words + playlist: Zoë Madonna
We come now likely to the card most likely to make people scratch their heads and say “Huh? What’s that?” Welcome to the Hierophant!
Never heard that word before? It’s OK, neither had I before I found tarot. In ancient Greece, a hierophant would interpret sacred mysteries, bringing religious congregants into communion with the holy.
Some older decks call him the Pope - the Major Arcana developed in Catholic countries - and if you look at the Smith-Waite Hierophant, he sure looks like a figure in the Roman Catholic Church. Pamela Colman Smith, the artist, converted to Roman Catholicism shortly after working on this deck, and there are definitely some references in her art.
The question now becomes what the Hierophant has to offer those of us who don’t resonate with that kind of organized religion. Sure, some people experience religion as an empowering thing, but some people experience it as oppression, and some want nothing to do with organized religion whatsoever. What does the Hierophant have for them?
This card, then, is all about learning: the lessons we are taught, the belief systems that influence our thoughts, actions, dreams, and prejudices. It asks us: how do those beliefs steer us? Are they empowering us, or are they stifling us? How are we searching for greater meaning? For a time, religion was one of the only “greater meanings” one could seek without swerving into being outcast by society, or worse, depending on who you were, what you were seeking, and where you were living. Now the door is wide open.
My favorite Hierophant card is the card from the Ostara Tarot, which doesn’t even show a person; it shows a luminous book. Through all those layers of meaning and questions surrounding the card, the core is the same: ultimately, you are the best teacher you will ever have. It reminds you that you have the power to choose what you believe, what you deepen your understanding of, what you question, and what you reject.
And now, the playlist:
John Sheppard: Libera nos I and II - Stile Antico
The sort of organized religion that the Hierophant represents is not something I have a really personal connection to, besides through medieval and Renaissance music, which I sang regularly in college. I often thought while singing that through the sublime sound, I gained a greater understanding of what could motivate one to believe, and keep believing, in such a figure as an omniscient, ineffable God in the sky, if the fear of eternal damnation wasn’t enough.
Christ’s Entry into Govan - Trembling Bells
This Scottish psych-folk band really went all out on this song. Singer Lavinia Blackwell’s voice lilts in the grand tradition of folk-rock goddesses Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior until the song (d)evolves into a whirl of church bells and fiddle madness.
Reindeer King - Tori Amos
The chorus repeats, “Gotta get you back to you.” As I see it, the “you” in this song has been so constrained and shrunk by restrictive beliefs and rules that they’ve lost touch with themselves. Whatever they’ve dialed into, it hasn’t connected them to their fullest self - instead it’s forced them away or made them feel ashamed or insecure about who they are.
“Native Invader” came out shortly after I bought the Wildwood Tarot. Here’s what the Wildwood Hierophant, which is renamed the Ancestor, looks like. I believe in synchronicity.
The Same Thing - Tica Douglas
Tica Douglas didn’t grow up religious, but they studied religion in college and are now in divinity school. This record, “Our Lady Star of the Sea Help and Protect Us,” isn’t explicitly religious either, but it asks the big, searching, wrenching questions that it finds in the faces of commuters, the trees coming into bloom, old photographs. In their words, it explores their “theology of uncertainty” and being multiple things at once.
Take Me to Church - Hozier
You can hear the struggle against long-enforced lessons in his voice, in the way that the song tears out of the sweet, hymn-esque “Amen” cadence and into the inferno of a chorus.
Adir Adirim - Balkan Beat Box and Victoria Hanna
I’d never have thought that, that infectious bassline and punchy beat belonged to a prayer, but yep, it’s a prayer, a prayer that uses each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In Jewish learning, the Hebrew alphabet is a big freaking deal, because it was the tool by which the universe was created. I’m a secular enough Jew that I don’t go to services too often, but even I’ve seen that the prayer book contains a bunch of alphabet acrostics, where each line of the prayer begins with a different letter.
Victoria Hanna, who sings on this track, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish household in Israel, the daughter of an Egyptian rabbi father and an Iranian mother. Rooted in a childhood of learning Jewish religious texts, she started researching them and setting them to music.
Though she’d been performing on stage for years, she always seems to have had some hesitation around releasing recordings. In the rules of her religious upbringing, women are not supposed to sing in front of mixed gender audiences, especially not on holy texts. “If I go very, very deep inside me subconsciously, I can see myself sometimes feeling that I am a sinner. And that’s very heavy,” she told The Georgia Straight in 2016.
Just One - Blind Pilot
For years, Megan Phelps-Roper’s smiling face was all over the Internet next to the eyecatching, hate-filled signs that the Westboro Baptist Church, her family’s little cult of chosen few. Then she vanished. Personal connection and engagement with the larger world eventually led to her questioning and at last rejecting the church’s beliefs.
Adrian Chen’s New Yorker profile lists some of the music that she listened to at the recommendation of her online pen pal, who she later married. This song, it says, was playing the first time she considered leaving the church and jumping into the unknown.
After her single “Aleph-Bet” (another alphabet song) went viral, in 2015, she dropped her full length debut two years later. As she sings, she shines, full of divine fervor that she wouldn’t be allowed to share with the world if she’d stayed within those rules. The world is richer for her rebellion.