Priestess cardGimel path

The Path of The High Priestess – Gimel

Tarot Card 2. Tree path 3.

Joining Sephiroth 1 (Kether) and 6 (Tiphereth)

‘Caryatids (1)’, ‘The Earthenware Head’. ‘The Gypsy’, ‘The Blackbird’.

© Ann Skea

The number 3, in Cabbala, is extremely important. In sacred Jewish Cabbala it represents the three-lettered name of God – the Holy Trinity. And in all other Cabbalistic teachings it is the mystical number which balances the Divine power of 1 and the force of 2 and brings them into dynamic equilibrium.

The number 1 represents the manifest Divine Spark, 2 the first division of Unity and the first linear extension of it into space and time, 3 gives that extension form and stability- literally, a third dimension. 3 is represented by an equilateral triangle. It links 1 and 2 together, it embodies the innate creative power through which all things are produced, and through it all things return to the Divine Source.

The third Sephira (Binah) on the Cabbalistic Tree is at the apex of the Pillar of Justice and is known as Judgement or Understanding. In the Atziluthic World of archetypes it represents Aima, the Great Mother, the Divine Feminine and the archetype of female energies. In sacred Jewish Cabbala she is the Bride of God through whom the manifest Wisdom speaks, and she is represented by the Torah (the scroll of the law). As the Shekinah, a female emanation of God, she accompanied the people of Israel into exile and led them through the desert as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night1. In Renaissance Christianised Cabbala, because the female is the route through which the Divine energies directly enter the world, she came to be regarded as closer to the Divine than the male and to be exulted by philosophers and poets. This ran counter to other interpretations of the female as the source of sin and evil in the world, and the problem of evil was (and is) a topic of complex debate. The existence of evil, however, is agreed upon amongst Cabbalists. And whether it is regarded as the result of the dark, sexual powers of the female, or as the work of demons, or as caused by the initial act of separation in which Unity became divided, there is agreement that the Cabbalist must confront and deal with evil, repair that division, re-unite the exiled Shekinah with the Godhead.

Aima embodies triplicity. In mythology, she is the triple Goddess: the Virgin, the Wife and Mother, and the Hag: the channel and mediator of the Divine energies of creation and disintegration who, as such, has oracular power and can wield fierce judgement. Aima, in various forms, is present everywhere on the Cabbalistic Tree just as she is present in many forms in mythology. She is the mother goddess, the moon goddess, the goddess of love, the goddess of wisdom and the black goddess of judgement, death and destruction. And she has many names: Isis, Nepthys, Innana, Ishtar, Kali, Shakti-maya, Sophia, Artemis, Minerva, Lilith, Hecate and many more. Her element is water: she is The Bitter Sea from which all life comes and to which all must return. And her astrological sign is Saturn. In her highest and most spiritual form, she is the Holy Guardian whose brilliant veil of reflected light shields the Divine Spirit from the profane and whose judgement the quester must face at the end of their journey.

Path number 3 (Gimel) on the Cabbalistic journey (as opposed to Sephira number 3), is the path of The High Priestess. It joins Sephiroth 1 (Kether: The Crown) and 6 (Tiphereth: Beauty, Manifest Glory, The Way) and it forms a central column of balance on the Tree. Through Tiphereth it channels the Divine energies directly to every Sephira and every path. The journeyer on the path of The High Priestess must learn to be a passive channel for her creative energies and must learn balance, selflessness and simple trust in intuition, through which comes the guidance of the “Indwelling Glory” – the spark of Divinity present in every created thing. But the High Priestess has both good and evil aspects and the dangers of the High Priestess’s path are of illusion, sexual excess, glamour and bewitchment. The epigram used for meditation on this path by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is appropriate: “The Holy Guardian Angel is attained by self-sacrifice and equilibrium”.

In Birthday Letters, ‘Caryatids (1)’ (BL 4) is the poem which represents the number 3 in the Atziluthic World of archetypes. It embodies the female energies not only of the Caryatids themselves as priestesses of the goddess Artemis, but also of Sylvia and of her poem, “’three Caryatids Without a Portico’ by Hugo Robus”.

