Tarot’s High Priestess in Polka Dots

Version 3Tarot’s High Priestess is Major Arcana card number two. If she were a book title, she would be Women’s Ways of Knowing. Her masculine counterpart, the Hierophant (whom I wrote about last week), would be something like The Bible, or Gray’s Anatomy.

Unless you’re a poet, it can be hard to write about the High Priestess card. Once you get caught up in the rules of grammar, you sink from the ether into your head, and The High Priestess evaporates. She is intuition and invisible inklings. She is your feelings before you put words to them. Good luck with that.

Version 2Intuition. When we channel it directly, we get an “aha,” and feel momentarily awestruck. Many of us who value that experience spend time trying to cultivate it through meditation, dream work, and art.

Visual artists of all sorts try to capture High Priestess sensation in physical form. I once heard a brilliant local choreographer give a terrible radio interview, finally declaring in exasperation, “If I could TELL you what the piece meant, I wouldn’t have to DANCE it!” It was a High Priestess moment.

My most recent encounter with the High Priestess happened last week at the Infinity Mirrors exhibit of Yayoi Kusama, currently at the Seattle Art Museum. She’s a High Priestess to the extreme, living in an intuited universe of polka dots and mirrors, seeking what she refers to as ‘obliteration.’

Yayoi Kusama on screenThose who manage to exist in High Priestess energy for long stretches may, like Kusama, lose their grasp on reality. When seeing Infinity Mirrors, the first thing you learn about the artist is that she lives in a mental health facility in Japan. They lead with that intrigue, but don’t supply details. We are left wondering if, in her immersive experience as a High Priestess, she has ever been tempted to cut off an ear.

Yayoi Kusama Soft Sculpture


Here’s a reminder for August, 2017: I’m offering $25 email readings until the end of August. Also, there is still room in two of my summer classes — check it out!


Pictured from top to bottom after title: 1) The High Priestess card from the Golden Tarot Deck by Kat Black; 2) The High Priestess from the Tarot del Fuego by Ricardo Cavalo; 3) Yayoi Kusama as seen in the exhibit video. (My camera gloriously distorted her wig color from pink to gold); 4) “Phalli” soft sculptures from the Seattle Art Museum exhibit 

Tarot’s Sexy Hierophant



Admit it, tarot readers, you get crushes on your cards. The Star is romantic. The Magician is dreamy. The Empress… a goddess. Even the Hermit has that strong, silent appeal. But the Hierophant? Not so sexy. Especially given the images I’ve chosen to represent him here. (Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1650, and Figure With Meat by Francis Bacon, 1954).

Le Pape Marseille Tarot DeckCalled The Pope in Marseilles-style decks, this card is generally seen to represent the religious establishment and its teachings. If Tarot’s traditional Judeo-Christian references make you uncomfortable, this card is probably not your favorite. But more and more I’m warming up to him. I come from a family of educators. Education was our religion, actually. Recognizing this as the teacher card, as many do, makes the Hierophant more approachable.

Version 2When reversed, I think of this card broadly as our collective unconscious. Not just the overt teachings of a ruling class, but all of our invisible agreements that over time weave a thick fabric of directives for us to live by. Individually, that might be the Devil. Collectively, at least from one angle, it’s the Hierophant. The effect can be sinister, like in Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat. Or it could simply be unconventional (Francis Bacon, again, I suppose).

But I’ve been known to overcomplicate things. When this card shows in my readings, the meaning is almost always surprisingly specific: a contract, a bar mitzvah, a church gathering. My challenge is being comfortable enough with clients to ask, simply, “do you go to church?” or, “What religious conventions do you embrace?”

I remind myself with regularity that it’s not a tarot reader’s job to make a message palatable. Still, I searched the decks I own — animal decks included — for a less imposing visual representation. No luck until I combed through some Pinterest accounts and found this lovely example, with the Dali Llama as the Hierophant, and a nod to Star Wars nerds at his toe.

(Also pictured are Le Pape from the Marseille deck and The Hierophant from the Thoth deck)


Seattle folks: there is still time to sign up for my classes this month. August 10th, 13th, and 27th. Come to one, two, or all three — I’d love to see you there.

