Many Pagans do not believe death is the end. Whether they have faith that they will be reborn, continue their existence as a spirit alongside their gods, or think their energy is reused over and over in the creation of something larger, many of us have a belief that this life is not all there is. In many ways, this is one of the few belief systems that unite the many branches of Paganism under one umbrella. It is because of this that, when divining truths pertaining to the afterlife and our own descent into the underworld, our ally is to be found not in the Death card … but in the Hanged Man.
In the Western world, when not explicitly speaking of the tarot, the image of a hanged man brings to mind images of a person put to death. Guilty or innocent, young or old, the person is stripped of their dignity and hung high as a warning to others. The traditional meaning of the Hanged Man card in the tarot is not quite as grim, but it also represents a person who has gone through a trial and been stripped of everything before making their sacrifice. Unlike the person being put to death, however, the Hanged Man of the tarot deck is inverted and has a free leg, implying that though the hanging is something that cannot be escaped, they still possess a measure of power and free will. Though they are hung, they still retain their inherent sovereignty, and the hanging itself is not a judgement but a trial that must be undertaken in order to continue along their journey.
The Hanged Man calls to mind the descent into the underworld of Ishtar, of Odin, of Persephone, and of countless heroic figures. The Hanged Man journeys to the underworld to sacrifice all that they have been and known, but to come back from their journey with a remarkable truth. Just as Ishtar journeyed into the underworld to gain knowledge, just as Odin hung Himself from a tree, just as Persephone goes into the underworld and embraces Her power to become a queen, so too does the Hanged Man make a journey that we all must make. A sacrifice of self is made to overcome all that is known and to grow from that sacrifice.
Death is not the end for us, as so many Pagans believe. It is a journey we must all take, a sacrifice of self in order to attain greater wisdom regarding our place in things. When we return we are forever changed, made greater by our experiences in the underworld, more fit to undertake the burdens that are asked of us (whether that descent is literal as in death, or figurative as in a great struggle in our lives).
Consider performing a three card draw to see what you are being asked to sacrifice and to learn, what your own descent into the underworld will be like. Directly draw the Hanged Man from the deck and let it be the first card, directly steering the course of the following two cards. Let the second card be drawn normally as you would any other tarot card, representing in this case the sacrifice you will be asked to make. Let the third and final card be drawn to represent the reward that making this sacrifice will bring to you. Is the sacrifice worth the reward? Will you take the plunge and embrace the spirit of the Hanged Man?
[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]