Why I'm Partial to The Hanged Man: A Personal Reflection

By Benebell Wen

In casual conversations with many tarot readers, I've heard a general sentiment that The Hanged Man is an unappealing card. No one jumps for joy when it appears in a spread.


Key 12, The Hanged Man of the Major Arcana is commonly viewed as a card about going through a difficult but necessary time in one's life, a condition we feel is "happening to us," that we have little control over, but the truth is we put ourselves in the position; our own actions led us to that difficult moment. Some have interpreted the card to indicate shaming. Difficult or shameful as the moment may be, it is one that will bring clarity, resolution, and understanding. The Hanged Man is not a card of singing bluebirds, butterflies, and cuddly puppies, that is for sure.

However, the foregoing description is not the complete significance of the card. If it were, it would be mundanely similar to several of the cards from the Minor Arcana. Several cards placed as a series of vignettes could adequately cover that sentiment. There is a reason the card is one single archetype. There is more to The Hanged Man. At least to me, he means more.

In my college years I was a member of a social sorority. They hazed and were behaving in a way toward a pledge class that ran contrary to the way I was taught to treat people. At the time I myself was a new member having recently crossed the semester before. So per the views of the older, senior sisters, I had my place, and it was below them, and therefore I should not disrespect seniority or talk back to them.

Yet I did because I believed how they were treating the new pledges was wrong. These pledges weren't just any pledges either; they were dear friends of mine, people I loved and cared deeply for, people for whom I would never back away passively if they were getting hurt. So when I saw the senior sisters of the sorority put these pledges in harm's way, I took a stand. I knew exactly what I was doing. There would be confrontation. Someone would lose and I appreciated the possibility that it could be me.

What I didn't anticipate was how willingly the pledges would consent to being hurt and treated abusively by the sisters. They so desperately wanted to fit in, to be members of that sisterhood that they did not care what happened to them during the pledging process. They sided with the sisters who were hurting them, and not with me. I had stuck my neck out for them, jeopardized my position in the organization to protect them, and instead of taking the way out when I gave them a way out, they stood docile, complacent, and I was the one who looked ridiculous.

The local chapter of that sisterhood expelled me from the organization. Then they went completely out of their way every day on campus to make my life a living hell. It was my first experience with the mob mentality as the hung one. Even the individuals who secretly and in private acknowledged that I was in the right would remain submissive to the majority. No one spoke up for me. No one came to my corner to fight back, shoulder to shoulder. In fact, at the time no one even validated to me that what I was doing was for a greater good, that defending the weaker and standing up for your moral principles was what you were supposed to do. I was entirely on my own, strung up on campus for public shaming.


A few cards from the Minor Arcana may seem to exemplify my experiences at the time. Maybe the Seven of Wands? Three of Swords? Ten of Swords? I can only tell you and you can only believe or not believe that the pain I went through was far more profound than any meaning those cards could cover. When you say "sorority" and "college" and "mass mob of girls" to people now, no one immediately gets the intensity of pain.

Those days seem like trivial times compared to "real world" problems that we adults face. I was practicing tarot privately on and off back then. I did not perform readings for others. I studied the cards myself and read only for myself when no one was around. Tarot to me has always been an exercise of introspection. In my late teens and early twenties I had stopped being introspective so I had stopped reading tarot. I was out in the external sphere, socializing, partying, and trying hard to be like everyone else. After what happened with the sorority, life shoved me back into my shell. I dusted off my old deck of tarot and gave myself a reading.

That was when The Hanged Man appeared. I remember it clearly because before then, I wasn't a fan of the card. Like the Death card or The Devil, when you're still green to life experiences, when you're young, those cards are scary. Yet there he was.

In that moment, The Hanged Man and I connected. Without looking up any card meanings or historical references, I appreciated instantly that this was a man being hung for public condemnation, for a violation that the masses believed he had committed. His red pants conveyed his audacity. That man, however, either did not commit exactly what he was being accused of committing or he had done it out of selflessness, out of a deep love for another.

The true pain of the card was not that the man was being hung and condemned by the mob. The true pain was from having rushed to someone's rescue because of your love for that person only to have that same person be the one who turns you over to the mob. You see, cards like the Ten of Swords do cover being defeated by the majority.

