There has been a long space of time between my last entry and today's, and that is because we were traveling during the month of July. Aside from my daily Instagram card readings and keeping up with an Instagram tarot challenge, my hand did not relay into print what my brain was thinking.
I couldn't wait to get home to write about the things that I was thinking about the entire month, which was looking at the symbolism of the cards from their historic perspective.
Rote memorization is rarely helpful in the long run, and is usually only helpful as a short-term strategy to pass a difficult test. What makes a test difficult, is because one doesn't grasp the concept. If you get the concept, you get IT.
And so, understanding even some of the history and evolution of tarot is to understand the many nuances and subtleties that a card might offer. While it is true that history is only as reliable as the person who recorded it, sometimes the myths and even the misunderstandings by artists and the historians themselves are fascinating, and can lead to that lightbulb moment of 'Aha!'
Let's take a look at the Hanged Man.
Most LWB definitions describe the Hanged Man card as a card of sacrifice and enlightenment. While it can be argued that a person who is unselfish is probably an enlightened individual, the two conditions are not synonymous with one another.
The earliest representation we have of the Hanged man is his appearance in the Visconti tarots of the 15th Century. This is as close to an original tarot catalogue of imagery as we have. A well dressed man is seen in pittura infamante, a position intended to disgrace criminals, particularly those of the upper classes. The suspended position communicated the crime of the accused either as a traitor or as a perpetrator of a financial crime such as that of a thief or that of public fraud. But either way the punishment was intended to bring social shame and discrace. The guilty party was hung by one foot, leaving the other leg to flop in a triangular formation, with his hands tied behind his back.
When I was teaching myself tarot a million years ago, one of the visual cues I used in remembering 'enlightenment' for this card was that in the first tarot decks I owned, the individual had very light or blond hair (and in the Visconti tarot he is decidedly blond) that hung down and framed his face like a halo. A person depicted in art with a halo is usually a person who is enlightened, and so that visual connection worked for me. 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 suggests that he sees the world from a new, enlightened perspective, one he hadn't considered or understood before.
But the stock definition of 'sacrifice' never really gelled for me with this card. While I understood it to be one of the keyword meanings for this card, looking at the visual clues, I never picked up on sacrifice. Of course, some tarot historians connect the death of the Hanged man to the death of Christ which translates to sacrifice for the greater good, and if that connection helps you remember, then great. But it never felt genuine to me because although Christ was punished, his supposed crime was blasphemy, not treason or theft, and he wasn't hung by one foot. If it doesn't make visual sense why force a meaning? Towards the end of this article I will identify a visual clue that does make sense in establishing sacrifice as one of its meanings.
Although the Visconti tarots are the oldest cards we have has reference, it does not necessarily mean it was the first, just the oldest one to survive. There were other decks produced around the same time frame of within one hundred years of the Visconti decks that had significant differences in visual content. The Hanged Man made no appearance at all in those decks. Among those pictured are the Sola Busca and Mantegna tarots. Neither of these 15th and 16th century decks depict a Hanged Man and appears to have in its place, a virtue card representing 'Prudence.' Prudence in both cards is depicted as a person walking, one with a type of lantern with a snake-like ribbon on his staff, and the other with a snake wrapped up the handle of a mirror. Although some historians claim Prudence replaced the Hanged Man, both of these cards with their symbolic objects (a lantern for light and a mirror for self reflection a 'Know Thyself' motif) seem more connected to the Hermit than to the Hanged Man, but that's just me.
The Marseille or TdM tarots of the 17th century clearly have the Hanged Man represented by a chap with light hair, suspended by one foot, other leg bent in the form of a triangle, and in the case of the example in my photograph has hands tied behind the body. During the inception of the TdM tarots the possibility that the Hanged man was instrumental in furthering its political agenda cannot be ignored.
If we skip one hundred years to the French guys of the 18th century, de Gebelin and Etteilla, they began to take note of the tarots as having potential for purposes of cartomancy and one or the other of them, or maybe both, I don't exactly recall, propositioned that some of the early tarot artists mistakenly inverted the image of a man walking with one leg bent (so as to avoid steopping on a snake which appeared in the Prudence cards) as a man hanging from a rope. His face is alive and alert because if he were walking he could not be dead, but in the artist's confusion de Gebelin and Etteilla proposed that the artists interpreted a Hanged Man who was alert and aware and thereby, enlightened. Are you still with me on this?
If you look at the next two cards in the photo, the top right and bottom left, you can see that the school of Etteilla abandoned the Hanged Man in favor of the Prudence card which he and his followers felt was the rightful historic card. (Or at least it fit in better with Etteilla's agenda whatever that was.) Both of these cards feature a female, not a male, walking with a snake prominantly featured in the card. One of them has a mirror.
(For those interested, the card on the top right is a reproduction from Etteilla's own deck and the first deck created for divination purposes, designed by him a year or two before his death. This card is known as the Grand Etteilla Egyptian Gypsies Tarot Deck published by Grimaud in 1969 and is currently out of print. The card on the bottom left was created by one of Etteilla's followers after his death and is known as the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot, or sometimes referred to as Etteilla III and is still available for purchase.)
In the Hermetic Tarot from which both the RWS and Crowley decks were born, (the black and white card in my photo) you will see the appearance of a snake and a reflective pool of water, which is a concept similar to a mirror. Remember, both a snake and a mirror appeared in the Prudence cards. Interesting, no?
Heck, even Miss Cleo's deck (whose company in an ironic twist of fate was found guilty of financial fraud and deception) has a snake prominantly featured in the hanged Man card of her deck.
Who knows if de gebelin and Etteilla were onto something, but the consensus is that they were in error or mislead for their own agendas. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to me that even newer decks of the past few years revisiting alchemic symbolism (not featured in my photograph) have a snake prominantly featured in their renditions of the Hanged Man. Not for the reasons that de Gebelin and Etteilla surmised, but as representative of Mercury as the 'Crucified Serpent' which connects the meaning of the Hanged Man card to the sacrifice of Hermes in a visual way that makes sense to me.
Modern tarot decks post-dating Etteilla no longer include Prudence in the cast of characters, unless you consider that it was the Hermit all along, who remains a man walking...