Water is one of the most dominant symbols in the Rider-Waite deck. Found in nine major arcana, it’s also prevalent in the four suits. Beginning to flow in the robes of The High Priestess, water wends its way throughout the cards, always meaning the same thing. Water is essentially the Priestess herself, and contains all of the meanings of that card.
The forces expressed in The High Priestess are the powers of the subconscious mind and memory. Since there are other symbols for the subconscious as well, let’s consider what makes the symbolism of water unique.
What are the characteristics of water? For starters, it’s an essential element for all life on the planet, and a major component of our bodies. That in itself sets this symbol apart from most others. Water reshapes the earth over which it moves and can display massive force in a single instance of upheaval, or work with a persistent power over ages. Movement is necessary to avoid stagnation, and water flows and pools with the ability to constantly change shape. We’re also able to float on it. Without water, there is no life. In the symbolism of the Tarot, then, there is no meaning without the subconscious.
There are nine cards in the major arcana that display water. The first five are linked together by the stream that begins with the High Priestess and continues through the Empress, Emperor, Chariot, and Death. In Temperance, the card that immediately follows Death, the steady stream transforms into a pool, also shared with The Star and The Moon. In the last appearance of water in the major arcana, the pool becomes the lake of Judgement, on which float the final vestiges of our former selves.
The running stream suggests energetic subconscious activity, while the significance of the pools has to do with hidden knowledge. The three cards that share the pool show different aspects of the search for that knowledge.
The waters that began flowing in the High Priestess amass to vastness in Judgement. Beyond that, as the cards move on to the forces found in The World, there is no longer a distinction between the conscious and subconscious minds at all.
When carried over to the minor arcana and the practical application of everyday matters, water is represented by the suit of Cups and is most often a symbol for the emotions. However, it can also represent the creative process and the ability to perceive patterns. The appearance of water in the illustration suggests subconscious influences, just as it does in the major arcana.
The forces found in the The High Priestess and the symbolism of water actually represent the right side of the human brain. I’ll leave you once again with this quote from “the singing scientist”, neuro-anatomist and metaphysical evangelist Jill Bolte Taylor who dares us “to have the courage to step to the right of your left hemisphere!’