The Papess

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Pope Joan with pigs 200

La PapesseDivinatory meaning
~Upright ~

Intuition, wisdom and secret knowledge, the feminine side of the male personality. Something remains yet to be revealed, but patience must be observed. Duality and mystery. Hidden influences affect both home and work and intuitive insight suggests new solutions. The influence of women.

~Ill Dignified or Reversed~

Lack of personal harmony and problems resulting from a lack of foresight. Suppression of the feminine or intuitive side of the personality. Facile and surface knowledge. Repression and ignorance of true facts and feelings. In women, an inability to come to terms with other women or themselves. Things and circumstances are not what they seem.

The most interesting part of this story for me was the odd inclusion of the Pope in the wife’s list of ambitions. Those of you who have read my novel Magdalene A.D. know how interested I am in feminine Christian religious figures. It’s taken years for me to accept my Christian cultural heritage because of the long history of misogyny so deeply entwined in it. Only by going back to the beginning and learning how the divine feminine insisted on her reappearance, despite concerted efforts to excise her, could I finally begin to reclaim some part of Christianity as my own. Magdalene A.D. was an exercise in active imagination in which I rewrote a traditional story, filling in the blank spots with my own midrash in an attempt to help heal this deep historical wound.

So, of course the idea of a female Pope fascinated me. There is a legend, dating in written form back to the thirteenth century, describing the reign of Pope Joan. As the story goes, enamored of learning, she disguised herself as a man and became a priest in order to peruse her studies. (It’s hardly unusual for women to disguise themselves as a man).  Joan, erudite and wise beyond her years, rose quickly in the estimation of her peers to the point that they elected her Pope. Perhaps she had a lover; perhaps she was raped – at any rate two years and seven months into her reign she gave birth to a baby boy during the middle of a public procession right in the middle of the street. Some versions say she died; others that she was done away with; still others that she repented and spent the rest of her life in a convent doing penance.

As with many other traditional tales, one can safely assume that oral traditions long predated the actual inscription of the story. The story of Pope Joan may antedate the written account by two or three centuries or more. The most interesting part for me is the persistence of this legend. The Papess found her way into the earliest tarot decks and also into folk tales like The Fisherman’s Wife. Why did so many people believe it? What, about this particular story, appealed to the popular imagination so much that scholars and novelists wrote about it and engravers illustrated it?

I’ve dressed my fisherman’s wife in sumptuous robes and a diamond mitre. As in the story she is surrounded in flames. I still don’t know what these staggered torches stand for. Do they echo the myriad lights carried by the faithful in religious processions? Perhaps they represent the enormous super-sized candles on the high altars of cathedrals. Candles were an extravagance and burning dozens at a time might seem the height of luxurious abandon to a woman only days away from life in a pigsty. Fairy tales were often told to illustrate the vast divide between rich and poor. They provided a safe way to criticize and make fun of the establishment (church and state) and to rewrite abhorrent circumstance into an easier more bountiful existence. The many lights might have been a critical look at the extravagance of the church at the expense of the poor. The fisherman’s wife might be an allegory for the vain ambition and worldly lusts of a supposedly sacred institution dedicated to the precepts of a Master who asked his followers to walk away from all worldly goods.

I like my little Papess. She seems to have a sly peasant twinkle in her eye, as if to say, “I’ll just play this out and see how far I can take this joke.” I think her good common sense tells her that the deck is stacked against her and this ride can’t last. I also think that under her cynicism and street smarts lies rage – hot and fiery as the flames that surround her. She’d like to burn everything down and start over- even if it means starting from scratch again in her pigsty.

Speaking of pigs! Pigs are ancient symbols of both fertility and death – earthly dwellers and creatures of the underworld linked since long before recorded history with both the moon and the feminine divine. Pigs are ferocious omnivores who will devour shit, grain, human flesh and their own off-spring with equal abandon. Fierce hunters, their tusks appear in the mouths of both demons and gorgons, but their large litters and fleshy bodies also symbolize abundant life and fertility. Their sacred nature is acknowledged in Egyptian, Semite, Indian, Native American, Polynesian, Scandinavian, Celtic, Asian and Greek myth. European culture links them most closely with Persephone and Cerridwen. Their inclusion here hints at a deeper more arcane mythic level to this story. I’m reminded of Kali dancing on the body of Shiva. The Wikipedia article explains the Tantric interpretation of that image thusly:

“The Shiv tattava (Divine Consciousness as Shiva) is inactive, while the Shakti tattava (Divine Energy as Kali) is active. Shiva and Kali represent Brahman, the Absolute pure consciousness which is beyond all names, forms and activities. Kali, on the other hand, represents the potential (and manifested) energy responsible for all names, forms and activities. She is his Shakti, or creative power, and is seen as the substance behind the entire content of all consciousness. She can never exist apart from Shiva or act independently of him,just as Shiva remains a mere corpse without Kali i.e., Shakti, all the matter/energy of the universe, is not distinct from Shiva, or Brahman, but is rather the dynamic power of Brahman.[45] Hence, Kali is Para Brahman in the feminine and dynamic aspect while Shiva is the male aspect and static. She stands as the absolute basis for all life, energy and beneath her feet lies, Shiva, a metaphor for mass, which cannot retain its form without energy.”

(More on pigs – Jack and Catherine Hart have created a wonderful mythic resource on their website – the page on pigs is fascinating.  The Harts deserve big kudos for their generous sharing.)

I mustn’t forget to mention the moon- a feminine symbol if there ever was one, and profoundly associated with water and emotion. The fisherman’s wife’s next ambition will be to become Lord of the Sun and Moon. All her efforts have been leading up to this. She wants to have mastery over both feminine and masculine – perhaps she wants equity both within herself and without; perhaps, her struggle with her husband has been all about righting the balance between masculine and feminine. But, here the Prince disguised as a fish finally balks. It’s beyond even his power to give her mastery over the Sun and Moon (i.e. masculine and feminine, in other words, herself). Maybe the lesson of the story is that equity of this kind can only be achieved internally by individual effort. No matter who we are or what resources we command, happiness and contentment are contingent on learning to know ourselves. We ignore this lesson at our peril.

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