12. The Hanged ManThe Hanged Man is a mysterious card, that has hardly changed over the centuries. We see a man hanging upside-down by one leg, who seems to be at peace with his fate. He has an indifferent look on his face, and on some cards even smiles. This confusing picture raises questions. How did he end up in this dire situation; did he do something wrong? And how is it that his facial expression is so serene in these hopeless circumstances?
The Visconti-Sforza Hanged Man
This oldest surviving card of the Hanged Man, from the 15th century, immediately gives an important clue of how to interpret its symbolism. This is remarkable, because on most Visconti cards, the esoteric meaning is hidden in subtle details, which can only be understood when tarot cards from later centuries are placed next to them.
You must first enlarge this card on your screen, because this time the deeper meaning is not hidden by the artist’s hand, but by the influence of time. Up close you can see fire emanating from the upper body of the Hanged Man. This is the kundalini fire that has awakened, and which now purifies his body, head (thinking) and heart (feeling). The color white of his blouse refers to this purification. The long row of buttons on the blouse refer to his spine that is on fire.
With this interpretation, the puzzle pieces of the other symbolism also fall into place. Standing on one leg means being rooted in the oneness of the divine (see examples below). Because the man hangs upside down, one leg is also directed towards heaven, which reinforces the symbolism.
Standing on one leg refers to God-realization.
Left: The Emperor from the Tarot of Marseille (Jacques Vieville, 1650)
Right: The World from the Tarot of Marseille (anonymous, 17th century)
The head of the Visconti Hanged Man touches the blue-colored mountains in the background. A mountain is a universal symbol for an expansion of consciousness (on a mountain you are closer to God), and blue refers to heaven / the divine. The wooden frame on which the man hangs evokes associations with a door; a symbol for a transition / transformation to something new.
The Hanged Man is in a process of God-realization. His blonde hair also fits this explanation. This transformation process requires stillness. The life energy no longer flows to the outside world, but is directed inwards. The man’s facial expression indicates a state of detachment and surrender.
The Visconti-Sforza Hanged Man
Tummo yogi (Tibetan buddhism)
Estensi Tarot (end 15th century)
The Estensi (Charles VI) Tarot
A second hand-painted card from the 15th century, that has been preserved, comes from the Estensi Tarot, also called the Charles VI Tarot (after Emperor Charles VI). This Hanged Man has two filled bags in his hands. Its content is not entirely clear; is it gold as most tarot researchers assume? What these bags stand for is indicated by two other cards from the same time period, that we only know from uncut printing sheets: the so-called Rothshield Sheet and the Rosenwald Sheet (below). Unfortunately, no colored originals of these very first printed tarot cards have been preserved.
A kundalini awakening involves three energy channels that flow along, and through, the spine (see the illustration of the Tummo yogi above). The outer two energy channels form the energetic blueprint of duality in our inner world. These energy channels are balanced during the process of spiritual awakening, after which they merge at the level of the sixth chakra (the pineal gland).
On the Rosenwald tarot card, the Hanged Man holds the two bags exactly in front of the two vertical wooden posts, left and right of the man. This expresses the balance of the two energy channels that flow along his spine.
On the Rothshield tarot card, these energy channels are also symbolized by the two flying ends of the cord with which his leg is tied. Similar symbolism can also be found on illustrations from alchemy (see below).
printing sheet, ca. 1500)
(uncut, uncolored printing sheet, ca. 1500)
An illustration from the alchemical manuscript Splendor Solis (16th century). The flask represents the alchemist himself. His seven chakras are purified by the seven-headed kundalini serpent. The two flapping ribbons, like the two crossed pieces of wood under the flask, represent the two energy channels that merge at the level of the pineal gland (the knot).
The hair of the man on the Estensi card is red-brown in color and shaped like a flame. This is a reference to the kundalini fire that burns within him. The red-yellow bottom of his tunic also resembles fire.
The body posture of the Estensi Hanged Man can be found in an alchemical emblem (right) from the same time period. On this illustration, the phase of ‘distillation / evaporation’ is expressed in visual language. At the bottom of the flask we see the alchemist in prayer (focused on God). His efforts are bearing fruit: the ascending figure symbolizes his spiritual ascension.
The position of his arms represents the balance achieved between the inner polarities (duality). One leg up represents the fusion of these polarities. This interpretation is confirmed by the peacock next to it, which stands on one leg. In alchemy, a peacock represents a phase in the Magnum Opus (process of God-realization).
(Wellcome Institute Library, London (ms. 29, Fol. 40))
Andreas Libavius (16th century).
The alchemist who completed the Magnum Opus. The balance symbolism of the arm position is reinforced by the sign of the sacred marriage (2=1) that both hands make (circled in white). The symbols of the six planets, on the circle, represent the six chakras that have been purified and activated by the kundalini fire. The man’s hair refers to this fire. A circle with a dot in the middle represents in alchemy the sun / gold / God-realization.
The Tarot of Marseille
The Tarot of Marseille also gives us various indications that the Hanged Man is not just an image of a martyr or traitor who has to undergo a punishment, but that the card represents a phase in the spiritual process of awakening.
The numbers on the cards of Jacques Viéville (circa 1650), Jean Dodal (circa 1700) and Francois Chosson (1736) are mirrored. This could be a mistake, but it could also be an indication that we need to turn the cards over to understand its symbolism. Turned upside-down, the man on the card becomes someone who is ascending (spiritual ascension). On Nicolas Bodet’s card (1739) both the number and the name are mirrored. This makes intent even more likely.
