The Priestess Card as the Feminine Face of the Gnostic Mysteries


The Gospel of Mary was not part of the Nag Hammadi “Lost Sea Scrolls” that were discovered in 1945, rather it was a text that was discovered in Egypt in 1896 and then languished in storage of the Berlin Museum. Fortunately, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls spurred a renewed interest in gnostic texts, and a translation of the Gospel of Mary was finally executed in French from the original Coptic text by Jean-Yves Leloup. While most of the Nag Hammadi texts date to around 350 C.E., the Gospel of Mary may date as early as the turn of the first-to-second century (about 100 C.E.).


Gospel of Mary papyrus excerpt

A piece of the papyrus with Coptic writing that consists of The Gospel of Mary


Being a suppressed document after the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E., the Gospel of Mary is likely one of those texts that has generated myth and storytelling through the ages. I’ve written about this before—how several historians believe that it is foolish to think that literature and texts were completely wiped out after the Council of Nicea decreed them heretical. 1 It simply is not human nature to give things up that are beloved or pose attachments to the psyche. The Nag Hammadi scrolls are first and foremost evidence of that—because it was a dessert sect that hid them away in clay pots rather than simply destroying them, likely with the hope of retrieving them at a later time when restrictions were loosened. In other cases, presumably “lost” or condemned gospels have been found buried alongside monks and priests—likely because they were beloved religious texts that those monks and priests preferred despite the heretical proclamations of the Nicean Council and the Pope. People don’t just simply give up the things they love and with which they are comfortable. And the same was true of religious communities and church attendees when suddenly their favorite stories and religious manuals were condemned by a far-a-way papal prince and emperor.


But Time, as one of the famous Triumphs of Petrarchian literature might attest, can certainly do some damage, as can scurrilous slander and preaching. The patriarchy that established itself as the infallible head of Catholic doctrine was essentially worse than the apostle Peter himself when it came to misogynistic opinions of the fairer sex. And the Gospel of Mary—which elevates Mary Magdalene as the favorite of Jesus and recorder of the most important lessons of the Christ—was suppressed not only as an heretical text, but its protagonist was demonized as a harlot and a prostitute. Mary Magdalene was said to have been cured of seven sins or demons by Jesus (Luke 8:2)—the most recorded in the scriptures of any other individual mentioned. Male-dominated tradition and insinuation through the centuries has associated Mary Magdalene with other “sinful” women in other parts of the gospels…even though those sinful women are not specifically named. So Mary Magdalene has had the unfortunate predicament of having been slandered for her sinfulness rather than for her ability to be cured and coming into Jesus’s grace.


The irony is that if Mary Magdalene was cured of these demons—which in popular lore as well as in the Gospel of Mary, seem to indicate that they refer to the seven deadly vices—then Mary’s purification from these sins would have made her “the most thoroughly sanctified person mentioned in the New Testament,” as David Tresemer, Ph.D., and Laura-Lea Cannon seem to realize in the English translation of the Preface to Leloup’s book (published by Inner Traditions Publishers, 2002).


The penitent Mary Magdalene by Francesco Hayez

The Penitent Mary Magdalen (c. 1791-1882) by Francesco Hayez


The knitty-gritty of the Gospel of Mary is a very much more earth-centered spirituality and a much less ephemeral understanding of the universe than the patriarchical Church would have ever had us believe:


[Page 7]

[…] “What is matter?

Will it last forever?”

The Teacher answered:

“All that is born, all that is created,

all the elements of nature

are interwoven and united with each other.

All that is composed shall be decomposed;

everything returns to its roots;

matter returns to the origins of matter.

Those who have ears, let them hear.”

Peter said to him: “Since you have become the interpreter

of the elements and the events of the world, tell us:

What is the sin of the world?”

The Teacher answered:

“There is no sin.

It is you who make sin exist,

when you act according to the habits

of your corrupted nature;

this is where sin lies.

This is why the Good has come into your midst.

