America the Hierophant: Part I

Part I: America’s Birth Card

Inspired by the 4th of July, I decided to look up America’s birth cards-- and all of our year cards since our “birth” in 1776. I’ve mentioned my wacky birth and year card spreadsheet before, but applying it to this experiment proved to be mindblowing in a whole host of ways. I could probably write an entire book about the uncanny insights revealed in looking at my country’s 240+ year history (indeed, a few of my friends are nudging me to do just that), but for the purposes of this two-part series, I wanted to focus specifically on America’s Target and Bow archetype. 

Using simple math based on a reputable astrological chart (thank you, internet), we arrive at the following archetypes:

  • Target, “Where we’re heading”: The Hierophant 

  • Bow “What propels us”: The Hierophant 

  • Arrow “How we get there”: The Lovers

  • Ecosystems: Knowledge (Target + Bow) and Union (Arrow)

So, let’s start with the most pressing question:

What the effing eff is a Hierophant? 

Hierophant is an ancient Greek term for priest. More specifically, the term derives from ἱερός (hierós, “holy”) and φαίνω (phaínō, “I show, make known”). 

They who reveal the sacred.

For a long time, the priest class in many cultures were seen as the keepers of holy knowledge and wisdom, advising the rest of us in the ways to appease God/the gods. This may sound familiar to anyone with a Catholic background, as the Pope and the priest class is still often seen as being the keepers of religious wisdom and direct intermediaries between God and the members of the church. In fact, this tarot archetype was often called The Pope before A.E. Waite decided to rename it the Hierophant in the Waite-Smith deck. 

Stuffy, conservative, oppressively masculine, disciplinarian, tyrannical, overly traditional, restrictive, limiting... These are only a few of the charges often levelled at this card, and when we look at The Hierophant in its historical context, it’s hard to disagree.

… [But] beneath the papal undergarments, there are opportunities for us to connect with the divine, with our ancestors, and with a long tradition of wisdom that shouldn’t be ignored.
— Two Sides Tarot

As Rachel Pollack noted in her indispensable book, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, the shift toward establishing an individual relationship with the divine has changed the way we interact with a priesthood-- especially for those of us who operate outside of organized religion. Even so, many of us still feel compelled to find spiritual answers from those who are “more qualified” or “more awakened” than we think we are. 

The Hierophant is the fifth card of the Major Arcana, coming right after The Emperor. These two aren’t next to each other by accident. Tarot archetypes are effective because they are based on actual human roles and stories. We can see why these two belong next to each other in the so-called Fool’s journey when we consider the literal roles these figures traditionally filled in society. Where a responsible Emperor might be seen as the steward of secular needs, a responsible Hierophant would be the keeper of spiritual wisdom and doctrine. If the Emperor helps us understand structures, stability and boundaries, The Hierophant helps us understand ritual, traditional values, morality, etc. 

The Hierophant as a Birth Card

If the The Hierophant is one of your birth cards, you may be on a journey of understanding your own relationship to secrets, tradition, and moral norms-- perhaps trying to rectify how your identity jives (or doesn’t) with your family or culture’s traditions, morals, etc. You likely find deep meaning in learning about the world around you through things like travel, exploration, and pursuit of knowledge.  

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s no such thing as a bad or undesirable birth card. Awareness and openness allow us to integrate an archetype’s lessons in meaningful ways. Avoidance and ignorance lead to tough lessons.

I don’t know if it’s tacky to quote yourself, but a portion of what I wrote about this archetype in The Nomad Guide to the Tarot is helpful to understanding it as a birth card: 

In his whole or awakened state, The High Priest [Hierophant] reminds us that there are many paths to wisdom. He may serve as a reminder that our connection to Mystery— Source, Spirit, God, The Universe, etc.— doesn’t need to look like others, but it must be nurtured. To deny a relationship to the divine, regardless of name, is to deny the presence of our very soul and, by extension, constricts our own self actualization.
— The Nomad Guide to the Tarot

When acting from strength or wholeness, embracing the inner-Hierophant feels most empowering when exploring, gathering knowledge, and establishing codes & traditions that suit them.  “Sacred” and “holy” can mean something different to each person, but a healed Hierophant is striving for confidence in what those things are for them. Self-identity and knowledge are wrapped up in this need to create and practice systems for understanding the world and its mysteries. 

When acting from stress or woundedness, this archetype could manifest in rigid, dogmatic, secretive, inflexible, holier-than-thou behaviors. What looks like a commitment to truth-seeking when operating from a whole or awakened state often turns into fundamentalism in the Hierophant’s unconscious or wounded state. The revealer of secrets can suddenly become a gatekeeper-- or cling to beliefs that act as gatekeepers-- to preserve knowledge or access to whomever they deem worthy, and restricting those who don’t fit their criteria.

One of the most potent lessons of The High Priest comes in understanding that holding onto stagnant beliefs is not only unhelpful, it can be dangerous. Restriction or denial of knowledge can lead to harm or violence, and it is in his shadow state that the more traditional meanings of the Hierophant show their darker, more insidious side. 

