People often get scared when the Hanged Man card (card number 12 in the Tarot's Major Arcana) comes up in a reading. The common misconception is that it represents suffering, sacrifice and loss, futility, or martyrdom, but these interpretations are peripheral to the true essence of this card. It is important to note that the figure depicted in it is hanging upside-down by one foot, and not by his neck. Also, in most modern decks, his expression is serene--beatific even--and a halo surrounds his head, which suggests spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, this is one of the most overtly spiritual cards in the deck.
There is, however, a grain of truth in the popular misconception noted above. The Hanged Man does represent sacrifice and surrender, but it emphasizes that when such acts are undertaken willingly and for a greater good or a higher purpose, they are transformed into a means of enlightenment rather than of loss and suffering. Thus, this card advises us to place our spiritual development above our material concerns. (In some Tarot decks coins are shown falling out of the Hanged Man's hands or pockets.) This is not meant to denigrate or condemn material things, though, but merely to put them into proper perspective. Remember, too, what Emerson said: "Self-sacrifice is the real miracle out of which all the reported miracles grew."
Sometimes we are called upon to make a sacrifice for the greater good of others, and such acts, in and of themselves, indicate a level of spiritual enlightenment insofar as they are acts of selfless, unconditional love. At other times, our spiritual journey entails the sacrifice of a bit of our time--perhaps in a meditative withdrawal from activity (as symbolized by the passive dangling of the Hanged Man) or maybe in donating time to charitable work. And sometimes we need to remain suspended in a difficult situation--to hang in there, so to speak--until we can see it from a fresh point of view. This may be uncomfortable, but it is an important part of our spiritual development, because being able to sacrifice our old perceptions of a situation and then view it from a new perspective helps us find new and deeper truths about the world.
The message of the Hanged Man also includes the paradox of surrendering in order to win. We all have experienced times when it felt like life was careening out of control and the harder we tried to control it, the more unmanageable it became. At such times, try surrendering the situation to a Higher Power (however you envisage that). Indeed, you have come to a spiritual turning point in your life whenever you can make such a surrender. Now, this is not a rejection of the old saying, "God helps those who help themselves." Certainly we must take responsibility for our actions and do whatever we can to solve our problems. But it does mean that sometimes we need to release our need to control all of the results of our actions. Do what you reasonably can, this card says, then let go and trust that a Higher Power will guide the results to whatever end is best for you.
Finally, the Hanged Man card has a stillness and serenity about it that indicates the spiritual benefits of meditation. When we stop struggling and just let life be, we can find a point of peaceful equilibrium from which we can see the world anew, and from which we can encounter the spirit of the world and not just its material manifestation.
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James Ricklef is a Tarot reader, lecturer, and writer. He has been a frequent workshop presenter at Tarot conferences and symposia from Los Angeles to New York. He is the author of several Tarot books, including Tarot Tells the Tale which was first runner up in the General Interest category for the 2004 Coalition of Visionary Resources (COVR) Awards. (A revised version of that book is now available as Tarot Reading Explained.) He is also the creator of the acclaimed Tarot of the Masters deck.