Of the Major Arcana or Trumps, there are four that people seem to get most nervous about. A movie trip to the fortune teller would simply not be the same without one of these notorious trumps foreshadowing someone's inevitable downfall:
- 12 The Hanged Man
- 13 'Unnamed card' aka Death
- 15 The Devil
- 16 The Tower
Their imagery has shock value for a reason - when people are scared they listen, they might even think. This group of cards, along with 14 Temperance, would be the equivalent of going through the 'Bardo' of Buddhism - the intermediate and transitional state before rebirth, where who knows what lurks.
12 THE HANGED MAN/LE PENDU
The Hanged Man could signify the beginning or intermediate stage of this difficult trial period, but it depends what the circumstances are. The card is about gestation, waiting in limbo or utero, also of sacrifice. "Le Pendu" suggests a pendulum, time. Odin hung upside down from the world tree, Yggdrasil for nine days, in self sacrifice, to attain wisdom and the knowledge of rebirth (what the tree stands for). Indeed, the Hanged Man does not appear to be suffering, but accepting of his situation. As higher octave of 3 The Empress, this card also has a womb theme. It's complex symbolism includes solar connotations (12 months in a solar year, 12 apostles, 12 signs, etc, etc). It can also be about initiation or retreat. But it is unlikely to signify an actual hanging, unless of course there is a specific reference to it in the reading !
Sometimes it is simply telling us to 'hang in there.'
One thing I have always found interesting is that in many of these older decks, the 12 is printed backwards (IIX instead of XII). Are we being encouraged to turn it right-side up ?
13 THE UNNAMED CARD
In the following card, 13, the Reaper will harvest the cycle. Two crescent Moons in the image (skull and scythe) give hint to it's lunar connotations, ie, 13th moon in a lunar year. 13 has been considered unlucky simply because it is lunar/feminine, that is the only reason ! Friday the 13th used to be an auspicious day, combining Moon and Venus (Frija's day).
In a reading, if the 'Death' card comes up, it is definitely about finality, finishing up a cycle, and it simply is what it is, without comment, beyond our power. New growth/life is not possible without reaping what was sown before, hence the first sprouts of rebirth are already coming up. It's really quite a beautiful image. I find that the later this card comes up in a reading, the less likely it is about a physical death, but there can be grief or stress associated with any major ending. Also, the trumps being higher or unconscious forces tend not to differentiate - a death is a death, whether it's your 99 year old uncle in the hospital or the overdue end of a love relationship. Again, it depends what's being asked and what other cards come up with it. Remember, the unnumbered card, the Fool, is Death's counterpart. Only a fool would think there's really any end ?
15 THE DEVIL/LE DIABLE
The Devil is a most interesting card. In Tarot Marseille he/she's more of a comical, Pan character, unlike the satanic, Waite interpretation. It often comes up when women ask me about some guy they met on the internet, true, but really what it represents is the 'shadow', on all levels. It is the higher octave of 6, the Lover, and do we not frequently loathe, but also fall in love with our demons, once we've projected them onto someone else ?
Lucifer means 'Morning Star' who was the light-bearer we know as planet Venus. Among her many incarnations, she was called Ishtar. Ishtar had an underworld sister, Ereshkigal, who's graven image typically looks a bit like the figure in trump 15*. The pentacle is one of Venus' symbols (based on her orbit)** and five petals and 5-pointed stars also appear throughout her plant queendom. Her pentacle has been used/abused in the black arts, which could be regarded as he shadow expression. People who don't understand Tarot immediately see trump 15, and indeed the whole deck, as being sinister, as if the Devil card were it's representative. There is some truth to this - in the wrong hands, powerful symbols or archetypes can be destructive, seductive. They can eat you... but only to break down your ego or false self.
16 THE TOWER/LA MAISON DIEU
The Tower is again about completion, but by it's placement and number we can see it is not quite the same sort of ending as Death, for it is the higher octave of 7, the Chariot. (Again, Waite made it darker than necessary). In Tarot Marseille it's "La Maison Dieu", the God House (or rather, the "Oh God" house, because let's face it, seed is being scattered here !). This card finishes off what the Devil started, a striking down of the false self or ego, an effigy of the 'I' who's purpose has been served, just like when an empire or corporation becomes too big or a building too tall. 9-11 was an awful, all-too-real example of this archetype manifesting outwardly, in biblical proportions. More often, though, it comes down to personality crisis, and subsequent release from one's own imprisonment - be it in a body, foundation or mindset - all of which can be scary. After the fall, grace, recognition of inner beauty and real self-esteem is at hand in 17, the Star.
Updated Jul 25:
To elaborate on the concept of 'release from one's own imprisonment.' What this means is a release or unleashing of blocked or yet unexpressed potential. Everything has infinite potential, but can only evolve so far within a given form, before release will be necessary, to change into an new form wherein more potential can be expressed. In astrology this card would correspond to Uranus. Uranus' glyph is a key, and it's transits - which can be very creative or destructive - always unblock or release potential. (Uranus is the higher octave of Mercury and Mercury, the hermaphrodite God, is responsible for the transmutation of forms). So whether it translates as moving from a place that is inhibitive to work or sand being fired into glass, that is the more esoteric meaning of The Tower.
...and Rob Brezsny just posted this quote to FB, which sums up the concept of potential, perfectly. What timing !
"Treat a stone like a plant, a plant like an animal, and an animal like a human." ~ Choctaw saying.
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**Venus pentagram explained (because I'm not able to !):
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