Arcanum XII, The Hanged Man

Esoteric Titles:
The Sacrificed God
The Cosmic Seed
The Martyrs of God

The 12th Arcanum of the Tarot, is known as the Hanged Man and depicts a scene of personal martyrdom which features a man suspended upside down, tied by his left leg to a T-shaped cross. The image of the crossed T identifies the lower portion of the Tree of Life, so that we must presume that the victim’s head rests in the sphere of Malkuth, symbolic of the Hill of Golgotha at Calvary. The crossed leg of the victim is a veiled reference to Jupiter which rules the 12th house governed by Pisces, the sign related to human suffering. The victim’s halo suggests an illumination into a mystery. When formulating a reading for a querent on one occasion, I mentioned that the 22 Tarot cards displayed parallels from the epic scenes found in the Bible. As an example I pulled out the top card and turning it over noticed it was Trump 12 The Hanged Man, and declared to the bemused client that this card represented the Crucifixion of Christ at Easter. As a devoted Christian the querent was amazed to discover this peculiar symbolic association and accepted it as a sublime revelation. She was also relieved to know that she was not in actual fact involved in Black Magic or a victim of superstitious practices. However, as the image clearly shows the figure reversed, the right leg crossed over the left, a halo emanating from the head and leaves growing from the cut branches of the cross it seemed quite a departure from the traditional view of the crucified Christ. One startling fact that many orthodox Christians have for many centuries ignored is that Jesus fulfilled a tradition long held from pagan times of annual human sacrifice at Easter time to appease the “Gods”.

Salvador Dali’s depiction of Christ’s Crucifixion

The heretical Gnostic sect founded by Basilides drew much of their doctrine and wisdom from the Platonists and Pythagoreans. The Gnostic religion can be summed up by one phrase found inscribed at the oracle of Delphi;

“Man Know Thyself….”

They had proposed that the Christian Gospels were merely symbolic and not to be taken as literal or historic fact. More significantly they claimed that Christ did not die on the cross as stated in the Bible. This brought them into conflict with the Church of Rome and some elements of the Judaeans.

As can be amply demonstrated the story of the dying and resurrected god harks back to an earlier pagan time, the Midsummer Sacrifice (as in the 1973 movie: “The Wickerman”). It represents a cycle of time as a mythic allegory. The people are in a state of crisis, the land is laid waste, a ritual human sacrifice is therefore arranged, the chosen man is accused, without resistance is openly arrested, he is questioned, beaten, whipped and stoned, then ritually hung on a tree, only to be pierced with arrows or in some cases spears. There then follows the ritual cannibal meal of bread and wine, symbolising blood and flesh. In the Greek legend when Dionysus reappeared to his followers he told them:

“You say Dionysus is dead, but I tell you he will make swift his return and avenge this gross sacrilege which you have here today performed.”

This notion of ritual dismemberment, the tearing of flesh, the thrashing and whipping are all rural allegories for the wheat that is cut, the grain that is delivered from the sheaf, the grapes that are crushed by trampling round and round are appropriated. The death is not “real”, merely a spectacle, a drama, and the real Christ is substituted for his twin, the Gnostic heresy proclaimed that the death of the saviour is merely part of a greater mystery or myth. It represented the triumph of the spirit over matter, the death was in effect a ritual “psychic or metaphysical death” which symbolised the death of the lower self (Eidelon) and the resurrection of the Daemon (Higher Self). In other words death is necessary if we are to free the soul from the bonds and captivity of this mortal or temporal plane. Death is in actual fact a doorway into another dimension from which we as divine sparks return time and time again. Initiations or “mysteries” of this type were very common in Gnostic circles, particularly at Eleusius and followed strict observances. According to ancient Gnostic tradition there were 4 and in some instances 7 basic levels of secret initiation:

• The Hylic: (Physical Body) Theseus – Service & Duty, Earth.
• The Psychic: (Personality or Ego) Odysseus or Jason – Baptism, Water.
• The Pneumatic: (Spiritual Plane) Perseus – Holy Vibration, Air.
• The Gnostic: (Mystical Plane) Hercules – Divine Light, Fire.

