“. . . Hanged If I Know”

If I had to choose the Tarot de Marseille trump cards that exhibit the greatest divergence of interpretation between tarot traditionalists and their modern counterparts, Le Pendu (the Hanged Man) would be near the top of the list The historical impressions are uniformly harsh: here is a traitor who is being severely punished for his transgressions, and the cautionary tale delivers a moral lesson in the telling.

“Reconstructed” Noblet image courtesy of Shell David.

Current thinking is “kinder and gentler” as well as more mystically hopeful: when it’s not about changing one’s external point-of-view for the better (or at least the “different”), it represents an inward-turning perspective, redolent of contemplation and patience (more negatively, delay and some form of sacrifice); in my estimation it symbolizes an uncommon but often uncomfortable learning opportunity through delving deeply into the Unconscious, with the risk of being “stuck in neutral” while struggling with one’s personal “shadow.” The well-worn analogy of the lotus comes to mind, but inverted: one’s head is in the mud with roots groping for the sky, where they may find little purchase. It may represent an “initiation” of a baptismal kind, but it seems more like “trial by Water” to me, or at best a becalming inertia that invites both productive reflection and fruitless navel-gazing.

This is the reason I usually prefer to see it reversed in a reading, since the rarefied wisdom attained is “outed” and made available for conscious application by being brought back to the light. In decks where the man in the image sports a halo, that “inner light” has been occulted and is uniquely private but there is promise of greater glory to come in its abounding radiance, and the man’s expression is one of confidence that it won’t remain forever hidden once he “rights himself” in the world. If there is suffering involved, it has more of a Buddhist connotation: “The root of suffering is attachment,” and the key to becoming “untethered” lies in recognizing the self-defeating origin of that bond, “cutting the cord” and floating to the surface.

The differences seem irreconcilable. Does the card represent an unavoidable misfortune, one of being “hung out to dry” by the Universe with no recourse but to suck it up? Or can its quiescent nature be worked into a more keenly-pitched state of anticipation through “positive thinking” followed up with even more assertive action? I’m not sure this card will conform gracefully to the modern mindset of turning every nuance of the tarot into a life-affirming revelation. There isn’t a lot of energy to spare here. It suggests the economy of stillness and the conservatism of silence, things I’m not convinced the busy, surface-skimming Western mind can grasp in its fullness.

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