Welcome to the Real Life Lessons from the Major Arcana series. We've gathered together 22 of the best Tarot readers to share their personal stories and interpretations of the Major Arcana cards.
Discover new meanings and spiritual lessons behind the Major Arcana cards, through real-life experiences and stories. And watch as the Tarot cards truly come to life!
Renowned author Rachel Pollack makes her case for why the Hanged is the most important card in the Tarot deck. Read on…
The Hanged Man: The Most Important Card in the Deck
There is a famous story about the conference of rabbis some two thousand years ago to determine which books would go in the Hebrew Bible. The Torah (“Five Books of Moses”) was obvious, and some others, but what of the “Writings,” books like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes? At one point, the unofficial leader of the council, Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, called for the Song of Songs. People were stunned. The poem was openly erotic! Akiva replied that not only did Shir ha-Shirim (Hebrew title) belong in the Bible, it was the most important book in the Bible, for it depicted God’s intense love of his people, Israel.
Because Akiva is one of my heroes, I fantasize a similar situation with Tarot. Before the deck is set, a group of Tarotists meet to determine what pictures will go in the Major Arcana. As they focus on the Magician, or the World, I raise my hand and suggest the Hanged Man. People are shocked. The picture shows suffering, some say, being stuck, unable to move. Others point out that it derives from the Italian practice of hanging traitors upside down. The clamor dies down and I say, “Not only does the Hanged Man belong in the deck, it is the most important card. You cannot understand the Major Arcana if you don’t understand the Hanged Man.” Of course, in my fantasy, I win them all over! But how?
Let us begin at the beginning. True, the Italians sometimes executed traitors upside down. And in Renaissance Italy people practiced a kind of graffiti called “shame paintings.” If they didn’t like some local ruler they would draw a cartoon of him upside down on a wall, sometimes hanging by one foot. In many Italian decks the card is called “The Traitor,” and shows a body contorted with suffering, the arms out and bent, as if flailing. Sometimes coins fall from his pocket, suggesting the ultimate traitor, Judas Iscariot.
But consider what is probably the earliest version we know, the unnamed, and unnumbered card from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot of 1450. There we see an elegant young man, hands behind his back, his face serene. Could it have been a satire of some enemy of the Viscontis? Possibly. But the card shows peace, not pain.
The French Tarot de Marseille, still the dominant model for the European esoteric tradition, calls the card “Le Pendu,” which can mean “The Suspended One.” The earliest version (Jean Noblet, 1650) shows a mirthful figure, with an odd resemblance to Harpo Marx. But it’s really in the 20th century decks, especially the Rider-Waite-Smith, and the later Thoth deck of Crowley and Harris, that the Hanged Man’s deeper meanings emerge. The Thoth Hanged Man hangs from an ankh, symbol of life, with geometric patterns behind him, as if a measure of existence.
The Rider version is more naturalistic. As in the Visconti it shows a beautiful young man, with no sense of pain. Quite the opposite, for glorious light fills his face. No other figure in the deck appears this way, not even the angels of Love, Temperance, and Judgement. They display halos, but not that wondrous blaze.
I remember being startled when I first discovered that many people saw the Hanged Man as a painful card. “Hung up,” they would say, or “requiring a painful sacrifice” (the idea of treason came later). How could they not see its joy, I thought? For me the card meant attachment, not imprisonment. One reason he hangs upside down is because of his number, 12, which is 21 backward. That is, he prefigures the final trump, the World, and if you turn the Hanged Man around and place him alongside card 21 you will see the resemblance.
The Hanged Man can represent spiritual initiation, when we glimpse the true mysteries of creation. We can only do this by surrendering the ego and attaching ourselves to the Tree of the Cosmos, whose roots lie in the great sea of our origins, and whose branches reach up into the heavens. When I drew my own version for my Shining Tribe Tarot I made her a Hanged Woman, and had her long hair flow down like light into the dark waters, while above her the stars appear among the leaves. I made the picture deliberately playful, so that people would not see her as suffering—the Sun and Moon hang like toys from the branches, and an angel flies by, delivering a letter.
We experience the joy of card 12 if we are willing to reverse our long-held belief that we stand upright and separate from the rest of existence. In fact, we have all lived The Hanged Man, we just don’t remember. Babies are born head-first, and to do that the fetus must position itself upside down in the womb.
The Major Arcana consists of the Fool (originally unnumbered), plus cards 1-21. If we set these twenty-one as three horizontal rows of seven, we have seven vertical rows as well. The fifth of these consists of card 5, the Hierophant, on top, 12, the Hanged Man, in the middle, and 19, the Sun, at the bottom. The Hanged Man becomes a kind of bridge, with his feet in tradition, the realm of the Hierophant, and his face in the glorious light of the spirit.
About Rachel Pollack
Rachel Pollack is the author of 37 books, including two award-winning novels, and a string of Tarot books that have become known around the world, in 15 languages. her most recent works are The Child Eater, a novel, and The Raziel Tarot The Secret Teachings Of Adam And Eve, co-created with artist Robert M. Place.
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