The tree is in leaf and has black, white, yellow and red flowers, and has silver and gold fruit; its trunk is golden brown. A serpent with a red and black head descends the tree toward the man. On the ground nearby is a fennel stalk, in the hollow center of which a fire glows.
The picture is so drawn that when it is inverted, it suggests a happy man dancing a jig.
Stripped of his dignity, the seeker hangs head down, which symbolizes the debasement of his rationality. He is waiting, in suspension, on tenterhooks, dangling over the abyss, poised between heaven and hell. The tree, representing the central axis of existence, would provide everything he needs or wants, but he cannot reach it. Though he is tortured every day (as shown by the open wound), he patiently awaits a redeemer, for he knows that if he tries to save himself, he will plummet into the abyss.
Thus the Hanged Traitor represents suspension and depression as prerequisites to spiritual rebirth.
Next, when it was time to divide the sacrifice, Prometheus, the supreme trickster, betrayed Zeus to the benefit for mortals, for he tricked Zeus into taking the bones and skin of the slaughtered animal, leaving the meat for the people. Prometheus did this because he loved humanity, because from earth and his own tears he had created their bodies, into which Athena had breathed life. (Some say Zeus saw through the trick, but went along with it, because it cemented the differences between mortals and gods: mortals eat meat and grain - matter - and so their existence is material; gods consume smoke and fragrance - spirit - and so their existence is spiritual.) (Bonnefoy 122; Hesiod, Theog. 535-61; Larousse 93; OCD s.v. Prom.; SB&G 57)
Again, when in anger Zeus withheld his fire, his divine illumination, from humanity, Prometheus secretly brought some of Hephaestus' fire to earth. This is mortal illumination: it can go out, and will be extinguished if it is not nurtured and preserved; nevertheless it has saved humanity from living in darkness like beasts. (Bonnefoy 122; Hesiod, Th. 561-570; OCD s.v. Prom.; SB&G 57)
Because of his cleverness, Prometheus is the supreme craftsman. He instructed humanity in all the arts and sciences, which is why he had an altar in the gardens of the Academy. In particular, he taught the sacred arts of metallurgy, and first revealed Hephaestus' secrets of alchemy (which are represented in this trump; see below). (Bonnefoy 122-3; Larousse 95; OCD s.v. Prom.; Oswalt 250)
Even after Prometheus brought the illuminating fire, mankind was not yet truly human, for Prometheus' vision was limited to masculine characteristics. Zeus determined to complete humanity by sending Pandora, the archetypal Woman, divine in form yet mortal in substance. (This is the theme we can see through Hesiod's misogyny.) In this case Prometheus erred through hubris; therefore he was unsuccessful when he tried to subvert the plan, for Epimetheus, his complementary twin, married Pandora, and Zeus's will was done. (The moral is that sometimes acting spontaneously is better: we have Epimetheus - "After-thought" - to thank for our full humanity.) (Bonnefoy 123; Hesiod, Th. 571-616, Works & Days 42-105; Larousse 93; OCD s.v. Prom.)
After all this, Zeus still thought it best to destroy humanity, and so he caused a flood, which ended on the tenth day (for the decad brings all things to completion). Prometheus had foreseen again Zeus's plans and had warned his son Deucalion, who escaped in an ark with his wife Pyrrha (the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora). After the flood they sacrificed to Zeus, and so gods and mortals were reconciled. Humanity was then reborn from the bones of Mother Earth, sown by Deucalion and Pyrrha. (Larousse 93-4; OCD s.v. Prom.; Oswalt 249; SB&G 58)
When Prometheus betrayed Zeus for humanity's sake, he knew the consequences, and it happened just as he foresaw: on Zeus's orders Hephaestus chained him to a tree on Mt. Caucasus, where his liver was torn daily by Zeus's eagle. Yet Prometheus was not defeated, for he kept the secret that his mother Themis (XX.Justice) had told him: the goddess who would bear the son who would topple Zeus's rule. He did not reveal her name - Thetis - until Zeus permitted Heracles to shoot the eagle and loose his bonds. (For this reason a mortal was permitted to marry Thetis, and she bore Achilles.) (Hesiod, Th. 521-31; Larousse 95, 128; OCD s.vv. Prom., Themis, Thetis; SB&G 58)
Because bonds imposed by Zeus are irrevocable, even by him, Prometheus thereafter wore a ring made from his fetters and set with a stone from the mountain. Since that time people also wear rings with stones, in commemoration of Prometheus' sacrifice on their behalf. Likewise, Heracles donned, in triumph and celebration, the olive wreath as a symbol of Prometheus' bonds, as have people since that time. (Oswalt 250; SB&G 58)
A special punishment for criminals, especially traitors, was to be beaten while hung by the heels; if the traitor was dead, his corpse might be hung and abused in the same way. If the traitor or his corpse was not available for such insult, then he might be painted in this pose ("shame-painting"). This disgrace was used in Italy, Germany and Scotland, and was known in English as "baffling"; it continued into the twentieth century, most notably in the case of Mussolini and his mistress. (Moakley 95-6)
Pendens ("hanging") is a participle of pendeo, which means, of course, to hang, but also means: to be strung up for punishment, to hang on a tree, to be posted (e.g. as a criminal), to hang over a void, to be in a suspended state, to be impending, and to be uncertain (OLD s.v. pendeo, esp. quotes at 2.a). These are the senses in which our Traitor is "hanged."