There is a sense of "Et tu, Brute?" in that Ten of Swords, which I felt back then. But it is only The Hanged Man that articulates the source of such particularized pain: it wasn't just that I was bum-rushed and betrayed by those I thought supported me or was defeated or overwhelmed. I knew full well there would be backlash from the senior sisters for what I chose to do, what I did out of moral principle. What I did not expect was that the friends I tried to help, the loved ones I put myself on the line for, would also turn their backs on me. I wasn't being defeated for my ambitions or the target of jealousy or for being a leader even, which I have interpreted as the source of pain in some of the other tarot cards. Here I was being shamed for doing what I thought was the "right" thing. They condemned me because I stood up for others, for those who I thought weren't able to stand up for themselves. Then out of nowhere those who I thought were weak found the strength to stand up and join in the condemnation against me.


The Hanged Man came up in a reading that day and something in me just clicked. Of everybody in my world, friends, family-- the only person who was truly there for me in that moment was him, an inanimate two-dimensional picture on a card, an arguably generic archetype. That card turned up, not in a fortunetelling way, but rather as a message from the universe at large, a reassurance that I was not alone. Inexplicably, The Hanged Man brought me peace. He showed up when I needed him to show up, and he said, "There, there, it's okay. Everything will be okay. I understand you."

Cathartic as that reading was, the lessons that The Hanged Man had for me weren't over. A decade later I was a practicing attorney and starting to make a name for myself in my field. I stopped thinking about what happened with the sorority and stopped thinking about those people. Then one day, a voice from the past called me. She was one of the sisters from that sorority. She sounded nervous. "I know I am the last person you want to hear from, and I am sorry, I am so sorry. But everyone I've talked to says you're the best at this kind of thing and I'm under a whole pile of legal trouble right now. Can you help? You know if I could turn to anyone else, I would have."

She had no money. That pile of legal trouble turned out to be as big as she said it was. And I was already inundated with a heavy case load at work. After what she put me through, no one in the world would fault me for saying no to her. I did not consult the tarot, but the tarot came to me. An image of The Hanged Man appeared in my mind and I could not shake him off. I convinced myself that I was merely recalling that tarot reading from a decade ago after the incident. What happened now, the new issue presented to me had nothing to do with The Hanged Man. Or so I thought.

That sister's reappearance in my life opened old wounds and I was angry all over again. Did these people have any idea what they put me through? A few years after graduation, I mentioned to a sorority sister from a different chapter how I hadn't forgiven those girls yet and she said to me, "You need to get over it, move on." But I couldn't. Ten years later, I still wasn't over it. I recall the sting of humiliation on campus when all I was trying to do was attend my classes. And now one of those sisters has come to me thinking there was even a shred of chance I would help her? Who wore the red pants now!? The audacity!

I told the sister I would think about her issue, do a little research, and then get back to her. I remembered the hot tears from ten years ago and vowing to myself as I cried myself to sleep, "If I ever have the chance in the future to help or hang these people, I will let them hang." Honestly, I would console myself with that vision of them dangling from a ledge, begging me to pull them up to safety, and then me simply walking away.

Now here she was, ten years later. I had made a vow to myself. If presented with the chance to help them or hang them, I would hang them. Yet as soon as that thought manifested, contemporaneously The Hanged Man would appear. Each time I tried to form the decision "no," I would see him in my head. Then something between him and me connected again.

There is a secondary meaning to the card. Grace.

He taught me to forgive, to truly forgive. I accepted her case and helped that sister. I did not let her hang like the 21-year-old me had vowed. The Hanged Man had taught me about grace. He is not just about self-sacrifice for a greater good. That nimbus encircling his head is wisdom and prophesy. He knew that one day the same mob that hung and condemned him would come to him for salvation and he knew already that he would freely give it. I went to him once to find consolation. Then ten years later he came to me to complete his teachings. After I helped that sister, others members of the sorority came to me for legal advice. I have even represented the sisterhood on a national scale in legal actions.

The Hanged Man is not one of my favorite cards in the way that we are thrilled to see The Magician, The Sun, Nine of Cups, or Ten of Cups. It's one of my favorites because The Hanged Man was there for me when no one else was and then came again to teach me of his divination, which isn't that such a hanging would happen or even that there is purpose to the hanging, but rather, the divination of grace.

Images from The Robin Wood Tarot  published by Llewellyn Worldwide, the Rider Tarot, and the Medieval Scapini Tarot both published by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

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