Tarot Workout: Play it Safe or Jump?

Tarot Workouts are short, real-life case studies to help you exercise your tarot-reading muscle. Enjoy this as a sample reading. Or, if you are a tarot student, read the question, check out the cards, and then step away from the essay to formulate your own response. Read the end later to see how my response compares to your own.

The Question

I did a distance reading for someone who was finishing up a teaching certificate and had mixed feelings about the road ahead. “I’ve invested in this program and have no regrets, but I don’t feel like jumping straight into the classroom. What do my tarot cards say?” She summed up her question beautifully: “How can I best contribute to the world with the skills I have now?”

The Layout

I pulled a simple trio of cards from the Golden Tarot by Kat Black. I asked for the first card to show the main energy of her best option, and for the next two to show clarifying details.Present Day Tarot workout

  • CARD 1: (Central energy of best option) Knight of Coins, upright
  • CARD 2: (Supporting detail) The Fool, upright
  • CARD 3: (Supporting detail) 4 of Coins, reversed

***** Tarot students, stop here and formulate your own answers *****

This was my written response to the client (with details altered for anonymity). Did you see it in a different way?

“The first impression I get from these cards is a sense of being open-minded and curious – both you and the people you work with in your next chapter. I feel like the best path for you, as you suspect, is not the status quo, but something that captures your sense of possibility and wonder. My overall feeling is that this shows you pursuing a very specific project next, once your program is complete, and that this chapter will be a halfway point in your best career path. I feel the cards are saying that this experience – which may seem like a temporary fling at first – will lay the groundwork for new inspiration.

I don’t see what I consider the traditional teacher cards in this spread. Instead, I associate these cards with projects and tangible products. I also see a fair amount of inspiration (and some naïveté) on the part of people around you. I feel like your educational skills will be in high demand, but that you will aim them more toward advancing a product rather than, say, educating students in a classroom.

Version 2The Knight of Pentacles is the main energy in this reading. This card can be interpreted in several ways. My first feeling is that it represents another person (possibly someone younger than you) who invites you to be part of a project. (In her feedback to me, the client verified that she was already speaking with a younger potential collaborator). This can also represent the project itself, which I see as a for-profit company, or some other kind of tangible, earthy endeavor. (Again, this was verified by the client). The Knight can also be your spirit of daring and curiosity as you move toward something that is intriguing and new.

Two of these cards show you challenging the status quo. The Fool shows inspired play, which I feel may grow with time out of the work you pursue next. In this deck, she is literally dancing to the beat of her own drum! The 4 of Pentacles, when reversed, is about letting go of your security blanket. This can be uncomfortable, but with a school book in her lap, the figure in this card seems to say that your learning has given you valuable skills that you can bring with you even if you apply them in a different way than you originally thought you would.”


If you enjoyed this Tarot Workout, these other offerings may interest you as well:

  • Come to my August classes! No tarot experience is necessary — just curiosity. If you live in Seattle, this is a great chance to do something different for yourself this summer. Check out the details here!
  • Contact me for a reading. For a short time, I will offer distance readings (via email) for a discount price of $25 per reading. This price will only last through August 2017, so email me today if you are interested. (yetta@presentdaytarot.com)

Intro to Tarot: The Anatomy of a Deck

***Note to tarot students: If you are attending my classes this summer, please read this. This information is exactly what I won’t be covering in person. This essay covers the concrete and knowable aspects of tarot. In the classes, we will be playing much more with tarot’s intuitive and magical side. Photo credits are listed at the end.***

You bring your first deck of tarot cards home and are at the start of what may be a life-changing relationship. I suggest you prepare for the adventure by learning the basic anatomy of your tarot deck.

Tarot and poker cards are close cousins — like city and country mice. The two decks differ in size (78 vs. 52 cards / 5 suits vs. 4), but are the same in many ways. For a quick visual comparison, download my Anatomy of a Tarot Deck illustration, and read on.

