Editor: Molly Claire Benjamin, Independent Scholar & Writer


The Journey of the Princess

Exploring the Archetypes of Empress and High Priestess

a little about archetypes & tarot cards

The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (2009), edited by David Leeming, gives a lengthy definition of the term archetype that points out how different thinkers have used the term in slightly varied ways.  C. G. Jung is perhaps the first name that comes to mind when thinking about archetypes and, as Leeming states, Jung "thought of archetypes as universal psychic tendencies," which are part of "universally familiar human motifs" (27).  The Companion goes on to discuss Mircea Eliade’s thoughts on archetypes; "For him archetypes are 'sacred paradigms' or 'exemplary models'" (27).  While Joseph Campbell defines 'archetype' in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces (2008) by quoting Jung's definition (342), in the end his Hero is a blend of both definitions.

At the conclusion of the Hero's Journey the individual — alternatively, the hero with the lowercase 'h' — eventually reaches a place where he (or she, Campbell argues) merges with the Hero — capital 'H' — archetype.  The Hero's Journey is therefore modeled after the archetypal journey that 'Heroes' have undertaken throughout time in order that individuals might explore her or his own "Hero-ness."  According to Campbell the "lowercase" hero who, through his journey, becomes one with the "uppercase" Hero, merges with what Eliade above called an exemplary model.

The Hero thereby achieves a state of higher consciousness.  Campbell (2008), below, lays out the basic shell of the Hero's Journey concluding with this merging;

In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case. . .and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C. G. Jung has called "the archetypal images" (12).

A great deal of Campbell's life work was the study of this archetypal Hero and how He exists throughout time and within varying cultures.  The Hero, however, is only one of many archetypes that can be drawn upon as 'exemplary models' for inspiration and guidance.  And because this is the case, each of those archetypes likewise have their own journey to higher consciousness.

A useful grouping of archetypes is collected under the heading "Major Arcana" within the Tarot deck.  In existence for hundreds of years the twenty-two cards represent archetypes as varied as The MoonThe Magician and Strength.  When arranged in specific formations, connections can be drawn between the archetypes and other cards in the deck.  By meditating on the myths and symbols surrounding the archetypes, individuals can extract lessons and come upon new ways of looking at problems.

In the Tarot deck, Joseph Campbell's Hero can be most closely related to two cards — The Emperor and The Hierophant.  In her book The Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg (1996), author Cynthia Giles describes the Emperor, who is card number four, as representing "the animus, the masculine counterpart of the anima.  Within the psyche, the animus constructs and enforces rules, creates a will to order, and is a source of both energy and aggression" (151).  The Hierophant (card five), on the other hand, is known as the "revealer of sacred things" (152) and his "traditional attributes. . .include wisdom, mercy, generosity, and patience" (154).  The Hierophant is a type of shaman or mystic and this archetype represents the spiritual side of the animus.  It is a counterpart to the Emperor - two paradigm aspects of the Masculine.  Both the Hierophant and the Emperor represent possible end-goals of the hero's journey for He is the man who has successfully returned with a boon for his people and the ability to lead, guide and protect them, whether in a spiritual or political way.

Two cards that precede the Emperor in the deck are the High Priestess (card two) and the Empress (card three).  Of these two and their relationship to the Emperor and the Hierophant, Giles (1996) states;

The High Priestess and the Empress represent the two complementary aspects of Isis, both the source of mystery and the mother of all.  These two cards are also the two aspects of the anima—the inward principle of imagination and the outward principle of creativity.  The High Priestess and The Empress show us the dimensions of the feminine consciousness.  Similarly, The Emperor and The Hierophant reveal the dimensions of masculine consciousness (148).

Earlier Giles (1996) describes the Empress as, "Creative and nurturing, fruitful and sensual," but warns that she, "may also be vain, superficial and controlling," for "in the archetypal cycle of the trumps, the Empress represents the effects of the mother, both good and bad, as well as the development of the feminine principle of action in making, doing, and giving birth" (146).  As with all of the archetypes in the Major Arcana there is a shadow side to the ideal or paradigm.

Joseph Campbell's hero is an immature aspect of the archetypes of the Emperor and the Hierophant.  These two paradigms are the ideal results for a heroic young man who completes his quest, conquers his shadow side, and returns home to a role of community leadership, either spiritual or political.  The mono-myth of the Hero's Journey provides an incredible tool for those who seek to explore their own "Hero-ness" or to become some form of either the Emperor or the Hierophant.  While it is a fact that all individuals - whether male or female - can seek qualities of "Hero-ness," Campbell's mono-myth nevertheless explores a decidedly Masculine component of the archetypal world.