Willful ignorance, the complete rejection of intellectual or spiritual growth, gullibility and blind acceptance of dogma or information that only serves to reinforce preexisting beliefs, are all symptoms of his shadow state. When the High Priest [Hierophant] appears in shadow, he may be calling on us to consider where we are constricting wisdom, rejecting nuance, or purposefully embracing ignorance.
— The Nomad Guide to the Tarot

Alternatively, the Hierophant’s stress/woundedness can stoke feelings of overwhelm, confusion or even despair. A commitment to truth-seeking in its awakened state can show up in the shadows as existential crisis, unsure if their life has real meaning or value and thereby falling into a stagnant rut. This can look like the wounded Hierophant going through the motions, living a life on the surface but not feeling any depth of meaning or connection beyond the daily grind. 

The Hierophant as America’s Birth Card

The United States was founded on the ideals of democracy, looking to break away from a tyrant (our very own Emperor, if you will). The founders worked to develop a new doctrine and establish new traditions, institutions and laws that would establish a country outside of monarchy. 

I expect the founders thought they’d considered everything they needed to prevent authoritarianism and corruption from creeping its way into American democracy, but they failed to identify what would become our greatest weakness. 

 
Collage by Sara Galactica.

Collage by Sara Galactica.

 

While our forefathers waxed poetic about how all men were created equal, slaves were building the country.

While they extolled the virtues of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they stole land from the people who were indigenous to this continent. 

These hypocrisies have long escaped our collective national mythos, but they are at the very foundation of our identity, embedded in our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our national story. 

If the Hierophant represents a set of sacred beliefs, America's foundations were based on white supremacy.

Reading those words might make some of you uncomfortable. This is where the concept of secret doctrine of The Hierophant comes in. The doctrine of white supremacy isn’t a secret-- not really. But so many of us have been able to completely avoid it or ignore it because it has benefited us in some way. 

I need you to stay with me. Take a deep breath and sit with whatever discomfort is coming up for you. Be here now. 

To really discover God inside yourself, you must undergo some uncomfortable confrontations with your own psyche.
— Rachel Pollack

Our country is based on the belief that white people are superior to others. For example:

  • You can’t have African slaves if you think black people are as equally human as you. You can’t have black men being shot and killed for driving while black if you think they are as human as you. 

  • You can’t just roll up and be all, “This land is mine now!” if you think indigenous people are as human as you are. You can’t build pipelines through sovereign native land if you think the tribes who live there are as human as you. 

  • And because white supremacy and patriarchy go hand-in-hand, you don’t keep women disenfranchised if you think they’re as human as you. You don’t limit reproductive and gender rights if you think that people who aren’t assigned male at birth are equally capable to make decisions about their bodies. 

The first census asked for the name of the head of each household, as well as the number of male whites under 16 and over 16 — information to prepare in case of another war — the number of free female whites, free other persons and slaves. The vast majority of Native Americans lived separately from the settlements established by white Americans at the time and therefore were not a very large part of the count.

Madison’s notes from the convention demonstrate the fallacies in the classification of people as property. Many delegates tried to parse the ways in which slaves were both property — Virginia delegate George Mason called them a “peculiar species of property” — and not.

...The presidency was held by slave owners for 50 years, and the speakership of the House for 41, while 18 Supreme Court seats out of the 31 before 1850 were held by slave owners, Wills noted, citing a survey that showed that half of the highest federal officeholders were southerners, while the North had almost twice the free population as the South.
— Eli Rosenberg, Washington Post

What began as rejection of obedience to the crown turned into obedience to money and power. White supremacy and patriarchy are the machinery that develop wealth and power on the backs of those who are deemed less worthy. Some Americans will overlook anything as long as their ignorance promises to preserve money or power for them, or at least denies it to “the other.” We wouldn’t have families in separated in cages on our southern border right now if that wasn’t the case. 

All of these ingrained beliefs are the tippy-top of the iceberg, but I’m spelling them out for a very important reason: 

The doctrine of white supremacy is the biggest threat to our country, and it runs DEEP. 

We’ve collectively ignored white supremacist systems for so long that now they're poised to ruin us. Think about it: What ideas have set the table of authoritarianism, what power hungry machinations have allowed foreign interference in our elections, what value systems have attempted to normalize putting asylum seekers into cages? What makes people feel comfortable turning away from oppression if not their own safety (as white people) within it? What doctrines have a very real chance of turning us away from the true ideals of capital-D Democracy if not these unjust systems built upon a foundation of white supremacy?

America has long fancied itself as a teacher on the world stage, likening our democracy to the biblical shining city upon a hill— a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world. And while freedom is noble and worthy of our pride, it doesn’t yet belong to each of us in equal measure.

Our true test lies in whether we can muster the courage to be a teacher to the rest of the world by taking responsibility for our troubled past, learning from it, and changing to align ourselves with our ideals. In Part II, I’ll be back to discuss how looking at our country’s Hierophant years might help us do just that.

Ready to learn more? Read America the Hierophant: Part II.

Sources/Further Reading

Sara Holodnick