Appropriately, there are three caryatids in Sylvia’s poem and she describes them as “maidens”, “virgin vases”, all “torso, breast and thigh”. The Catalogue of Hugo Robus’s work (Tarbell, Hugo Robus (1885-1964), Smithsonian Institute, 1980. p.108) also refers to this particular sculpture (which exists in bronze and as a plaster maquette) as a group of “vases – vessels”. It notes that it consists of free-standing torsos and that, “By the principal of pars pro toto, the part becomes the whole, the torso is the complete feminine being”. So this sculpture, too, embodies a female archetype, and Sylvia’s description of it is precise (“torso, breast and thigh” in “tranquil plaster”) except for her reference to “aristocratic heads”. The sculpture as it now exists (in both its forms) has no heads. Whether it ever did in the early stages of the plaster maquette and whether Sylvia saw it this way, I have been unable to establish but Robus wrote: “I was first attracted to the idea of the female form without arms by noticing the line and form produced by the ‘halter’ top bathing suit&hellip… The head forms were a hindrance and so I eliminated them” (Tarbell. p.210).

Robus picture

Robus’s work [see my sketch to the right of this paragraph] is thoroughly modern: smooth and without detail, no portico, no heads. And it is this modernity which Sylvia contrasts in her poem with the “Classical” caryatids of Ancient Greece. What are we to make, though, of the fact that both Sylvia and Ted describe the caryatids’ heads? And in Ted’s poem, the caryatids not only have heads which support a “Heaven of granite”, they are blindfolded too. Sylvia may well have seen the sculpture in an early stage but Ted describes things the sculpture never showed. Not one of the many figures shown in the Hugo Robus Catalogue is blindfolded. Nor, as far as I can determine, are any of the surviving Classical Greek caryatids, although many do support a “Heaven of granite”.

The only goddess in Greek mythology who does sometimes wear a blindfold, and who is completely appropriate to the place Ted’s poem occupies on the Cabbalistic Tree, is Themis, the Goddess of Justice who presides over earthly order and whose veil, like that of Isis, obscures the Divine presence. She is the female counterpart of Mercury, born of the mating of heavenly and earthly energies, guide to those who journey on the paths to enlightenment, and the original oracular goddess to sit on the tripod in the sacred grotto at Delphi. Her symbols are scales and a sword, for judgement, balance and deadly justice, and she mediates between the world of Truth and our world of change and illusion: between the sacred and the profane. The three caryatids in Ted’s poem can be seen as representing the Great Mother in her triple form or as acolytes of Artemis (as the human Caryatids were), Artemis being yet another form of this same goddess, renowned for her fierce justice and for her association with the oracle at Delphi.

If Ted did have Themis in mind then his careful choice of the word “bearing” in the first line of his poem can have many meanings. It suggests not only the supporting of a granite portico but also the weight of justice, the “deadfall” of punishment, and the portent of “omen” which he, blindly foolish and self-orientated (“In those days I coerced/ Oracular assurance/ In my favour out of every sign”) at the start of the journey, failed to see. The place of judgement, the trap, would certainly have been “unsprung, empty”, at the start of this journey, just as Sylvia’s poetic powers were still uninspired and the poem she wrote cold as a “theorem”, but the strength of all these women, these embodiments of the Great Mother, was immense, strong enough to stop a massive heaven of granite “mid-fall” with only “their hair”. And Ted, busy coercing omens rather than trusting his feelings and intuition, “made nothing” of all this.

In the World of Briah, the world of abstract formative patterns, the Birthday Letters poem on the path of The High Priestess, is ‘The Earthenware Head’ (BL 57). This poem was first published in 1980. Only one other poem in the Birthday Letters sequence was published that early (‘You Hated Spain’ (BL 39)) and both were probably written when Ted began preparing Sylvia’s journals for publication (these were first published in 1982).

Between the time when the poem was first published and 1995, when Ted told me in conversation that he had just written “about a hundred poems about things [he] should have dealt with thirty years ago… should have written then, but couldn’t”, Ted completed Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Being. (Faber, 1992)2. Writing this book clearly immersed him deeply in Renaissance thought, Occult Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and Cabbala, which would have reinforced his own belief in practical magic and in the power of the “magically animated imagination” (SGCB 22). It seems very likely that it was this which prompted his own use of Cabbala in Birthday Letters3.