It acts together with the elements of your nature

so as to reunite it with its roots.”

Then he continued:

“This is why you become sick,

and why you die:

it is the result of your actions;

what you do takes you farther away.

Those who have ears, let them hear.


[Page 8]

“Attachment to matter

gives rise to passion against nature.

Thus trouble arises in the whole body;

this is why I tell you:

‘Be in harmony…’

If you are out of balance,

take inspiration from manifestations

of your true nature.

Those who have ears,

let them hear.”

After saying this the Blessed One

greeted them all, saying:

“Peace be with you‑may my Peace

arise and be fulfilled within you!

Be vigilant, and allow no one to mislead you

by saying:

‘Here it is!’ or

‘There it is!’

For it is within you

that the Son of Man dwells.

Go to him,

for those who seek him, find him.

Walk forth,

and announce the gospel of the Kingdom.”


[Page 9]

“Impose no law

other than that which I have witnessed.

Do not add more laws to those given in the Torah,

lest you become bound by them.”

Having said all this, he departed. […]


Amazingly, this version of the universe sounds amazingly scientific! Matter doesn’t disappear, but it does break down into its primary elements, returning to its origins. For modern man, who knows that we are made of the elements of the stars and that decomposition does indeed occur to organic matter, and that the sun and the solar system and galaxies and the universe itself have finite lifetimes, but are constantly creating new suns and solar systems and galaxies and universes because of their decomposition…this gospel seems rather ahead of its time.


Deatail from The Last Supper

Detail from a reproduction of DaVinci’s The Last Supper. The figure at the right hand of Jesus is either John the Beloved or Mary Magdalene, depending on your art critic. Simon Peter, to the left appears in a rather prevaricative motion, insinuating with his hand a mock-decapitation of his rival (again, either John “the Beloved” or Mary Magdalene).


Further in the gospel, the apostles—Peter specifically—acknowledges that Mary Magdalene had a special relationship with Jesus the Teacher, and asks her to relate to them any teaching that she received personally from him. And she does…but disbelief ensues:


[Page 17]

[…] “…As for me [the apostle Andrew], I do not believe

that the Teacher would speak like this.

Those ideas are too different from those we have known.”

And Peter added:

“How is it possible that the Teacher talked

in this manner with a woman

about secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant?

Must we change our customs,

and listen to this woman?

Did he really choose her, and prefer her to us?”


[Page 18]

Then Mary wept,

and answered him”

“My brother Peter, what can you be thinking?

Do you believe that this is just my own imagination, that I invented this vision?

Or do you believe that I would lie about our Teacher?”

At this, Levi spoke up:

“Peter, you have always been hot-tempered,

and now we see you repudiating a woman,

just as our adversaries do.

Yet if the Teacher held her worthy,

who are you to reject her?

Surely the Teacher knew her very well,

for he loved her more than us.

Therefore let us atone,

and become fully human [Anthropos],

so that the Teacher can take root in us.

Let us grow as he demanded of us,

and walk forth to spread the gospel,

without trying to lay down any rules and laws

other than those he witnessed.” […]


Again, Tresemer and Cannon conjecture: “…We imagine the idea of proselytizing did not resonate with [Mary Magdalene’s] direct experience of the Divine. Perhaps her kind of wisdom was not something she could preach about. Instead, Mary Magdalene focuses on the inner worlds of initiation.” This would resonate with the true meaning of “gnosticism,” and the philosophy of the gnostic sects, that “the belief that spiritual development and salvation are achieved through inner knowing.” (p. xiv)


