The month of July was a bust for me, at least writing-wise. Aside from my daily Instagram card readings and keeping up with an IG tarot challenge, my hand did not relay in print what my brain was thinking.
I also missed my tarot clients so much!
My extroverted husband took his most defintely introverted wife on one of his whirlwind adventures. It is impossible for me to keep up with my private readings while traveling and I left my computer at home because I promised my husband I wouldn't 'work.' At any rate, it is good to be back home in my sacred space and back to my tarot readings and writings.
One of the ideas that filled my head during the month of July, and I couldn't wait to write about, was the historic symbolism in the cards of the Major Arcana. My tarot obsession is in understanding the cards through a historic context. In my view this translates to real understanding of the meanings of the cards. Rote memorization accomplishes nothing except to acquire enough surface knowledge to pass a test. But to have real depth of understanding of a topic, means that If you get the concept, you get IT.
Understanding some of the history and evolution of tarot, is to understand the many nuances and subtleties that a card might offer. True, history is only as accurate as the ones who record it, but even the myths are fascinating and can provide the lightbulb moment of, 'Aha!'
Let's take a look at the Hanged Man.
Very often the traditional meaning is one of self-sacrifice, and enlightenment. A person who is unselfish might, in the grand scheme of things, be said to be enlightened. But casually, the two conditions are not synonomous with one another.
In my initial learning of the Hanged Man, and looking to the Visconti Tarots which is as close to an original tarot catalogue of imagery as we have, the Hanged Man is depicted in 'pittura infamante' a position intended to disgrace particularly those of the upper classes. The suspended position would have communicated the crime of the accused. This position was either understood as the punishment for a traitor or for the perpetrator of a financial crime such as that of a thief, someone guilty of bankruptcy or public fraud, But either way, the punishment was intended to bring social shame and disgrace. The particular individual in this Visconti deck of cards had pretty blond hair, which hangs and frames his face and to me is reminiscent of a halo which indicates enlightenment. The fact that the man is awake and not dead, suggests that he is fully aware and enlightened because he understands the consequences for his own behavior. It also suggests to me that he is seeing life from a new, enlightened perspective that he hadn't understood before.
The concept of self-sacrifice for this card never quite gelled for me, but I still felt compelled to include it in my repertoire of meaning for this card. The ideal is for the imagery in a card to make sense to the reader so she or he may make sense of the card in relation to the question being asked, am I right? But if it doesn't make sense, why force a meaning? For this reason I rarely used sacrifice for the meaning of this card unless there was a visual reason to support this meaning. Some historians connect the death of the Hanged Man to the death of Jesus, and believe that the Hanged Man is a representation of Christ's sacrifice, thereby connecting the card to that meaning. If that helps you remember, great. But it never made sense to me. Jesus was not hung upside down by one foot and neither was he a thief or a crook, so identifying it as a Christ figure was not a strong selling point for me. There is another visual clue that does make sense in connecting the meaning to sacrifice in some decks and I will touch on that towards the end of this article.
Let's consider the other cards in the photograph.
Although the Visconti cards might represent the oldest deck of what we call tarot, there were other decks produced around the same time that had significant differences in visual content. Among those pictured are the Sola Busca, and Mantegna tarots. The Hanged Man makes no appearance in those 15th and 16th century decks, and in fact, appears to have in its place, a Virtue Card representing, 'Prudence.' (The two I have included in my photo, the Sola Busca and Mantegna, are not the only virtue type tarots of those times, only the two which I own in my collection. Though I must confess that the Sola Busca card resonates more to me as The Hermit and not as Prudence, but what do I know?)
Now let's skip the 17th century Marseille tarots for now, which clearly depicts a hanged man, and jump to those French guys of the 18th century, de Gebelin and Etteilla. They positioned that creators of some of those earlier decks of tarot mistook the image of a man walking with one leg bent (so as to avoid stepping on a snake which also appeared in the image) as a man hanging from a rope. His face is alive because if he were walking, he would not be dead. And so de Gebelin and Etteilla supposed that some of the early tarot creators mistook the snake to be a hanging device for a hanged man, who I suppose, because he was wide awake, was determined to be in an enlightened condition. (Are you still with me?)
Etteilla's own deck (now known as Etteilla's Grand Gypsy Egyptian by Grimaud circa 1969) was created in the last year or two of his life and forfits the Hanged man in preference of Prudence in an effort to correct the error he felt was made by earlier deck creators. (This card is the top right card in my photograph) Both Etteilla's own card and the card which appears on the bottom left created by an Etteilla follower after Etteilla's death (now known as the Etteilla Book of Thoth) depict a snake somewhere in the image. The later deck also includes a mirror. The mirror is probably a device to 'Know Thyself.' Interestingly the subject in both Etteilla style cards is a woman, and not a man as depicted in the Hanged Man card of the Visconti style tarots.
Who knows if de Gebelin and Etteilla were on to something, but it's an interesting supposition, even if the consensus is that they were in error. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to me that a few newer decks based on alchemy (not pictured here) have a snake prominantly featured in their renditions of the Hanged Man. Not for the reasons de Gebelin surmised, but as representative of Mercury as the 'Crucified Serpent' which in turn, connects the meaning of the card to sacrifice in a visual way that makes sense to me.
Notice in the Hermetic Tarot deck from which both the RWS and Crowley Thoth decks are born (the black and white card in my photograph) there is both a snake and a pool of water which is reflective and somewhat suggestive of a mirror from the 2nd Etteilla deck previously mentioned. Interesting, no?
Heck, even Miss Cleo's tarot deck (who in an ironic twist of fate was herself found guilty of financial fraud and deception), has a snake prominantly featured in the Hanged Man card.
If we visit the Marseille Tarots, we see a strict adherance to the depiction of a hanged man, by which time neither the image of the snake nor mirror appear. During the time of its inception, the possibility that the Hanged Man as portrayed in the Marseille decks was instrumental in furthering its own agenda cannot be ignored. For whatever reasons, the concept of Prudence was abandoned from the Marseille deck and all other decks post-dating Etteilla, excepting for the possibility that it is embodied by The Hermit, who remains a man walking.
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