Amongst those things which Ted suggested would have been likely to attract Shakespeare to Occult Neoplatonism and Cabbala was “The idea of drama as a ritual for manipulation of the soul” (SGCB 33). And he believed that Shakespeare had designed at least some of his plays to bring about a spiritual effect on his audience. The purpose of this was exactly that of Cabbalists: to magically/imaginatively reinvent the past so as to understand it, resolve its disharmonies and create a new structural basis for the future. The purpose of Birthday Letters is, as I see it, the same4.

It is very likely, then, that ‘The Earthenware Head’ was written before the Cabbalistic pattern of Birthday Letters had been planned. As a description of events which occurred whilst Ted and Sylvia were living in Cambridge just after their marriage, and which Sylvia recorded in a letter to her mother and in two versions of her poem, ‘The Lady and the Earthenware Head’ (SPLH 8 Feb. 1957), (SPCP 69-70), it fits neatly into the chronology of events in Birthday Letters. But as a poem for the particular place it occupies in the Cabbalistic journey it reflects a darker side of the High Priestess than one might expect to encounter on this path, which is still so close to the energies of the Source.

Unexpectedly, the appropriateness of its use has much to do with Sylvia’s own poem. Yet it also lies in the discrepancies which exist between Sylvia’s feelings for the terra-cotta head which had been made of her by a room-mate at Smith, and those which Ted ascribes to her in his poem. Ted’s poem reflects his own intuitive feelings about the head both at the time of the events and (perhaps reinforced by hindsight) as he wrote the poem.

In Sylvia’s earliest version of the poem (included in a letter to her mother: SPLH 8 Feb. 1957), it is a male visitor’s distaste for the “unlovely”, “rude image” which prompts her to dispose of it. She describes the head in terms which strongly suggest a stellar goddess of justice, mentioning its “high status” and calling it: “Cousin perhaps to that vast stellar head / Housed in stark heavens, whose laws / Ordained now bland, now barbarous influences… “. She fears this goddess’s wrath should the head be mistreated. And she is superstitious about her own link with the head, referring to “old wives’ tales” of the “bond” or “nerve” which “knits to every original its course copy”.

Yet, it is apparent that Sylvia did not dislike the head. She was “loath to junk it”, and she told her mother not only that she had “developed a strange fondness for the old thing over the passing years” but also that, although her poem ended “differently”, she liked to think of “‘my head’, as it were,” now peacefully lodged in its willow bower where she feels “leaves and ivy twining around it, like a monument at rest in nature”.

In spite of the haunting, “evil-starred” imagery with which Sylvia ended her poem, this was not the way she really felt about the head or she would not, three years later, have chosen “The Earthenware Head” as “the right title, the only title” for her book of poems (SPJ 18 Feb. 1958). Writing of this choice in her journal, she again identified the head as “The Double”, “mirror twin, Muse”, symbol of “earth & the words which shape it”. And she called it “a sacred object, a terrible & holy token of identity sucking into itself magnet wise the farflung words which hint & fuse to make up my own queer & grotesque world – out of earth, clay, matter, the head shapes its poems & prophecies… “ (SPJ 18 Feb. 1958).

Like the oracular bronze heads made by Hermetic magicians like Albertus Magnus (1193-1289) and Roger Bacon (1214-94) to transmit the prophecies of the gods, Sylvia’s earthenware head was now to replace her own “crystal-brittle & sugar faceted voice” which spoke of “triple-ringed life – birth love & death” – the essential concerns of the Goddess. In her journal, Sylvia identified with the head and invested it with her soul. Through it, like the Goddess, she would utter poems and prophecies. She was clearly bewitched by it.

Perhaps it was this bewitchment as well as the malign image which Sylvia left unvanquished in both versions of her poem, which prompted Ted, some twenty years later, to describe the earthenware head as “evil”. For although Sylvia’s poems show that she was intuitively aware of the double nature of the Goddess’s laws and of her aspect as Hag or Basilisk, she did not heed this warning and tread carefully or selflessly enough.

