A solitary young man hangs upside down on one leg from a cross fashioned from the trunk of a laurel tree. He is dressed as a squire or page, in a blue shirt and pantaloons and bright red leggings. His legs are crossed, and his wrists appear to be bound behind his back. Despite this uncomfortable posture, his countenance radiates serenity and calm, and his head is ringed with a shiny halo of golden light.
In his magisterial mythological survey, The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer recounts the many legends of “hanged gods” that precede by centuries the crucifixion of Christ. In certain primitive cultures, either an effigy, or at times an actual person who was in poor health, would be chosen as a proxy for the god, suspended from a tree, then speared, flayed, or otherwise put to death. The “god” being honored was typically one related to fertility and the harvest, and the ritual was performed at the beginning of the planting season (i.e., the solstice, the Eastertide, the literal “pass over” from winter unto spring) as an offering to the deity for a bountiful crop in autumn. The reason for hanging the effigy was so the spirit of the deity—now suspended between heaven and earth—would know that it was being released by man, and that it was free to choose to return to the heavens from whence it came, or descend back to earth to bless all those who believed upon it.
The operative principle in this ritual, therefore, was not sacrifice but surrender. Sacrifice is transactional—”we’ll sacrifice a virgin, and you give us a harvest”—while surrender is unconditional: “We release this spirit up to you; do with it as you will.” By suspending the effigy above the ground, man willingly abdicates all agency and control over the deity and, by implication, assumes all responsibility for his own actions. Whether the deity chooses to return to earth is entirely up to it, regardless of our ministrations. This is important to keep in mind when reading this card, for it is often thought of as a card of sacrifice or enforced hardship when nothing could be further from the truth.
As Justice instructs us to judge others in a spirit of love and mercy, the Hanged Man tells us how it is to be done: In a spirit of unconditional surrender. That’s not so easy for those of us whose perceptions are trapped in an ego-driven world that is always looking to find fault with others, that sees itself as the center of the universe, and that denies the existence of spirit, the pneuma of Divine breath that animates us. To enter into such a state requires us to literally “turn our world upside down”—to cultivate a “suspended mind”, as Paul Foster Case puts it—and realize that virtually everything we perceive in our sphere of consciousness is, for all practical purposes, an illusion. We exalt ourselves in God’s eyes by exalting Him and humbling ourselves, not the other way around. That’s the significance of the Hanged Man’s upside-down position on the cross.
This is not the same thing as saying that we are never required to perform acts of atonement, for the Hanged Man is a card of atonement. But atonement need not require any discomfort or hardship from the penitent; this is an error of perception that associates “atonement” with “suffering”. Atonement only requires the willingness to suspend your conscious beliefs about the world, engage in some honest self-examination, ask to receive God’s wisdom, and begin to visualize an aura of love and healing surrounding you. This is, in essence, what the Hanged Man is doing.
The Hanged Man’s red legs form a cross of fire, symbolizing the number four; his arms and torso, a downward pointing triangle of water, indicative of the number three. Multiply those numbers and you get the Hanged Man’s numerical designation,“12,” which can be reduced by numerology to 1 +2 = 3:
Thus the Hanged Man surrenders himself, as did the effigies in ancient times, to the fertility gods and goddesses of spring.
The element governing the Hanged Man is water, and the Hebrew letter assigned to the card, Mem, also means “water.” In some versions of this card, the hanging figure is seen suspended directly above a brook or stream. Besides the fertility powers implied (e.g., the irrigation of crops), it suggests a deep descent into the realm of the unconscious mind, a psychic ablution we must undergo in order to discover the hidden realities that govern our spiritual lives—perhaps even to achieve the Hindu state of samadhi, where not only our beliefs but all time and space are suspended! That’s also the significance of the Hanged Man’s torso, the “downward-facing triangle.”
Case and Rachel Pollack both claim the cross upon which the figure hangs is an ankh cross, the Egyptian symbol of life; others insist it is a tav cross, after the final letter in the Hebrew alphabet. We can agree that the cross is a living thing as it sprouts fresh growth. This, then, is not, the a cross of death or of finality, but actually the key to “crossing over” into the world of eternal life. Perhaps this is why the path of The Hanged Man, which runs from fiery Geburah to mercurial Hod, is known as the Sustaining Intelligence; that by surrendering our attachments to this earth of sinew and bone—and literally “rising above” its constraints and conflicts—we are forever sustained with the gift of life.
Meanings of this card in a reading vary, and can include atonement, prayer, religious devotions, fasting and meditation, release from earthly worries, ecstasies and visions, self-imposed sacrifice, the querent has a “martyr complex”, persecution complexes in general; but also ascension, freedom from guilt, a higher state of consciousness, and submission to a higher power, or refusal to do the same.
The 16th-Century kabbalist Isaac Luria was once asked by one of his students, “Rabbi, why don’t men see the face of God anymore, as they did in the time of patriarchs?” Answered the Rabbi, “No man today would stoop so low.” This is the key to understanding the Hanged Man—that as we release all our preconceptions and prejudices upward, and humble ourselves downward—therein lies a secret of our salvation. Of course, doing this is a threat to ego, and it won’t brook such insults lightly. It will rail and rant against any kind of selflessness on our part, and it will try to fill our psyche with all sorts of fears and anxieties—it may even try to convince us, as we’ll discuss tomorrow, that we’re staring into the face of death!