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The Meaning of
"The Hanged Man" Tarot Card

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What is the inverted meaning of
"The Hanged Man"?

The Meaning of "The Hanged Man"
Tarot Card

The Symbolism of the Hanged Man

The Hanged Man is one of the most iconic and mysterious images in the Major Arcana — and one of the most commonly misunderstood.

A man dangles upside-down, suspended by one ankle from a gallows made of living wood. Far from a traditional hanging, the man is very much alive. His expression is calm, and he seems to be in a meditative trance.

A glowing aura circles his head, signifying enlightenment and transcendence. The symbolic act is one of ascetic self-discipline, where enlightenment is achieved through discomfort or difficulty.

... the T-shaped gallows is rich with both occult and ecclesiastical symbolism. The gallows form the Greek letter Tau, or a tau cross ...

The living wood which forms the gallows is symbolically important: It embues the entire image with the ideas of life and vitality. The living gallows suggests that the entire ascetic act, while visually representing the ideas of immobility, binding and even death; is actually one of life and renewal.

The symbolism of the T-shaped gallows is rich with both occult and ecclesiastical symbolism. The gallows form the Greek letter Tau, or a tau cross, as it is called by theologians. Found on hundreds of apocryphal manuscripts and engravings from the Middle Ages, the tau cross was interchangeable with the traditional, modern representation of the crucifix.

The curious bent posture of the man's left leg, and the angular position of his arms turns the entire hanged man's form into the 6-pointed star which is used throughout the Tarot to symbolize knowledge and enlightenment.

The man's posture also mirrors the tau rho or staurogram symbol used in very early manuscripts of the New Testament. The tau rho served as the monogram or shorthand symbol used to symbolize Christ himself. However, the right-to-left flipping of the tau rho symbol suggests a Christ-like reference and not an actual reference to Christ.

Saying the card references enlightenment is too simple; It represents a type of enlightenment — one which is granted sparingly and to worthy few — and one which hints at a far greater englightenment to come. As A.E. Waite, co-creator of the Rider Waite tarot deck wrote over a century ago:

... [The Hanged Man] expresses the relation … between the Divine and the Universe. He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible.
— A.E. Waite, 1910

The Hanged Man is rich with millennia of symbolism and is arguably one of the most profound concepts in the entire tarot deck. It's meaning is steeped in mysticism and is intentionally obscure and open to a wide variety of interpretations.

NOTE: The earliest origins of the ancient tau cross symbol visible in The Hanged Man card are shrouded in mystery. In Mesopotamian mythology, the tau cross was associated with Tammuz the gentle shepherd-deity who was the husband to the goddess Inanna or Ishtar. While there are dozens of variants to the myth, Tammuz is humanity's earliest example of a deity who died and was later resurrected. The tau cross was also associated with the crucifiction and resurrection of Christ. In mystic manuscripts and apocrypha, the tau symbol was a commonly used iconographic or shorthand representation of the Cross of the Crucifiction. Other later names for the tau cross are the "crux commissa"" or "St. Anthony's Cross." The strong cross-cultural associations with the tau symbol to death and resurrection are especially notable when one considers that the following tarot card in the Major Arcana is the Death card. This sequence gives the Hanged Man a possible added dimension of the foreknowledge or contemplation of death and transition.

How to Interpret the Hanged Man

Interpretations of The Hanged Man tarot card vary widely, although it is generally agreed to be one of the most important and most enigmatic of the cards in the tarot deck.

On first glance, the hanging man appears to the victim of punishment. But the man's calm expression, and the halo of enlightenment around his head, suggest something very different: Learning through suffering.

The card suggests that a higher-level of thought and consciousness has been achieved as the result of some pain or a bad experience.

The card suggests that a higher-level of thought and consciousness has been achieved as the result of some pain or a bad experience — either intentional and self-inflicted or suffered unintentionally.

The Hanged Man carries a dual positive and negative meaning: The negative implications include discomfort, pain, immobilization, suffering and restriction. But the positive meanings include enlightenment, understanding, learning, insight and knowledge.

It's important to note that these good/bad meanings are simultaneously represented. The card is indicative of learning through suffering and not the single concepts of learning or suffering, alone.

How this translates to the individual reading is up to the reader. It may represent a major traumatic experience that imparted greater wisdom about the universe in some way. Or it may represent something minor like a painful lesson.

Other interpretations of the card suggest that it represents an alternative or uncommon point of view or perspective. Or that it simply represents a time of personal insight and meditation.

Overall, the Hanged Man is seen as a positive card, despite its somewhat negative appearances. While hardship and pain are represented, the more important takeaway is knowledge and enlightenment.

The Hanged Man Inverted

The reversed Hanged Man card has several possible interpretations.

In most cases the inverted card suggests that someone is not thinking critically or independently — but is instead thinking as he or she is told to think. This unoriginal viewpoint may be something one is brought up thinking, or it may be a mainstream point of view which doesn't hold up to closer inspection.

someone is not thinking critically or independently — but is instead thinking as he or she is told to think

Or more simplly, the inverted Hanged Man may represent someone who lacks vision. Or one who has trouble discerning between what is good and what is bad.

If not referring to a person, the card may simply represent a consensus viewpoint — particularly one which lacks vision or is unenlightened.

The upright Hanged Man represents unique viewpoints and a willingness to see the world from new perspectives. Likewise, the reversed Hanged Man may simply represent a closed mind and an unwillingness to change position.

Generally speaking, the inverted Hanged Man is a negative card with overtones of prejudice, false assumptions and a lack of creativity.

Common Symbols Found On the Hanged Man Card

Tarot cards often use a symbolic or iconographic language to illustrate information about how the card should be interpreted. The Hanged Man includes one common, repeating Tarot symbol. This common symbol can add an additional dimension of interpretation to the card.

A common symbol which appears on the Hanged Man card is:

  • Grey skies

    Grey skies symbolism appears on the Hanged Man card:

    The colors of the sky in Tarot imagery often hide subtle hints pointing to the message of each card. Grey-colored skies generally indicate a level of variability. This neutral colored sky is not foreboding, nor entirely positive.

    Read more about the symbolism of "Grey skies" in Tarot  

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