Ted’s poem, too, describes the earthenware head as Sylvia’s double, a mirror image from which she sought to protect herself by veiling it in poetry, “ransacking” her thesaurus, and “rhyming [herself] into safety”. And Ted, too, is performing a rite in this poem. In the “unease” of the dank, owl-haunted river-bank, amongst the “comfortless antlers” of pollarded willows and “switch-horns” (which suggest the Celtic, antlered god, Cernunnos, consort of the Goddess) he and Sylvia enshrine the head in a tree which is sacred to the Goddess and create a Herm. This Herm is not only a totemic symbol of the Goddess as Hecate, Minerva, Circe, it also has Sylvia’s head: “your head” being a nicely ambivalent phrase.

In both Ted’s and Sylvia’s poem, the earthenware head is left to weather away.

“What happened ?”, Ted asks. And he reiterates some of the possibilities which Sylvia suggested in her poem. But finally, he consigns it “Surely” to the river.

Yet, the river in Ted’s poem is more than just the River Cam at Grantchester. It is more than just a river on which student punts pass in summer, just as they did when Rupert Brooke wrote his poem, associating the Cam with Pan and Dis/Saturn and the “Hellespont or Styx”5 and dreaming of a stopped clock and “honey still for tea”. Ted, by his reference to Brooke’s poem and in his own lines, links the river with Saturn, “the Father” whose dark and muddy waters, “the stained mournful flow”, are the river of Time, forgetfulness and “the stopped clock”. And Saturn, too, is both father and spouse of the Goddess.

So, in Ted’s poem, the earthenware head which is “surely” Sylvia’s “deathless head”, whose chapel is “surely” the river, and which was created from earth, is just as surely returned to “mudded earth” and reunited with the Father, washed of all fears “and perfect”, Quite deliberately, too, all the “Evil” which was associated with the head shares this resolution. The word is capitalized, repeated twice, and carefully positioned for emphasis: once on its own on a single line and then as the final word of the poem.

So, although it is quite likely that this poem was written before Ted decided to attempt the Cabbalistic journey of Birthday Letters, it shows him performing a magical ritual of exactly the sort which a Cabbalist might attempt: a re-visualization of the event in order to understand and resolve perceived disharmonies and create a new basis for the future.

In July 1961, when Frieda was fourteen months old, Ted and Sylvia left her in London in the care of Sylvia’s visiting mother and went to France for a two week holiday. ‘The Gypsy’ (BL 116), the poem on the path of The High Priestess in the World of Yetzirah, recalls an event which Ted remembers from this time but which Sylvia never mentioned. In Rheims, in the shadow of the old cathedral of Notre Dame (Our Lady), the Goddess appears in Ted’s poem, just as Mercury appeared in the Yetziratic World in the poem ‘Epiphany’. Rheims Cathedral was built at a time in Mediaeval France when Mary, The Virgin, mother of Jesus, was replacing the old Goddess as a figure of worship. Like the older, more important cathedral at Chartres (which is also dedicated to The Virgin), Rheims Cathedral was built by a school of Master Builders who used geometrical principles based on Cabbala and sacred number theory to embody and symbolize the whole of Christian knowledge and Truth in their cathedrals6. Many of these cathedrals were built on sites of earlier, pagan temples dedicated to the Goddess.

Now, in Ted’s poem, “Suddenly” in the shadow of the cathedral she is there. A “dark stub gypsy woman”, “business-like / as a weasel” (a form often taken by the Goddess), who is expert at testing and judging – at getting past the surface shell and “finding the keyhole” in those who are vulnerable to her persuasive powers. The pendants she offers are “a Nicholas, a Mary”: one a saint who is patron of virgins and voyagers; the other The Virgin herself, who in both Christian and pagan belief acts as mediator between humans and the Divine.

