On Liminality and the Hanged Man

I’m completing this bit of writing as I look at the materials to make a vigil candle to call up the influence of the Hanged Man in the tarot. The Hanged Man is one of the more creatively interpreted images in the stack of cards and, in much the same way that what’s occult is often unspeakable, what’s happening in the image is a challenge to explain.

He’s not hung from his neck to die; he’s not hung from his hands like a prisoner. He strung up by his foot, his body creating a glyph, and his head illuminated by a halo. There’s something profound going on at this moment, and he’s not only required to hang there and experience it — he agreed to it, if he’s in this position. He’s certainly not struggling to free himself; he must know eventually he’ll be cut down. He’s unafraid largely because of what being immersed in that experience is providing for him.

One can dig through the lore of so many cultures to find the stories of those strung up. Erishkegal hangs her sister Inanna on a meathook in the underworld; she then experiences first-hand suffering and death and, by her affirming her sister’s misery and grief, comes off the hook changed and reborn. Odin sacrifices an eye to gain the privilege of the ordeal of wisdom-gaining; he hangs upside down for nine days on the World Tree when, through his new vision, he sees the crossing branches of the tree showing him the runes, and he brings back writing and magic to his people. The Christ Jesus, sacrificed by being crucified on a cross of wood, dies and is reborn to bring salvation and new life to a suffering people. It’s pretty clear that the process of being hung is not just to cause death, but to push change and renewal forward. (It’s also significant that the deities mentioned above also became rulers of the people, maimed and blind, but newly wise.)

So, looking at this Hanged Man in the card, we see a seeker put through an initiatory ordeal with the goal of giving up what he thought he knew to be true in order to gain the wisdom to rule, to counsel, to guide. It speaks to the need for an experience of suffering to help make a person whole. But the moment we are witnessing — in this card remarkable in its simplicity compared to the other cards — is one of liminality. The past is gone, your childhood is over, what you have learned to this point is irrelevant. The future is not here yet. Liminality is a forcing to reckon with the present.

As I write, we have gotten word here in Minnesota that we have reached an outstanding 60% population immunity to COVID-19 (the vaccine rollout here has been stupendous), and all the quarantining and social restrictions we have suffered through all year are slowly going to be lifted in phases by the end of May. Just in time for our glorious Minnesota summers. Even the mask mandate will be done by July. All of us are nearly ecstatic with the thought of coming together, breaking bread, hugging each other, and celebrating our new freedom.

 I’m looking at my candle and card and making sure I pause. We aren’t cut down from the tree yet; there’s still much to learn. It would be too easy for people to sigh, and squeal, and say ‘now we can go back to normal’.

Some of us know that, no, we will never be normal again, and hope we never will be.

Here in the Cities in particular, not only were we handed the crisis of the pandemic — forcing us to turn inward to face our personal demons — but we lived through the murder of George Floyd by a cop, the fiery outrage of the oppressed, and finally, a trial and justice served — forcing us to contend with the societal demons then we will be fighting for years to come. It’s always tragic and painful when someone has to die (especially so many this year) in order for the rest of us to gain the new vision to change who we are and what our society has been. But we have the stories of the innocent or the willing dying so that the rest of us learn what it is to live, and to live justly and rightly, compassionately. The Twin Cities have spent this last year hung upside down by their foot; we could not cut ourselves down and run away, we could not hide, and we have been forced personally and socially to change completely. Let’s hope we gain the wisdom to keep acting on that as well.

After years of personal struggle, I start a new job Monday; I also received my second vaccine shot yesterday, and as a result, I feel a little weary and achy today. I’m also a little nervy — this is the first step toward a changing life that I have been praying and doing rootwork for, but I am also strung up by my foot today. I may be so all summer, while we come while we all come to terms with becoming a healthy and just society. The temptation is to jump to what I dream will be a better existence and what that entails… The challenge is to stay suspended, liminal, and surrendered, and to let this transformative moment be fully felt and known.

The most frightening challenge I was ever given in a Pagan ritual — after a week of fasting, sweat lodge work, sleep deprivation… all the things to push you into the liminal… was the moment I looked into the priestess’s icy eyes as she said… “Change. And accept the change.” No running away. No skipping out. You don’t have the resistance or willpower left to do any of those things. You surrender…

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