That should sound familiar to many tarot readers. Traditionally the Papesse or Priestess card (II) is associated with inner ways of knowing, wisdom knowledge or spirituality, [special] access to mysteries, and particularly a feminine way of knowing, thus with intuition, Eleusinian mysteries, initiation, etc. It is rather ironic that in my pursuit of debunking the theory of some “lost” secret knowledge or sect as being the inspiration for the tarot images, that a “lost” history of Coptic Christian texts and stories should float in as a possible inspiration for the imagery of the Priestess card. While the Apostle Peter was ultimately chosen as the “rock” upon which the Church was built, how different and interesting the Church might have been if, as some of these Coptic texts seem to indicate, that an alternative apostle—a female apostle—might have had greater access to the lessons and mysteries of the Christ. For The Gospel of Mary is not the only Coptic text to feature Mary Magdalene…she stars in several other Gnostic texts including (particularly) the Pistis Sophia (Faith of Wisdom), and in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip in which she is noted to have regularly kissed Jesus on the mouth. 2


What if Mary Magdalene had been the first pope…certainly a schismatic theory of greater import than that of later decades during the Council of Nicea, as well as later centuries concerning a supposed Pope Joan? Is the Papesse card, therefore, equal but different from the Pope/Hierophant card (V)? Is a balance struck at the institutionalism represented by the Hierophant? Is it representative of another worldly dimension in which Wisdom spirituality became the symbol of the Church? Is it important that the Papesse comes first in terms of order (for her worth, and because she was loved more than the others)?


These are esoteric questions worth investigation, but into which I shall not divulge, there certainly being plenty of personal and academic inquiry about Mary Magdalene—she of the alabaster jar—ever since Dan Brown’s blockbuster The DaVinci Code inspired a massive resurgence in interest about her. What seems more relevant and more important is whether lay people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were privy to and invested in this idea of the Magdalene having a richer history than patristic history has allowed her since that time. Because it is not disputed that the campaign to eradicate Mary Magdalene’s apostolic contributions has been successful since at least post-Reformation Catechisms. But the question is: What was the perception of the common medieval populace in regards to her?


Maria Magdalene by Viktor M. Vasnetov

Maria Magdalene (1899) by Viktor M. Vasnetsov (The Russian Museum)


And to understand the medieval understanding of sacred stories, we have to understand that we’re not just talking about lost Gnostic or Coptic texts weedling their way past the barriers of heretical denouncement and persecution, the denouncements of the likes of St. Irenaeus; we’re not just talking about the commentaries of antiquity by the “Church fathers,” people like Pope Gregory and Bishop Epiphanius of Cyprus, and others; we’re not just talking about vernacular exegeses meant to assist monks and priests (such as the Gestum Romanorum);…but we’re talking about these things combined in addition to other forms of imagination that aided medieval people in constructing elaboration, embellishment, and entertaining storytelling, of which the biblical cannon provided much inspiration. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigraphica of the Old Testament (apocryphal stories like Tobit, though dismissed by the canon-makers, was ultimately included in the Catholic lexicon because of its storytelling popularity among the masses), the widely disseminated Vita Adae et Evae (Life of Adam and Eve) which was popular because its embellishments helped to explain some of the confusing or confounding elements of the Book of Genesis; The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa in the 13th century… every bit of storytelling, interpretation, and vernacular catechism made an impression on belief and understanding. That’s what storytelling does for us…makes things come to life.


So what’s the next step? What are the next questions? Frankly, it gets complicated…


It’s not simply a matter of looking at the lives of women in Medieval times, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance; there are varying opinions about the social and legal rights of women during these periods, and there is varying evidence that sometimes confirms and sometimes contradicts our presumptions about women in historical European society. It cannot be emphasized enough that the effect of class stratification and segregation was the ruling influence in people’s lives during those eras. That stratification included subcategories of minorities such as women and children. Women of higher-class strata obviously held much more power than feudal and poverty-stricken women. But their power was different—historians have, of course, been fascinated with the influence that royal women have had on their monarchical dynasties, and on shifting power through influencing war strategies, and even on determining succession of the royal hierarchical line. But, there are cases of women from lower-class strata who also influenced their local communities simply by being property owners. Most accounts of medieval life discuss women being displaced from property upon the death of a spouse, or of ownership transferring to relatives or to a new husband, so the very fact that we can find evidence of direct property inheritance or holdings forces us to reassess our assumptions of societal paradigms. Many women skirted authoritarian and misogynistic property rules by proving themselves to be managers of an estate as well as its legal owner. 3 There were presumed and socially defined roles that the vast majority of women played, but it didn’t mean that taboos weren’t broken or even that legal precedent wasn’t challenged.


