Tarot 101, My Way – Major Arcana: The Hanged Man and Death

If I were writing pulp fiction, I could not come up with a juicier scenario: sentence has been passed (Justice), the perpetrator has been hung (Hanged Man) and the unfortunate soul has been laid to rest (Death). Of course, we all know that tarot is not Lenormand, and these things never play out so literally. The Hanged Man shows a period of reflection or preparation for the “next big thing;” I sometimes liken it to a butterfly in its cocoon, swinging in the breeze. Seldom does it come across as “sacrifice” for me, the fellow is smiling! It suggests suspension of effort, a “breather.” He is perfectly willing to bide his time in the pursuit of enlightenment, and has realized that he must change his perspective in order to attain it. The idea of a baptism or initiation is relevant. Also the old Coca-Cola advertising slogan, “The Pause that Refreshes.” Metaphysically, this is an encouraging card, although mundane interpretation is often dour. Turn it upside down and he is about to climb out of his hole, back into the Sun to spread his newfound knowledge.

Death is that next big thing in the flesh . . . er, bone. It has a “ready or not, here I come” certainty to it, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. As I often do with the more visually dismaying trump cards, I like to apply Aleister Crowley’s all-purpose defense from his brief commentary on the Fool: “All such impulses are right, if rightly received.” Besides, the old boy (Death, not Crowley, but who knows) is still grinning, and now he’s dancing, at least in the Thoth version! Crowley made much of the “right attitude of the querent” in coming to grips with apparent adversity. Although I don’t fully agree with it, the modern assertion that “there are no bad cards in the tarot” (Paul Fenton-Smith appends “only necessary ones,” with which I have no quarrel),  has some merit here. There will be a change, period, case closed, although usually not a physical death. It may even be a big one and warrant the imposing title “transformation.” Here is the butterfly in full regalia emerging from its period of gestation (well, in truth it might be a drab moth, but at least it’s no longer earthbound). Set your sights high and think soaring “Eagle,” not squirming “Fish” or scuttling “Scorpion,” the three avatars of its astrological correspondence, the sign of Scorpio.

The Major Arcana: Trump 12 – The Hanged Man


Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Enforced sacrifice. Punishment. Loss. Fatal and not voluntary. Suffering generally,”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“Wisdom, circumspection, discernment, trials, sacrifice, intuition, divination, prophecy.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):

“Enforced sacrific, punishment, loss, fatal or voluntary, suffering, defeat, failure, death.”


Modern interpretation is kinder to the Hanged Man, and closer to Waite’s position. He is often described as showing the need to approach the matter in question from an alternate point of view (signified by the inverted perspective of the “hung” figure). Also, since the man is in a state of “suspended animation,” the implied sacrifice is mainly one of time and convenience rather than material substance. “Delay” is one of its keynote qualities; advancement is stalled for the foreseeable future. It can show being on a collision course with one’s skewed sense of reality; a misapprehension of the truth can lead to a wrong-headed assessment of the correct course of action. It might be said that the Hanged Man has his head “where the Sun don’t shine,” and he must “get right with the world” before any real progress can be expected. An inward focus through thoughtful contemplation or meditation rather than an unproductive flailing away at outward cause-and-effect may be the only realistic way to confront the dilemma without incurring the additional burden of paralyzing frustration.

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The Major Arcana: Trump 13 – Death


Golden Dawn “Liber T” (S.L. Mathers):

“Time. Ages. Transformation. Change involuntary. Sometimes death and destruction, but rarely the latter, and the former only if it is borne out by the cards with it.”

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (A.E. Waite):

“End, mortality, destruction, corruption.”

The Book of Thoth (Aleister Crowley):

“Transformation, change, voluntary or involuntary, in either case logical development of existing conditions, yet perhaps sudden and unexpected. Apparent death or destruction, but such interpretation is illusion.”


Once again, modern interpretation is less harshly fatalistic. Death as implied in the title is largely symbolic; the card portends a transformation of major proportions, delivered with such an overwhelming intensity that there is little recourse but to ride it out. Trump cards in general reveal significant external forces entering the matter that can be neither avoided nor wholly deflected, so the only reasonable option is to adapt or adjust. Death is at the forefront of these life-changing propositions, and its intrusion is largely involuntary and irreversible. Crowley’s perspective on the “logical development of existing conditions” is instructive. If one is ripe for it, it usually doesn’t arrive unheralded; there are signs.

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