DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions related herein are strictly my own. They do not represent any kind of official stance of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, Ordo Templi Orientis, or anyone else.
1) The Unconscious Self
Just as the Priest symbolizes the conscious self, the Priestess symbolizes the unconscious self. The “unconscious self” constitutes all those parts of the psyche (which originally meant “soul”) that are not conscious, including both the “lower” instincts of the body and the “higher” impulses of the spirit. The unconscious encompasses both the Nephesh (“animal soul”; material impulses) and the Neshamah (divine intuition; spiritual impulses) in terms of the Qabalistic view of the soul. The Priestess is therefore the “greeting of Earth and Heaven” in herself. In terms of the unconscious self, the Priestess represents those impulses that appear to the Priest (or conscious self) to come from “outside.” This basic idea will be expanded in the different symbolic ideas that follow:
2) The Object of Desire
The Priestess represents the Object that complements the Subject-hood of the Priest. In terms of Yoga, the Priestess represents the Object of concentration with which the Subject of awareness unites in samadhi.
The Priestess therefore represents the ultimate Object of Desire, which we understand as symbolized by “Nuit” in Thelema. In Liber AL it says, “At all my meetings with you shall the priestess say—and her eyes shall burn with desire as she stands bare and rejoicing in my secret temple—To me! To me! calling forth the flame of the hearts of all in her love-chant. Sing the rapturous love-song unto me! Burn to me perfumes! Wear to me jewels! Drink to me, for I love you! I love you!” (I:62-63). The Master Therion comments on this: “Nuit: Her public Cult. Now lastly she ordains her public cult. Her image, she being All-Desired, shall be a living Woman, calling to her that Spirit which shall make her perfect in Event. Of all this Rite I have written in another place” (The Comment Called D). The “Rite” referenced is an explicit reference to the Gnostic Mass where these lines from Liber AL are actually spoken by the Priestess.
The Priestess represents the object of desire but not simply the object of sexual desire; the idea is that sexual desire (and all other desires) are masks or veils upon the ultimate Desire to accomplish the Great Work, to unite Microcosm and Macrocosm, Subject and Object, Adept and Angel, Lance and Cup (et cetera), in the ecstatic union of Love. In fact, the Gnostic Mass can be seen as a ritualized way to harness the power of sexuality to accomplish the “spiritual” aim of the Great Work. As the Master Therion says, “We of Thelema are not the slaves of Love. ‘Love under will’ is the Law. We refuse to regard love as shameful and degrading, as a peril to body and soul. We refuse to accept it as the surrender of the divine to the animal; to us it is the means by which the animal may be made the Winged Sphinx which shall bear man aloft to the House of the Gods” (New Comment to AL I:51).
3) The Heh of Tetragrammaton: The Mother of Life
In the symbolism of Tetragrammaton, the Priestess can represent the “Heh” (YHVH). This Heh relates to the Mother, the Queen, the Element of Water, and the magical weapon of the Cup. The Priestess bears the Holy Graal, a form of the Cup, a receptive instrument of Universal Life. She is clothed in blue, the color of the Element of Water that is attributable to Heh of Tetragrammaton. On the Priest’s first step toward the Veil, the Priestess identifies with Nuit, the star-goddess of Infinite Space and the Infinite Stars thereof, which is the ultimate Maternal idea beyond even notions of gender. In the Creed, the “Mother of all” is called BABALON, who is “the Mother of Abominations” and the “mighty Mother” who bears “the cup of her whoredom” (12th Aethyr). All of these things are Mother-Form symbols attributable in the Qabalah to the 3rd Sephirah, Binah. All these things go to reinforce the fact that the Priestess can be identified as the Heh of Tetragrammaton, the Mother-Queen of Life.
