We are all wanderers on this earth. Our hearts are full of wonder, and our souls are deep with dreams.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

For Shame: The Hanged Man
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?


  1. Dear Ginny,
    First of all: LOVE YOUR BLOG and I miss your writings! And podcasts, for that matter.

    I see that cards are interesting, because people like them or dislike them for the most different reasons... I am one of the weirdos (hehe) who actually enjoy the Hanged Man...

    As strange as it might sound, I have learned a lot from this card and how getting hanged can be reflected in the virtue of persistence, in a sense we see the world going round and we cannot move, but understand and catch up when we go down.

    I mean, this is my perception... My friend once said that the Hanged Man is a fruit getting ready for the reproduction of the tree hanging in there. It struck me... and so, whenever the Hanged Man comes I set a mood of waiting and resting... no struggle against the ropes.

  2. Thanks, Pietra, I'm trying to write more and do more podcasts as well. Hopefully you'll be hearing more from me in the near future. :)

    I see what you mean about the Hanged Man...and what you descibe is the positive message I was referring to. It's more about releasing and accepting because the less one struggles the less painful the wait is. And the wait can certainly bear fruit, if one uses the time to nurture oneself and grow. Or the fruit may rust on the vine, so to speak, depending how one approaches the Hanged Man experience. Yet even in your description of your perception of the Hanged Man you use words that infer a choice to make the best of a bad situation. This is pretty much true of life in general, isn't it? Many of life's struggles can be lessened or even overcome depending on one's perspective.

  3. Hi Ginny, an interesting article, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    I often see the Hanged Man as an opportunity to review one's situation offering the chance to realise that sometimes it is necessary to give up willingly one thing/way/or behaviour in order to gain something far greater.

    Also when this card shows up I can see it saying that it is of value to realise that sometimes by doing nothing you are actually doing more.

    It strikes me that the card can be saying to us that it is by letting go that we can be reborn.

    Athough I understand the origins of this card and how it's image was drawn from punishments for crimes, I feel that the modern day impression of this card is one that is more of suspension - a suspension of mental activity that leans towards a voluntary aspect to this card and towards the spiritual aspect too.

    Sorry if I'm rambling. lol

  4. Ramble away, Helen! The best stuff comes through then. I find it very interesting that the positive views on the Hanged Man being expressed both by you and Pietra have to do with acceptance and release. The punishment aspect is important to understand, however...it's not ancient history. It has to do with understanding how one got in this position to begin with and to take responsibility for one's own part in the process. While one certainly can be an entirely innocent victim (it wouldn't be the first time an innocent person was punished for a crime they didn't commit) more often than not we have willingly or unwillingly been "strung up." Considering how our own choices have led to this event is helpful. Isn't it one of the reasons we have tarot readings that trace the past foundations of a situation so that we can examine the flow of events and choices that led to the present circumstance? The point of the inventory would not be to conclude we deserve the punishment but to recognize our own patterns and thereby have the power to change those patterns in the future.

    I also believe that if the modern day impression of the card is not based on the historic symbolism of its origin, we are in danger of losing the original meaning altogether. I'm all for adding nuances and dimensions to the original symbolism, but I am not ok with replacing the original symbolic meanings with something else entirely. I think if we disregard the punishment aspect, we lose too much of the intended meaning of what the Hanged Man is actually doing there and we then lose a huge opportunity to understand how that same symbolism crosses time and space and applies to our own lives.

    I'm not saying you suggested that...I, too, am in a rambling mood. :)

  5. I totally agree with what you say Ginny and I too think that the original symbolic meanings for the cards are of great importance.

    I think the punishment aspect comes in the waiting and when you think that this card is preceded by Justice which is another of those cards that asks us to take a honest and objective look at ourselves in order to see where we are and how we got there, then the HM is the next step to reassessing our position if you like, the waiting period where we can re-evaluate before Death follows up and allows us to start renewed.

    I just love the way these cards go together don't you?

    I have be a long admirer of your blog Ginny and delight in reading you thoughts on various aspects of tarot. I linked to you when I had my Reading website Tarot of the Three Moons, which alas is no longer (now you know who I am). But I have now turned into a blogger too and am enjoying the experiece.