One of the more famous episodes to which modern scholars have access is from the historical legal records of a court challenge made by a Florentine woman from the merchant class against a nobleman whom she claimed had secretly married her, making her the rightful beneficiary of his property. Both sides had conflicting versions of who might have been present at the private ceremony, as well as details surrounding the courtship and statements of commitment. 4 The story reveals itself to be a Renaissance version of a Maury Povich episode or a Jerry Springer show—and frankly, gossip and scandal played an important role in Renaissance society, as entertainment, and as a method of social and societal manipulation.


But slim examples shouldn’t disillusion us about women’s rights in Medieval and Renaissance history—it was virtually non-existent. Women were largely considered an inferior species from men, and most often considered chattel (property) of their husbands. If they didn’t belong to men, they belonged to God (the Church) or to the state as wards, and for the most part women were only considered safe (and could consider themselves safe) if they were under the protection of another one of those entities.


The only women who really had any rule over men were idolized, goddess-like women, women who represented the virtues that the noble class was meant to emulate on a cosmic tier lower than heaven. Thus, the Marian devotion that simply could not be redacted or undermined by the patriarchy of the Church had to be absorbed and reclassified in order to serve a patristic-hierarchical paradigm. The witch trials and persecution of feminine matriarchs and midwifery and naturopaths that lasted for centuries were all part of this struggle. So much of history is often eradicated by the victors of war…and rediscovering that history can be a challenge. (And yes, I am classifying the purge of female power and feminine devotion throughout history as a “war.” Its victims in terms of loss of life are evidence of that.)


Faith with Representations of the Arts by Nicolò Barabino

Faith with Representations of the Arts (c. 1884-1885) by Nicolò Barabino. This is a painting that served as the model for a mosaic currently installed over the southwest portal of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence.


It is, however, entirely possible that the popularity of [substitute] goddess figures such as Mary the Mother of God were indeed so popular precisely because they represented—for disempowered women of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—a hopefulness that placed feminine energy and devotion above class and minority status, that the Virgin Mary elicited a kind of reverence that superceded class stratification, that represented a sort of religious-mystical elevated equality with the male species. Think about that…it’s not so difficult to understand when compared to other theologies that empower suppressed classes of people, much like Liberation Theology has empowered the poverty stricken of Central and South American countries to understand that they are more important in the eyes of Christ than the class stratification or economic disparity that keeps them impoverished.


No one—except the Church, which remains purposefully ignorant of its own atrocities—denies that Mary Magdalene was repainted and portrayed as a harlot and a whore. The Apostle Peter, himself, is recorded in canonical literature as having jealous and misogynistic feelings towards the woman Jesus loved more than he. Peter was scandalized by the thought that his teacher taught the maxim “…all the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other.” And further: “Attachment to matter gives rise to passion against nature…” (which, one presumes, would include attachments or possession of other human beings as chattel or slaves…including the female species). Would Peter have been equally scandalized by the teachings of Paul to the Galatians? There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) And, was—perhaps—Paul proclaiming the teachings of Mary Magdalene?


Contemporary biblical scholars pretty much universally agree that Peter—as a story element and character in the ancient Aramaic/Coptic/Greek texts of the canonical gospels—was a foil character, a buffoon, a comic element, a “holy fool,” and ignorant “everyman” against the narrative of Jesus. 5 There’s a certain irony that he should have been named as the “rock” upon which the Church was established. And yet, perhaps his folly and ignorance—representative of man in general—made him the perfect leader of the Christian world towards salvation.


