The Hanged Man (Tarot card)

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This article is about the tarot card. For the TV series, see The Hanged Man (TV series). For the Journeyman episode, see The Hanged Man (Journeyman).
The Hanged Man (XII)

The Hanged Man (XII) is the twelfth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks. It is used in game playing as well as in divination.

It depicts a pittura infamante, a shameful image of a traitor being punished in a manner common at the time for traitors in Italy.

Description and symbolism[edit]

Modern versions of the tarot deck depict a man hanging upside-down by one foot. The figure is most often suspended from a wooden beam (as in a cross or gallows) or a tree. Ambiguity results from the fact that the card itself may be viewed inverted.

In his book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, A. E. Waite, the designer of the Rider-Waite tarot deck, wrote of the symbol:

The gallows from which he is suspended forms a Tau cross, while the figure—from the position of the legs—forms a fylfot cross. There is a nimbus about the head of the seeming martyr. It should be noted (1) that the tree of sacrifice is living wood, with leaves thereon; (2) that the face expresses deep entrancement, not suffering; (3) that the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death. [...] It has been called falsely a card of martyrdom, a card of prudence, a card of the Great Work, a card of duty [...] I will say very simply on my own part that it expresses the relation, in one of its aspects, between the Divine and the Universe.

He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection.[1]

Waite suggests the card carries the following meanings or keywords:

  • Sacrifice — Letting go — Surrendering — Passivity
  • Suspension — Acceptance — Renunciation — Patience
  • New point of view — Contemplation — Inner harmony
  • Conformism — Non-action — Waiting — Giving up


The Cross of St. Peter is shown in this French stained glass window. Saint Peter is conventionally shown as having been crucified upside-down.

The Hanged Man's symbolism points to divinity, linking it to the Passion in Christianity, especially The Crucifixion; to the narratives of Osiris in Egyptian mythology, and Mithras in Ancient Persian mythology and Roman mythology. In all of these archetypal stories, the destruction of self brings life to humanity; on the card, these are symbolized respectively by the person of the hanged man and the living tree from which he hangs bound.

The Hanged Man is also associated with Odin, the primary god in Norse mythology. Odin hung upside down from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days to attain wisdom and thereby retrieved the runes from the Well of Wyrd, which in Norse cosmology is regarded as the source and end of all sacred mystery and knowledge. The moment he glimpsed the runes, he died, but the knowledge of them was so powerful that he immediately returned to life.

In literature and popular culture[edit]

The image of The Hanged Man, like other Tarot images, appears in a number of creative works.

  • Tarot images, including the Hanged Man, appear in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land.
  • Several Tarot cards, including the Hanged Man, appear in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, most notably in The Gunslinger. The Hanged Man symbolizes Roland Deschain, the main character, as well as his quest.
  • Jeffery Deaver's novel The Twelfth Card has a character who leaves the tarot card at the crime scene.
  • In episode 2 of the Doctor Who story "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy," Morgana shows the Doctor this card as a symbol of himself. In episode 4, the Doctor is hung upside-down.
  • In the film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the Hanged Man card is pulled from the Doctor's deck and represents Heath Ledger's character, Tony whom they find hanging from a bridge.
  • Tarot symbolism figures prominently in Shirley Jackson's 1951 novel Hangsaman; in a pivotal scene the central characters debate whether a doll hanging in a store window resembles the Hanged Man.[2]
  • In Ted Hughes' poem "Life after Death" he claims to feel like "The Hanged Man".
  • A variation on The Hanged Man was featured in the occult film The Ninth Gate.
  • Tarot card hangs from driver's rear view mirror; discussion later takes place on its meaning in Inon Shampanier's 2012 film The Millionaire Tour.
  • The name of a "Stand" from part III of Jojo's Bizarre Adventures, used by J. Geil.
  • On June 27, 1960, Sylvia Plath wrote a poem entitled "The Hanging Man." The poem contains imagery of the tarot card with "pinned me in this tree."


  1. ^ Waite, A. E. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, ill. by Pamela Colman Smith [1911], at
  2. ^ Jackson, Shirley. Hangsaman. Ace Publishing Corp. 1951, pp. 169-170.

Further reading[edit]

  • A. E. Waite's 1910 Pictorial Key to the Tarot
  • Hajo Banzhaf, Tarot and the Journey of the Hero (2000)
  • Wood, Juliette. (1998) "The Celtic Tarot and the Secret Tradition: A Study in Modern Legend Making". Folklore 109: 15–24
  • Francesca Lia Block, The Hanged Man (1999)

External links[edit]