This world of archetypes however, as evidenced by the High Priestess and the Empress, does contain representations of the Feminine.  These ideal Feminine aspects or paradigms represented with the Empress and the High Priestess offer a counterpart to the Masculine Emperor and Hierophant.  The Empresses' qualities such as practicality and intuition (Giles, 5) are distinctly different from The Emperor's ". . . domination of intelligence and reason over emotion and passion" (5).  Along with the High Priestesses' attributes of "feminine strength, spiritual awareness, and the union of sacred wisdom with common sense" (144) these two offer a Feminine counterpart to Masculinity that completes a whole picture.  Sadly, while the Hero's journey is mapped out for any who would seek to undertake it, the road that concludes with the Empress or the High Priestess remains hidden and under-explored.

Campbell himself alerted his readers to the importance of balance when he described the pairs of opposites between which a Hero must navigate;

Being and not being, life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and all the other polarities that bind the faculties to hope and fear. . .are the clashing rocks that crush the traveler, but between which the heroes always pass (73).

The Empress and the High Priestess are the Feminine counterparts of the ideal male that the Hero aspires to in the Emperor and the Hierophant.  However, these paradigms of the feminine become unrealizable goals for those of us (both female and male) who would explore our "Empress-ness" or "Priestess-ness" because there is no map of Her journey or exploration of Her Hero counterpart, the Princess.  

If society is to have a complete and balanced set of archetypal role-models, then the invisible Feminine counterpart to the Hero's Journey must be sought.  In describing The Hieratic City State of 2,500 - 3,500 B.C. Campbell (2002) remarked,

"if we may judge from the evidence. . .the queen or princess of each city was in these earliest days identified with the goddess" (emphasis added) (119).

a princess, not a hero

A young maiden, or Princess, is the archetypal character who sets out to become the Empress or the High Priestess.  And before becoming a mature woman (the Empress or the High Priestess) a Princess has a journey of Her own.  While the Hero matures to become the Father figure, the Princess is on a path to embrace her "Mother-ness," whether in its spiritual or physical form.

Campbell drew upon myth and folklore to create and test his Masculine mono-myth and while Campbell's work took a lifetime, discovering the Princess's journey is one that may take many lifetimes.  This is because the histories of men, for better or worse, are well documented throughout time.  Therefore Campbell was, and those who follow in the Hero's footsteps are, able to draw upon a wealth of sources from varying fields as they research.

The tales of Princesses that have been recorded (and edited) were done so at the hand of male scribes.  Over time these tales have become increasingly editorialized by a modern, patriarchal culture.  Sadly, many stories have simply been lost to history — unrecorded, dismissed as unimportant and insignificant, and erased from our conscious history.  Campbell's work is full of examples of this attitude.  In his book The Flight of the Wild Gander he takes the trouble to point out that, amongst a number of Paleolithic mandalas representing stylized animals, "the stylized forms of women appear, with their feet or heads coming together in the middle of the mandala, to constellate a star" (116).  Yet Campbell devotes none of his following discussion to the existence of that profound artistic representation or its possible import.  Considering there is no mention of a mandala with men or heroes or princes at its center, the fact that women were represented in such a way seems at least of possible significance.  Campbell, further on, even states that the "mystical point in the center of the spatial mandala. . .is the sanctuary of the temple, where the earthly and heavenly powers join" (122).  If mandalas had been found with men highlighted at the spiritual center, one can be certain pages and pages of discussion would have followed.  Campbell's work offers many such examples — simple sentences where reference is made to some detail of female history only to be overlooked other than as in reference to the masculine Hero's journey being explored.

Campbell's work also, however, does offer clues for seekers of the Princess.  In his chapter The Fairy Tale Campbell explains how myths became folktale and traveled the globe;

Passing from Orient to Occident, surviving the revolutions of history and the long attrition of time, traversing the familiar bounds of language and belief. . .the tale undergoes kaleidoscopical mutations. . .It changes, like a chameleon; puts on the colors of its background; lives and shapes itself to the requirements of the moment (14).