On a mythic or symbolic level the hero faces one of four possible sexual deaths or obstacles:

  1. Facing north he might be bitten by a Snake.
  2. Facing south he might be carried away by an Eagle.
  3. Facing east he might be gored by a Bull.
  4. Facing west he might be swallowed by a huge Fish.

The Twin Kingships were yet another analogous myth that denotes the polarising element in nature yet mirrors the psychological dimension in mankind. The “new sun” or child is born at the winter solstice, is sacrificially torn to pieces at the Vernal Equinox, only to be resurrected 3 days later. The maturing Sun reaches its climactic impact at the Midsummer Solstice (Gemini-The Twins), and the days begin to visibly shorten, the leaves decay at the onset of the autumnal equinox. The hero then engages in a last bloody battle where he is finally cut down by his arch-protagonist. The Arthurian legend (Holy Grail) is a similar allegory of the dying and resurrected God.

A view of Stonehenge, Wiltshire during a Summer Solstice

Indeed the mythology of numerous cultures and traditions has numerous similar sacrificial customs which extend into the distant past. In the Phoenician and Phrygian culture he was represented by Adonis or Attis, in the Greek as Dionysus, in the Egyptian as Osiris, and in the Teutonic as Odin. In Sumeria he was known as Tammuz – The Dying God. Acts of ritual murder ie: human or animal sacrifices were offerings to the Gods to ensure a fruitful harvest. The origin of cereals also becomes a gift of the Gods, yet in some cultures its manifestation, although sacred, is brought about as in the later Promethean myths by theft and cunning on the part of one individual. Another explanation for the origin of agricultural produce is comparable with the sacred marriage or sexual act of a sky God with Mother Earth. The first lover of the Great Goddess was the spotted serpent of wisdom, perhaps the Orouboros who is depicted wrapped around the world egg in some cases, and in other instances an axis or tree of life is used both as a symbol of eternity or beginning and end. All humanity is born from the Earth and to the earth they will eventually return. Her couplings with the serpent gives life to her son, the so-called “Star of Life” or Lucifer, who as the Light-Bringer slays the serpent and wins her love.

The Season of the Witch (Macbeth) Mem – The Hanged Man

An artist’s impression of the Three Witches in Macbeth

“William Shakespeare’s” most horrific, supernatural and paranormal play “Macbeth” has some interesting correspondences and symbolic elements with the Tarot trump #12, The Hanged Man although historically it remains ambiguous or misleading. (See “Shakespeare & The Supernatural”). It was not the only historical play that is slightly ambivalent or distorted in content and narrative purely for dramatic effect. First of all the protagonist of the drama, Macbeth is portrayed returning from a successful battle and on the way encounters the Three Witches who prophesy that he will inevitably accede to the Scottish throne (as did James VIth when he departed from Denmark, landing in Scotland). While he is somewhat bemused or alarmed by the witches’ predictions the ensuing scene depicts his wife, Lady Macbeth reading his letter describing what he has encountered. Rather than being confused or alarmed by the news Lady Macbeth appears to fully comprehend what needs to be done to fully realise the witches’ prophesy. The three witches are in actual fact acolytes of the Greek Goddess Hecate, in English folklore she corresponds to the legendary ‘Hegetty’ or Black Annis, Queen of Witches. Robert Graves in his seminal work “The White Goddess” (Chapter 21, The Waters of Styx) writes that she is synonymous with Anagke (Necessity) and says:

“Perhaps the Goddess appeared as the Triple-Headed Bitch, Hecuba or Hecate, on this occasion for ruzein was used mostly of dogs; but since Cerridwen is usually in at the death of the Sun-Hero, perhaps the noise intended was the whining grunt of the corpse-eating Old Sow of Maenawr Pennard, to whom ‘skulls are mast’.”