  6. "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..."

    Oh dear, must be karmic then as the Hanged Man is my 'shadow card' for this life time... I call the energetic space of this card 'limbo' because that's how it feels to me... a LOT :-D

    Thanks for your perspective on the Hanged Man, Ginny!

  7. Anonymous6:17 AM

    Hello Ginny

    As others, I relish your considered postings and although I'd always like to read more, I'm equally happy if the quality is always over the quantity in this equation!

    With regard to the Hanged Man, yes, this was always my "worst" card when I began reading. Just didn't get it at all, no way.

    More recently, with being engaged in more therapy work with clients (in hypnotherapy, not tarot) I've been coming to see the importance of "Values". In fact, I see a trinity of "Values, Beliefs & Actions" in my client model, and am always interested to explore their congruence (or otherwise) in the world-view of the individual.

    Those in trauma, shock, and severe depression/repression following a singular significant event often demonstrate that their values have been irrevocably changed. Often in the moment of the event. Everything that was apparently balanced and stable - or held in dynamic equilibrium - has been overturned. In a sense this is usually *how* we know that something is "traumatic" - it radically shifts our values; re-ordering them, removing some, adding others, resulting in a period where we *have* to revisit our beliefs and re-align them to our new value hierarchy.

    In Tarot terms, and in the light of your posting, I'd perhaps venture that this time in our lives can be modelled by the sequence/segment JUSTICE - HANGED MAN - DEATH.

    The Hanged Man there is indeed an UGH! waiting card - grieving, living in self-punishment, waiting, internal focus ... processing shame and guilt. The best we can hope for is Death (in the case of some people, literally) and transformation. And we know even that ain't going to be easy or pleasant. The worst we can do is fasten our hopes to returning to a previous state - Justice - which leaves us just suspended.

    So, the Hanged Man. Anything positive to say? Like yourself, Ginny, I hesitate to dole out platitudes - or receive them - when I or others are upturned like this. Only knowing "there is more than this" - "this too will pass" is useful, and even that is hard to hear. I think the *positive* aspect of this situation, and this card which I feel signifies it, is that for a time we are forceably fastened to our own highest values. We are hung from the top, no longer attached to the mundane world. We see everything differently, and at least when Death comes, we have a reminder that we have such a powerful and constant core of being. We *can* hurt, feel shame, feel guilt, and we *can* feel strongly because *we exist*.

    The Hanged Man then is not a pleasant reminder, but he is a reminder, a momentary loss of forgetfulnes of the soul. In this amanesis, he is an initiator - of the transformation to follow.

    Phew! I think I've taken the same "ramble-on" pill as previous posters, but maybe out of the dross there's a little gold - maybe!


    PS. Your point about the history and iconography was very useful in relating "shame" to this card. That's interesting from a therapy viewpoint; I tend to see shame as "an internal comparison of a representation of oneself in values, beliefs or actions compared to an internal representation (introjection/projection) of OTHERS values" and GUILT as the same but the values of ANOTHER SELF. If this card represents SHAME, I'm now wondering which card represents GUILT...

  8. Ginny, you said: " Many of life's struggles can be lessened or even overcome depending on one's perspective."

    Indeed... and I feel that the Hanged Man fits this description of getting other perspectives...

    There is a poet in Brazil and he used to say: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional... And I agree with that...

    Thanks for your comments... and I love these ramblings on cards =)

  9. Great historical perspective! Nothing I've read on the Tarot so far has ever touched on that, which is unfortunate as that seems to be essential information in interpreting the card.

    My own experience with the Hanged Man has been less to do with shame and much more to do with guilt/indecision (eg, I want to do this thing but I know that I won't like myself for doing it, so what do I do?), but this new information will add some more texture to my interpretations.

  10. Marcus said

    "We are hung from the top, no longer attached to the mundane world. We see everything differently, and at least when Death comes, we have a reminder that we have such a powerful and constant core of being. We *can* hurt, feel shame, feel guilt, and we *can* feel strongly because *we exist*.

    I think this is a huge part of the HM to me the idea of exchanging the mundane for the spiritual is key theme of The Hanged Man.