Since it is the case that tales shape themselves "to the requirements of the moment," then where patriarchy has shaped the folktales about Princesses perhaps the layers of patriarchal editorializing can be peeled back revealing the truth about the brave young Princess as a paradigm of confident, kind, intelligent, intuitive, young-womanhood.  The longing for this type of role model is evident in the modern world with every Disney princess movie made, and is represented by the multitude of eager fans who follow the life of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Princess of the United Kingdom.  

a little myth-archeology

Princess role models can be unearthed in folktales and myths as well as in modern England.  One ancient myth that journeyed from the Fertile Crescent to Europe is that of Cupid and Psyche.  Having angered the Goddess Venus with her beauty, Psyche, a stunning young princess, takes on the responsibility of protecting her family from the wrath of the jealous Goddess.  When the young maiden discovers she must sacrifice herself to a supposed beast in order to save her family she does not hesitate, "at Psyche's request, preparations for her fate were made" (Gayley, 129).  Versions of this myth are scattered throughout folktale collections from around the world.  In Yugoslavia it is called The Pigeon's Bride, (Ragan, 63), in The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, (1972) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, it is The Singing, Soaring Lark (399) alternatively known as The Lion and the Lady.  In Scandinavia it is the story East O' The Sun And West O' The Moon, (Cole, 287; Jones, 60; Miller, 31) and when it traveled to France it was edited down into the universally familiar tale Beauty and the Beast, (Mayer).

When the different versions of this tale are investigated it becomes apparent that the Princess's Journey cannot be laid successfully across the template of Campbell's Hero's Journey, matching it step for step.  Her story repeats only some of the things from the Hero's Journey, while adding new elements as well.  Author Kathleen Ragan uses the term heroine to refer to the Princess archetype and describes her thus;

As tales with female protagonists were found, a whole new class of heroines emerged.  Some 'heroines' did things that resonated with my innermost feelings but that refused to be classified as heroic: a woman who sensed the importance of an insignificant looking coin, a girl who loved to dance, or a woman who told a story.  A simple conversation between two women when taken at face value could elicit a shrug of the shoulders.  Yet underneath this ordinary conversation, the effort that women make to keep relationships alive in a family or a community swells like the incoming tide (xxvi).

Above, Ragan attempts to use Campbell's Hero as a model for strong female characters and it does not fit.  She finds, however, a different type of role-model, a Princess, (Ragan calls her a heroine), whose journey has its own priorities, rhythm, motivation and goal.  Psyche's tale exemplifies this journey.

In the various versions of Psyche's tale the beautiful maiden — sometimes a princess, sometimes a merchant's daughter, sometimes one of many children in an impoverished family — undertakes her Princess Journey when she makes the voluntary decision to save her family.  It is key to note that in no version of the tale I found was the Princess ever swooped, tricked, manipulated, coerced or forced into this sacrifice.  Psyche sacrifices herself to a beast to save her family from the wrath of Venus, (Gayley, 129) and Beauty does the same to save her father and sisters from certain death (Mayer, 17).  In the Scandinavian version of the tale the young maiden sacrifices herself to a giant White Bear in order to giver her save her family from starvation and to give them financial security;

Now when the lassie heard how she could lighten the poverty of her parents and brothers and sisters, she said at once she would go.  Let her family beg never so hard, go she would, she said (Miller, 32).

And so, like the Hero, the Princess is called to a journey.  But while Campbell's Hero sets out, in many ways, to break free of his family, the young maiden in this story is on a mission to save her family, to hold it together, to make it safe or comfortable.  This theme of family (or, more broadly, community) repeats itself throughout Her story.

The Princess now sets off into the forest with the beast or lion or bear and is brought to some kind of enchanted castle with invisible servants who attend to her every whim.  In most of the versions the maiden is alone and also in the dark about the nature of the beast and/or of some mysterious man or prince who comes and goes in the dark each night.  In The Singing, Soaring Lark, however, the maiden is immediately "let in" on the enchantments of the castle.

The lion, however, was an enchanted prince and was by day a lion, and all his people were lions with him, but in the night they resumed their natural human shapes. . .When the night came the lion turned into a handsome man, and their wedding was celebrated with great magnificence (Grimm, 400).

Whether the Princess meets her prince immediately, or whether some level of mystery remains in their relationship, eventually the comforts of the luxurious, enchanted castle and the companionship of the beast she is growing to love are outweighed by the girl's concern for her family.  When she asks permission to visit it is granted, but with a caveat that opens up the way for the young woman's true journey of transformation.  "'There is no need to be sad,' says the White Bear. 'Go home by all means.  Promise me one thing, though: never to talk alone with your mother, but only when the rest of the family are near'" (Jones, 63).  One variation or another of that warning is given to the Princess in each tale, however, at their heart, all are just demands for her to keep secrets and tell lies.  In each case the Princess makes the choice to be honest with her family and in each case she is then told by the tragic beast, bear or lion that she has forced him to depart for a distant castle where he must now marry an awful troll princess.  The Prince has lost the archetypal Princess paradigm and must now suffer at the hands of her dark side, the Troll Princess;

For I have a stepmother who has bewitched me, so that I am a White Bear by day, and a Man by night.  But now all ties are snapped between us; now I must set off from you to her.  She lives in a castle which stands East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and there, too, is a Princess, with a nose three ells long, and she's the wife I must have now (Cole, 290).  

