Way of the Hero – Part 6 – The Journey Through Tarot Cards

In the previous “Way of the Hero” article, I have explained another step, or level of the Hero’s Journey and mapped it out within Tarot Cards. We looked at: The Strength.

Now our Hero will journey through The Hanged Man and The Death.

The Great Crisis – The Hanged Man

In all classical decks, the Hanged Man is shown hanging upside down, tied by his leg. In the Middle Ages, traitors used to be punished this way. In fact, this card does describe betrayal – one betrays his own business, he betrays himself. Hanged Man symbolizes the dead-end or a trap into which the hero was caught when he chose the wrong path.
The symbols on the card show us what the problem is. His legs form a cross while his hands form a triangle. The cross corresponds to the number four, which, in the western symbolism, represents the earth. In contrast, the triangle, and the corresponding number three represent the divine. Therefore, we see that he is in a “wrong world”, where the divine is at the bottom, and the earth is on the top. If we see someone in such a position, we would advise him to turn over and return to the “right world”.  And this is what we will be focusing on for the rest of our journey.

The number of the Hanged Man is 12. If we switch the numbers in 12 we get 21. The 21st card completes the Hero’s journey; it refers to a new-found paradise and, on another level, achieving integrity. If we compare these two cards, the figure on the 21st card resembles an inverted Hanged Man. Crossed legs at the bottom and an open hand is above. The hero’s immobility is replaced by a dance. The path that leads from the “wrong world” into the “right world” has been found.
As we shall see shortly, Hanged Man also represents hopelessness in the face of Death, the next card, and an increasingly urgent need to look into its eyes. If he refuses to do so, he will remain in the position of the Hanged Man – and sooner or later will become the living dead. But if he succeeds, he will become free and alive and will be living in peace with the Death.

The Hanged Man also symbolizes all of the crisis situations that force us to look back, including the midlife crisis. “Everything was just right, the situation was under control, and suddenly: a crisis!” However, it just seemed that everything was under control. To our dismay, life unfolds quite differently than we had imagined and expected. Our indignation at the crisis shows how unready we are to face our crisis (including mid-life).

This card represents all crises situations that try our patience, force us to abandon our intentions, and change course.

He, who is looking for integrity, will inevitably face something that will put an end to his “I”. He will face what he does not want to see and be (the shadow self), he will also meet the collective unconscious, which will become a real life-changing event.

Often the cause of this crisis is one of the underlying fears that Count Durkheim described as the threefold misfortune of mankind: the fear of annihilation (death or helplessness), the hopeless fear of loneliness, and the fear of losing the meaning of life.  The last one is particularly dangerous because it is usually unexpected. It is a profound sense of life’s meaning that allows us to withstand even the most difficult crises. But even the smallest crisis will become unbearable if our life will become pointless and absurd.

We need to understand that each crisis is valuable. It is hard to believe, but this painful dissatisfaction with life is not a sign of “mental disorder”.  For it is within the crisis the seed of understanding is hidden. Suffering helps this seed to appear. You should not avoid it, or get mad at yourself. You should face it, acknowledge it, and accept it. However, you shouldn’t praise yourself for it, or try to extend it or dramatize it. Crises are just incentives to self-knowledge. In order to move further, we need to accept that the current crisis is what it is – a crisis. And it needs to be faced and accepted without any judgments. Once we surrender to the situation, new horizons will start to open up.

The Death – Descent to the Underworld

“Dying is an interesting sensation, but your fear will stop you from enjoying it.” said a Zen master says to his dying student. The same can be said about the card of Death, which is the most fearful and misunderstood card of the Major Arcane. Death means the natural end of something powerful that is loosing its power and requiring regeneration. In any case, this card shows that one phase is completed and now it is time to say goodbye to it. But it won’t tell us if we are frightened of this farewell or have long awaited it.

We, human beings, perceive these challenging stages of our lives only in black, seeing only doom, end, and nothingness before our eyes; whereas the true value of this experience is going through a deep process of transformation, arriving at a new sunrise, to a new life.

However, this does not mean that we should treat the Death card only as an indication of the beginning of something new in life. Death always means separation and farewell. If the true farewell happened and the past is really dead, only then can the conditions for the transformation be formed.

