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The Hanged Man: Patience in Being Stuck

Updated: May 17

"Le Pendu" The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck by Pamela Colman Smith. Public Domain.

No one, I imagine, would like to draw the cards of Death, the Devil, the Tower, and the Hanged Man in tarot divination. You do not need to be a connoisseur of symbols to have the blood frozen in your veins at the very idea of these archetypes at work in your life, especially if you came to see a psychic to ask about the possibility of investing in a small business venture or the state of your health. However, the metaphorical meaning of these cards need not have negative connotations. Joseph Campbell says that metaphors are used to point to the experience that lies beyond the field of knowledge but yet lives in all of us. All mythology is one, and myths live deeply buried in the individual. We cannot excavate them, as they belong to the field of Kant's transcendental, but we can reach close enough to the archetypes that live there to try to interpret them through metaphors. Such metaphorical images are represented on tarot cards. But we often make mistakes when interpreting metaphors or symbols. “Metaphors are used to point out past all knowledge to the experience of that which lives in you. If the metaphor is interpreted as a fact it’s misunderstood. “ (Joseph Campbell, Mythos III: The Shaping of the Western Tradition) The metaphor of the Hanged Man is one such yin-yang example that shows that in every evil there is some good, and vice versa.

Bend your right leg at the knee from an upright standing position and place the right sole on the inner part of the right leg above the knee; then fold the palms over your hands in a prayer position, and you will get to the yoga position called Ekapada Pranamasana. This asana calms the mind and develops a sense of balance, concentration, focus, and self-awareness. This posture is also known as One Leg Salutation or the Tree (Vrksasana). It is visually comparable to the Hanged Man card from tarot. Le Pendu is the original French name of this card. The position of this figure does not allow for movement but radiates peace and patience in waiting. There is a notion in Islamic culture for being stuck in a certain position while exercising extreme patience and perseverance. The Arabic word Sabur, one of the ninety nine names of Allah, corresponds to the concepts of meditation, endurance, acceptance, and patience. This could be the right description for the metaphor of the Hanged Man. 

In the 1999 Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate, adapted from the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a hanged man appears in several places: as an illustrated image, as a man executed by hanging, and yet another hanged man who committed suicide. Pérez-Reverte took this idea from a legend concerning the tarot in Middle Ages Europe, when the Inquisition was under the impression that the major arcana of the tarot were copyrighted by the Devil himself. One should remember the gruesome creativity of capital punishment in the Middle Ages: impaling, crucifixion, burning at the stake, branding, scalping, guillotining, burying alive, flogging, and death by hanging. As recently as three hundred years ago, the favorite pastime of Londoners and Parisians was not binge-watching streaming TV serials but attending public executions.

At the time, humans believed that murderers had violated the order of the universe, and therefore punishment was needed to restore that order. Death by hanging is the symbolic act of the restoration of order for those who betrayed it. Whether it involves hanging as suicide or hanging as punishment, the barbarism of the act sends chills down our spine and disgusts us as well as the sensibilities of our age of liberal humanism. “Where is the sport in simple hanging? The terror, the murder. The fun!” exclaims Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek  series (S1:E17 “The Squire of Gothos”) after he was captured by the infantile alien obsessed with the eighteenth-century history of Earth, especially its methods of torture, which were adopted from Europe and transplanted to America’s Wild West. Hollywood Westerns abound with scenes of swaying bodies and the suspense of the hero being rescued from the noose at the last minute. There is a suggestion of the sublime in a body suspended and swaying in the air. Meditative. Stuck. Lingering. The all-patient, forbearing, restrained sensibility of Sabur. All of which makes one wonder, what exactly are we seeing when looking at the card of the Hanged Man?

A man hangs upside down, tied by one leg. In the inverted position, the man looks as if he is standing on one leg. In her book Jung and Tarot, Sallie Nichols describes the image of the Hanged Man as a turnip waiting for someone to pull it out of the ground. His hands are tied behind his back. The other leg touches the inner thigh of the opposite leg. He is not dead; there is no expression of pain on his face, only a half-blissed smile. The position cannot be attributed to the act of self-harm. Someone hung him up, but not to exact punishment. Nor is it about torture or revenge, since the Inquisitioner’s methods included hanging weights on other limbs. The Hanged Man of the tarot card is about waiting for something while hanging—hanging out. Or perhaps it is as if he is “hanging” with friends. Awake. Patient. Killing time while in the position of being stuck. 

The archetype of the image in this position is a metaphor for isolation, surrender, sacrifice, uncertainty, transition, temptation, and renewal. It can also be seen as an inverted cross,  a symbol of the atoning sacrifice. The emphasis of this card is on the necessity of sacrifice in order to achieve goals and maintain freedom. It is important to be able to go through the often upsetting, overwhelming transformations of life that turn us and our world upside down while maintaining composure. Perhaps we cannot change the situation in which we find ourselves, but this is no reason for panic; instead it is an opportunity for growth. Discipline leads to change, and only he who can overcome himself can achieve transformation. While we are waiting, it might be commendable to practice Ekapada Pranamasana or Sabur. 

The Hanged Man cannot control his own life; he has to wait for someone to pull him down and untie him. If one were to cast tarot cards for years, the year 2020 would draw exactly this card. Everything was suspended, and we waited for better times, trying to develop self-awareness, awareness of others, awareness of disease and dis-ease. The Hanged Man is a representation of the mythology of the pandemic. The man is still alive, he is hanging, he is not very clear about what is happening, but he is waiting for something to pass. It is relatively easy to interpret archetypal situations a posteriori, in hindsight, but we can use archetypes, symbols, and metaphors to connect us with the otherworldly or the transcendent. Psychics claim to approach the transcendent a priori, and in so doing, an image of a trip can mean a trip to the supermarket or a trip around the world. It depends on how we choose to interpret the metaphor. The Hanged Man can be seen as a metaphor for a global pandemic or simply indecision in buying a pair of shoes. In very large or very small ways, we can often find ourselves in a state or situation that archetypically corresponds to the symbolism of the Hanging Man. 

A good example of the Hanged Man situation is one particular period in Joseph Campbell's life that corresponded with the Great Depression. After he returned from his study trip in Europe, he did not have a job for five years. During this time he hung out with dogs and read. Every day he had two periods of four hours dedicated to reading. ”I just retired to the woods. I went up to Woodstock and just read, and read, and read, and read, for five years. No job, no money.“ (The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, 65)

Campbell read for five years! He used the position and the mindset of the Hanged Man for self-improvement, meditating on his life and his passions, and patiently waiting while being stuck. The development of one of the most brilliant minds in philosophy, mythology, and comparative critical thinking in the world took place under the archetypal image of the Hanged Man. Being stuck and being a sport about it is the true meaning of the word Sabur and the metaphor of the Hanged Man. 


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