The maiden begs to join him and is told that, at best, she is free to search for the castle and attempt his rescue but that it will be next to impossible.  Here is the second call to action.  The Princess has first undertaken a brave adventure to save her childhood family and now, because she refuses to be dishonest with her childhood family, she must undertake a second journey to save her husband — her adult family.

In each version of the story the Princess does one thing before she set out after her true love.  She has a good cry.  "When she had. . .wept at the loss of the Prince, she set out on her journey" (Miller, 34) states one version of East O' The Sun And West 'O The Moon.  In another the Princess "cried herself to sleep, and next morning. . .because she was as brave as she was pretty, she stood up and determined to go looking for the castle that lay East of the Sun and West of the Moon" (Jones, 63).  This seemingly small detail points to a crucial aspect of the Princess, as well as her archetypal goals, The Empress and The High Priestess.  The Princess is in touch with her emotions and feelings — in no way is her choice to "have a good cry" or "cry herself to sleep" ever painted as weakness.  It is, instead, a cleansing ritual before she begins her journey.

The Princess now sets out, to use Campbell's phrase, on her second Road of Trials.  Along this journey the Princess comes across wise women from whom she solicits advice.  She is also given gifts that will be useful to her in the future.  When the wise women's knowledge had been exhausted the Princess moves on to the forces of nature.  In some versions she asked both the Sun and the Moon (Grimm, 402) for aid first and then the four winds.  In other versions she goes directly to the four winds after visiting the wise women.

At long last the North Wind is able to bring her to the castle where her Prince is captive and enchanted.  It is then up to the Princess to use her wits, intelligence, cunning and "moxy" to outwit the Troll or Evil Princess.  It is important to note that in none of the Princess tales is violence turned to — the Prince does not even wield a sword.  The young maiden always succeeded in networking her way to success by building relationships and community, outwitting her enemies and using her everyday domestic skills;

"'Can you wash this shirt clean, do you think?'" asks the Prince as the two of them enact their scheme to outwit the Trolls, "'I can try,' she said.  And as she put it into the water it turned white as milk, and as she plucked it forth it grew white as snow.  'This is the girl or me, and always has been,' said the Prince, and he kissed her in sight of them all" (Jones, 72-73).

In the end, their enemies are so furiously frustrated with being tricked that they destroy themselves;

At that the old hag flew into such a rage, she bust on the spot, and the Princess with the long nose after her, and the whole pack of Trolls after her - at least I've never heard a word about them since (Cole, 295).

Now the Princess is able to begin her life as a grown woman.  First, she has given up her youth and maturely provided for her family and, now, after a second Call and Road of Trials, she has found and fought for true love using her intelligence, imagination and bravery.  The Princess returns home with her Prince and, in this tale, achieves the paradigm of the Empress.

A Feminine counterpart to Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, then, is the journey of the young maiden or archetypal Princess to accomplished womanhood.  As opposed to the Shamanic Hero on his solo-quest, the Princess is motivated by care for her family and community.  Her journey is one of initiation into the responsibilities of motherhood and the never-ending patience and endurance it requires.  It is only generations of patriarchal bias that have interpreted these responsibilities as of lesser import than those of the conquering Hero who leads his people.  In the story of the Princess, her Prince is only freed from enchantment and allowed to lead his people because the Princess has rescued him.

Generations of patriarchy have retold and edited mythical tales about this Princess to the point where her wit, intelligence, kindness and creative problem solving skills have been recast as piety, subservience, fragility and weakness.  Women and girls everywhere, however, are drawn to the idealized archetype of the Princess.  As more work is done to rediscover and recreate lost women's history it may be possible to create a fully functional Princess Journey Myth that can be used to explore the Feminine qualities it represents and its path to "Empress-ness" and "Priestess-ness."


Campbell, J. (2002). The Flight of the Wild Gander. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Novato, CA: New World Library.

Cole, J. (1982). Best-Loved Folk Tales of the World. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Grimm, J. and W. (1972). The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales.  New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Jones, G. (1956). Scandinavian Legends and Folk-tales. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gayley, C. (1911). The Classic Myths in English Literature and Art.  New York, NY: Ginn & Co.

Giles, C. (1996). The Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg. Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

Leeming, D. (2005). The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mayer, M. (1978). Beauty and the Beast. New York, NY: Four Winds Press

Miller, O. (1937). My Book House, The Magic Garden. Chicago, IL: The Book House For Children.

Ragan, K. (1998). Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.