This is the fourth article in our series about the esoteric meaning of the Major Arcana. In this article, we will examine the cards XII – XV. The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance and The Devil. If you are interested in the previous cards, IV to VII, please click here.
12. THE HANGED MAN
- Hebrew letter: Mem (Mother letter): Water
- Astrology: Neptune
- Element: Water
Keywords: Self-sacrifice, Reversal, Release, Wisdom
Arcana 12 corresponds to the Hebrew letter “Mem” which means water. Water reflects and reverses the images cast upon it. This is what we see on this card.
Card 12 shows a young man hanging upside-down, by his foot, from gallows. The gallows form a Tau cross, reminds us of the Hebrew Letter Tau. This letter in Tarot corresponds with card 21 “The World”, which symbolizes the real world which is hidden from the ignorant, by their delusions.
In this image, we should notice that:
- The tree is living wood, with leaves on it.
- The face expresses deep entrancement, not suffering.
- That the figure, as a whole, proposes life in suspension, but life and not death.
His expression is calm and serene, suggesting that he was placed there by his own free will in order to see the world from a completely different perspective. (Quiz: Test your Knowledge on the Hidden Meanings of Tarot)
His eyes are open and his hair waves upon the wind. There is a halo around his head, indicating enlightenment, awareness, and insight. He is hanging from his right foot but his left foot remains free and crossing his right forms a cross. In the 18th degree of the Freemasonry of Scotland, the hermetic grade of the Rosy-Cross, one of the signs of recognition consists in crossing the legs such as those of the Hanged Man.
At the same time, his hands are tied behind his back forming an inverted triangle. His arms form the base of the triangle and his head forms the point.
The Hanged man wears red pants, indicating human passion and the physical body, and a blue shirt (like the robe of the High Priestess) indicating calm emotions and knowledge. The yellow color of his shoes, hair, and halo symbolize his intellectual powers which must be active in order to understand his situation.
The fact that his head being turned towards the earth, suggest his earthly preoccupations. He is devoted to the good of others who are victims of their own ignorance and selfish passions.
There is a profound meaning in this card, but it is veiled. The law of reversal is one of the great secrets of occultism and is apparent in this card. Its meaning can be stated as follows:
In order to reverse the conditions of unhappiness, disease, and failure, and replace them with their opposites of health, happiness and success, it is necessary to think, speak and act in ways that are the reverse of those in which most people think, speak and act. The logic of the average human being, who bases his reasoning on superficial appearances, is precisely the opposite to the logic of an adept, who knows inner realities.
Reversal. Wisdom. The soul released from the enclosing body. Mysticism. Priest. The man comes in contact with God. Collaboration with the Great Work of universal change from evil into good. The individual frees himself from the instinctive selfishness to ascend into the divine. Redeeming sacrifice. The activity of the soul. Remote intervention. Telepathy. Moral perfection, Self-denial. Complete forgetfulness of self. Devotion. Absolute indifference. Voluntary sacrifice. To benefit a higher cause. Patriotism. Priest, prophet, seer. Utopian, dreamer lost in the clouds and deprived of common sense. An enthusiast filled with illusions. The artist conceiving beauty, but incapable of translating it into a work of art. Unworkable plans.
- Hebrew letter: Nun (simple): As a verb, “to sprout, to grow.” As a noun: “Fish.”
- Astrology: Scorpio
- Element: Water
Keywords: Inescapable fate, Transformation, Necessary end, New Beginnings, Influence.
Arcana 13 depicts the “Grim Reaper” as a representation of death. It is a skeleton dressed in black armor, riding a white horse and holding up a black flag with a white pattern.
Bones are the only part of the human body that remains long after death. However, the skeleton is the foundation of all our bodily activities. Therefore, here it symbolizes the basis of all function, the foundation of growth and development.
His black armor gives him invisibility, symbolizing that death will come and no one can deter him. On the contrary, his horse is white, the color of purity, and indicates strength and power. Death bears a black flag decorated with a white, five-petal “Mystic Rose” which signifies life, while the number five represents change. If we combine these symbols we understand that this card is not about the end of life, but about change and transformation, something comes to an end and something new begins.
The rider carries no visible weapon, but all classes of humans fall before him. A king appears to be dead on the ground while a child, a woman, and a bishop await for their turn.
