Teacher Archetypes in the Tarot Majors

I’m a teacher for my day job, so obviously the idea of what a teacher is, or what one does as a teacher, is often in my mind. And since tarot is also often on my mind, it stands to reason that I think sometimes of which cards represent teachers and teaching. In this post I intend to talk about the two majors that I see as the teachers, as well as the card I suspect people put in that grouping but which shouldn’t be.

V: Hierophant

The first teacher in the majors is the most obvious one: the Hierophant or the Pope. In the medieval European world, the church was the source of formal education for many people, and the Pope is the head of that church. The Hierophant, though not necessarily a pope, is the head of an order who has students sitting before him.

Despite the connection to religion, and the predilection of many tarot readers for mysticism, the Hierophant is the teacher of exoteric knowledge. You go to the Hierophant to learn how to say catechism, and what will be expected of you if you join the priesthood, and what the church elders said about thorny issues of textual interpretation, not what it’s like to join with the godhead.

This leads to a common misinterpretation among many tarot readers, who are also in one way or another moving away from a childhood marked with oppressive forms of Christianity: people see the Hierophant as a kind of villain, either a corrupted tyrant wielding the authority of the church to ban abortion or the seedy con artist with the church behind him, tricking poor folks into an exploitative system.

And, let me be clear, the Hierophant can be those things. But he is not always those things. He can be the school principal trying to protect queer students by using the free speech rules of the country, or the priest ministering to the sick and poor form a position of unabashed power, yes, but also from a seat of riches that can be spent on ameliorating the woes of others.

The Hierophant will always be part of a system, that is true, but if you believe systems are always already evil, you aren’t going to have a complete picture of the card. People can even be working for good within flawed systems, and if they are doing so through teaching, they may be the Hierophant.

Not a Teacher: II: High Priestess

First, let me say that yes, this means traditional tarot majors have no women as teachers. The solution to that is to create Hierophant’s who are women, not to try to recast the Priestess as a teacher.

This is a more confusing issue than it seems at first, I know. As a priestess, is she not performing similar work to the priests I discussed earlier? Well, no. She may be part of the same system — though one of the strengths of this archetype is that she also may not be within a system, or at least the dominant hegemony — but her role is different.

Pope Joan

It’s easiest to think of the Popess. Some of the oldest forms of this card were the Popess, almost likely referring to a medieval legend about Pope Joan.

In short, through mistaken identity a woman was inducted into the Catholic priesthood and eventually elected Pope. And she served as Pope, well and truly, for years, before being found out and killed in some way.

So at its core the Priestess card keeps a secret. And while you can keep secret and teach,these are archetypes, not real people, or even characters from folklore. The secret is the point of the Priestess. She’s associated with the Moon, the lunar power of dreams, visions, and other confusing, mystical things. This is the card for mystical experiences. The Hierophant is the teacher of exoteric practice; the Priestess is the initiator into esoteric wisdom, and that isn’t taught, only experienced. Think of it this way: at the precise moment that a priest is performing the sacrament of the bread and wine, they aren’t teaching. You either experience oneness with godhead while they’re ministering or you don’t.

So who is the Second Teacher? IX: Hermit

This is also not a huge surprise or anything. Who else would it be?

Though this is a good time to point out that yes, we can learn lessons from every card. We can learn from the Fool. In fact, that’s what the cards are there for, is to learn from. But I can learn a lesson from watching a kid try to do a sweet Olly on their skateboard only to lose teeth. That doesn’t mean the kid taught me anything.

So if The Hierophant is a teacher within a system, and the High Priestess is an initiator into mysteries, then what’s left for the Hermit to do? Well, consider that the Hermit is in the second row of cards. It stands to reason he will teach us in a different way. The thing about the Hermit is that you have to go to him. He’s not appointed by a board or hired by the local school; he’s not in a system and easily accessible. He’s up on a mountaintop somewhere, contemplating things that, as we climb the moutain, we can’t even fathom.

Think of every crotchety shifu in every kung fu movie. That’s the Hermit. Masters of their crafts, they can teach, but they are only able to teach those who are willing to meet them halfway.

This requires a short aside about teaching professionally. When your job is to teach, you can’t only teach the good students. You have to teach everyone — or, really, what you do is to aim most of your course at the top of the bottom third of a hypothetical class. So the bulk of stuff is going to be boring for the best students. But there are going to be a handful that still fail (and that’s typically because they stop showing up or something, at least in my classes, where it’s extremely difficult to fail if you do everything, even if you do it wrong). And obviously you have some stuff that’l interest the good students, because a bored student is a student who doesn’t turn work in, and then they become a student who is failing.

The point of this aside is the Hierophant has to teach everyone who walks in the door. The Hermit not only does not have to, he can’t. The Hermit is not a teacher who is trained in teaching through a system. The Hermit knows a topic so well they have mastered it, and can teach you to move in the same direction they’ve moved, but if you won’t walk up the mountain, they aren’t even going to know you exist.

And keep in mind, this does mean there’s a negative Hermit archetype. The Hierophant can be the person in power who abuses that power, like a teacher who throws things when they get mad. The Hermit can be a guru who has their own life together but who isolates those who come for learning and abuses them that way.

All this matters simply because the tarot provides us with at least two teacher archetypes, and A: they can be either good or bad, and people tend to think one is bad and the other good, and B: the teaching covers different methods, different students, and different success cases. The Hermit may initiate, or may not. They may also teach the exoteric before the esoteric, because they’re not interested in that distinction, only in the result — mastery. The reasons why the Hermit has to withdraw to contemplate those things is probably fodder for another post, as we’re reaching the upper limit here already.

Third Teacher in the Third Row?

And as with the previous point, we can’t really go into the possibility of a third teacher, but there must be one, right? If there’s a teacher in the first and the second rows, there’s gotta be one in the third. I don’t know which card it is. I suspect it’s either the Star or the Sun. Though it could be The Devil.

No, wait, hold on, it makes sense. The Hierophant is associated with Taurus. The Hermit is associated with Virgo. And the Devil is associated with Capricorn. It would make sense for all the teachers to be the Earth signs, as they’re the practical, detail-oriented signs that could teach topics. And the Devil is famously, in the Waite Smith, posed to mock the Hierophant. It’s something I want to investigate further, and I imagine I’ll write on it eventually.

I typically hate the "end on a question to drive engagement" strategy with blogging, so understand I genuinely am interested to hear from others: which cards do you feel are teachers in the tarot majors? And maybe one day I’ll go through the minors, most likely the court cards.

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