Moreover on page 426 Robert Graves writes with regard to Shakespeare’s playful imagination in his plays and poetry:

“One must not be misled by the playful silliness of the love-passages in his early “Venus & Adonis”, or the extraordinary mytho-graphic jumble in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, where Theseus appears as a witty Elizabethan gallant; the Three Fates-from whose name the word ‘fay’ derives-as the whimsical fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustard seed; Hercules as a mischievous Robin Goodfellow; the Lion with the steady hand as Snug the joiner; and, most monstrous of all, the Wild Ass Set-Dionysus and the star-diademed Queen of Heaven as the ass-eared Bottom and tinselled Titania. He shows her with greater sincerity in Macbeth as the Triple Hecate presiding over the witches’ cauldron, for it is her spirit that takes possession of Lady Macbeth and inspires her to kill King Duncan; as the magnificent and wanton Cleopatra by love of whom Anthony is destroyed. Her last appearance in the plays is as the ‘damned witch Sycorax’ in the Tempest.”

A scene from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

However, his love for the Goddess destroys him, for in the course of the year she wields the powers of creation, maintenance and destruction with equal passion and very little mercy (See John Keats“La Dame Sans Merci”). Similarly, the ordeal that the Thane of Glamis Macbeth has to undergo gradually destroys his mental and emotional capacities and he is pursued or haunted by phantoms, hallucinations and phantasmagorical emanations. Despite this he recalls the witches’ prophesy:

A scene from Orson Welles stage and film production of Macbeth

“Speak, if you can: what are you?”

First Witch:
“All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!”

Second Witch:
“All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!”

Third Witch:
“All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”

The male son or lover is educated into the mysteries of the 3-Fold Goddess with regard to his vulnerability; his transient, mortal self and eventual rebirth into his true nature as a transcendent god imbued with immortality or magical powers. The Goddess Hecate coincidentally appears in Act 3, scene 5 to admonish the Three Witches for their presumptive predictions and meddling:

“Have I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call’d to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.”

It seems at that time a sacred King would be chosen to rule only for a year and a day, alongside the representative of the Goddess – perhaps the appointed priestess, (presumably in this case Lady Macbeth herself) and at the end of his time he would be ritually beaten, deformed or slain in her honour. In some cultures this involved being hung upside down, severing the Achilles’ tendon or being pierced by spears or arrows – as was St. Sebastian.

During a conjuration by the three witches three apparitions are observed by Macbeth, the first “Thunder. First Apparition: an armed Head”, the second “Thunder. Second Apparition: A bloody Child” and then a third:

“Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.”

However, while Macbeth is relieved to know that this is unlikely to happen and his period as King of Scotland remains assured he demands to see more of the future than the witches are prepared to allow. There then follows a fourth apparition:

“A show of Eight Kings, the last with a glass in his hand; the Ghost of Banquo following”.

According to Oxfordian academics this final apparition was inspired by the visions of Catherine de Medici (Lady Macbeth) as interpreted or predicted by Nostradamus. Henri IIIrd, King of France arranged for the assassination of the Guise brothers at Blois on the 25th December, 1588 but the ringleader, the Duke of Mayenne managed to escape. The section in NostradamusBook of Prophecies (35) states:

“Too late the King will repent that he did not put his adversaries to death. But he will soon come to agree to far greater things which will cause all his line to die.”

In a later prophecy (97) Nostradamus predicted the subsequent assassination of Henry IIIrd and declared:

“That which neither weapon nor flame could accomplish will be achieved by a sweet speaking council. Sleeping, in a dream, the King will see the enemy not in war or of military blood.”

Not only did the King experience his own death in a dream, which is well-documented but was killed while at council by a soft-spoken monk, Jacques Clement secretly carrying a knife and feigning to speak in the King’s ear. However, there appears to be cryptic references to the conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot of the 5th November 1605 which no doubt James Ist would have been alarmed and concerned about because he secretly feared assassination as his ancestor was assassinated and of course Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband Lord Darnley was assassinated by Lord Bothwell who then went on to marry Mary Stuart. Bothwell apparently ended his days in a Danish bedlam and died there.