    (Just waking up this morning and having another read of this great comments and a think! LOL)

  11. Wonderful musings, everyone.

    Marcus, having been a sufferer (?) of PTSD stemming from a violent first marriage, I have likewise been fascinated with the ways in which we internalize traumatic experiences and the effect they have on us. Certainly the HM represents such trauma as well, and how he deals with it is a clue as to how we might take back our own personal power and respond as well.

    I know, as one victimized by violent acts and abusive treatment, that one will very often internalize the shame, but it is precisely that which keeps us bound. I found it interesting that once the "shame portraits" started to be viewed as art rather than punishment, hence losing their impact of producing shame, they faded out. Basically, the public decided to view them from another perspective and as a result the bonds of shame were loosed.

    Shame is terribly powerful but only if one agrees with the shamers. In turning the man upside down he was, I imagine, able to place the shame on those who would shame him. How could they be any better than him if they could humiliate him like that and call it "Justice?" Karmic Justice is sure to have her day with them, too.

    Now you raise an interesting question...what card might illustrate guilt? Guilt, in my opinion, is actually healthier than shame. If one truly is guilty, and it might take some time in suspension to analyze that, then one takes responsibility for that which he/she has done. Internalizing the responsibility for an act committed is essential towards reclaiming one's personal power as well. To that I would say that the HM is also representative of guilt. Not so much the obsessive, taking on the guilt of that which is not yours kind, but the healthier kind which takes responsibility for one's actions.

    More later...I shall return to this delightful conversation. :)

  12. Anonymous11:00 AM

    I learned a different interpretation of The Hanged Man:

    The Hanged Man hangs upside down usually by choice as a a way of going beyond the perceptions of a corrupt or wrong-headed society. He see things, as they truly are; upside down, according to the crowd, but by his own enlightened perspective.

    From what you write, Ginny, this certainly doesn't sound like the cards historical meaning, but it's worked for me.

    I'm mulling over you're Hanged Man idea, and figure the forces that be, let me see it at this point, so I could incorperate it into my own definitions.

  13. I have to say that I disagree with you (which is unusual), this is my FAVORITE card! I pick it out in every deck and I love it. To me it does stand for a a long and sometimes painful wait... but it brings to mind the sayings "good things are worth the wait" and "good things are worth fighting for". Too me this symbolizes life all around us. We have to fight for survival, to get ahead, to stay alive- now it is definately not on the same terms as our ancestors, but it is still true today. This card to me symbolizes the inner struggle we all face want vs need, good vs. bad, etc. And how we choose to deal with these struggles makes us the people we are. And afterall, if you have nothing to fight for, then what's life really worth? Isn't that what this card is all about? It says yes something good is coming, but you are going to be tested and you have to work hard to get that something. If you don't that something slips away and changes. This is just like anythingin life, relationships, jobs, homes, etc. Upkeep, management and a fighting attitude is needed to survive everyday and get out of bed.

    That is why I LOVE this card and why it is prominently and proudly displayed throughout my house- as a reminder to fight for what I love.

    I hope that this shows you a different meaning to the card, one of passion. This is by no means a rude comment, just my opinion. I absoluetly LOVE your blog and I check daily for more podcasts- I really loved listening to them so please hurry back to the world of podcasting!


  14. I'm so glad you've found a very positive light to this card as each card certainly does have both light and dark meanings that are applicable. However, the meanings you ascribe to The Hanged Man almost seem more appropriate to Strength. The historical symbolism to the Hanged Man's pose certainly does imply a measure of shame, whether deserved or not, so I wanted to highlight that in this blog entry. It is but one aspect to the card which is, clearly, full of various an nuanced meanings as well as mystery.

    I also want to note that no one blog post on any card will cover all that I see in one card. I usually pick an element or two to highlight, depending on what I am thinking or learning about regarding that card but by no means is supposed to be an encompassing post on that card.

    All that to say is it's great that we disagree! I welcome the rich insight of readers here!

