic and practical concerns, a teacher or artisan.
Moral integrity, orthodoxy, conventional views and opinions.

Negative: Propaganda, scandal/ gossip monger. misrepresentation, distortion of truth, anarchic contempt for authority or law. Obsolete dogma.

SPHERE 6 Tiphereth (Beauty) Mediation Vau – A Nail
Astrological: Leo or the 5th House.
Constellation: Ursa Major – The Great Bear
Sacred Gemstone: Topaz or Amethyst

The next Arcanum in this series can be viewed by clicking on the following link:

“Arcanum VI, The Lovers”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,