V. The Pope



Meaning:  Caught between worlds.  Translating experience into creativity.  Study, patience and gradual gains will reveal the right choice of action.  Puzzles are solved.

Reversed: Running on blind.  Complete adoption of risk is the territory of both the desperate and the adventurous.  Luck and strength both have a way of running out.



Cary-Yale Visconti

The Pope has in modern decks universally been re-identified as the Heirophant.  Following the belief that all things mysterious hail from Egypt, it was easier to assume a cover up involving the pope, replacing the ancient Egyptian reader of the heiroglyphs, the Heirophant, with the Pope, than to face the fact that the originators of the Tarot actually meant to include the Pope.  In the Tarot, a deck unusually devoid of religious references given the time, the Pope is the last of the authority figure cards.

In the early decks the Pope is distinguished from the Papess in not being in possession of a book.  Besides this the subject was open to artistic rendering.  The Paris deck shows a sphinx companion, while the Cary-Yale Visconti reveals an extraordinary twist, a regal woman in a gold dress carrying a cross, standing above a cowering king of some sort.  And we have the Swiss deck, where the V card is sometimes called ‘the False God’, a Reformation statement.

Paul Rubens, Pope Nicholas V
Peter Paul Rubens, Pope Nicholas V

If we are right about the Emperor standing for Frederick III, then the Pope could well be Nicholas V, who presided over his coronation.  He ruled for only eight years, but is known for two very disparate actions.  He was open to dialogue with humanists, collected books, and after the disastrous sack of Constantinople sent scouts to recruit their displaced scholars to Rome.  And this is good.  But he also issued a Papal Bull that helped kick start a European slave trade that would ignite colonialism in earnest, by allowing a legal precedent, the monopoly of the Portugese for the enslavement of Africans in Morocco.  And this was yet another example of why having the Pope as the highest political trump was a problem.

Pope Calixto III (Alfonso de Borja Obispo de Valencia)
Pope Calixto III (Alfonso de Borja Obispo de Valencia)

The Pope card could also depict Calixtus III, whose reign specifically overlaps the date of the Visconti Sforza Tarot.  This Pope’s response to Joan of Arc shows compliance with popular pressure, she had been retried and cleared of blame.  He had been left with a world after the betrayal of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, and having no Eastern front to hold off the Turks spent his efforts with yet another Crusade.  He was also a Borgia, and said to have excommunicated an appearance of Halley’s Comet.


The curious term Heirophant comes from the Greek work for someone who reads letters, so there is also a sense of the person who stands before you and recites some sort of information.  As a result the card has a reputation as the revealing of things, but unlike the High Priestess with her role in what is hidden, or difficult to obtain, the Pope or Heirophant is by profession already delivering a steady stream of words.  He holds the key, and as a pontiff or bridge, his declarations are ever considered to be delivered from another, higher power.  So like the Wizard of Oz, this card presents a front for the transmission of information that comes from authority.  So it is a card of dogma.  I think the occult tradition overly conflates the High Priestess and the Heirophant card, while if the Tarot is viewed as a humanist document, one that seems interested in the fate of the feminine half of the world, the Pope really is a high ranking challenge.  For this reason, I think the original title of the Pope is better employed.

The choice of ‘Heirophant’ is an occult way of further painting the Tarot as an Ancient and Egyptian work, because of the similarity to the word for the then illegible Egyptian writing, but the word heiroglyphic did not come about until more modern times.  The term Heirophant was not part of the deck when it was created, instead the Pope is the highest of authority figures, the picture of a patriarchal power structure.  A point of this is made, because the Tarot is really just getting started, and the number of Trumps that are above the Pope, such as the forces of life and death and the World in the end, are far more in number than the five that he is actually able to trump.

Michael Parkes, La Magdalena
Michael Parkes, La Magdalena