4) The Final Heh of Tetragrammaton: The Virgin Daughter
To further complicate things (as is natural with symbolism), the Priestess can be identified with the Final Heh of Tetragrammaton (YHVH). On the Tree of Life, Yod can be attributed to Chokmah, Heh to Binah, Vav to Tiphareth (and the surrounding Sephiroth), and Final Heh to Malkuth. In this scheme, Final is attributed to the Earth, and the Priestess’ first words are “Greeting of Earth and Heaven” (showing her identity with both). She is also called “Virgin pure without spot” by the Priest, and she is explicitly named “The VIRGIN” in the beginning of the rubric of the Gnostic Mass (and she is said to be “Virgo Intacta”).
Further, in the incestuous Qabalistic drama of Tetragrammaton, the Son/Prince is said to marry the Daughter/Princess and set her upon the Throne of the Mother. This is explicitly seen when the Priest says, “I, PRIEST and KING, take thee, Virgin pure without spot; I upraise thee; I lead thee to the East; I set thee upon the summit of the Earth.” The Priest then literally sets the Priestess upon the Throne in the East. As it says in the 4th Aethyr, “And this is that which is written: Malkuth shall be uplifted and set upon the throne of Binah.” Also in the 9th Aethyr it says, “This is the daughter of BABALON the Beautiful, that she hath borne unto the Father of All. And unto all hath she borne her. This is the Daughter of the King [Final Heh of YHVH]. This is the Virgin of Eternity. This is she that the Holy One hath wrested from the Giant Time, and the prize of them that have overcome Space. This is she that is set upon the Throne of Understanding [Heh of YHVH]. Holy, Holy, Holy is her name, not to be spoken among men. For Kor they have called her, and Malkuth, and Betulah, and Persephone [all Earthly names attributable to Earth, the 10th Sephirah of Malkuth].” In this sense, the Priestess begins as the Princess/Daughter and, by virtue of her interaction with the Prince/Son, is uplifted to become Queen/Mother on the Throne of the East.
5) The Holy Guardian Angel: The Heavenly Virgin
The Priestess represents the Mother of Life (Atu III: The Empress/Binah), the Virgin-Earth Daughter (Atu XXI: The Universe/Malkuth), and she also represents the Heavenly Virgin or Initiatrix (Atu II: The High Priestess). In this way, she can be attributed to the Path of Gimel on the Tree of Life which descends from Kether across the Abyss to Tiphareth. Atu II is called “The High Priestess” and the role is called the “Priestess.” If we take the Gnostic Mass temple as being laid out according to the Tree of Life, when the Priestess is set upon the High Altar in the East she sits exactly in the place of the Path of Gimel/High Priestess in between Kether (represented by the Stele of Revealing raised up all the way in the East) and Tiphareth (represented by the small altar in the center of the Temple). As the Master Therion says, “She is the symbol of the Angel as represented by the Path of Gimel where is ‘The High Priestess.’ This Path connects Macroprosopus (Kether) and Microprosopus (Tiphereth), the supreme divinity and its human manifestation” (Commentary to Liber LXV). The Master Therion also writes, “To the aspirant, that is, to the adept who is already in Tiphareth, to him who has attained to the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel, this is the path which leads upwards; and this card, in one system entitled the Priestess of the Silver Star, is symbolic of the thought (or rather of the intelligible radiance) of that Angel. It is, in short, a symbol of the highest Initiation” (The Book of Thoth). In the beginning of the Mass, she descends as the spiritual impulse that draws the Priest out of the darkness of the Tomb to the Path of the Great Work represented by the rest of the Gnostic Mass.
6) The Woman of the New Aeon
In yet another sense, the Priestess represents the Woman of the New Aeon. As Liber AL says, “Let the woman be girt with a sword before me” (III:11), and “in his woman called the Scarlet Woman is all power given” (I:15). In the foreground of Atu V: The Hierophant, we see “the woman girt with a sword; she represents the Scarlet Woman in the hierarchy of the new Aeon… This woman represents Venus as she now is in this new aeon; no longer the mere vehicle of her male counterpart, but armed and militant” (The Book of Thoth). We can see in the rubric of the Gnostic Mass that the Priestess “bears the Sword from a red girdle.” This shows her “girt with a sword” and the “red girdle” identifies her with Nuit when She says her symbol is “The Five Pointed Star, with a Circle in the Middle, & the circle is Red” (Liber AL, I:60). The Gnostic Mass therefore is, on one level, showing that the Feminine is now equal and complementary to the Masculine, for this is the Aeon of the Child who combines Mother and Father, feminine and masculine, as Two-in-One in each star.
