Passivity and activity – The High Priestess

Just, like, sat on the bus, pondering those age-old masculine and feminine attributes: activity and passivity.

The masculine Sun energy and the feminine Moon mystery. The dynamic and the receptive, the rational and the irrational. Yawn.


From Trippy Hippy Daydream

At first. Then I started thinking about how they’re represented in tarot and realised it’s only laziness that keeps us believing such things are related to masculinity or femininity. My big bugbear with tarot is when I find it clinging rigidly to silly gender stereotypes, but actually, the more I study and learn, the more I realise tarot itself can totally elude those types of restrictive ideas – it’s only in interpretation that we get taught what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ as a shorthand for the qualities we assign to each.

It’s important to understand the difference between saying something is ‘masculine’ and saying it is ‘manly/a man’, or ‘feminine’ and ‘womanly/a woman’. I totally get that distinction – they do not mean that the subject is forever doomed to display only the qualities of their gender. A person can display both feminine and masculine qualities in varying proportions. Great. But it still does my head in. It just seems so bloody convenient to divide things into one gender-feeling or the other, as if there are only two, as if there is only masculine and feminine, as if there is only male and female.

So yeah. There I was reading this book and it was dealing with m/f archetypes, and discussing how the feminine High Priestess is the passive, receptive route to knowledge, whilst the Hierophant is the masculine route – active, learning from others/tradition.

And I realised that I saw activity and passivity totally the other way round.

The High Priestess ain’t passive – by exploring the inner world and dedicating herself to understanding what is ‘behind the veil’, she shows courage, she encourages us to do some seriously hard work. Being quiet and listening to our inner selves does not equal passivity! Meanwhile the Heirophant receives knowledge from books/tradition. It’s not about thinking for yourself with this card – so in what way is this active?

The High Priestess tarot card from the Shadowscapes Tarot
The High Priestess tarot card from the Shadowscapes Tarot

The above image is The High Priestess from the Shadowscapes deck by Stephanie Law. Does this look passive? I think no! Then check out The Heirophant – much as I love this card, it’s a tree! Rooted, receptive, slow-moving, subject to the elements…

[That said, you can read another post in which I reinterpret The Hierophant here.]

I understand that activity and passivity in themselves are simply characteristics which can be part of a card’s meaning, aspects of human behaviour. It’s their automatic assignation to masculinity and femininity that p’s me off. It is lazy and unhelpful to think of femininity as passive to the masculine active.

It has been convenient for patriarchy to describe women as passive, mysterious, mad, chattering, weak, nurturing, irrational, predisposed to the domestic and so on, whilst men are active, strong, able to get out there and engage with politics and ‘important things’, creating the handy dichotomy of feminine vs masculine and tying women to the sink/baby for as long as history has been recorded, no matter how vehemently we argue that feminine/masculine is not shorthand for woman/man. We are still brought up with clear ideas of what femininity is and, stemming directly from this, how a proper woman should behave (or more importantly, how she should look, and how she should not behave), and equally for masculinity and men.


Nina Simone – social activist and ‘The High Priestess of Soul’

I want my own tarot practice to move completely away from these ideas of what is feminine and what is masculine.

It’s as simple as ditching those m/f terms and sticking to what we’re really trying to convey. If a card represents passivity, that’s fine. If it shows nurture, no problem! But let’s leave it there – there’s no need to move from this into calling these ‘feminine qualities’, right?

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  1. Little Red says:

    Thanks Chloe 🙂  It's so easy to go along with patriarchal stuf like this – we all do it in our daily lives, we're taught to. I like thinking that as well as analysing gender politics in 'real life', I can examine them in Tarot too. xx

  2. Sarah Dawn says:

    *stands up and applauds* I am glad I’m not the only one that just can’t get on the masculine=active, feminine=passive train. I actually hate the terms masculine and feminine in general and wish they could be stricken from the vocabulary of society as a whole.
    Also, I have never, ever been able to think of the High Priestess as passive, or particularly feminine. I find that working with her energy usually feels quite bold, confident and assertive which is typically considered “masculine”. 😛 Anyway, great article. I’m so glad that there are queer tarot readers in the world. 🙂
    -Sarah Dawn
    PS~The picture of Nina Simone is incredible BTW.

    • Beth says:

      Glad you liked the post Sarah. And the High Priestess is certainly assertive, good point!!
      And yeah – there are looooads of queer tarot readers in the world, yay! I want this blog to be a place where they connect 🙂

  3. Elisabeth says:

    This whole post is so very High Priestess!
    I keep getting this card lately. There’s something that I’m not getting/paying attention. The message that masculinity doesn’t equal male is actually much more relevant than the message of the card itself, although the two things are very much linked. We need more of this questioning of traditional messages of gender and roles in the tarot! So well done!!!

  4. elyse says:

    Bravo!!! I often find myself using the terms masculine and feminine energy as a default, but reading this article reminds me that it *really* doesn’t make sense or jive with anything else I believe… I also really dig the ability to find active and passive in unexpected places in tarot as well as life… Like a woman being pregnant, all our language around it is passive, “knocked up” “got pregnant” and it suggests that a woman is just a vessel for a seed to be planted… When in fact, gestation is an extremely active and taxing process! There is always this interplay between active/passive. Makes me think that instead of those words, how about manifesting vs. receptive? There are active and passive energies built into those two words, I think… but still describes a qualitative difference.

  5. I just started the alternative tarot course and I got the High Priestess two days in a row for my daily draw! So obviously I’m thinking a lot about this card right now. I appreciate the anti-gender-binary sentiment of this post and I totally agree about the courage that the High Priestess exhibits. Weirdly, as a Catholic I really associate her with the Virgin Mary (using the Rider-Waite deck strengthens this association, probably) but I don’t see her as traditionally ‘feminine’ if we are to associate ‘femininity’ with passivity and a sort of long-suffering acceptance. I think it takes a lot of courage and strength to look behind the veil, see all that crazy stuff, and still maintain one’s cool, which is exactly what the High Priestess does. I also associate her with the Moon, and I feel like that calm control in the face of the overwhelming strangeness of one’s own psyche is a great attitude to channel.

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