We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
— W. H. Auden
I’ve written about The Hanged Man before, and yet it feels like The Hanged Man has been underrepresented, maybe in the same way that I feel that the idea of “midlife crisis” is underrepresented in the psychological literature that I’ve been exposed to as part of my psychotherapy work.
Because this is what The Hanged Man is about from the perspective of our individual evolutionary path: it is a cornerstone in the tarot’s major arcana of the idea of midlife crisis — the archetypal crisis of identity and identification in later adulthood.
Coming, as it does, over halfway through the major arcana, The Hanged Man makes an appearance after we have accumulated enough baggage to find our onward progress uncomfortably stymied. Weighted down as we are, what we tend to do in such circumstances is to press on regardless, telling ourselves things will sort themselves out, ducking and diving to avoid the insistent messages that are clamouring for our attention. And those shouts only get louder.
Some wise souls will meet with The Hanged Man with a sense of acceptance. Many of The Hanged Man cards refer to the Norse god Odin, and his hanging from Yggdrasil, the World Tree. In Odin’s case, he sacrificed ‘himself to himself’; he understood it to be a necessary sacrifice. For the rest, Justice (the previous card in most tarot decks) is meted out either through an external act or one of self-sabotage.
However they come to The Hanged Man, each protagonist finds themselves ‘strung up’ — held fast in a position that is both humbling and designed to resist those traditional methods of escape: aggression, exertion, and control.
Thus, the Hanged Man, as card 12 in the major arcana, marks a rite of passage to adulthood. It is a passage into:
- A time of the stripping away of the old to make way for something new (13 - Death)
- The search for balance between opposing forces now that we have the understanding that the resolution of those forces is beyond our abilities (14 - Temperance)
- An exploration of the explicit and implicit agreements that we have with our shadow which hold us prisoner, but which also show us the way to liberation (15 - The Devil)
- The uncompromising destruction of false gods that are incontrovertible illuminated, and so dismantled, through the process we have undergone (16 - The Tower)
All cards from the Waite-Smith Tarot deck, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.
When we embody The Hanged Man archetype, we have entered (whether voluntarily or dragged, fighting) the psychological process of ‘self-excavation’. In therapy, it marks a time when we move deeper into ourselves, and it is some of the most challenging inner work that we undertake.
We have relegated aspects of the psyche to the darkness within for good reason: we have found them to be unacceptable, whether because we detest them or because we feel we do not deserve to call them our own. In the Rosetta Tarot, The Hanged Man is associated with the element water, which represents our feelings and the unconscious. We are suspended and we are pointed downwards, the symbolic place of the secrets we keep from ourselves.
Yet, we have all that we need to explore this subterranean land. Odin was also a psychopomp — a word taken from the Greek psuchopompos meaning “guide of souls.” Psychopomps were traditionally the figures who guided the souls of the dead to the afterlife. However, an additional meaning of psychopomp is seen in Jungian analysis, where the word is used to describe a mediating principle (within the patient and assisted by the analyst) between the conscious and the unconscious.
The ground that these two interpretations have in common is that of the ‘underworld’ — the mythical place of the dead — but also this place of darkness that I have described, which we all have within us, and where we die to ourselves in order that we give birth to the light.
Whether we know it or not, and whether we are prepared to accept it or not, it is we who choose to enter the realm of The Hanged Man. Outer circumstances may prevail to lead us into it, but they are simply manifestations of inner circumstances that have conspired to further our transformation. If we can accept that possibility as we contemplate our period of suspension, it might be that we are more ready and able to look around once we have ‘assumed the position’ and see what new things it brings to light. It is not a punishment for having done something wrong; it is the consequence of a deviation from Self (who we are when we are whole, integrated beings).
More than that: it is an opportunity for revelation — a chance to experience a re-uniting of our fragmented selves, the increased radiation of our inner light, and the expansion to which this inevitably leads.
A writer who deals with the mid-life specifically is Houston-based analyst James Hollis. Even if you are unfamiliar with a myth-based approach to personal development, his writing is accessible and well-worth reading.