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The Hanged Man and Good Friday

April 2, 2010

My version of the RWS Hanged Man

Today, in recognition of Good Friday, I changed my Facebook profile picture to be the Hanged Man card. The association is obvious, of course, but it also lead me to consider closely one particular aspect of this card, that of sacrifice.

Most world religions have included accounts of the sacrifice of a god or hero, often placing him in a position reminiscent of the Hanged Man.  A few examples are Christ (nailed to a wooden cross), Prometheus (chained to a rock), and Odin (hanged from a tree).  As a result, this card may be understood in light of any of those tales.


For example, the Hanged Man may represent Odin, the god of Norse mythology who, through the sacrifice of hanging himself from the tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, acquired the magic runes that symbolized the wisdom he sought. (Odin also sacrificed one eye at Mimir’s spring in order to gain “the Wisdom of Ages.”)


Consider also the Greek god, Prometheus, who was sacrificed for giving humankind fire. (He was bound to a rock where an eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back at night to be eaten again the next day).  It is instructive here to note that fire is associated with the birth of civilization as well as being a common symbol of divine spirit.  For more about this god in the context of the Hanged Man, the following is an extract from a post on the discussion list Tarot-L made over a decade ago by the late Brian Williams.

“… although the historical evidence points to the Hanged Man in the earliest Tarot decks as a traitor, I always saw the Hanged Man as a kind of saint or shaman. This may seem a contradiction, but a mythological parallel with Prometheus may explain this.  This god was a ‘class traitor’, defying the explicit command of Zeus that mortals be denied the divine gift of fire. Prometheus breaks the law, and is severely punished for it, but his violation is a moral and loving act.”


We can attribute various meanings to this card within this context of a divine sacrifice. The Hanged Man can indicate a willing self-sacrifice to attain something of greater value, especially in the area of spiritual enlightenment or for the good of others. In the current draft of my book, “Tarot and Your Spiritual Path” I said this about the Hanged Man:

“The Hanged Man does represent sacrifice and surrender, but it emphasizes that when such acts are undertaken willingly and for a greater good or a higher purpose, they are transformed into a means of enlightenment rather than of loss and suffering. … Sometimes we are called upon to make a sacrifice for the greater good of others, and such acts, in and of themselves, indicate a level of spiritual enlightenment insofar as they are acts of selfless, unconditional love.”

Similarly, spiritual liberation means having to “die” to this world in order to “awaken” to the next.  Or as Eckhart Tolle says in his book A New Earth: “… when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up.”


In his Book of Thoth Crowley called the Hanged Man “…the descent of the light into the darkness in order to redeem it.”  So this card can also deal with the theme of redemption, a willing sacrifice to absolve or atone for past sins.

I hope this post has brought you to any new insights into this card.  If so, feel free to leave a comment as I would be interested to hear them.

  1. The Hanged Man is as you say the urge to exchange the ordinary for the spiritual, the idea of sacrificing some element of the self in order to gain that enlightenment. But I do like your approach that one makes a sacrifice for the greater good and that, that as a selfless act also implies a spiritual awareness, but I do wonder how one could apply that to say soldiers as war, who do sacrifice for the greater good, is there spiritual growth in that act do you think? I guess so, even if they do not know it themselves.

    As always a thought provoking post James.

    • Thanks Helen
      As for your soldiers question; I think it depends on the WHY and HOW of the sacrifice as much as WHAT it is, which of course is true of the spiritual component of anything. So… why does the soldier make a sacrifice? If it’s because he’s ordered to, that puts a different light on it. And does he make his sacrifice grudgingly? That too would dim the spiritual light. But if he does it voluntarily and with an open heart and generous spirit, then yes, that could put a spiritual component into it, I think.
      Definitely, though, it’s not at all “black and white”; it’s quite subtle.

  2. I love your reference to myths ans also universal themes. I am a Tarot reader, more specifically, I do Shamanic Healing work and the Tarot has been a fascinating way to divinate helpful messages and themes for my clients. There is an undertone of your suggesting redemption or transformation which I love…when clients see the cards that come up, I tell them there is no ‘bad’ card.

  3. Myths and Archetypes works especially well with cards in the Major Arcana, so I like to use them in discussions of those cards.

    And yes, definitely there are no “good” cards and no “bad” cards. They all have a spectrum of meaning. In fact, that’s the theme of my upcoming Tarot webinar — “What’s a nice card like you doing in a place like this?”
    It’s on April 10, and if you’re interested, contact me for more info. (See the CONTACT tab at the top of this page)

  4. I attribute The Hanged man to Pisces/12th House – this suggests self-sacrifice. extreme receptivity or suggestability, psychic activity, destiny, institutions such as prisons or hospitals, isolation, loneliness, confinement, drugs.

    • Thanks for your thoughts about this card. Yes, those are some other great ways of thinking about this card.

      Here’s another thought:

      In a class I was teaching once, while discussing the Hanged Man, I talked about how the meaning of this card includes things like letting go / surrendering in order to win, or releasing past patterns and habits. One of my students (who was completely new to Tarot) said, “Oh! Like a 12-step program — and this card’s number is 12!” I had never heard a comment like that about this card before, but it was an excellent way of thinking about that card!

  5. tlludwig permalink

    How would you interpret the Hangman card in a relationship reading as to how the other person feels about the querent? This card keeps coming up in the exact same position (how the other person feels about the querent) when I re-read to gain support.

    For example in this case, you said the aspects of this card is about of sacrifice and redemption. Does that mean that the other person feels like they want to sacrifice something for the querent or that they want the querent to sacrifice something for them?

    I have trouble with this card. Your insight would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance.

    • I’m afraid the interpretation of a card in a reading is not something that can be done by someone else in a second-hand fashion like this. You have to be in the situation, so to speak, in order to be connected to it so that you can make such an interpretation.
      All I can do is suggest a few interpretations of this card so you can ponder them to see what might fit into the situation you are reading about:

      Willing (vs. “happy”) self-sacrifice to attain something of greater value
      Gaining a new perspective … Seeing the world from a new point of view
      Releasing past patterns and habits
      As long as you’re fighting something, you’re giving it power and you’re tied to it, so stop resisting. Let go. Similarly, there is a saying, “Let go and let God.”
      Eckhart Tolle said in his book A New Earth: “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”
      Patience… a willingness to wait attentively in stillness rather than always pushing to “get it done.”
      Sometimes we need to stay in an uncomfortable situation until we have learned from it what we need to learn

      You may also be interested in some quotes i associate with the card, which you can read here:

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