Other Places to Find Humility in the Tarot

So I discussed the gestural symbolism of humility found in the Two of Swords in a previous blog. But it strikes me that there are other places in the tarot where this virtue can be found. Can you think of any?


The cards that come to my mind immediately are the Five of Swords, the Hanged Man, and the Fool. Perplexed? Let’s look…


The Five of Swords

Five of Swords, Rider-Waite-Smith

We have to do a bit of conjecture when looking at the Five of Swords. Someone is picking up discarded or used weaponry while “smirking” back at two dejected individuals walking off the battle scene—or we suppose it was a battle scene; it certainly has been interpreted that way by lots of readers. But there is no body, no one injured that we can see. Still, the slumped (gestural) body language of the individuals walking away from the scene would seem to indicate that someone has lost something or been defeated. The body language seems to indicate depression, or defeatism, and disappointment. What’s to be disappointed about? Presumably whomever they were rooting for lost. If this was indeed a game, or a match, or a duel, or a battle… the art of losing entails having the humility to accept defeat gracefully, does it not? One has to be a “good loser” or the situation ceases to be a game, and may boil into something more devastating… like a battle or prolonged embitterment.


The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man, Rider-Waite-Smith

The Five of Swords seems like the most obvious place to attribute or find humility (or, rather, where it begs to be found). What about the Hanged Man, though? Where can we find humility in this card? Here it sort of depends on the interpretation or attribute that we apply to the card, although several interpretations might result in similar results. The Hanged Man is one of the most mysterious of the Major arcana, and thus a “traditional” interpretation of what is happening in the card—or whom the card is depicting—is highly debatable.


(1.)  Lots of people attribute the hanging figure in the card as imitating depictions of punished traitors from the Renaissance era. Records of murals dating from that period have been found depicting traitors to the State (treasonous acts) and are shown being executed by being hung upside down. These murals were known as pittura infamante (shaming postures). Thus one interpretation of the card has been attributed as traitorous actions or treason.

From Wikepedia:


Pittura infamante always depicted men and never women, and generally depicted upper class men (who would have the most to lose from character assassination). The act of hanging, itself, was also significant, as affluent criminals would generally be afforded the privilege of beheading rather than hanging; hanging was also shameful in religious contexts (e.g. Judas) [see below]. The topos of mundus inversus (“world upside down”) is often associated with comedy and humiliation.

Famous artists who painted pitture (sic) infamante frescoes include Andrea del Castagno, Sandro Botticelli, and Andrea del Sarto. There are no surviving examples of pitture (sic) infamante frescoes, but contemporary sources suggest that they were brightly colored. Detailed descriptions of pitture (sic) infamante in primary sources are rare. A very few preparatory drawings, however, are extant, and the Hanged Man from Tarot cards is thought to resemble the archetypal pittura infamante theme, as Tarot decks were first produced in northern Italy in the 1440s.


In the sense of the depiction being attributed to pittura infamante, then, humility is rather forced upon the individual, in the sense that the high are brought low. The root of the word (Latin: humilis: humble, lowly) being better ascribed here in its infamous later Latin form: humiliatus: to lower the pride or dignity of by causing to be or seem foolish or contemptible.

Pittura Infamante, Andrea del Sarto

Preliminary sketches of pittura infamante mural art by Andrea del Sarto

It is possible that an iteration of the Hanged Man in this context actually existed as part of grand Triumphal parades of the Roman era. Traitors or general enemies of the state—otherwise known as prisoners of war—were often marched through the parade route as part of their conquered humiliation, allowing the public to see—and jeer at—the enemy. The parade culminated at a place of justice, or before the conquering emperor, or at an arena of execution, where the fate of the prisoners would be made.


(2.)  Because of the tree of wood from which the [tarot] Hanged Man “hangs” upon, the tarot card has also been attributed as representing Jesus Christ (who was hung upon the rood, or the cross). Jesus wasn’t hung upside down, but this hasn’t stopped artists or tarot enthusiasts from making the connection. Another interpretation of the card is sacrifice, and because Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for our sins, it is easy to make the connection. In many decks, the individual form hanging upside down is depicted with a radiant halo disk around his head (also known as a nimbus, and aureole, a glory, or a gloriole), adding fuel to the fire towards the argument that the intended relationship is supposed to be someone who has sacrificed themselves for holy reasons. The Tau Cross (which looks like the capital letter “T”—note the Rider-Waite-Smith deck image at the top of this section) predates the Roman-era cross of the crucifixion, and is sometimes known as the Anticipatory Cross, because the Crucifixion Cross came to symbolize Christ’s sacrifice.