The Pips

The first forty cards to check out are called the “pips,” and are structured the same as the numbered cards in your standard poker deck. They range from Ace to Ten and come in four suits. Here are some well-known pips from the Rider-Waite Deck:

The four suits are most often named in the Italian tradition: Cups, Coins, Swords and Wands. In that order, they correspond to four basic elements: Water, Earth, Air and Fire. In modern decks, the suit symbols may differ, but their elemental dignity is the same. For instance, you might have a suit of Feathers instead of Swords, but they both represent the element Air. Compared to the standard American poker deck, the suits correspond in order to: Hearts, Diamonds, Spades and Clubs.

If the pips in your deck are designed like poker cards – that is, with pictures of each symbol corresponding to the card’s numerical value — then you either have an old deck (made prior to 1900), and/or your deck is a derivative of the Tarot de Marseille. If the Pips in your deck are decorated with narrative scenes, your deck was most likely made after 1900 and follows the Rider-Waite tradition.

This row shows the 6 of Swords/Spades in the historical or Marseille tradition:

And this row shows the equivalent card in the Rider-Waite tradition:

The Court Cards

Following the pips in each suit come the court cards, which are made up of the royalty figures. Tarot has sixteen court cards — four per suit — as opposed to just twelve in the poker deck. The Jack card you know from poker is replaced by a Page and a Knight in tarot. The King and Queen are the same, though these titles are often altered by the deck’s creator. Depending on your deck, your court cards might include a Prince, Princess, Visionary, and/or Shaman, to name a few. Here is a nice array of court cards:

The pips and court cards make up the bulk of the tarot deck and are referred to together as the Minor Arcana, or small secrets, in the tarot.

Minor Arcana Intrigue

At this point, the two decks diverge. An interesting aside before leaving the poker deck… Over time, the poker deck was frequently outlawed and referred to as “The Devil’s Playbook,” while tarot skated through history with relative ease. Some say that the poker deck was the actual divination tool, while tarot was simply an innocent game. They point to the numerical synchronicity: poker’s 52 cards and 4 suits match the 52 weeks and 4 seasons of the year, among other uncanny parallels. For a fun dramatization of this argument, check out this video by respected cartomancer, Ana Cortez).

The Trumps

The big difference between the two decks is the suit of trumps, which diverges in structure and content from the pip and court cards. Also referred to as the Major Arcana, these 22 cards represent the larger forces in life — themes that we all encounter at some point by virtue of being human.

The Trumps are usually numbered from zero (the Fool) to twenty-one (the World). In the first decks, however, these cards were not labeled or sequenced, and there are many theories about how people may have given the cards cultural rank and order. The modern numerical order is based on a linear story referred to as “the Fool’s Journey” from birth to death. Other systems often applied to the Major Arcana include Astrology, Kabbalah, and Jungian Archetypes, to name just a few. As tarot developed in the early 20th century, there was controversy over the order of two trump cards in particular, according to a big tarot personality named Aleister Crowley. If in your deck, the Strength card is number 8 and Justice number 11, then your deck is in the traditional order. If those cards are switched (Strength to 11 and Justice to 8), then your deck has been influenced by the teachings of Crowley.

Finally, a notable card in both decks is trump number zero, the Fool, which deserves a special call-out. I often refer to this card as the Spirit of the Tarot. It represents curiosity, adventure, faith and mischief, wrapped up in the form of a penniless wanderer just about to step off a cliff. Many say that the Fool worked its way into the poker deck in the form of the Joker, and that the spirit of mystery and magic lives in both decks of cards.

This overview of tarot anatomy was put together by Yetta Snow of Present Day Tarot. Here are the image credits, reading left to right from each row of illustrations:

First row: The Ace of Cups, 2 of Pentacles (aka Coins), 3 of Swords, and 8 of Wands from the Rider-Waite tarot deck illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. This and most of the other decks are distributed by US Games Systems, Inc.
Second row: These are all the 6 of Swords (aka Spades). From left to right you see the Visconti Sforza deck (c. 1450), Tarot de Marseille (c. 1499), and the Bee playing cards (c. 2013).
Third row: These are all the 6 of Swords. From left to right you see the Rider-Waite image (c. 1906), the Ghetto Tarot (2016), and the Fountain Tarot (2014).
Fourth row: Page of Swords from the Golden Tarot, Knight of Cups from the Dreaming Way Tarot, Queen of Wands from Black Fantasy Tarot, and King of Pentacles from Light and Shadow Tarot.
Fifth row: The Star from Visconti Sforza, The Lovers from the Commemorative issue of the Rider-Waite, the Death card from the Thoth Tarot, and the World from the Tarot del Fuego.
Last row: the Fool as drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, and the Joker from the Bee Playing Cards.



