The Hanged Man As Rites of Passage

When I was very young I lived not more than 5 miles from the US-Mexico border (San Ysidro, what’s up?) While I am not of Mexican descent, I was heavily influenced by my Mexican teachers, classmates and friends in ways that reverberate even though I am now very far from the Baja California that feels like home.

It is no wonder, then, that as a college student I was naturally attracted to cultural anthropology. From what I learned in my studies, it is second nature for me to see the underlying human condition that the archetypes of tarot typify.

The Hanged Man, in particular, has so many cultural parallels that it astounds me. In fact, I am convinced that the Hanged Man is one of the most important (yet, sadly, underrated) cards in the deck. This card is incredibly powerful, unbelievable ancient, and supremely intimate.

As an adult looking back into my early memory, there are fragments of childhood fascination that entered my cosmological make up. One of these was a fascination with in the once indigenous (now Mexican) Danza de los Voladores. Pictures and graphics of these men taking flight were on my textbooks, and also I have one faint memory of seeing them in action.

By B.navez — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As stories go, this ancient ritual was created when the people wanted to appease the rain god, Xipe Totec, so that the rains would appear and the land would grow again, but there any many variations to this story.

This is one example of how, throughout history, throughout vastly different cultures, voluntarily hanging oneself is a means of opening the communication channel to God.

I refer to the Hanged Man as the ‘check engine light’. We get the Gods’ attention by turning ourselves upside down, “Pay attention to our plight,” we cry. “Help us with our needs. See how we brave this for you? See how we hang for you? See how we humble ourselves for you?”

We also, in some sense, emulate for a moment what we think a God might be like, soaring through the sky unencumbered, we gain a new perspective on the world.

The now ubiquitous bungee jumping also has ancient roots. Before it was appropriated, it was known as land diving on the southern Pentecost Island of Vanuatu. The people would erect wooden towers of up to 90 feet with their feet tied with jungle vines.

By Paul Stein from New Jersey, USA — Pentecost Island Vanuatu, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Legend has it that a woman was trying to escape her husband, climbed a tree, and when he followed her, she tied vines to her feet and leaped off. This ritual was originally enacted by women, but over time it has shifted to become a rite for masculinity as well as an act performed to ensure a good yam harvest. The tower is constructed with diving platforms at various lengths. The lower platforms are for young boys who dive as a rite of passage into manhood while the highest platforms are for feats of courage and strength.

The Hanged Man is a rite of passage to ever greater spiritual maturity. We hang to ripen, we hang to show God and society that we are capable of handling things that scare us. We test the known boundaries of the world both desiring to be like God and also currying God’s favor.

We show the Gods that we can endure. We prove to ourselves we are capable of delayed gratification. We teach ourselves that we must give something to get something. The Hanged Man is an exchange. The Hanged Man is bartering.

The Okipa ceremony originates from the native North American indigenous people, the Mandan. The ceremony was tied to their complex creationist stories but also became a complex series of endurance tests for young men looking to please the spirits.

By George Catlin — Image from, Public Domain,

“The Okipa began with the young men not eating, drinking, or sleeping for four days. Then they were led to a hut, where they had to sit with smiling faces while the skin of their chest and shoulders was slit and wooden skewers were thrust behind the muscles. With the skewers tied to ropes and supporting the weight of their bodies, the warriors would be suspended from the roof of the lodge and would hang there until they fainted. To add agony, heavy weights or buffalo skulls were added to the initiates’ legs.” (Wikipedia)

Those finishing the ceremony were seen as being honored by the spirits; those completing the ceremony twice would gain everlasting fame among the tribe.

This ceremony has echos in a modern day Hindu ceremony called Charak Puja. Honoring the the God Shiva by acts of personal sacrifice means he will bless the land and people in the upcoming year. In this festival young men will also swing from poles using metal hooks that have been placed through the skin of their backs.

image from-

The Hanged Man means that we have been chosen to endure. The Hanged Man illustrates that we can only endure because of our relationship to God. The Hanged Man is emblematic of the sacrifice of our egos. We need, or desire something from God so much that we humble ourselves in order to celebrate the Divine.

