When Aleister Crowley designed the Thoth deck, he famously replaced four of the RWS cards with new ones. There is another card, though, that I think he changed so much that it should be included in that category: the Hanged Man (HM). In RWS-based images, we usually see what is predominantly a reflection of the Marseilles tradition, ‘Le Pendu’, which shows a thief hanging by one foot. The meaning is generally of suspension, of letting go and trusting in the Universe, and a period of pause and re-evaluation before moving on to the shedding of the outworn in the Death card.
In Crowley’s HM we still have a man suspended upside-down, but it is a more explicit reference to the Crucifixion – an initially puzzling adaptation from the man who created the Thoth deck in order to update the Tarot out of the Aeon of Osiris, the age of suffering and sacrifice, and into the Aeon of Horus, where we no longer need to suffer in order to purify ourselves and become enlightened. What if it’s a metaphorical crucifixion, not a literal one? What if ‘fixing’ a person to a ‘cross’ is a way of showing symbolically that this person acts as a transition from one state of being to another, by showing us how to get across?
The HM’s left foot is bound to an upside-down Ankh by a colourful snake – the same colourful snake that we see in The Universe card. His right leg is bent to form a ‘4’ shape with his right foot attached to a green disk with a nail. Both of his hands are outstretched, not bound behind him as in the RWS HM – they too are pinned to green disks. Green rays radiate from the top of his head toward another colourful serpent. Every time I see this card, I want to turn it the other way around. It feels wrong-way-up to me, and I know that is intentional. The card asks us to look at it from both our own perspective and that of Kether at the top of the Tree of Life.
If you turn it around, the Ankh is now at the ‘bottom’ of the card and we are looking down from Kether. From this angle, the Ankh is right-side-up. It also radiates green light, and in the same direction as the green light emanating from the HM’s head. Green is the colour of the suit of Disks, and the earth. Movement is from the Ankh in heaven toward green disks of earth. The HM himself is a conduit, transmitting that energy directly down the Tree of Life to us.
The figure of the HM is a Tree of Life itself, with the Ankh in Kether, his foot anchored in Binah (Sephira 3), his head in Tiphareth (S6), his left hand in Netzach (S7) and his right hand in Hod (S8). This is why his arms are stretched out above his head – so they can create the triangle that joins Tiphareth, Netzach, and Hod. Tiphareth is the location of ‘Christ consciousness’, the instinctive awareness of some kind of Something Else, however we conceive of it, and the immediate, non-logical understanding that we, too, are Divine. Geburah, S5, is ruled by Mars, who rules The Tower card. That flash of violent lightning illuminates the boundaries we have created (or allowed to be created) around us in terms of our Spiritual connection. It is in Tiphareth, S6, where we tear it down.
So, what’s with the pinning with nails, then, if it’s not about Christ? And while we’re at it, why the crossed leg?
We can find a clue about the leg in The Emperor. His right leg is also crossed over his left leg, and in this case we see that his right foot is directly over the head of a lamb with a halo and holding a banner, a symbol of Christ that we recognise from the bible. The lamb as a symbol of spirituality proves the Emperor’s connection to Divinity – he is not just an earthly ruler, not just a warrior king. He’s got a spiritual side and that is what makes him a caring and compassionate leader on top of being the guy who rules the world.
The Emperor’s foot is over the lamb, and the HM’s foot is over the earth. The symbolism is still spiritual, but in reverse: The Emperor is an earthly energy connected to heaven, and the HM is a heavenly energy connected to earth. With one foot in heaven and one foot on earth, he connects the two worlds which allows us direct access to Spirit. This is what you do every day when you use Tarot or any other kind of independent divination or prayer. Pretty amazing. But it gets better.
If you look at the Hierophant, you see 9 Nails at the top of the card. They pin a 5-petalled flower up behind the Hierophant’s head. The symbolism here again is pinning the spiritual to the earthly – the spiritual teachings of the Hierophant are accessible here on earth. We have teachers to pass them along.
The Hebrew letter assigned to the Hierophant is Vav, or ‘Nail’, and the spiritual meaning of this letter is specifically about the ‘power to connect heaven and earth’, to ‘unite everything that is separated in creation’. It specifically acts as a conduit – the way the physical body of the HM does – between the Divine and all of creation. So the HM doesn’t just connect us with heaven, he provides us with the path we can walk to get there.
Here’s something else fun. The Hanged Man is Atu XII. Twelve Major Arcana come before him, and nine come after. He connects these two ‘halves’. It might be interesting to consider the Major Arcana split up in this way, like we sometimes do with the three stages of the Fool’s Journey.
So then we can ask what this means for the interpretation of the card in a Tarot reading. The Hanged Man resides on Path 23, connecting Geburah (S5) and Hod (S8). It transits Tiphareth, connecting the Divine part of the Tree to the increasingly earthly. The card itself is ruled by the element of Water, the aspect of Spirit that you find in Pisces. It is an intensely spiritual card, offering us the opportunity to pull back from the world and evaluate our situation from the perspective of Kether. Are we really putting Spirit first in our work? Have we got things upside-down in some respect? It’s a Cosmic check-in, asking us to pause and reconnect with the whole of whatever we are doing instead of just that one current stage, and also with our spiritual goals. That’s how we make sure we stay in alignment with our Divine Will, our goals for this lifetime.