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Concerning a Hanged Man before a Hinged Door

K. W. Gilbert

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While reading a chapter concerning "The Poet as Occultist," I came upon a passing reference to the cards of the Tarot:

"One of the oddest things about the Tarot pack is that there seem to be no legends concerning its origin..."
[Colin Wilson, The Occult, New York: Random House, 1971]

As Wilson summarizes: Count de Gebelin believed that it was an invention of the Egyptians, carried into Europe by the (e)gypsies... but it was known in Spain, Germany and France as early at 1392, a century before the gypsies appeared in Europe.

Alternately, de Gebelin suggested that the illustrations were often mistakes caused by miscopies, giving for an example the Hanged Man, who, if he were inverted would resemble a man standing on one foot while reaching out carefully to place the other--a symbol of "Prudence." But the illustrations remain identical, across hundreds of years and national boundaries, suggesting that the Hanged Man was meant to be just that, a man hanging upside down, suspended by one foot.

What, then, does the Hanged Man symbolize? And why is he the symbol of it?

Wilson then refers us to Robert Graves' "historical grammar of poetic myth," the White Goddess. Wilson comments only that Graves associates the Hanged Man with the seventh letter of the long lost, Celtic/Druidic "alphabet of trees." The Hanged Man belongs to the letter "D," which stands for both "door" and "oak." Wilson agrees that "the gibbet on which the hanged man swings certainly looks like a door." He leaves it at that.

Turning to Graves, I continued my reading. He contends that it is Janus, the forward and backward-looking god of the Winter New Year, to whom we must look for the meaning of an oaken door.

"It was Janus, 'the stout guardian of the oak door,' who kept out Cardea and her witches, for Janus was really the oak-god Dianus... and his wife Jana was Diana (Dione) the goddess of the woods and the moon. Janus and Jana were in fact a rustic form of Jupiter and Juno..."
[Robert Graves, The White Goddess, Now York: Noonday, 1948]

Nothing in this role of Janus sheds light on the upside down hanged man, but if we look to who Cardea / Jana / Diana was then we are on the right track.

There are two sides to Cardea. As the White Goddess she was wont to "disguised as formidable night-birds ... snatched children from their cradles and sucked their blood." Later, as Jana/Diana she becomes the hinge on the nursery door, keeping herself out. She was co-opted to protect against her own entry, but as Ovid's quote shows never entirely gave over her ability to open the door she held shut.

"The Latins worshipped the White Goddess as Cardea, and Ovid tells a ... story ... connecting her with the word cardo, a hinge. ... Ovid says of [her] apparently quoting a religious formula: 'Her power is to open what is shut; to shut what is open.'"
[ibid.]

It was this reference to infanticide that called to mind the iconic photograph of the new-born, held aloft by his one straightened leg while the other flexes, bent at the knee as babies habitually and universally do. He is upside down, his eyes still closed, his mouth open--yelling, the thick, twisting umbilical cord looking much like the thick, twisted hemp rope used for a hangman's noose.

This led me to wonder if, instead of a man hanging upside down beside an oaken door, we should be looking for an infant; and what could the relationship be of the new-born to the Hanged Man. I went searching for any evidence of why a new-born was part of the story of the Hanged Man.

Looking in the tree alphabet mentioned by Wilson, I found the seventh letter, "D for Duir," the letter of the Oak. The importance of the oak includes that fact that its wood is used for Midsummer Eve Bonfires, and the attraction of lightening bolts to oaks. Oaks also provide the acorn, whose little cap, in Northern Europe replaces the Indian lotus flower and Egyptian rush basket, in which to float the Miraculous Child, who will appear, parricide and saviour all in one, on Midsummer's Day. The story of the oak, immortalized in the aphorism parvis e glandibus quercus, "tall oaks from little acorns grow," is the archetypal tale of the son(god)'s replacement of the father(god).

Graves summarizes multiple versions of this myth as its told of a god, or demi-god known as Hercules. "Hercules," is the Latinization of the Greek "Heracles," or "Glory of Hera," where "glory" means "hero," or "champion." Therefore Heracles/Hercules can represent any young "son of the Goddess," who goes forth to perform the sorts of feats and wonders common to heros and champions.

Whatever tasks the (demi)god Hercules performs for his people, slaying lions, stealing guard dogs of the Underworld, et cetera, his primal role is to fertilize both the land and the priestess of his people, thus ensuring the continuation of the tribe. His reign ends in a violent, orgiastic holiday, whose culmination is the death, often by dismemberment while still alive, of the King of the Old Year, followed by the coronation, and (public) copulation with the King of the New Year, by the head Priestess. It was this honor (to be the King of the New Year) that Mary Renault has Theseus run away from in her book The Bull From the Sea.

