The Hanged Man, Death, and The Devil
The room is dim, lit with colorful glass lanterns hanging in the window and one sole candle on the round table . a card is turned over, a short curse is muttered under your reader's voice, as she looks at you with certain worry in her eyes. Your own eyes fall upon the image before you... it is the Death card. You shudder.
This doesn't happen very often. Tarot readings are generally quite up front now, conducted out in the open at bookshops and body-mind-spirit fairs, or even in nicely decorated professional offices. But fear and misunderstanding remain for some of the cards of the tarot that at first glance look a little scary. This is fueled largely by the entertainment goals of movie producers and authors of fiction. Scary tarot cards make for good stories. They add mystery and suspense to the action, and justify the inclusion of the occult or supernatural in otherwise ordinary films or books. But your life isn't a movie plot; it isn't a well-written piece of fiction (even though you may at times wish it were!). And tarot cards do much more than signify mundane, concrete events, so their imagery should not be taken merely at face value. Let's look a little more deeply into some of those "scary" cards ...
The first card in the tarot that might be considered a bit scary is the Hanged Man, which is traditionally number twelve in the Major Arcana. This card generally shows a man suspended upside down from a tree or wood frame, hanging from one foot. In some renderings he looks content and quite at peace, in others he looks worried, hanging from that tree as he is. Sometimes money is shown falling out of his pockets. The title is what first throws us, we all flinch at the idea of a hanging, and for many of us the history of racial lynching is enough to set us against this card. But what is this figure doing, what is he teaching us? He is suspended, but mostly comfortable. His body is, in fact, in a relaxed position. It can't be helped that his money falls to the ground, or that a strong wind might blow his way. The Hanged Man signifies to us a time of suspension, when things will have to wait. It shows a reversal of attitude, seeing things from the opposite point of view. Sometimes it shows us that a sacrifice must be made, in order to come out of the life stage we are in.
The number thirteen makes many people uneasy, and the thirteenth card of the Major Arcana, titled Death in most decks, truly is the most feared and misunderstood card of the tarot. The skeleton in the Death card often carries a scythe or holds high a flag with a giant rose on it. He somehow looks powerful, holding the key to life and death, with skulls scattered at his feet. Death can come in an instant, this card seems to say, so watch out! But, what death? Does the card point to an actual death, the death of a person, someone close, or yourself? Being from the Major Arcana, it shouldn't. These cards generally speak of greater mysteries, of energies more important than the physical. The card of Death speaks directly of true transformation, the dying, so to speak, of one mode, and the rebirth of another. Yes, that's right, the rebirth. A good number of cards follow Death in the Major Arcana, offering us the insight that beyond this card and what it means, more is to come. So when you draw the Death card, consider how change might be taking place in your life, and why it probably shouldn't be avoided or resisted. Death usually tells us there is important transformation about to take place, and our soul requires it for the new growth ahead.
Most of us have heard that the Medieval Christian image of the Devil, with his horns, hooves, and forked tail, was a nasty caricature of the pagan Horned God or god of the wild. The rigid male authorities in Christianity at the time were acting very politically, with the intention of wiping out the pagan practices that flourished through the countryside. It was a good move for them; even today try convincing some people of this history, and you'll hit a brick wall. That said, the Devil was a highly feared image in medieval times, when superstition was rampant and the Inquisition could get you burned alive for supposed dealings with him. Some people like to turn back to the pagan Horned God, and say the Devil simply represents our wild nature, that is physical and sexual. Others tend to view the negative implications of the physical energy of the card, or the temptations we are met with daily that might lead us to act without integrity. We can read the card as a caution to not focus on the material, to keep selfishness or greed in check, to be careful of what we are tempted by, and to not become bound to something unhealthy (a lover, a habit, an addiction). Seen in this light, the Devil is not so sinister, or at least, no more sinister than our own darkest yearnings, and he reminds us to be responsible to ourselves and to others.
Immediately following the Devil is the Tower, card number sixteen in the Major Arcana. This tower is struck by lightning, and as it cracks violently, human figures fall to earth in a reckless way. The card, perhaps more than any other, seems to demonstrate our frailty in the greater scheme of things. This is not however, a frailty of such huge dimensions; we aren't really going to fall from a tower, in a lightning storm. It usually speaks of change that occurs within us or within confining structures of our lives, not physical or material destruction. What is the tower upon which you stand, that might at some point need some shaking? The Tower often shows necessary change, so consider that you yourself might send the lightning, and fall away to new ground, on purpose.
I'm going to list the Moon here as well. The Moon is card number eighteen, located between the Star of hope, and the Sun of success. Many people consider this a negative card, attributing to it madness, deception, and lunacy. But what really does it represent to us, cloaked in the night, shining down upon baying dogs? The Moon speaks to us of the power found in the darkness, in the night, in dreams, and in the realm of intuitive, unconscious mind. This is largely a women's mystery, this Moon, reflecting the unseen influences that lead us in our lives. Is this madness? Perhaps for some, who fear the night and the shadow parts of themselves, or who misunderstand the psychic aspects of self.
There are certainly cards in the Minor Arcana that are misunderstood as well, and there are cards that may actually point to more negative aspects of our day-to-day lives. The Three of Swords comes immediately to mind. Its usual meaning is obvious in the heart pierced with three swords, as the card is depicted in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and many others. It often points to loss, separation, depression, or true heartbreak. The Ten of Swords often portrays a figure lying facedown on the ground, ten swords thrust through him. But although the card can point to sorrow or pain, it also indicates overreaction, seeing more trouble than really exists, or an unjustified feeling of doom. The Ten of Wands might be seen as negative in some readings, for people who have been overworked with little reward, the Eight of Cups indicates a need for more emotional substance and might mean saying goodbye and moving on, and the Five of Pentacles might show a time of financial barrenness. But in using the tarot we are accepting the idea of change. The cards portray our past and current paths, and point out future possibilities. Through the reading of each of these stages in our lives, we can make choices to improve any situation.
Through the discussion of these cards I have focused on their general meanings, based on traditional symbolism and standard interpretation. The Major Arcana is considered the "greater secrets" of the tarot, meaning these cards speak of spiritual energies, grand influences in our inner lives, what exists beneath the day-to-day; not the mundane or purely physical. If you take the time to study the cards and their meanings, or perhaps even meditate on them, you will attain a breakthrough in your understanding of tarot. The positive will shine from within these cards that may have previously been scary to you, and will enlighten your readings with deeper meaning.
Photo: the cards of Death, the Devil, and the Hanged Man from the Tarot Classic; US Games
All writing and photography © N Levine - Illumination Tarot, unless otherwise noted. 1999-2020