Every tarot reader has a problem child in their deck. Everyone has that one card that they can't quite get a grasp on. A lot of people struggle with the court cards. I've got a friend who hates all of the swords. I have my own. It's the damned Hierophant card.
First of all, when I was a kid and first learning, Eden Gray's book didn't help me a damned bit. She talked about the esoteric meaning of the Hierophant and the religious influences on the card, but it never seemed to mesh with the reading. What the hell does this card have to do with my friend's problems with school? Honestly. It was exasperating.
Then, my a-ha moment came. I got Rachel Pollack's book Seeker. In it, she says, "Hierophantos means the one who shows the important objects and tells us what they mean. he helps us understand."
To me, this was holding the HIerophant up as an example of a Trickster god. One who took ideas from god and presented them to man in ways we can understand. if you think about the symbols associated with the Hierophant, the keys are omnipresent, regardless of the deck. The Hierophant needs you to ask the right questions and do the work to get the right answers. If you think of other Tricksters - fox, coyote, Loki, and Christ - you can see their role clearly. They are the gatekeepers. Rachel Pollack draws a distinction between the High priestess - who holds the key to inner knowledge, and the Hierophant - who holds the keys to outer knowledge.
One of the best examples of this card is in the Shadowscapes deck by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. It shows the Hierophant as a gnarled old tree with deep curling roots and treasures at his base. The sun, the moon, a cairn. It looks like he has a key tattooed on his arm and he's sitting crosslegged, talking to a lizard (like you do). He gives the impression of an old, old librarian who knows where everything is, as long as you know how to ask for it.
I got to hang out with my friend's kiddos last month, and I showed them my deck. I told them, "This card was so hard for me to learn. It took forever, but I kept trying. Look at the picture. What does it tell you?"
One of the boys looked at it, pointed to the keys and said, "He helps you unlock your problems."
And thus, another tarot teacher was found.
xo - Lis