But what if we looked at the exact manner of Hercules death not as horrific sadism, nor as overkill, but as personification of the harvesting process? Why should Hercules the man be bound and beaten and flayed and dismembered. His blood is caught and used both as an intoxicating drink, and to christen the fields. He is finally burnt and eaten, the fire also liberating his soul or spirit to ascend to heaven, or wherever the abode of the souls of heros was construed to be.

Consider the Ode to John Barleycorn, the order is slightly amiss, but all the elements are there: "They've hired men with the scythes so sharp / To cut him off at the knee..." he is dismembered; "They've hired men with the sharpest hooks / Who've pricked him to the heart..." he is pierced through the heart; "And the Loader, he has served him worse than that / For he's bound him to the cart..." he is bound; "They've hired men with the crofting sticks / To cut him skin from bone..." and, finally, he is flayed.

It is the grain which must be cut down in its prime, bound in sheaves, beaten and flayed to separate the grain from the chaff, the seed-bearing "head" lopped off from the body of straw. Reverse the last two steps of the procedure and roast the grain first to malt the sugars, then "cook" it with the heat of fermentation to produce the "blood" which is used for intoxication and libation.

But the process of brewing beer was only one process where the metaphors of death and rebirth were employed. As old as Dionysian mysteries, far older than the Tarot, are the arts and recipes of Alchemy. What alchemical functions are symbolized by upside-down-ness?

Immediately we have the four elemental icons, the upward pointing equilateral triangles for fire and air (those elements who "naturally" seek to rise) and the downward pointing triangles that denote water and earth. Therefore a man who is hung right side up is rising, whereas if a man wishes to descend (or for his spirit to descend) he might wish to point himself in the right direction, i.e., downward or upside-down.

Why would a man wish to descend, or to become like water or earth? The answer lies in the first step in the alchemical process, the putrefaction of the prime matter.

"...the text [of Salomon Trismosin, Splendor Solis, 16th century] explains the alchemical work as an opus contra naturum in which the libido is pulled back to the germinating earth for the purpose of letting it 'putrefy' there in a cruel spring...
... [a] running brook disappears inside the temple as a river Styx leading to the underworld and the land of the dead. ... Torn between fear and desire, [two philosophers] discuss the descensus ad inferos implied by an entrance into the sanctuary. Its season of spring is a season of sacrifice, its river of life a stream of blood, its royal rulers a violent sun and moon."
[Johannes Fabricuius, Alchemy, London: Diamond Books, 1994]

A spring sacrifice, a "river of life," which is a "stream of blood" running downward, to the earth, or even the Underworld. These are the hallmarks of "the opening of the [alchemical] Work." Are there further clues to tie this Work with the Dionysian Hercules?

Hercules the lion-hunter, his pelt tied by crossed paws over his chest, oak club in hand becomes the very picture of King Marchos the lion hunter recounted in the Pretiosa margarita novella of Janus Lacinius (1546), which "shows the son's usurpation of the king's throne carried out by murder followed by 'cannibalism.' By drinking his father's blood the king's son assumes his father's body, thereby attaining to parental reunion and rebirth."

In order to capture the (father) lion, the son must first trap him in--variously in a pit or a well. The transformation of the father as King of the Waning Year into the son as King of the Waxing Year occurs within the pit or well of the wife-mother's vagina. The father sexually "drowns" within the same "well" that the new-born son emerges from.

"... [the] slaying and decoction of the 'lion and his father,' whose essence is mixed with the well-water and drunk as the much-sought-for elixir of life; 'Whoever takes the blood of the lion and then does him justice by burning to ashes with heat and violence the body of his father, therein pouring the blessed water, he will obtain a remedy healing all sicknesses...'
[Hieronymus Reusner, Pandora, 1582]" [Johannes Fabricuius, Alchemy, London: Diamond Books, 1994]

Fabricuius comments that "the royal water marriage is closely connected with the natural act of thunder and lightning, carrying in alchemy the dual meaning of traumatic horror and celestial illumination..."

But what if the thunder and lightning didn't signify the experiences of the drowning King, but of his newborn Son?