This gypsy, like The High Priestess on this path of Gimel (a path which links the Manifest Glory of Sephira 6 (Tiphereth, the Virgin’s number) directly to the Source), is not only judging and testing, she also seems able to channel the energies, like a “lightning stroke”, with deadly and prophetic ease. She is another form of the ‘The Interrogator’ in Cave Birds (CB 12): the ugly, black vulture which is the “key-hole” through which the sun’s energies may spy. But Sylvia’s casual vehemence stops her “stunned”, as if Sylvia has a power which challenges her own. Like a jealous goddess, the gypsy reacts with a pointed, prophetic curse: “Soon, you will be dead”. And the verb she uses, ‘crèver’ (meaning ‘to burst’ or ‘to perish’) suggests an unpleasant death by un-natural causes.

Sylvia seems not to hear or attend. But Ted is appalled. Feeling the primitive weight of the gypsy’s words, he turns to the ancient, magical language of the Welsh Bards, Cynghannedd7, to rhyme his own “talismans of power” with which to “neutralize her venom”. Equally magical, in folk-lore, is his attempt to ‘bribe the call home’ by making imaginary visits to Rheims to find the gypsy and pay her to withdraw “her projectile”. Above all, he hopes that Sylvia is protected in some way: that she is in some sanctuary, some closed crypt like one of the womb-like crypts below these Mediaeval cathedrals. This is where the poem leaves her. And this is where, in a later poem, ‘Dream Life’ (BL 141), in “the temple-crypt, / That private primal cave / Under the public dome of father worship”, she inhales oracle and speaks prophecy, like the High Priestess herself.

In ‘The Blackbird’ (BL 162), the poem on the path of The High Priestess in the World of Assiah, Sylvia displays even more of the Goddess’s powers but, because this World is far from the Source, she is both jailer and prisoner of her dark forces. The heavy rhythms, the rhyme and half-rhyme, and the almost accusatory repetition of “you” in Ted’s poem, emphasise the darkness of the powers with which Sylvia was dealing but they also provide a protective, ritual framework for Ted’s own evocation of those same powers. Like the gypsy, Sylvia has found the “keyhole” through which to reach the Goddess within herself and feed the rage which is to be heard so clearly in many of her Ariel poems. And, like the Goddess, she can plunge into the abyss (as she does in ‘Fairy Tale’) and spring back up the “coiled” “stairwell” (these words beautifully suggest the Path of the Serpent) from these depths. But she is caught, like a worm, at the very interface between darkness and light; at the “furnace door”: held like the worm on the blackbird’s “demon prong” as if the High Priestess has cast a glamour on her.8

Sylvia’s own poem, ‘Poppies in July’ (SPCP 203), written in June 1962 shortly before she and Ted separated, makes a chilling accompaniment to Ted’s poem. She longs for the numbing opiates these “little hell flames” should offer, but Ted’s “Giant poppy faces” which “flamed and charred at the window” suggest only the dangers of the furnace which threatens to engulf her. In both poems, Sylvia is caught on the edge of some horror and is quite separate from Ted who, since their paths diverged earlier in the Birthday Letters sequence, has been her “nurse and protector”9 although unaware of the real direction of the path she is treading. Sylvia, like the tiny orphan bird they once found and fed (SPJ 4 July 1958), only seems to thrive, plays “at feeling safe”, but is closer to death than either of them know.

Only in Ted’s poem is the horror associated directly with Sylvia’s writing which, like a “prison report”, will reveal the dark energies which inspire her and which overturn all ordinary, conventional judgement so that “Wrong is right, right wrong”. And there are two possible meanings to this last line of Ted’s poem. Firstly, Sylvia was inspired by the Ariel spirit to write poetry and prose which flouted conventional standards of right behaviour by publicly expressing rage and hatred towards her mother, her father and her husband. Secondly, on this particular Cabbalistic path the dual nature of the Goddess may reverse any judgement of right and wrong, for she embodies both. Only when the quester has reached the very end of their journey will she make her judgement of their fitness to be allowed beyond her veil into the infinite presence of the Divine. At that point, the quester who has taken the wrong path will certainly discover that what they thought was wrong is right, and right wrong.

So, in these four poems, Ted recreates situations in which Sylvia accepts, adopts, transmits and is subject to the energies of the High Priestess. But she is heedless of the dangers. And, as these and other poems in Birthday Letters show, there is an unbalanced mixture of naivety, recklessness, compulsion and arrogance in the way in which she uses the energies which the Goddess inspires in her. For this reason, her journey was directed towards the underworld of Saturn, the Father, rather than towards the heavenly Source.