Tarot in the Waiting Room

Present Day Tarot SpreadThe Surgery Pavilion waiting room at University Hospital is hopping.

I expected something heavy and morose, but instead there’s laughter and activity. Just one person from a group can accompany a patient to their room, leaving a large number of friends and family behind to comfort one another and pass the time.

I am here today for a friend, waiting with others for what is expected to be a long day of surgery. She disappeared down the hall in her wheelchair 10 minutes ago to be prepped. Eventually, we will be able to track her progress on the monitor overhead.

Since the room feels so different from what I was expecting, I decide to do a 3-card reading of the environment. I get:

  1. The King of Cups, upright
  2. The Empress, upright
  3. The 3 of Pentacles, reversed

Version 2The card that catches my eye first is the smallest, the 3 of Pentacles. Reversed, it says: The medical team is at work in the other room. You can only imagine what your loved one is experiencing right now. You have no hand in it. Concern is lurking in the periphery of your mind, but with effort you can keep it at bay, and keep it small. This card sits to the side like the monitor we try not to stare at.

Version 3The grander cards of the King and the Empress dominate the spread, explaining the upbeat feel that caught me so off guard. They – we – are the loved ones who are in the tough but well-defined position of supporting our people through difficult times. We are purposeful but powerless. Stuck to a chair! Our only choice is to love.

Tarot EmpressThe King, who reins over the suit of emotions, is determined to keep his sea-tossed throne upright and not allow one drop to spill from his cup. He is masterful, but today I can see that it takes effort to stay composed. He stares at a fixed point like someone trying to keep balance in a yoga pose. The Empress is the great nurturer – a role we all can step into when circumstances require it. Breathe deeply and have faith in the big picture. Allow yourself to be nurtured by the hospital, too, which is the result of collective Major-Arcana-scale nurturing energy. The goal is health and balance. The way to get there now is to love. And everyone in this room seems to know it.

(As always, my gratitude to Pamela Colman-Smith for painting these images for the Rider-Waite-Smith deck in 1906, and to the Gods of Time for bringing this deck into the public domain.)


Contact me for readings and classes: Yetta@presentdaytarot.com

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The Tarot Ten Gets Well

Version 2I couldn’t take a photo of where I was or who I was with this morning, so the 10 of Pentacles will have to do. I was visiting Daryel, the Somali women’s health group that meets in South Seattle every Sunday. I’ve written about them before, and so has the Seattle Times: “For Somali women, health program eases the pain of war, exile.” The word Daryel means “wellness” in Somali.

The group is flourishing after over 7 years of gathering weekly, and today more than 20 women filled the meeting space with voices, hugs and movement. As I spent time with them, I felt the boisterous company of the 10 of Pentacles.

Rider Waite 10 of PentsThe 10 of Pentacles evokes wealth – especially the wealth of connections. This card is sometimes reduced to the idea of family money, but you see another side of it in Daryel. The women of Daryel have experienced war and displacement beyond what most of us know or can imagine. They now find solace in one another’s company half way across the world. What is more comforting, earthy, and valuable, than a friend who knows what you’ve been through and has your back? Surround yourself with 20 such friends and you will feel the 10 of Pentacles!

Motherpeace Tarot 10 of DiscsIn tarot, the tens evoke a resting place. Theoretically speaking, we use the moment of the tens to assess our accomplishments and then decide how to go forward. The assumption is that the respite will be enough to restore your strength and resolve. While that’s easy to imagine when looking at, say, the 10 of Swords or the 10 of Wands, I might not blame anyone for choosing to stay with the 10 of Pentacles for a while. Especially depending on what they’ve gone through to get there.

(Images shown here: Golden Tarot by Kat Black, Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and Motherpeace Tarot)


I’m setting up tarot classes and workshops for the summer months. To learn more, send me an email at: presentdaytarot@gmail.com.

– Yetta