Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols by Robert V. O'Neill The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man

Single UprightSicilian
No lopped BranchesParisianVisconti-Sforza
Beam alive Sicilian
InvertedWirthT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
Arms behindWirthT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
Hands untiedVievilleCharles VI
Legs crossedWirthT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
Left leg behindWestcottVievilleCharles VI
RopeWirthT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
Red TightsT de Marseille
Blue TunicT de MarseilleCharles VI
Red BeltVieville
SlippersWirthT de MarseilleRothschild Sheet
Hair fallingWirthT de MarseilleCharles VI
Eyes OpenWirthT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
RelaxedWirthT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza


  1. Radiant Halo - My speculation is that Waite is making reference to the Adeptus Minor initiation ritual of the Golden Dawn. The red cross (formed by the red tights on his legs) over the triangle (formed by his arms) is an emblem of the Golden Dawn (Regardie, p 28 but he says the triangle should be white). This symbol is used in the initiations of the First, or Outer, Order and is found inverted on the World card.

    The Tarot cards, starting from the World, formed a part of these initiations. By the time you get to the Adeptus Minor Ritual, you have reached the Hanged Man. During the ritual the initiate is bound to a cross (Regardie p 228f) and takes an oath "I further promise and swear that with the Divine Permission I will, from this day forward, apply myself to the Great Work - which is, to purify and exalt my Spiritual Nature so that with the Divine Aid I may at length attain to be more than human, and thus gradually raise and unite myself to my higher and Divine Genius...." Following the oath, the adept says "...if ye be crucified with Christ, ye shall also reign with Him...It is written that he who humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Regardie, p 230). And later, "...teach him the value of self-sacrifice, so that he shrink not in the hour of trial...It is written: ‘If any man will follow after Me, let him take up his cross and deny himself, and follow me’...I accept the Bonds of Suffering and Self-Sacrifice" (Regardie, p 235f).

    So the halo may refer to the idea that the initiate is now consciously taking on the mission of the mystic. In traditional terms, he has taken an oath to follow the path of the "saint" - hence the traditional halo.

  2. This same 3 and 4 symbolism may also be suggested in the background colors on the cards. There are 3 sets of cards with the same color, there are 3 cards in each set and they are separated by adding 4 to the previous card.

    1. Yellow: start from Empress +4 = Chariot +4 = Justice
    2. Gray: start from Hierophant +4 = Hermit +4 = Death
    3. Blue: start from Priestess +4 = Lovers +4 = Wheel

  3. "Azoth or Star in the East" p 166 "... the life of contemplation consists wholly in the soul's surrender without reservation to God..." (Hanged Man??)

  4. Moakley (in The Tarot Cards... 1966, New York Public Library, NY) suggested that the Hanged Man image was a “Shame Painting.” In the 15th century, it was common to paint images of traitors in this inverted position. Often the images were a kind of graffiti painted on walls in the city.

  5. The original imagery may also have been influenced by Dante. Freccero (Dante: The poetics of conversion, 1986, Harvard University Press, Cambridge) develops the theme of conversion in Dante. Conversion implies a death and resurrection of the self. The journey begins, not with a direct climb toward God; instead the first steps are downward. “It has the effect of shattering the inverted values of this life”(p 4).

  6. Upside-down is actually rightside up! The inversion of values is truly the first step of the mystical journey. (See e.g., Augustine - “Descend so that you may ascend.” Confessions IV, xii and Ephesians 4:7 - “He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth.”)

    “So the traveler moves in one absolute spiral direction which is to the left as he descends and to the right as he ascends, after having turned upside-down at the earth’s center. When he called his clockwise descent ‘a sinestra’ and his counter-clockwise ascent ‘a destra,’ Dante was evoking a tradition as old as Pythagoras and as authoritative as Aristotle” (Freccero p 74).

    “When the pilgrim reaches the end of his leftward spiral at the bottom of hell, he turns upside-down, “converts,” and sees things from the other perspective” (p 86). “A puzzling detail at the center of Dante’s cosmos, the pilgrim turning upside-down on the hide of Satan, in fact derives from the blending of a passage in Plato’s Timaeus, the one Platonic work that Dante might have known directly, with a commonplace Christian motif” (p 181).

    (The reference is to Plato, Timaeus 43e - The circles “barely held together, and though they moved, their motion was unregulated, now reversed, now side-long, now inverted. It was as when a man stands on his head, resting it on the earth, and holds his feet aloft by thrusting them against something; in such a case right and left both of the man and of the spectators appear reversed to the other party.”)

    Freccero p 182 - “By turning upside down at the center of the universe, the pilgrim and his guide right the topsy-turvy world of negative transcendence from which they began. Satan, the prince of this world, seems right side up from the perspective of hell; after crossing the cosmic starting-point, however, Dante sees him from God’s perspective, planted head downward with respect to the celestial abode from which the angel fell. Moreover, the pilgrim will ascend the mountain in the same absolute direction that characterised his spiral descent into hell.

    Because of his inversion, however, the direction can no longer be described as a descent ‘a sinestra’ but is rather an ascent ‘a destra.’ In short, one of the symptoms of the pilgrim’s spiritual disorder in the first part of the poem is that up seems down and left seems right. As it happens, this is precisely a symptom of the disorder of the newly incarnate soul in Plato’s Timaeus. The ‘circles’ of reason and passion in the soul are disrupted when it is yoked to a mortal body.”

  7. Another possibility is that the image represents St. Peter who was crucified in the inverted position. Consider this from the Apocryphal (and Gnostic influenced) Acts of Peter: “I beseech you the executioners, crucify me thus, with the head downward...and the reason wherefore, I will tell...Learn ye the mystery of all nature, and the beginning of all things... For the first man (this refers to the Gnostic myth of the first man “Anthropus”) fell head downwards and showed forth a manner of birth such as was not heretofore; for it was dead, having no motion. He, then, being pulled down...established this whole disposition of all things, being hanged up an image of the creation wherein he made the things of the right hand into left hand and the left hand in the right hand, and changed about all the marks of their nature, so that he thought those things that were not fair to be fair, and those that were in truth evil, to be good. Concerning which the Lord saith in a mystery: Unless you make the things of the right hand as those of the left, and those of the left as those of the right, and those that are above and those below and those that are behind as those that are before, ye shall not have knowledge of the kingdom.”

    Acts of Peter, chapter 37f (James 1924 The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press. 1975 reprint).

  8. According to Dante and the Acts of Peter, therefore, the inverted hanged man can finally see and understand things the way they really are.

Based on original research by Robert V. O'Neill. To add to this collection of information, please email Robert V. O'Neill.

The Fool
The Magician
The High Priestess
The Empress
The Emperor
The Hierophant
The Lovers
The Chariot
The Hermit
Wheel of Fortune
The Hanged Man
The Devil
The Tower
The Star
The Moon
The Sun
The World
Introduction to Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

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Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

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