There is a river with a boat float on it, in the background, that reminds us of the river “Acheron” and the mythological ferryman that escorts the dead to the afterlife. (Quiz: Test your Knowledge on the Hidden Meanings of Tarot II)
On the horizon, between two pillars shines the sun of immortality. In order to understand if the sun sets or rises, we need to determine the rider’s movement. He moves towards the right side of the image. The wind blows the flag, the branches of the trees, the small plants and the flag of the boat to the same direction. In occultism, North is the side of dark, disintegrative forces, while South has to do with regeneration. Hence, this card shows a rising sun, to indicate the beginning of a new cycle of manifestation, the regeneration that follows the death.
Life is a perpetuated change. The profane must die to be reborn to a superior form. The wise man who wants to achieve an intellectual autonomy, he must die to his usual way of thinking and to reborn to freedom of thought. In Alchemy, the subject destined to provide the matter of the Philosopher’s Stone, in the other words the profane admitted to initiation, is also condemned to death.
Imprisoned in a hermetically sealed container, hence isolated from any external influence, the subject dies. At this point the color black appears, symbolized by Saturn’s crow which is a good sign at the beginning of operations of the Great Work. ‘If you do not see this blackness in the first instance predominant over all other colors, then you must have failed in the work and must begin again!’
Transformation. The principle that renews all things. Moving to a new phase. An inevitable necessity. The fatal progress of evolution. Change. The Spirit of Progress. Liberation, Spirituality. Dematerialization. Disillusion. Intellectual penetration, Perception of reality despoiled of all sensory surrounding. Complete clarity of judgment. Integral initiation. Death in the initiating sense. Detachment. Asceticism. Inflexibility. Incorruptibility. Power to transmute, capable of regenerating a corrupted sphere. Control. Necessary end. Fatality. Failure whose victim is not responsible. Radical transformation. Renewal.
- Hebrew letter: Samech: To prop, To bear up, To uphold, To sustain, To establish.
- Astrology: Sagittarius
- Element: Fire
Keywords: Patience, Middle Path, Serenity, Coldness, Adaptation.
The central figure on the Temperance card is an angel with wings. He bears a solar disk on his forehead and his head surrounded by rays, suggesting that is an angel of the sun. I refer to him in the masculine sense, but the figure is neither male nor female.
He wears a white robe with a triangle enclosed in a square on the front, representing the divine, invisible world, that acts and manifests itself, inside the visible, tangible world.
His one foot is in the water indicating the subconscious, while the other is on the rocks indicating the physical world. The fact that he stands on both shows that the transformations of mental states bring about corresponding changes in the physical world.
The angel pours water between two cups without one drop being spilled. The cup from which water is poured represents the cosmic reservoir of conscious energy, while the other represents the subconscious mind. The water falls in a triple stream to indicate that we come into contact with this power through subconsciousness, but combine all its activities, superconscious, conscious and subconscious.
In the background, there is a path leading to twin mountain peaks, reflecting the journey through life. At the end of a path, is a crown, suspended in the air in a shining light. It represents the first of the ten Qabalistic Sephiroth, Kether, the Crown. It is a symbol of the fulfillment of the purpose of life, and the twin mountain-peaks on either side of the crown stand for two other Sephiroth, Wisdom and Understanding.
Everything about this card represents balance. When Temperance dominates our consciousness, it tempers and combines the mental and material natures, leading to perfect harmony. (Also read: The Best Tarot Books For All The Occult Students)
Moderation. Universal Life, its unceasing movements, its motion within living people. The moving fluid that restores the spent energy. The curing energy of Nature. Healing thaumaturgy based on the tapping and controlling of vital currents. The transfusion of the power that gives life, healing magnetism, occult or mystic medicine. Transmutation of a vital order. Psychic Alchemy. Mysteries of water and fire. Miracles. The fountain of Youth. Indifference to the ambiguity of life. Even temper, peace-giving calm, health, good circulation, regularity of exchanges, conditions favorable to the prolonging of life, indifference, impassiveness, resignation. Ease of adjustment, elasticity, courtesy. Sensitivity to external influences.
15. THE DEVIL
- Hebrew letter: Ayin (simple): ‘’eye” and ’’fountain,” but also “outward appearance.”
- Astrology: Capricorn
- Element: Earth
Keywords: Disorder, Passion, Sexual Excitement, Attachment, Addiction, Restriction, Exploring dark thoughts, Materialism
The principle of contrast is obvious if we compare cards 14 and 15. The angel of light on the 14th card, and the angel of darkness on the 15th card.
