By Sarah Taylor
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
– W. H. Auden
I’ve written about The Hanged Man before (What goes around: Wheel of Fortune and The Hanged Man), and yet it feels like The Hanged Man has been underrepresented in this column, maybe in the same way that I feel that the idea of “midlife crisis” is underrepresented in the psychological literature that I’ve been exposed to as part of my psychotherapy work.
Because this is what The Hanged Man is about from the perspective of our individual evolutionary path: it is a cornerstone in the tarot’s major arcana of the idea of midlife crisis — the archetypal crisis of identity and identification in later adulthood.
Coming, as it does, over halfway through the major arcana, The Hanged Man makes an appearance after we have accumulated enough baggage to find our onward progress uncomfortably stymied. Weighted down as we are, what we tend to do in such circumstances is to press on regardless, telling ourselves things will sort themselves out, ducking and diving to avoid the insistent messages that are clamouring for our attention. And those shouts only get louder.
Some wise souls will meet with The Hanged Man with a sense of acceptance. Many of The Hanged Man cards refer to the Norse god Odin, and his hanging from Yggdrasil, the World Tree. In Odin’s case, he sacrificed ‘himself to himself’; he understood it to be a necessary sacrifice. For the rest, Justice (the previous card in most tarot decks) is meted out either through an external act or one of self-sabotage. However they come to The Hanged Man, each protagonist finds themselves ‘strung up’ — held fast in a position that is both humbling and designed to resist traditional methods of escape: aggression, exertion and control.
Thus, the Hanged Man, as card 12 in the major arcana, marks a rite of passage of adulthood. It is a passage into a time of the stripping away of the old to make way for something new (13 — Death); the search for balance between opposing forces now that we have the understanding that the resolution of those forces is beyond our abilities (14 — Temperance); an exploration of the explicit and implicit agreements that we have to our shadows that hold us prisoner, but which also show us the way to liberation (15 — The Devil); and the uncompromising destruction of false gods that are incontrovertibly illuminated, and so dismantled, through the work we have done (16 — The Tower).
When we embody The Hanged Man archetype, we have entered (whether voluntarily or dragged kicking and screaming) the psychological process of ‘self-excavation’. In therapy, it marks a time when we move deeper into ourselves, and it is some of the most challenging inner work that we undertake.
We have relegated aspects of the psyche to the darkness within for good reason: we have found them to be unacceptable, whether because we detest them or because we feel we do not deserve to call them our own. In the Rosetta Tarot, The Hanged Man is associated with the element water, which represents our feelings and the unconscious. We are suspended and we are pointed downwards, the symbolic place of the secrets we keep from ourselves.
Yet, we have all that we need to explore this subterranean land. Odin was also a psychopomp — a word taken from the Greek psuchopompos meaning “guide of souls.” Psychopomps were traditionally the figures who guided the souls of the dead to the afterlife. However, an additional meaning of psychopomp is seen in Jungian analysis, where the word is used to describe a mediating principle (within the patient and assisted by the analyst) between the conscious and the unconscious.
The ground that these two interpretations have in common is that of the ‘underworld’ — the mythical place of the dead — but also this place of darkness that I have described, which we all have within us, and where we die to ourselves in order that we give birth to the light.
Whether we know it or not, and whether we are prepared to accept it or not, it is we who choose to enter the realm of The Hanged Man. Outer circumstances may prevail to lead us into it, but they are simply manifestations of inner circumstances that have conspired to further our transformation. If we can accept that possibility as we contemplate our period of suspension, it might be that we are more ready and able to look around once we have ‘assumed the position’ and see what new things it brings to light. It is not a punishment for having done something wrong; it is the consequence of a deviation from Self (who we are when we are whole, integrated beings).
More than that: it is an opportunity for revelation — a chance to experience a re-uniting of our fragmented selves, the increased radiation of our inner light, and the expansion to which this inevitably leads.
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The upside-down Hanged Man symbolizes the law of reversal. As in the crucifixion of Christ, victory and success are achieved in a manner opposite from any expected. Instead of assertive movement and forceful resistance, salvation is attained through passive surrender. …
The octopus tentacles signify that you are under constrictive influences beyond your control. Surrender your ego. The feeling that you are drowning and being dragged to the depths is the “dark night of the soul,” the preparatory stage for rebirth and new life. (The Voyager Tarot)
The Hanged Man has one leg crossed over the other forming a cross, and his arms are extended to form an equilateral triangle. The “cross and triangle” is a symbol of the Golden Dawn that represents “the descent of the light into the darkness in order to redeem it.” On this card the Hanged Man is the redeemer, hung by a snake (representing transformation) wrapped around his leg forming an ankh (reversed). The ankh is a symbol of life and resurrection. …
This is a time of seeing things from a new perspective. There can be absorption, retreat and subsequent enlightenment. Sometimes temporary delays are indicated; a time to take time out and reflect and let time pass. There are themes of purification by water, and the astrological themes of the twelfth house: isolation, self undoing, deep insight, and the descent of spirit into matter. (The Rosetta Tarot — The Book of Seshet, by M. M. Meleen)
The Hanged Man is the betrayal of what we have labored hard to build in the world, all that we have depended on, during the first half of life. The ego must be its own Judas. Inwardly, the betrayal is about forsaking beliefs that have become so familiar that our relationship to them is comfortable, unquestioned and taken for granted. These attitudes often have a significant unconscious component. This is why The Hanged Man is the Teacher of the mental aspect of Erasing Personal History — abandoning the treasured beliefs, notions, ideas, ideals, principles, standards, morals, ethics, philosophies, or viewpoints that have outlived their time.
Over the years we repeatedly bump our heads or fall into the same painful places and evidence builds that something about our attitude is wrong. To remedy this we can redouble our efforts to arrange people and circumstances to conform to what the ego wants. But forces will eventually conspire against us. Jung said, “Nobody who finds himself on the road to wholeness can escape that characteristic suspension which is the meaning of the crucifixion. For he will infallibly run into things that thwart and “cross” him: first, the thing he has no wish to be (the shadow); second, the thing he is not (the “other,” the individual reality of the “You”); and third, his psychic non-ego (the collective unconsious).”
If we do manage to evade the conflict then the world will have to experience it for us… . (The Xultún Tarot — The Tarot Codex, by Michael Owen)
Sources and suggested reading
A writer who deals with the mid-life specifically is Houston-based analyst James Hollis. Even if you are unfamiliar with a myth-based approach to personal development, his writing is accessible and well-worth reading.
If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article explains how to use the spread.