  15. Hi - just found your site. Looks very interesting. I like some of your readers have a different idea of what the hanged man means. I'm usually excited to see it in a reading because for me it symbolizes looking at the world or the querent's situation in a fresh and unexpected way. I do not see the man in the card as being tortured but rather he seems serene and somewhat amused as if he is surprised to find himself in this bizarre situation but hey - what can be made of it? His red-tighted legs form a triangle - this means to me a certain stability and also when the time for action arises there will be great strength. His hands are behind him - passive perhaps or just a way to remember that the truth is not always grabbed but sometimes need to be waited for. Again - the waiting I suppose. I particularly like his hair hanging down and the golden halo around his head. Could that mean that there is transcendance in viewing things from this position? I think so. I also like to point out to people when I do a reading and he shows up that much like some of the other cards - we tend to think the hanged man is stuck but is he really. Could he not get out of this position. Why do we assume he is a victim?
    Just some thoughts...
    I love the tarot because there are so many stories to read from each card. That is the magic.

  16. Anonymous10:00 PM

    I surfed across you site trying to find the meaning of the hanged man. when I rest on a bed I lay in the position of the hanged man with my hands on my chest. whats up with that? Oh and you are quite insightful!

  17. Thank you for pointing out something obvious that hasn't occurred to me - get a historical perspective of the images. I have spent so much time discovering my perspective of the images and researching what others have to say, but researching the origins of the pictures is something important that I had not considered.

    I have a lot of work to do, thank you!!!!!!!!

  18. Anonymous4:29 PM

    Just found your site....great to connect to you...
    I have so enjoyed ALL for your insights. You have rekindled my interest in the HM.
    I believe the HM is probably the most uniquely personal card of the tarot. Seen as Neptune/Mem = water = memory and being in-tune...so, yes, reflection on the past - whether past misdeeds or not. Its a deep, deep card sometimes called 'the drowned man'so this reflection on the past is more like a relection of where we have come from or WHERE WE HAVE COME FROM!!!! Its a recollection on/attunement to our bigger/higher/divine selves. The GD refer to HM as the sacrifice of a giant... that bigger 'US' that drowns itself in the astral layers of forgetfulness as we fall into incarnation......deep, very deep - but Tarot ain't messin about - its the real deal and it ain't ever going to cheat us regarding who we truly are ....and the HM is in a state of remembering/reconnecting to this... the halo confirms this enlighted state.....at sometime we need to let the world go 'hang' and reconnect to our already enlightened self. Hanged MAN suggests it is the male aspect of our nature that is being 'hung' ie.our 'outer, active' life is suspended so the inner stuff can be our total focus....and yes, in our busy, busy world we resent HAVING to do this.....but, turn the card up the other way, and he looks like a 'poser' someone dressing strangely with a freeky hairstyle hanging around on a street corner, not really committed or involved to anything but just giving out an unusual vibe.....hanging upsidedown he is totally committed, totally authentic.

    When HM appears I take it as a 'total commitment' energy....and most definitely an invitation/instruction from the Higher part of me to look beneath the surface for a deeper, totally personal meaning to whatever cards are around it. (Yes and this does not always come easy!!!!)

    In its position on our journey 'out into incarnation' i.e. Magi to World the HM indicates that its time to connect to our immortal self before facing Death. Travelling 'home' again i.e. The World towards Magi - the reconnection to our immortal state comes after Death.
    At a lighter level HM is a cool guy who just hangs around and goes with the flow.
    Do I win the prize for the longest ramble? Well.....it is water we are dealing with here - difficult to confine/define ain't it?

  19. Carolyn6:27 PM

    Really impressed with your history!!! It's always great to learn a new perspective, particularly with the Hanged Man!

    If there is one card in the deck that represented the ultimate act of faith, it would be the Hanged Man. In a tarot reading, The Hanged Man signifies a new consciousness. In this stage of the journey, The Hanged Man accepts the ultimate spiritual law, that he is not just a singular being. He is, in fact, part of greater whole.

    Tarot Reader and Webmaster of http://tarotreadingpsychic.com

  20. For me this is the most enigmatic card of the Majors. It means alot of things but really comes down to what you or i need or want.

    As Carolyn said your history is impressive and I love your take on things.


  21. Hi Mel! So glad you brought this conversation back, it's been a long time since I read through it and there are some really great insights that are once again made fresh. It is a mysterious card, for sure, and so very open to interpretation. The nuances are plentiful!


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