The Devil corresponds to the Hebrew letter Ayin, meaning not only “eye” but also “external appearance”. Therefore, we understand that this card depicts the way things look, not the way they really are. In the same way, the word “devil” derives from the Greek word “διαβάλλω” which means “slander.” Thus, “The Devil” represents everything that gives us a bad opinion about the worth and value of our own real nature.
A careful examination of the symbol will show us that it contains many of the details we have already seen in other tarot cards but under a different aspect. (Quiz: Test your Knowledge on the Hidden Meanings of Tarot)
The Devil appears to us like Baphomet of Templars, a creature that is half man, half goat. This monstrous idol derives from the Levi’s “Goat of Mendes”. Originally represented the balance between good and evil or “the equilibrium of the opposites”, but more recently, this figure has been adopted as the official symbol of the church of Satan (with a downward-pointing pentagram) and has become a scapegoat for all things considered ‘evil’.
The Devil has bat wings, bringing in our mind the vampire bat, an animal that flies at night and sucks the blood out of its prey. A parallelism of what happens when we are absorbed with our lower material desires.
He has donkey ears because the donkey is one of the symbols of Capricorn, which is the astrological affinity of this card. His face is that of goat, but he has a human hypnotic stare, which hypnotizes those who come near him, bringing them under his influence.
His brown hairy body suggests the element of earth, while his huge size suggests his great power on the physical plane.
An inverted pentagram is on his forehead, which is a symbol of evil magick. It represents the inversions of the powers of normal mankind because when man misunderstands himself, and in his thoughts inverts his true position, the result is always against him.
He raises his right hand as making a gesture suggesting that, there is nothing hidden. But this is the main illusion that leads to all the devastating results In his left hand, he holds an inverted flaming torch. It burns smokily and gives little light, indicating the inverted use of the Mars force which leads to destruction.
He is standing on a cubic pedestal, sign that everything happens on the material world. The shape of the pedestal is half-cube, a symbol of half-knowledge of the physical plane. In front of the pedestal, there is a ring, from which two people, a man, and a woman, are chained from their neck. They are bestialized, naked with small horns and tails, showing that they are becoming more and more like the devil as long as they remain under his influence. The grapes and the fire on their tails signify pleasure and lust. This scenery is analogous to that of the fifth card as if Adam and Eve after the fall.
If we look closer we will notice that the chains around their neck are loose and could easily be removed, but their individual power has been taken from them and they think that they can do nothing. This is a perfect representation of what is happening in human consciousness when it is dominated by false knowledge.
When we look at our world, we see a set of irreconcilable elements, mixed in something that seems to be a hopeless confusion. The central figure of this card, the Devil, is a perfect example of this confusion, the mixture of male and female, human and animal, bird and beast. Although nothing like this exists, at the same time they are all an aspect of reality. There is no Devil if by this term one means an evil, independent personality opposed to God.
There is a Devil if by this term you understand the divine power of materialization which seems to enclose the Limitless Light within the boundaries of three- dimensional existence. This is the power which apparently subdivides the “One Life” into many separate lives. The earthly Agent of creative activity that performs its material work.
In this sense, the Devil really possesses us when we come into the world and that must be so. But this possession does not last because we are destined to free ourselves little by little from the tyranny of our innate instincts. Everything in Nature has a hierarchy in which unconscious forces submit to the direction of what is superior. Our mission is to transform the lower forces at the command of higher ones. The man who can tame the beast in him may have this power at his disposal.
Attachment. Ignorance. The Soul of the World seen as the reservoir of the vitality of all living beings. Darkness. The astral light of the occultists. Occult forces connected with animal life. Instinct, unconscious, subconscious, impulsion. Magic arts, sorcery, fascination, human magnetism. Suggestion, influence exerted occultly. Action on the unconscious state of others. Domination of the masses. Incantations, disturbing eloquence. Rousing of appetites, of coarse instincts and base passions. Demagogy, revolution, upheaval, denial. Trouble, lack of balance, disorder. Misuse, greed, lack of moderation in all forms.
- Arthur Edward Waite, “The Pictorial Key To The Tarot” 1911 (aff.link)
- Oswald Wirth “Tarot of the Magicians” 1927 & 1985 (aff.link)
- Paul Foster Case “Introduction to Tarot” 1922 (aff.link)
- Papus “The Tarot of the Bohemians” 1896 (aff.link)