Before permanently leaving the current stage of life, each of us must ask ourselves whether or not all of the requirements defined by this stage have been met. Only if we are certain that all the requirements are met, we may move forward with dignity. If the job is left unfinished, it will not be a move but an escape. Instead of the completion of a task, we will rush from one room to another, hoping to find something more attractive, exciting, or enjoyable. We will rapidly open new doors without closing the old ones. We will constantly run from farewells. This escape is our big problem. However, it is right here, during this stage, that we must let go of the old, for without doing this we will not be able to start a new chapter. And we have to really let it go; we have to face it, accept it, and let it go. The purpose of a situation in which we are bogged down, returning to the previous card of the Hanged Man, is to move through the old by letting it go before starting to head to the new. If we do not do that, then there will be no change. Instead, we will keep returning again and again to the situation of the Hanged Man, running back and forth between these two cards.

This condition can be compared to a movie we watch over and over again, the only difference is that we are actors playing the scenario unconsciously. It is like someone wrote a play that we are forced to re-enact over and over again. If we see that we are stuck in the same movie, once again falling into the same situation, we can be confident enough that we got stuck in the position of a Hanged Man who is afraid of death.

A squirrel running on a wheel is another example of the Hanged Man who is afraid of death. Imbued with the desire, joy of life, and inspiration of the Strength card, we start something new and then suddenly we find ourselves running the same race over and over.  But we cannot understand why the action that gave us so much joy and filled us with energy suddenly turned into nonsense. And instead of jumping from the wheel and freeing ourselves from the old, we decide to increase the speed. And when some external force (the Death) suddenly stops our wheel, disoriented, we don’t understand what happened. Disheartened, we have tried several times to unwind the wheel before we leave with a heavy heart and a firm conviction that we lost everything and nothing can be returned. It will probably take us sometime before we will be able to realize the absurdity of it all and understand how hopeless was the situation in which we got stuck. Only then will we understand that Death was a genuinely liberating experience.

Despite the fact that the Hanged Man often indicates a midlife crisis, he can stretch out over the entire second half of life. Anyone who at this stage is not looking for the solution to the crisis, except crying, complaints, and suffering, will live with it for the rest of the life. In this case, death will one day be the end of the journey and, at the same time, the end of life. However, we have the opportunity to learn our lessons from this crisis. We need to learn to part with the old and look at Death as a central theme in the middle of the life, after which all of the fun begins. That’s why the Death card in Tarot takes place in the middle of Major Arcane, rather than the end of it.

But we should not forget that a deep transformation takes time. Now we are descending into the Underworld. And only six cards later, starting from the 19th card, The Sun, we will begin our return to the light, we will reborn as new and whole.

The man is crucified (Hanging Man) between the pole of death (The Death) and the pole of life (The Strength). With age, the ego’s feelings of its own fragility increase in the face of inevitable death. In desperation, it is more often drawn to the pole of life (The Strength), trying to distract from thoughts of an unalterable fate. That’s why we cling to various things, intensely engaged in sports, love, looking for all sorts of pleasures, fueling a joy of life, and proving to ourselves again and again that we are still alive and our life is the same as before. We do all of this so that we can avoid looking in the opposite direction, where Nothingness is waiting for us, that scary black wall our ego is so afraid of.

But, as shown on the Tarot cards, the path from the Hanged Man to The Strength is a step back. Therefore, each time we will require more and more strength to be in the illusion of the perfection of the life. Each time we require a larger and larger dose of the Strength because the Death is still relentlessly knocking at the door of our consciousness. And, sooner or later, life will force us to move in another direction and look straight into the eyes of Death.

It doesn’t matter how much we know about death, what matters is how we go towards it, how close we allow ourselves to sense it and to which extent we let it penetrate us.

The more sincere we are, the richer our feelings will be; because when we are close to death, we start to fully respect life. Death is a true initiation, the only gate leading to a true secret.

And if we take our eyes off the Death with perseverance and fear, we will oscillate more between delight and despair. In its extreme form, this may result in manic-depressive psychosis. The more manically we try to increase the joy of life (The Strength), the more an inevitable depression will follow (Hanged Man).  Death shows us how to resolve this contradiction. She points us in the right direction. The Death is teaching us how we can resolve this situation; it shows us the way out.

The deepest transformation can only be achieved after passing through the pole of death. We can leave our current level of consciousness and move on to a higher one. However, this transition is always associated with the risk of falling into the abyss. That is the danger that this situation and this card is tied to.

© Rita Digilova 2010

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