This extraordinary novel gives an account of the legendary Pope Joan, who held the papal seat around 855 CE. Although the book is fictional, it is extensively researched and some improvements and corrections have been made in the 2009 edition.

Decades ago when I was active on the Yahoo group called Tarot-L, there were intense discussions about Pope Joan in connection with the identity of the High Priestess card. The Hierophant card is also called The Pope or Il Papa in early tarots, while the High Priestess was titled La Papessa. Some tarot historians speculate that the "La Papessa" title is specifically in reference to Pope Joan. This book is of special interest to tarotists even if the material is presented in a fictional format.

Joan was born in Ingolstadt. She assumed a male identity and spent time at the monastery at Fulda before traveling to Rome. Through a series of papal deaths, Saracen raids on Rome (that actually happened), internal political maneuvering, and other upsets, Joan was elected to the papal seat. Events proceed from there.

“Author's Note: Was There a Pope Joan?” section at the end of the book provides a range of historical issues surrounding the truth or falsity of Joan's brief tenure as the pope. Cross mentions sources she accessed while writing the book. Record-keeping was exceptionally bad in the Dark Ages, most of the population was illiterate, and there is some evidence that the Catholic Church went to great efforts to eliminate any written evidence of Joan's papal tenure. However, even to this day, the higher-ups in the Catholic Church don't deny her existence, either.

Besides the interest in a very long-term historical mystery, this is a darn good book! Cross is an able narrator, telling Joan's tale in a confident and convincing manner. The settings, historical points, and locations are all skillyfully described along with the practices of the Church and power-holders of the 9th century. Highly recommended reading, especially for tarotists interested in the link between Pope Joan and the High Priestess card.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Donna Woolfolk Cross
1996, updated and revised edition 2009, Three Rivers Press
425 pgs, $15.00 pb