7) The Feminine Operator in Sexual Magick
As if it is not already obvious from the previously mentioned symbolism (and the Mass itself), the Priestess represents the feminine operator in sexual magick. I say “feminine” because she represents one half of the equation, and each individual “soul” is androgynous, containing both male and female (and all other opposites) in itself. In this way, in Hindu symbolism, the Priestess represents Shakti and the Priest is Shiva. The Lance represents the lingam, the Cup represents the yoni, the particle of the Host represents the Seed of the lingam, and the wine of the Cup represents the menstruum of the yoni. They are combined in the Grail and then the Two-in-One Eucharist is ingested so that the partaker thereof becomes Godhead Itself.
If the Priest represents Parsival, the Priestess represents Kundry. As the Master Therion says, “for every Parsifal there is a Kundry” (Liber Aleph). Kundry assumes multiple forms and roles in Wagner’s opera, reflecting the fact that the Priestess is Venus, Earth, and Luna all wrapped into one (as explained in the previous sections). She is even called the “nameless one” in Parsival, implying she has many identities and many forms.
In Act I, Kundry is the messenger of the Grail (Kundry is used by Wagner as a play on the German “Kunde” that implies a news-bringer or messenger), who comes into the scene and allows for the entire rest of the drama to unfold, for Parsival is a pure fool and does not even know his own name; it is Kundry who knows of Parsival’s true identity and past, allowing him to remember his heritage and his purpose. This is reflected in the Gnostic Mass when the Priest issues from the Tomb and says “I am a man among men, how should I be worthy to administer the virtues to the Brethren?” The Priestess then answers him the purification, consecration, robing, and “activation” of the power of the Sacred Lance.
In Act II, Kundry tempts Parsival which represents the necessity of the Priest’s purity of aspiration to the Highest, not being dragged down into more animalistic-materialistic forms of desire (i.e. what is mentioned previously about the Priestess as the Ultimate Object of Desire behind the veils of other desires). As the Master Therion says, “In order to live his own life, the child must leave the Mother, and overcome the temptation to return to her for refuge. Kundry, Armida, Jocasta, Circe, etc., are symbols of this force which tempts the Hero” (Magick in Theory and Practice) and “in the second act, it is the same quality [of innocent purity] that enables him [Parsival] to withstand the blandishments of the ladies in the garden of Kundry” (The Book of Thoth). In the end, as the Master Therion says, “Kundry is saved in Parsifal’s redemption” (Astrology) and also “[Parsival] redeems not only Kundry, but himself” (The Book of Thoth). This is reflected in the fact that “The PRIESTESS and other officers never partake of the Sacrament, they being as it were part of the PRIEST himself.” In fact, the entire Temple is transformed by the Sacrament, which is to say that the entire Tree of Life – or the entire Being of the individual – is transformed through the partaking thereof. The Master Therion notes that “the only words spoken by Kundry after her redemption were ‘Dienen! Dienen!’ ['Serving! Serving!']” (Moonchild). This shows that the retrieval of the Lance and its immersion in the Cup has “ordered Kundry to right Service” (Liber Aleph); that is, the Feminine is in “service” to the Highest and not animalistic impulses, being a pure vehicle of the “joy of the earth” as the Lance is a pure vehicle of “the life of the Sun.”
Again: This list is not exhaustive, nor is the symbolism of any of those meanings listed above completely fleshed out. The idea is to show there are many interconnected, intertwining, overlapping sets of symbolism by which one can more fully appreciate the mysterious depths of the central ceremony of Ordo Templi Orientis.