It’s taken me several days of behind-the-scenes work to be able to write anything about the Hanged Man. I do not have any major issues with how contemporary tarot readers interpret the card. It was my research into the historical imagery that churned my stomach and made me wonder if there’s more to the card than what we typically ascribe to it.
Prior to this research, I never had a strong visceral reaction to the Hanged Man. In part, it was because I thought the very suggestion of it depicting an execution was hilarious. Certainly there are far more expedient ways of dispatching someone. Hanging someone by the neck, for example, will result in death in a few minutes, at most. And young children frequently hang upside-down for hours. My own brother would watch whole television shows while standing on his head, and it never did him any harm. With this in mind, could prolonged inversion actually result in someone’s death?
Well, as I found out, it can. In sustained periods of inversion, the heart struggles to pump blood into the legs, while the blood in the head struggles to return to the heart. (Keep in mind that the brain has no muscles to help circulation along, and relies much upon a regular blood pressure and gravity to keep an even circulation). Subsequently, the heart works extra hard to keep circulation flowing. This extra effort can cause it to fail. If it does not, sustained circulation problems can lead to blood clots and swelling in the brain, which can lead to stroke. Blindness can occur through increased ocular pressure. Blood can pool in the lungs and result in pulmonary edema and respiratory failure: in other words, the victim drowns in his or her own blood without any visible wound. No matter what, death can certainly occur, but it will be a long, torturous time in coming.
To my horror, I learned that this has, in fact, been an execution method. In medieval Germany (late thirteenth century to early seventeenth), this execution came to be associated with Jews and developed the name Judenstrafe, or “Jewish Execution/Punishment,” and it was specifically devised to be inhumane. The standard punishment was to hang the Jewish thief by the feet and similarly string up two dogs beside him, but there were several variations upon this theme. The dogs could be alive or dead, or one instead of a pair, or the offender would be suspended by one foot alone. Obviously, if the dogs were alive–as they are in this image–they would snarl and bite and scratch the offender as they tried to free themselves. If other crimes were committed during the theft, the execution may have other layers. For example in Ottingen in 1611, a Jewish thief who had stolen silverplate and tried to cover up his theft through arson was condemned to suffer the Judenstrafe whilst simultaneously being burned, the variation of which is shown in this image. No matter the variation, though, the indignity and torture were both extreme.
Germany is, however, not the only nation to have practiced an inverted hanging. As many taroists know, it was a practice in medieval Italy, too. However, unlike Germany’s Judenstrafe, it appears that Italian inverted hangings were not the primary form of execution, but rather practiced as part of a “hung, drawn, and quartered” grouping of methods or as a way to desecrate a corpse afterwards. The methods of medieval Italian executions are shockingly creative, and they fell on a spectrum of decency: it was far nobler to beheaded like the saints than to hang as Judas–especially if one belonged to the upper classes. For the common man, execution was frequently hanging, no matter the crime. For a nobleman to hang, though, was a mark of his shame. For all, though, to be hanged upside down–either before, during, or after death–was a special infamy and especially humiliating.
It’s from the Italian practice and its intense associations with betrayal and humiliation that many tarot historians believe the Hanged Man imagery originated. The Italians not only physically hanged people, they metaphorically did so in frescoes. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists were frequently commissioned to paint images collectively known as pitture infamanti (defamatory portraits) on the walls of the main centers of justice in northern Italy. They were intended to act as effigies and to humiliate and insult traitors, debtors, thieves, and frauds. As with modern effigy practice, the people these images depicted were rarely killed.
While none of these frescoes survive today, a few of Andrea del Sarto’s practice sketches for a commission do exist, and are shown above. Clearly there’s more than a little visual similarity between these sketches and the Tarot’s Hanged Man, and as the earliest Tarot decks were made in northern Italy in the mid-thirteenth century, it certainly is easy to make a historical connection between the archetypal image and these objects of extreme humiliation. When you add in the facts that the Hanged Man was also called Il Tradatore (the Traitor) in some early decks and that his number in the Arcana is always twelve in every known deck (twelve referring to Judas Iscariot, the twelfth of Christ’s apostles and the one who betrayed him to the Romans), you really don’t get the sense that any original meaning of this card was positive.
After a lot of soul searching and reflection, I’ve decided that interpreting the Hanged Man in the conventional way is completely appropriate and wholly preferable in how we consider the Major Arcana as the Fool’s journey into a holistic knowledge. And yet, we should be aware of the horror behind the image. There will certainly be readings where the betrayal and humiliation behind this card will be far more relevant than other interpretations.