Our new perspective, through pain or through flight, through being upside down, or flying across the landscape, gives us the same kind of non-ordinary reality that shamans use to connect to a unified field of divine experience.

While this may seem inconvenient, if not downright gruesome, to modern eyes, it remains that the Hanged Man is an ancient archetype. I don’t want to put metal hooks in my back, but I can appreciate what sacrifice, bravery, modesty and inquiry means as a technique for getting to a new level in my spiritual relationship with the divine.

In the RWS Hanged Man, we see someone whose face is not a rictus of pain. We see someone calm because he has given over control to larger forces. He knows that when he is no longer the one calling the shots and when he can allow himself to let go, we will be taken to new vistas, perspectives, and spiritual awakenings.

But, the Hanged Man is uncomfortable. Difficult. Ambiguous. The key aspect here is that we are not in control of this process. We have given it up to allow that mysterious Benevolence to intercede, to talk, to show up. We push (or are forced to place) our egos aside to allow that dialogue to occur.

The Hanged Man is a detested card when it shows up in client readings because its appearance means that the person asking the question is not going to get what they want in the way that they want it. They are often being asked to adopt a holding pattern of asking without demanding the answer.

Fear of what the Hanged Man teaches is a core principal of modern society. A society that blocks individuals from greater connection to the Divine.

This flies in the face of what we are normally taught in modern, secular culture.

When we let go of ego, we are telling God we are ready to talk.

The Hanged Man is the Liminal Aspect of Passage

As a professional reader, I can tell you for a fact that it is exactly when people are approaching (or in) their own versions of a Hanged Man that they come for a reading. Whether it is divorce, illness, job loss, or bankruptcy these clients are in liminal space. “What will happen? How will I get through this? What will this look like on the other side? Why me?” They ask.

We all want to know the final outcome. But holding space for not knowing, for being the ‘check engine light to God’ that I talked about is a powerful (and necessary) part of the process to change. Damn right it is uncomfortable. It is absolutely hard and a lot scary. This is part of the journey, is required by the journey.

Rites of Passage have three inherent elements: separation, liminality, and incorporation.

First, we take ourselves away from normative experience by undertaking an unusual physical task. Then, the task we have chosen pushes us into liminal space, that is space that is inherently discombobulating and unclear. This is the space where we are choosing to no longer be in control. Disorientation in this step is not only encouraged, it is absolutely a required element in a personal rite of passage.

The Hanged Man is the liminal aspect of the rite of passage. Without embodying the Hanged Man, we are denied passage to the other side.

Finally, we have incorporation. It is only through the passage that Hanged Man delivers that we can meet Death, the next archetype in the major arcana. In this sense, Death is the death of an old identity (boy to man) or (plebeian to shaman). Once the old self dies in some aspect, can we be reincorporated into normative society as the new, shiny being we have become.

Have no fear, reentry is part of this process.

How to Create Your Own Modern Day Hanged Man Experience

For the purposes of the Hanged Man, I think we have to consider that there must be a physical element to the process. Our body must also be involved in the rite we wish to enact.

But our society inherently eschews anything dangerous, so it hard to create the conditions that ancient humans utilized to push their spiritual consciousness to the next level, but here are some ideas:

Roller coasters

Bungee jumping

Sky diving

Deprivation Tanks

Hang Gliding

Deep Diving

Rock Climbing

Free Climbing

Cliff Diving

Aerial Yoga

Ariel silk dancing

Ritual dancing

Ayahuasca (Shamans use psychoactive drugs to create a rite of passage, I guess this would be considered a hack.)

Even moving to a new country

These are just a few ideas, please share yours below!

I hope I have convinced you to see the Hanged Man as an incredible aspect of the human condition. When the Hanged Man appears in a spread, I take notice, smile a little, and take my hands off the wheel.