This is one of my least liked tarot card trumps. I'm not sure it's anyone's favorite given its uncomfortable depiction of torture, but my main beef with this card is not only does it tell me that what I want requires a very long wait, but in the meantime I'm not going to be enjoying that wait. Unlike the Star that also depicts that my goal is afar off, this card says the intervening time is pretty much going to suck for me, though I will learn a lot from it. Bah. Take your life lesson and hang that from a tree, ok?
To even attempt to understand the meaning of this Major Arcana card, one really does need to get the historical perspective. Times have most certainly changed since the creation of Tarot and this card references something that people of the 1500's would have readily recognized that we in the 21st Century have no current context. Well, we do, but not in this manner. This picture of a man hung upside down by one foot is what was known in Italy as a pittura infamante, a defaming portrait. It was used as a kind of rag publication that showed thieves, traitors, those guilty of bankruptcy or fraud in this punishing position and displayed in centers of public view. Those paintings weren't literal, in that the depicted victims were not actually hung in this manner but were shamed by the portrait. They were akin to our political cartoons except that they were approved and even requested by the municipal civil authorities as a form of public punishment. They began to lose popularity when they began to be appreciated more as an art form, like the political cartoon, rather than be seen as a form of punishment. The intended effect, shame, was lessened, and the practice diminished.
But why use this particular positioning of the figure to shame someone? That answer can be found in even earlier paintings of a more religious nature. Religious art from the 13th through 15th centuries, before the creation of Tarot cards, show various scenes of the Last Judgement and the unrighteous receiving their eternal damnation. In many of these scenes one can see people dangling from their feet over the pit of Hell. In one particular fresco by Giovanni da Modena in the cathedral of San Petronio in Bologna, Italy there is a striking similarity in the figures shown hanging to the modern Hanged Man card. In this picture of a portion of the fresco, you can see the hanged men in the upper right corner and their positions, particularly with the hands bound in back and the leg crossed, mirror the tarot card image almost precisely. Given this painting predates the origin of Tarot, images such as this most definitely had to be the card's inspiration. Or at least the inspiriation for the pittura infamante, from which the tarot card image is likely derived. The inference of showing someone hanged in this position then would be that the person is deserving of hell.
Some have said the card is derived from the story of Judas whose betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver prompted his suicidal hanging, which would align with the cards in which the figure is shown holding bags of money or with coins dropping out of his pockets, but Judas hanged himself by his neck, not upside down. The money bags probably reference the shame portraits of thieves or those guilty of defrauding others out of money rather than Judas. There is another prominent Biblical figure who met his death upside down, but he was crucified rather than hanged. The apostle Peter requested that his death sentence be carried out in an upside down fashion because he didn't feel worthy to be executed in the same manner as Jesus. The humility shown by that act is something often transferred to the Hanged Man's meaning, but the depiction doesn't truly reference that event just as it doesn't reference Judas. The early players of Tarocchi likely did not think of Peter or Judas when they saw that card, but would have seen someone shamed and humiliated for his crimes.
If the punishment was implied and not literal, as would be the case in the shame portraits, the idea would be towards rehabilitation, in a sense. The warning would be clear, that the subject is in danger of eternal damnation unless he gets a clue and changes his ways. Hence in the later renditions of the card we see the spiritual illumination that surrounds the head and the more meditative, serene facial expression. The card was to be taken as a life lesson, a warning, especially because the next card in succession is Death, which all knew to be the "wages of sin." This card would then be a prompt to take a moral inventory because none of us know when the Grim Reaper will call, so rather than end up singeing your head in hell's flames, maybe you need to rethink your actions and direction in life.
Meanwhile, I have no doubt that 16th century card makers would have politicized this card depicting a particular public figure as the Hanged Man that those using the cards might easily recognize, just as a political satirist might do today, less for punishment than humiliation and to bring a recognizable face and circumstance to the meaning of the card. And just for laughs.
Understanding the historical, artistic, and symbolic roots to the imagery of the Hanged Man allows us to be more precise in the given meaning to the card and then permits us to extrapolate to the reading and circumstances at hand. If someone was to be hung in this position unto death, it would take an exceedingly long time for the person to die. If it was merely for punishment's sake, hanging there for any amount of time in a public square would be torturous. To bear one's body weight only by one's ankle would tear the ligaments and joints, break the skin, rush the blood to one's head and generally mess with the spinal alignment and heart functioning. And it's just a very demeaning position to be in. Embarrassing. Humiliating. Helpless. For these reasons the card's meaning implies a longer time period during which one is relatively helpless to change anything about one's situation and which is fraught with discomfort and pain. Is there anything to like about this card?
Well, yeah, though it is small comfort. The warning the shame portraits give is similar to this card's advice. Though you may have wound up in this position by your own unfortunate choices and decisions, and though you may not have much or any control over how things are playing out for you now, you can use this time for good as you re-evaluate how you got here and what you will do when you get down from here. Hanging upside down might be uncomfortable but it offers a very different perspective on things. One certainly gets a different view on life and circumstances and people while upside down. Haven't you done this as a child? Hanging by one's knees on the playground monkey bars or, like I used to do, hang upside down over the edge of the living room sofa, watching everyone walking on what now looks like the ceiling and you alone are walking "upright." Everything around me looked like Alice's view through the looking glass. So while you're dangling, give yourself a chance to see things from a different point of view. Only in this way will you be able to gain the objectivity, while in pain, to come away from this time with the necessary change in your thinking that will allow you to avoid these kinds of humiliating experiences in the future.
The Hanged Man illustrates one of those life learning experiences that none of us really choose to endure but, through our own previous choices, have landed ourselves in nonetheless. We can simply endure it and learn nothing, blame those who strung us up, and feel utterly victimized or we can use the experience to our betterment. I really hate that kind of advice when I'm in the midst of some really hard emotional experience, so I hesitate to give it, at least without first empathizing with the pain being endured. It sounds canned and patronizing, too. "What doesn't kill us will make us stronger," blah, blah, blah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Shut up. Which is another reason I'm not pleased with this card because, as a reader, it sort of forces me to, while explaining its meaning, give that sort of advice. And it's not that it's Bad Advice, not really, it's just that we don't like to be told that in the throes of agony and helplessness. Because the person in the Hanged Man's position is likely to be feeling quite victimized, it almost feels like blaming the victim, which I really do not like to do.
So there you have it. While there are other nuances of the Hanged Man that I haven't begun to cover, this at least explains the "Ugh!" reaction that many have to the card. Because even the positive aspect feels a bit humiliating. What do you do with a card like that?