1. The Shekinah is not universally accepted within Judaism and her presence is still the subject of serious debate. The same applies to what is known as ‘The Problem of Evil’ and the representation of the female as the source of evil. These debates are extremely complex and my understanding of them is limited. What I write here of sacred Jewish lore is drawn from many sources and must be seen as my own general interpretation of commonly expressed ideas, especially those which were in some way adopted into Christian Cabbala by Renaissance scholars, and those more generally expressed in mythology.

2. Donya Feuer, writes that in 1989 Ted, when writing a new introduction to his A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse (Faber, 1991), asked her to sum up, in a letter, discussion she had been having with him about Shakespeare over the past year. Then, between 23 April and 14 June, Ted wrote fifty-four letters to her, “prefaced with short notes”. “’these letters became this book,’ Ted wrote in the forward to Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.” (Fuer, ‘In the Company of Shakespeare and Ted Hughes’, in The Epic Poise, Faber, London 1999, pp.118-121).

3. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Ted lists the four ethical fundamental aims of Cabbala: “… to achieve harmony between the fixed and the free, between the severe formal powers of Judgement and the flowing spontaneous powers of Mercy;… to achieve the sacred marriage, the conjunction of masculine and feminine;… to redeem the Shekina from the abyss of the demons [which is also] the Divine Spirit… immersed in material existence;… to attain mastery over… the demonic powers of the abyss”. In his new ‘Note’ for A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse (pp.165-203), Ted also discussed Occult Hermetic Neoplatonism and Cabbala (neither of which were mentioned in the ‘Introduction’ to the 1971 edition), and it is apparent that he had become very familiar with Mircea Eliade’s work and that of Frances Yates on the subject.

4. All those things about Occult Hermetic Neoplatonism and Cabbala which Ted suggested would have interested Shakespeare are present in Birthday Letters. In particular, there is the layered multiplicity of meanings in each image “consistent with the meanings of a unified system”; the “as-if-actual visualization” as a way of meditating on events, which occurs in poem after poem in snapshots, flashes of light and in the direct and simple way in which he addresses Sylvia; and there is the “idea of meditation as a conjuring”, by the “ritual magic” of poetry, “figures with whom conversations can be held”(SGCB 33).

5. ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, from Keynes, G (Ed), The Poetical Works of Rupert Brooke, Faber, London, 1955.

6. Dr John James, an Australian architect, has made a detailed, scholarly study of Chartres and other Mediaeval cathedrals in the Paris Basin. He has identified the work of particular Masters within the cathedrals and has shown, in detail, how they incorporated sacred number theory into the structure of the cathedrals. Three of his books are of particular interest here: Chartres: The Masons who Built a Legend, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1982; The Contractors of Chartres, Vol.II, Mandalora Publications, Wyong, Australia, 1981; and, more general but with excellent notes on history, symbolism and its meaning, The Traveller’s Guide to Medieval France, Harrap Columbus, London, 1987.

7. Cynghanedd grew from an ancient Welsh Bardic verse form, the cwydd: 30-100 lines of seven syllable rhyming couplets with multiple alliteration. This form was adapted by Dafydd ap Gwilym (1325-1380) and became immensely popular (Nichols, R. The Book of Druidry, Harper Collins, London, 1992, pp.72-3). Robert Graves provides an example in The White Goddess, Faber, London 1977, p.18.

8. The Blackbird is a common folk-lore symbol of the devil or one of his demons.

9. In a letter in the archive of Ted Hughes’s papers at Emory University, Ted wrote to Sylvia’s mother: “The main talk and business of our days was how Sylvia should get to the point of at last writing what she wanted to write. We did nothing that wasn’t meant to promote that. We assumed that my writing would carry on anyhow, somehow”. Quoted by James Bone, The Times, Saturday April 8, 2000 2W p.10.

Poetry and Magic text and illustrations. © Ann Skea 2001. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

Go To Next Chapter

Return to The Ted Hughes Homepage for more options

Go to Ann Skea’s Homepage