The Hanged Man is one of the strangest cards in the Tarot deck. He is suspended by one foot from a wooden frame of some sort, with his arms behind his back. He is upside down in what is clearly a very uncomfortable situation, and yet his face appears to be at peace. In the RWS, he’s even crowned with a halo or some sort of light emanation.
The result is a somewhat confusing card that appears simultaneously negative and positive. I mean, every single card in the Tarot has positive and negative aspects, but only the Hanged Man appears on the surface to be both.
To be hanged upside down in such a fashion was supposedly a punishment for treason in the Middle Ages. This is bad on two levels: first, the guy’s a lawbreaker, and a pretty serious one at that; second, he’s being punished, which is good for the law, but bad for him. The punishment is presumably on public display, which leaves the Hanged Man vulnerable to the abuse of passersby. While the Middle Ages certainly had more brutal punishments to offer, being hanged upside down would be no fun, to say the least.
Of course, a crime like treason could have a positive light thrown on it. Perhaps the Hanged Man was a righteous man, rebelling against a corrupt and brutal government, and in such a case, even though he’s been caught, he would show no remorse. Perhaps this is why he has such a satisfied visage despite being tied upside down to a post. Perhaps he’s a martyr. It would explain the halo. In either case, it’s clear that the Hanged Man feels no regret for whatever it is he’s done, despite the fact that it ultimately resulted in what is surely his demise.
Another possibility is that the Hanged Man is up on his gibbet of his own volition. The general consensus of this view is one of spirituality. The Hanged Man has literally inverted his perspective of the world, allowing himself to let go of his preconceived notions about everything in favor of a new, perhaps unorthodox wisdom.
If we view the Major Arcana as a sequence, then the Hanged Man’s placement as the twelfth card can tell us a bit about his position. In the RWS, he follows Justice, which implies that perhaps he is being punished for some crime, although this is the same deck in which he wears a halo (martyr?). In the Marseille tradition, on the other hand, the Hanged Man follows Strength, which is sometimes called Fortitude. This is interesting, because it suggests that maybe he is up there of his own accord after all. To voluntarily suspend yourself between two perspectives in such a way would certainly require fortitude. Not necessarily for the physical act of hanging upside down, although that too would require some sort of physical and mental strength. Rather, fortitude would be a necessary preparation for the spiritual trials and tribulations that come from the metaphorical inversion of perspective represented by the Hanged Man. While the Marseille Hanged Man still looks like he’s enduring punishment, some other decks that use the Marseille ordering of the cards illustrate the Hanged Man as someone who is clearly using the upside down position for meditative or other spiritual reasons.
Regardless of the preceding card, however, the Hanged Man is always followed by Death. Whether this Death is a symbolic one as a result of intense meditation, or a literal one at the hands of an executioner, it is clear the the Hanged Man is about to reach an end of some sort.
Perhaps the Hanged Man is sacrificing himself for something greater. This is a voluntary spiritual quest of an extreme variety. I mentioned martyrdom twice already; this card seems to me to suggest that suffering in the name of faith is part of the experience of having faith. After all, the promise of the World card is not available to anyone who does not first traverse the depths of the Underworld, and in order to go there, you have to die. Is there a more worthy cause of death than to suffer for a righteous purpose, or to sacrifice yourself in the name of a faith in something higher than oneself?*
This idea brings to mind the so-called myths of the Dying God. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this myth today is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Strictly speaking, I don’t think that the Dying God and the Journey of the Hero are necessarily the same thing, although they do share many very important elements.The Dying God is a metaphor for the setting and rising Sun. The Hero’s Journey mirrors this pattern, but does not have to be a metaphor for the Sun. It usually represents a symbolic journey for the everyman to aspire to, and often incorporates other archetypal elements that might not be found in a Dying God myth. I suppose it could be argued that every Dying God myth is also a Hero’s Journey, but I would not feel comfortable saying the reverse is also true. For example, the Egyptian Sun god Ra supposedly died every night, passed through the Underworld on his boat, and returned to life the next morning. This is probably the most straightforward Dying God myth, but it also follows the basic template for the Hero’s Journey. On the other hand, the story of Perseus from Greek myth is a prime example of the Hero’s Journey, but it has no implication of any metaphors outside that of the individual psyche.**
The Hanged Man as an archetype provides the crux (pun intended) of these myths. I can’t think of any myth where the god or hero was hanged upside down, but there are several which involve hanging from a cross or tree. Again, the myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection forms the basis of the Christian religion; Odin also hung from a tree before returning to life. But the hanging from a cross or gallows is symbolic of a more general struggle required of the hero or god prior to the actual Death. For Osiris, it was the battle against Set. For Gilgamesh, it was his long travels through the wilderness and his meeting with the Scorpion-men who guarded the entrance to the Underworld. The Hanged Man is at the threshold of the Underworld, suspended between life and death; the Death card is the crossing of that threshold.
From a psychological perspective, all this archetype stuff translates to some sort of dilemma. To be “hung up” on an issue, so to speak. This isn’t just a run-of-the-mill sort of problem. The Hanged Man represents an issue more akin to the existential crisis. There is probably some serious self-doubt and an inability to move forward. Again, Death is the answer. Remember, Death does not mean a literal death (although some people do remain stuck in their Hanged Man stage until the day they die for real). It means a total severance from the problem. Most people hate their Hanged Man dilemma, but fear to leave it behind, because they’ve grown used to having their hands tied. Death represents the unknown, and confronting this is terrifying to most, no matter how uncomfortable hanging upside down has become. Instead they regress back to that pivotal card, Strength. Strength is good to have, but it is meant to help you get through the stage of the Hanged Man so you can face Death with confidence.
If this card is turned up and it doesn’t suggest you are the Hanged Man stuck at the threshold, perhaps it is suggesting that you do as he has done, and suspend yourself upside down (figuratively speaking) so you can get a new perspective on things. In this case, the Hanged Man represents taking a step back from the problem, allowing for a fresh start, rather than the problem itself. Or maybe there isn’t a problem at all, and you just need to shake things up a bit. I believe the Hanged Man can also stand for stagnation in life, for example, or a sort of limbo. Basically, with a positive meaning, you get an intense spiritual experience (heaven); negatively, you get a very serious, almost inescapable quandary (hell); and in between is purgatory. I think these alternate possibilities are all contributing factors to the confusion of this card.
Finally, I think this card’s seemingly odd combination of an uncomfortable position with a comfortable facial expression can represent the strength of faith and a positive attitude. The Hanged Man is at peace despite his dire circumstances. Sometimes all you can do is make the best of a bad situation, and put your trust in whatever higher power you deem appropriate. I believe the Hanged Man is ultimately a card of faith, after all, and that’s what having faith is really all about.
*Unfortunately, many radical religious zealots take this idea literally, and use it as an excuse to cause violence in the name of something holy. It is more than a shame; it is a bastardization of the very values that religion of any denomination is supposed to stand for.
**It could be argued that the Hero’s Journey is just the microcosmic version of the macrocosmic story represented by the Dying God. I think this is a valid and interesting point, actually, but the fact remains that the basic function of each of these stories is essentially different. In other words, the Dying God myth generates faith in a higher power; the Hero’s Journey myth generates faith in ourselves to act in accordance with that higher power.