Usually, the sacrificed King took to wearing “leather buskins” (as Elizabethan actors on the stage of the Globe Theatre did) as a token of his divine right to rule albeit temporarily. The practice of male immolation was, for some unbeknown reason, save perhaps for the sake of constitutional convenience, later abandoned when a surrogate or “scapegoat” was found in the form of an animal – bull, goat, sheep to replace that of human sacrificial practices. This would ostensibly lengthen the period that male Kings might rule over their subjects to as much as four or in some cases eight years – this being an important calendar period for high civilisations. The cult of Jesus the Christ was therefore re-written from the confused scraps of the previous patriarchal dynasties like some kind of perpetual Hollywood script, with a formula that best served the needs of those now large nation states well-established in power by the imposition of rules and dogma. They did not wish to disturb the status quo or for that matter awaken humanity to a broader, all-embracing and unbiased wisdom. As far as orthodox Christianity is concerned Immortality or Paradise was a state to be achieved after death and not in this world or within one’s own singular lifetime. There is something almost masochistic about this Tarot image and clearly shows that the initiate is undertaking a voluntary martyrdom as a means of transcending a conscious state and entering freely into the depths of his own or some universal or collective subconscious.

Divinatory Meaning of this Card:

The 23rd path on the Tree of Life links the sphere of Geburah (Strength-Mars) with Hod (Splendour-Mercury) on the left hand side and below the veils of ignorance. In Tarot it is known as the “Stabilising Intelligence” and is associated with the card known as “The Hanged Man”, primarily because it links the personality with the idea of spiritualised individuation in matter. Astrologically, it is attributed to the planet Mars being in Scorpio (or 8th House), acting through water upon the Mercurial aspect of the self. That is why paradoxically, the tarot card is attributed to the hieroglyph of Mem (water) as the amniotic or creative waters. It is not the airy, rational consciousness expressed in other fields of activity but one borne out of intuitive skill and participation in sublime creativity through the watery, astral realm. This is the oceanic void of the highly stimulated human imagination where subconscious associations are made or created in the human imagination. However, it is also a void or vacuum into which many things, including the ego personality or the soul, may be immersed and become manifest through baptism, absolution or simply dissolve into the ether of absolute uncertainty. As such therefore it is a very individual or personalised experience since it describes the death of the old and resurrection of the new life ready to be embraced and nurtured. Reflections on the past life, the present life and the life to come are immanent in this card. From the gestalt image itself is derived the idea of submersion or inversion just as the gestating foetus is suspended upside down in its mothers’ womb. In other words, it is a topsy-turvy world or path that is being described here. From this we might infer that any chemical or physical suspension inevitably leads to combination or fusion. Indirectly the sympathetic nervous system is being alluded to as well as our ability to suspend belief albeit temporarily in order to perceive a transcendent mystical reality. The submersion is the conscious act of the artist to connect with his own unconscious self, and delve into the world of dreams, symbols and images lying latent in the collective unconscious. In the religious symbolism we also see reference to this idea as an act of self-sacrifice on the part of the initiate, as witnessed in the “Crucified Christ” within Christian iconography or the wounded Odin hanging from the Tree of Life in the Teutonic tradition. Odin hung from the tree in painful agony until he received his prophetic vision which bestowed magical powers upon him and the gift of poetry.

Positive: Decisions delayed, suspension of events, adaptation or letting go for future benefit. A test or trial of transcendence -Surrender. Initiation, spirit on the material plane. Visions of the subconscious.

Negative: Victim of unavoidable circumstances, emotional manipulation the pain or bliss of uncertainty.

SPHERE: The Stabilising Intelligence Mem – Water
Astrological: Pisces or the 12th House.
Constellation: Triangularum Australes – The Southern Triangle

Sacred Gemstone: Beryl or Aquamarine

The next Arcanum in this series can be viewed by clicking on the following link:

“Arcanum XIII, Death”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,