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The Hanged Man

Leonora Carrington, The Hanged Man, ca. 1955, © Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Now this brings in a terrific emphasis on what the tender-minded

call violence. But that's what nature is. And every now and then

you see something that opens your mind to this.

-Joseph Campbell, The Hero's Journey, p. 21

For our contemplation, the Joseph Campbell Foundation presents the image of the Hanged Man, an image of great potency as an organizing principle for this month’s MythBlast essayists. The Hanged Man, card no. 12 of the major arcana of the tarot, surely is what the “tender-minded call violence,” a depiction of the aftermath of torture, with the victim still dangling. Depending on the deck, the figure is either clearly dead or somehow mystically imbued with inner strength, his wisdom magnified by the ordeal. The Hanged Man in the deck I was given (illustrated by Giovanni Caselli) seems suspended between death and life. One could say the same of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot; the Hanged Man is clearly beatified, and that means he’s won his halo through physical and/or psychic trial and tribulation.  

 “There has been a great deal of high and fancy talk displayed in the interpretations of this card,” Campbell wrote, “and yet its basic reference is both simple and well known. In the south of France and in Italy to this day, to be hung up this way in public is a sign of social disgrace.” (Tarot Revelations, 17) The image, minus the halo, is known in Mediterranean culture, and particularly in Italy, as the pittura infamante or defaming portrait, the ultimate degradation of your defeated enemy. It’s what they did to Mussolini and his mistress. Conversely, the style of execution is often a matter of preference. St. Peter, so the story is told, demanded to be crucified upside down because he was unworthy to die in the same way as his master, Jesus. A Catholic might be flooded with associations to the inverted or Petrine cross suggested by the Hanged Man, which is a prominent symbol of the papacy to this day.

Perhaps the card speaks to us of our own painful passage through life, during which consciousness is acquired and expanded through suffering. Jeffrey Kripal thinks that trauma is the trigger of transcendence, quoting Greg Mogenson who went a step further in suggesting that God is a trauma. (Secret Body. Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, p. 331)  Trauma, humiliation, even death itself are the flagstones in the garden of life leading up to the Hanged Man’s terrible denouement. 

The idea that suffering is the royal road to enlightenment is not unfamiliar to the religious sensibilities of many cultures: from the Sioux warrior who hangs from pectoral hooks while forbidden to show any indication of pain, to Odin’s self-imposed ordeal in which he hung upside down from a tree for nine days in order to gain knowledge. 

In a deck created by the British surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, the Hanged Man is a symbol of transcendence, at least for this author, as well as for Rhian Sasseen, writing here for the Paris Review


“Carrington’s Hanged Man is one of the loveliest versions I’ve seen, all purple and gold, with its odd message of surrender. The Hanged Man is also a card of crossroads, of biding one’s time; it pictures a man strung up by his heels and hung upside down, as was once done to traitors in Renaissance Italy … In Carrington’s version, the hanged man stares out calmly, a slight smile on his face. It is a card of thresholds, of doorways, of change in the air—but not yet. It is a card of holding off decisions.” (The Paris Review, 4/6/21)


What is that “slight smile” on Carrington’s creation? It is more than passive acceptance, but something vibrant; perhaps it’s the very essence of one of Campbell’s favorite coping mechanisms, as described by Nietzsche: 


My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it. (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman, p. 714). 


It was in this spirit that I sought out my own tarot reader. We sat outside, as befits a religion without walls, a spiritual practice without a priesthood. “The Hanged Man,” says my reader, “is not about death; it is about pausing, contemplating what has gone before and what may come after.”

The pause in the midst of struggle, of course, is the highpoint of the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is held back from battle so that Krishna can unpack the theological questions regarding action and inaction. I am Arjuna to her Krishna. 

A tarot reading refocuses the experience of the numinous as an intimate exchange between two people. There are no mosques, nor monasteries. In fact, historically, the great faiths have distanced themselves from practices they consider to be born of popular superstition and unworthy of serious consideration. But as Campbell writes, “Their hard line, too, is dissolving, and we are now observing throughout our culture world a resurgence of the sense of the immanence of the occult, within ourselves and within nature. (Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays, 1959-1987, p. 260)

I experienced the immanence of the occult under a carob tree in a communal green space in West Hollywood with a young Russian woman who tells me things I want to hear. And why not? They do that in church too. They tell you that this corruptible body is not to be the sum total of our existence, that immortality is ours for the asking. This woman is simply telling me that my anxiety is a choice and I should get past it. Be the Hanged Man. Embrace that amor fati beloved of Campbell. Then you will understand the slight smile on the Hanged Man’s face indicating what Buddha might recognize as the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world. 



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