The Hanged Man, Voyager Tarot by James Wanless

The Hanged Man of the Voyager Tarot by James Wanless

Not only did Jesus Christ suffer humiliation during his trial and preparation for crucifixion, but in the greatest irony, Jesus epitomized humility by allowing himself to be mocked, ridiculed, tortured, persecuted at public court, contrasted against a murderer, and killed simply for teaching in the temple. The Gospels are full of rich and contrived ironies meant to emphasize the humility of Christ. A critical [hermeneutical] story analysis of the Passion account provides a completely ironic tale of humility that early readers of the Passion story would have found amusing or even funny—yes, the stories of the gospels were meant to be entertaining! The ironies are so blatant because it was considered effective literary device for story-telling in the early Christian world.


In Matthew 26:53-54 when Jesus is about to be arrested, he says to Peter, in order to dissuade him from violent action, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way?” All things are possible with God (or the Son of God), he is saying, and yet Jesus humbles himself to extremes so that he can become the fulfillment of prophetic scripture and open the gates to Heaven for mankind.

Pontius Pilate presents Jesus before the public crowd for judgment

Pontius Pilate presents Jesus before the public crowd for judgment.

The crown of thorns, the robes of scarlet, the posting of his crime above his head which announced that he had called himself the “King of the Jews,” (Matthew 27:27-43)…we (reading the accounts as historical documents from a future time frame) understand these things to be complete ironies, because—in the Christian belief system—Jesus actually was a king worthy of a crown and scarlet robes; he actually was more than simply the King of the Jews—he would become king of all humankind in the New Jerusalem. When he is offered by Pontius Pilate to the public crowds for jury next to an infamous murderer, what was the name of the murderer? The murderer’s name was Jesus Barabbas. In Greek, this name means “Jesus, Son of God” (Bar Abba). That means Jesus the Son of God—the murderer—was pitted against and ransomed for Jesus the actual Son of God. This kind of ironic literary device would not be lost on early Christians, and it accentuates the utter humility that Christ suffered for the very people who persecuted and murdered him.

The Crucifixion of Peter in Rome

(3.)  Another way to attribute the Hanged Man character in the tarot is as an apostle—Peter—who was crucified by being hung upside down on a crucifixion cross. The story of Peter’s death in Rome comes through popular Christian tradition, which relates that Peter requested to be crucified upside down, because he did not feel worthy to imitate the death of his mentor and spiritual leader, Jesus Christ. The halo disk representing holiness found in many depictions of the tarot Hanged Man, works quite fluidly in this attribution. There is also a grand gesture of humility expressed through this story.

The Kiss of Judas as painted by Giotto

(4.)  Yet another attribution for the tarot Hanged Man that is sometimes made is that of the character of Judas, the betrayer of Jesus Christ. There are two accounts of the death of Judas—one in Matthew 27:5, and one in Acts 18:1. However, only the account in the gospel of Matthew works for this designation, for in the story, Judas attempts to return the silver coins he was paid for his treasonous act against Jesus (by kissing Jesus to reveal him to the Roman soldiers and having him arrested). When the chief priests and elders refused to take the money back, Judas, “[t]hrowing down the pieces of silver in the temple,…departed; and he went and hanged himself.” It is conjectured that this is one reason that some early tarot images depict the hanging traitor in the card holding money bags or purses, and coins falling from his person.

The Hanged Man in the Minchiate tarot deck.

The Hanged Man in the Minchiate tarot deck.

The Hanged Man in the 16th-century Tarot of Bologna deck.

The Hanged Man in the 16th-century Tarot of Bologna deck.










But what if there’s another angle to the story?


Interestingly, a recent archeological discovery regarding Egyptian papyrus fragments have revealed a Gnostic Gospel of Judas. Documented first in a National Geographic Society documentary [¹], and subsequently detailed in a book [²] and magazine [³] form by National Geographic, the gospel has been critiqued by no less than New York Times bestselling author and Princeton University Religion Professor Elaine Pagels in a book entitled Reading Judas [4]. The book has stirred a lot of controversy, emotions, and vitriol from Christians unable to tolerate the earthquake underneath their granite-solid beliefs. Why? Because the Gospel of Judas changes everything.


In this gospel account, Judas is not the betrayer of Christ; he is Jesus’s most trusted apostle of all. He is so trusted, that Jesus reveals his secrets to him and plots with Judas to actualize his own arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Whoa. So Judas was not the ultimate villain and betrayer of Christ; in this gospel he actually sacrificed the most in order to trust and assist Jesus to become the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy.

The Kiss of Judas as painted by Fra Angelico

The Kiss of Judas as painted by Fra Angelico.