Tarot of Marseille,
by Jacques Vieville (1650)
Tarot of Marseille,
by Jean Dodal (1701-1715)
Tarot of Marseille,
by Francois Chosson (1736)
Nicolas Bodet Tarot
From each vertical tree trunk, on the three French cards, exactly six branches are cut off. The stumps, which have a different color from the trunks, to make them more noticeable, represent the six chakras of the Hanged Man, which have been purified (“pruned”) by the kundalini energy.
On three of the above four cards, the man’s arms are on his back, his fingertips showing above his shoulders. A curious, unnatural position that intrigues tarot researchers: how should this be interpreted? I think these fingers are a flaw in the design: they are on the exact same place where we see flames of fire on the Visconti card. The fingers should have been flames.
Dodal and Chosson have left the Hanged Man’s pants white at the crotch area. This is a reference to the purification and sublimation (transformation) of the sexual energies. On all cards, the man’s legs form a cross: a symbol for the fusion of the opposites.
The Hanged Man on Dodal’s card looks cross-eyed. This can be the result of sloppy drawing, but it could also refer to the opening of the “third eye” (the sixth chakra) during a kundalini awakening. Similar symbolism is found in Norse myths.
To obtain Wisdom (Sophia), the Norse supreme god Odin sacrifices himself by hanging himself from the (kundalini) tree Yggdrasil. This symbolizes the death of the ego, or the old man, as a result of a kundalini awakening. For the same purpose, he also sacrifices one of his eyes, leaving him with only one eye. This refers to the opening of his third eye.
The Norse god Odin hanging
on the world tree Yggdrasil.
The Oswald Wirth Tarot
The Hanged Man by Oswald Wirth (1889) has two bags of money clamped under his arms: one with gold and one with silver coins. This is a new element on the card to express the balance between the polarities. Just like gold and silver, the colors red and white also represent the opposites in alchemy. These two colors are united (oneness) in the tunic that the man wears.
Oswald Wirth Tarot (1889)
symbol for sulfur
From: The Hermetic Triumph (anonymous, 1740).
The Magnum Opus (a kundalini awakening) in alchemical symbols, including the symbol for sulfur.
The tunic also has a crescent and a waning moon. This too symbolizes the duality that has merged in the Hanged Man. As we saw earlier, the two vertical tree trunks represent the two polar energy channels that flow along the spine. The crossbar, which is on top of the vertical trunks, represents the sacred marriage (the union of the opposites), which takes place at the sixth chakra. The Hanged Man hangs from this crossbar: he experiences the oneness of the divine.
Oswald Wirth has placed the arms of his Hanged man more emphatically in the shape of a triangle. Together with the cross that the legs make, this creates the symbol for sulfur, which in alchemy stands for the Magnum Opus. The man’s reddish hair is shaped like fire flames.
On the mosaic of Châteaux des Avenières, which is based on Wirth’s tarot, we see a bird with a human head flying away from the Hanged Man. This is a so-called Ba bird that represented in ancient Egypt someone’s spirit; the part of man that lives on after his death. The mosaic thus wants to express that the Hanged Man, while still alive, has been liberated from matter.
Papyrus of Ani, New Kingdom, Dynasty XVIII, Collection of The British Museum.
Chateaux des Avenières (1917)
Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (1909)
The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot
Pamela Colman-Smith has chosen clothing in the colors red (the masculine) and blue (the feminine) to express the fusion of the opposites. The halo around the head of the Hanged Man gives even more clarity about his inner world: his crown chakra is fully opened; his consciousness is “enlightened.” The man’s hair is light in color (he is purified) and, like on the Estensi card, has the shape of a flame.
A notable change is the T-cross on which the man hangs. The letter T is called Tav in Hebrew. The Tav‘s original pictograph was a cross with equal arms. The Tav is surrounded with a lot of mysticism. As the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it stands for completion, and the ancient pictograph of a cross connects the Tav with the crucifixion of Jesus.
In addition, the vertical tree trunk behind the Hanged Man symbolically refers to his awakened spine. In many traditions, both a tree and a pillar are used as metafors for the spine with the kundalini energy flowing in it. The T-cross is, as it were, a combination of both. Below are three examples of a pillar being used to refer to a kundalini awakening. The leaves hanging on the RWS T-cross communicate that this is ‘living’ wood. An additional indication that the vertical trunk represents the awakened spine.
The Hindu god Shiva
A depiction of the Cathar sacrament the Consolamentum (second half of the 13th century, Bibliothèque Nationale de France): baptism with the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. The pillar right behind the naked back of the baptized man, and the hand pointing up, are telling us that this ritual involves an awakening of the kundalini energy. On the right, two Franciscan brothers watch the ‘pagan’ ritual in horror.
From the manuscript Liber de arte distillandi simplicia et composita, by Hieronymus Brunschwig (1654). The kundalini process (obtaining the Life Elixir) expressed in alchemical images. Recognizable are the three pillars (energy channels) and their interrelationship. The man and woman represent duality.
The Hanged Man is rooted in the oneness of the divine. The kundalini fire has purified his head, heart and body. In his inner world, the polarities have been balanced and merged. He may be bound on the physical level, but his soul is free. He experiences life from a state of detachment and serenity.
This article was written by Anne-Marie Wegh. Copyright March 2020.
Anne-Marie Wegh is the author of the book
John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ
Illustrations from the tarot decks, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.
Foto’s Châteaux de Avenières: http://hermetism.free.fr/Avenieres