"...the traumatic thunder-storm of alchemy may be interpreted as rendering the acoustic and visual aspects of the birth experience. Accustomed to the womb's water darkness, the infant's eyes receive the first impressions of sunlight in the same way as the eyes of an adult perceive the flashes of lightning on a night of thunder. ...the eardrums of the infant, which have been shielded by the sound-absorbing 'walls' of the maternal body, are in birth exposed to sounds likely felt as peals of thunder."
[Johannes Fabricuius, Alchemy, London: Diamond Books, 1994]

Graves reminds us that it is the oak (club) carrying Hercules whose job it is to call forth the thunder and lightning of the Spring rains, but also perhaps of birth.

We have the evidence of the Ode to John Barleycorn that the practitioners of the cycle are conscious or its repetitious nature: "They've plowed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in / Through plods of barley's head...", the new Sir Barleycorn is sown not into the soil, but into the residue of last years king, the "plods of barley's head". And at the time of planting, "... these three men made a solemn vow, /'John Barleycorn is dead'." "Is" dead, not "will be." The promise of death-in-life which is the obverse of the hoped for life-in-death.

The cruel fate of the reborn king is described by the 'Epigram of the Hermaphrodite," which derives from about 1150 A.D. It is one of the earliest sources on the subject:

When my pregnant mother bore me in her womb,
They said she asked the gods what she would bear.
A boy, said Phoebus, a girl, said Mars, neither, said Juno.
And when I was born, I was a hermaphrodite.

The hermaphrodite is the symbol of the synthesis of opposites, once again we have death-in-life / life-in-death.

Asked how I was to meet my end, the goddess replied:
By arms; Mars: On the cross; Phoebus: By water. All were right.
A tree overshadowed the waters, I climbed it;
The sword I had with me slipped, and I with it.
My foot caught in the branches, my head hung down in the stream;
And I--male, female, and neither--
Suffered by water, weapon and cross.
(quoted in the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, #14: Mysterium Coniunctionis)

Our hanged man is the hermaphrodite, the intermediate stage between male and female, death and rebirth. He is the moment when the Goddess, pregnant with the Waxing King, is symbiotically both herself and him; and when the foetus within her is both the Waning King--represented by his seed--and the fetal Waxing King.

Thus we have growing evidence, albeit from disparate sources that the Hanged Man may be read "coming and going" as the old Lion King about to be disposed, and the neonate Son-King held aloft at the moment of his birth.

Is the significance of the water covered entirely by its amniotic uterine significance? The Hanged Man card is sub-titled "Spirit of the Mighty Waters." Let us put aside the question of who the spirit of the waters is, for a moment, to comment on the Spirit who moved on the mighty waters:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." (Genesis 1:2)

The "spirit of God," or that aspect of the Godhead which can be made manifest, was known to the Hebrews as the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God. Likewise the Greeks understood the Holy Spirit to be Sophia, the feminine attribute of Wisdom. It was only the Johnny-come-lately Romans whose Latin translation, spiritus, changed the gender, and therefore the associations of the text.

Baptism is the act of submerging an adult initiate into the mighty waters so that he can be born again into the Knowledge.

"Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?" Jesus answered, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter in to the kingdom of God."
[John 3:3-7]

Perhaps our upside-down Hanged Man is being dipped into the mighty waters, recreating the posture of the emerging infant in an act of sympathetic magic through imitation. If so there ought to be some clue as to what Knowledge he hopes to gain through so difficult and parlous an action.

"The main problem of paganism is ... 'must all things swing around again for ever? Or how can one escape from the Wheel?' ...The Orphics had [a] solution and engraved it in cypher on gold tablets tied around the necks of their beloved dead. It was: not to forget, to refuse to drink the water of ... Lethe however thirsty one might be ... [and so] to become immortal Lords of the Dead, excused further Tearings-to-Pieces, Destructions, Resurrections and Rebirths."
[Robert Graves, The White Goddess, New York: Noonday, 1948]

Perhaps the card of the Hanged Man is an iconographic cypher, reminding us of the same thing. In death there is rebirth, whether we wish it or not. Willy-nilly, which is to say "will he [or] nil he," he is born again; held aloft by the midwife's firm clutch, his umbilicus wrapped around his neck in a hangman's noose, as that which both suffocates life and delivers it.

The Origin of the Universe in an Ultra-dense, Miniscule Singularity and the Evolution to the Valentine Universe
we Know and Love Today

(a) In the intitial stage of the Universe, there was only an infinitely small and infinitely dense heart. (b) At the moment known as the big-bang, the initial singularity"exploded". (c) The evidence of this explosion is still visible in the Universe today as background microwave radiation (d) Over time the particel of sub-atomic "dust" and gas coalesced into stars and planets.