Time and again throughout history, men have tried to make distinctions as well as make apologies for discrepancies between what they deem “the Word of God” and the social norms to which they are accustomed. The problem arises when one realizes that not only can one contest the “word” based on syntax, interpretation, and intent; but one can also contest the unjust customs of men and the sloth of those unrelentingly chained to tradition.


Perhaps the Papesse card of the tarot is meant to incite and foment both parties…no less than Mary Magdalene challenged the misogynistic notions of the male apostles by her elevation of “most favored,” as well as challenged the righteous elitism of knowledge that the apostles thought they knew everything their teacher had spoke, by revealing that she knew even more secret teachings than the rest of the apostles—that Christ had taught her more lessons than he had taught the others.


Saint Mary Magdalene before a curtain supported by angels in an architectural niche (c. 1500-1530) by a Flemish painter


I suppose that we must ask ourselves if the text or scroll that is so often pictured in the lap of the figure in the Papesse card…is perhaps the Gospel of Mary itself, the additional and further astonishing teachings of Jesus Christ that were revealed to his favorite apostle—Mary Magdalene—those teachings that have been suppressed by the very Church that claims Jesus as its inspiration and mode to ultimate salvation. Major Arcana indeed…





[1]     See, for instance, Philip Jenkins’s book, The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. (Basic Books Publishers, 2015).


[2]     Jenkins, p. 96-98.


[3]     See for instance: Kangas, Sini; Korpiola, Mia; and Ainonen Tuija (eds.). Authorities in the Middle Ages: Influence, Legitimacy and Power in Medieval Society (Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture). (Boston: Walter de Gruyter Publishers, 2013). (last accessed 8/11/2016).


[4]     Brucker, Gene. Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).


[5]     The most renowned holy fools were Saint Françis of Assisi, Saint Basil, and Saint Simeon the Syrian, all for their outrageous acts of “foolishness for Christ.” (I Corinthians 4:10). According to Svitlana Kobets, co-author of the book Holy Foolishness in Russia: New Perspectives (Slavica Publishers, 2011), “[A] seminal characteristic of the fool in Christ is that, as a liminal figure, in the cultural as well as the social sense the holy fool is simultaneously oriented towards sacred and profane values, norms, and models. Moreover, through his appearance, discourse, and behavior he simultaneously affirms and challenges the stability and the very reality of the existing social order and its values.” Based on this definition, we can certainly view the apostle Simon Peter as perhaps the very first Christian holy fool. He repeatedly must be rescued or admonished by Jesus for not having full faith. For example, when he overzealously jumps overboard during the storm on the Sea of Galilee in order to walk with Christ on the water, and subsequently sinks due to his faltering faith (Matthew 14:29-31); or when Peter brashly draws a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, striking and cutting off one of the ears of the arresting soldiers, wherein Jesus must rebuke him for disrupting the greater plan designed for him: “Put your sword back in its sheath!” Jesus said to Peter. “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given Me?” (John 18:10-11) The books of John, in particular, tend to color Simon Peter as a buffoon because, as theologian Elaine Pagels has explained, there seems to have been a sort of rivalry between John and Peter…the books of John identify John himself as “the most beloved of Jesus,” refuting Peter’s role as primary sidekick, and also portrays Peter shamefully as denying Jesus three times before his public trial. Interestingly, It would be interesting to perhaps consider both the Fool card (0) or the Magician card (I) as perhaps this version of Peter…Peter as the bumbling, ignorant, holy fool ready to leap off a cliff from which he will either plummet or be saved by his faith, or as the Magician whose incarnations can sometimes include that of a theatrical player, conniving showman, con artist, confabulator, contriver, shady, unprincipled… To have his placement (and his understanding of the teachings) preceding the Papesse card (II) with her more advanced teachings from the Christ, perhaps provides new perspective on the step-ladder of enlightenment and the order of the tarot…(except, admittedly, that early versions of the tarot didn’t always place the Papesse in the second position in order of placement.)





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