What happens when you take away the most reviled and hated enemy of Christ from fundamentalist Christians? They apparently get really, really pissed… even if—irrationally—the catalyst of their ire happens to be a highly educated and respected biblical scholar. It’s true that the Gospel of Judas falls under the category of Coptic Gnostic literature—gospels that were not approved or included in the New Testament canon by the Council of Bishops and the Holy See between the years 367 and 393 AD. However, much of Catholic doctrine and social teaching has been the result of populist literature, tradition stories, and syncretic myths that were promulgated in equally “heretical” literature or oral stories. Take for instance the infant stories of Mary, her immaculate conception, and her assumption, which despite being absent from approved biblical literature, have been pontifically decreed as authentically true in the Church’s opinion. [5] Another example of a popular folktale legend that likely was extruded from Gnostic literature or simply syncretic folklorist storytelling is the story of the blossoming rod of St. Joseph. Even in contemporary churches today St. Joseph is repeatedly depicted in paintings and statuary form holding the blossoming rod that “chose” him as Mary’s God-approved husband, and no one decries the heresy of the myth as offensive simply because it does not appear in the Bible. Also, St. Christopher—the patron saint of travelers—likely never existed and is likely the syncretic confabulation of a pagan story, yet Catholic devotees have purchased medals with his image for hundreds and hundreds of years.


No, the uncomfortable-ness that the Gospel of Judas incites has less to do with the technicalities of its Coptic origins than it does with people having a hard time with change and with new ideas that upset their status quo. “If we can’t hate Judas, then who can we hate? ” is what is going through the minds of those without enough imagination to conceive of a different rendering of the stories they learned in Sunday school.


Who suffers if Judas turns-out to be more devoted to Jesus than previously thought? How does it change the story of our faith? In the story, Jesus is still arrested by the Roman soldiers, is still tried before the public by Pontius Pilate, still suffers the Passion, still dies, is buried, and rises on the third day. So how does salvation through Jesus change? It merely allows us the option of not having to have an enemy in Judas; it just means that we don’t have to revile a character as inherently evil. It means instead of dread and casting aspersions towards an historical individual, we are allowed to turn our hatred into gratitude and thanks. That’s all. The reëvaluation of Judas has been sensationalized and disparaged almost as much as Judas himself. The real earth-shattering revelation isn’t National Geographic’s sensationalized and ill-timed release of the Gospel of Judas, nor is it the heated reaction and perpetuation of Judas’s inherent evilness promoted by believers of faith. The real earth-shattering revelation is that we’re allowed to love instead of hate.

The Kiss of Judas

What does the Gospel of Judas mean for the Hanged Man image in the tarot? Follow me here… For one thing, if the possibility exists that the vilification of Judas is just as contrived and invented as the whore-ification of Mary Magdalene, by a Church that wanted to control not just its own message of morality and ethos, but also wanted to control its peasant population through a socially conditioned message… then in reëvaluation of an historiographical perspective, we have the right to redefine the ethos. We’re getting into feminist and liberal theological critical analysis approaches here—but it’s partly why (and how) we can apply a contemporary prudential application to the images in the tarot cards. We can reëvaluate the story of Judas and note that it’s not necessary for Judas to be a villain in order for us to garner an ethical catechism or learn a moral guidepost from the story. We can recognize that Judas was fulfilling the will of Jesus—and therefore of God—in preparing humanity for salvation through the Passion. In our new interpretation, Judas plays a humble role: not unlike Mary agreeing to help fulfill God’s will by birthing the Christ child, Judas agrees to help fulfill God’s will by assisting in the re-birth of the adult Christ.


Heresy? In a different age I’d be burned at the stake for suggesting such a thing. There are certain people who would read this blog passage and see the flames licking at my flesh in their mind’s eye. But in my own defense, and forthrightly speaking, we are not restricted by tradition or by traditional, static interpretations of the Bible or of the tarot (a pauper’s bible) in order to find solutions to complex ethical problems. Jesus asked us to apply virtue (as described in the Beatitudes and the antitheses of the gospel of Matthew) to our ethical dilemmas. We become humble when we agree to make such an effort consciously, and refuse to let ourselves be defined by social tropes, conventions, and memes.


That all seems like a lot to absorb, so I’ll leave it at that for this blog entry.  We’ll investigate where and how humility might be found in the Fool card in another post…


[¹http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/index.html (most recently accessed May 1, 2015).

[²] purchase at your local independent bookstore, or at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-Judas-Second-Edition/dp/142620048X.

[³http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2006/05/judas-gospel/cockburn-text/1 (most recently accessed May 1, 2015).

[4] purchase at your local independent bookstore, or at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Judas-Gospel-Shaping-Christianity/dp/014311316X/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1430515598&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=elaine+paghels+reading+judas

[5] “…it was believed that Mary was generated without sin and bodily assumed into heaven by Medieval Christian well before these beliefs came to be defined as de fide, part of the deposit of Christian revelation. During the Middle Ages, the theory of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was vigorously debated by theologians…The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not actually made an article of faith until 1854, and the doctrine of her assumption not until 1950.” (Madigan, Kevin. Medieval Christianity: A New History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015. p.94.)

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Posted in Catholic Philosophy, Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Reading for Virtue, Tarot History, Tarot Reading, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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