Moakley (95-6) observes that Prudence, represented (unconventionally) as a dancing man or acrobat, replaces the Hanged Traitor in some tarot decks, so this trump is a possible candidate for the missing fourth cardinal virtue. However, this is probably one of Court de Gebelin's (1781) innovations (Kaplan I.139), who also inverts the Traitor. She finds some evidence that in Renaissance triumphs a performer may have done acrobatics while suspended from a gallows by one foot. I'm not convinced.
Latin proditor and Greek prodotes mean traitor or betrayer. The Latin word derives from a verb prodo, which, in its basic sense, means to project, thrust forward or produce, but in a more developed sense means to reveal, uncover, forsake or betray (OLD s.vv.). Similarly, the Greek word derives from prodidomi, which means to give beforehand, give up, forsake or betray (LSJ s.vv.). Thus the proditor or prodotes gives something away or reveals something, to the benefit of one party and the detriment of another, to whom he is supposed to owe allegiance. But one side's traitor is the other side's savior, and in many cases the traitor betrays the old regime to the (intended) new regime.
XI.Time, the Lord of Necessity, rules the Triumph of Time (or Death), comprising trumps XI through XV, all of which represent apparent reversals of fortune (Time, Betrayal, Death, Damnation, Crisis), which nevertheless have potential benefits. However, the Hanged Traitor is unique in that it represents a voluntary reversal of fortune, a voluntary sacrifice for the sake of greater good, for which Prometheus is the prototype (SB&G 58).
Prometheus knows that he is riding the Wheel of Fortune, and that he must turn under it at each new level in his spiral ascent. With complete foresight (= Prometheus), he places his fate in the hands of Fortune, and allows her to turn him over and send him into the Abyss. Prometheus relinquishes his accustomed control in the faith that he will be transformed for the better. In psychological terms, he is entrusting himself to the invisible work of his unconscious, for he knows that the psyche's way of healing itself is to pose impossible problems, which challenge him to advance up the spiral. By surrendering to Fortune he discovers his own destiny. (Case 139-40; Nichols 221-3; SB&G 58-9)
Mary Renault (quoted by Nichols, 224) explains the sacrifice: "it is not the blood-letting that calls down power. It is the consenting." By his willing sacrifice the Hanged Traitor has placed himself in a state of suspension, in which he waits in darkness for his fortune to be revealed. Though he knew the consequences of his actions, he nevertheless feels betrayed, and waits in loneliness; without his accustomed control he feels anxious and fearful, but his expression is peaceful, for he knows that vulnerability and risk are a prerequisite to further advancement. (SB&G 58-9; Simon 40)
Though he suffered from his torture, Prometheus was changed by the ordeal, for after he was freed, he was made immortal. Likewise, the Traitor, hanging head down, cannot escape from the Wheel, but he can discover its hub, where the gods reside. In this sense he can transcend his fate, for he can come to know the gods, who will thereafter become active in his life. By sacrificing himself, he makes himself sacred. From the upside-down perspective of the Abyss we can see the future, for when XII.Hanged Traitor is inverted, he seems to be dancing a jig, which foreshadows the triumph of XXI.World. (Nichols 216, 220, 224; SB&G 59)
Now, however, he hangs between the Heavens and the Abyss, between the sacred and the profane, which represent the twin poles of mortal existence, birth and death. There he is suspended, head down, contemplating his symbolic death, a life transition and the initiation of a new phase. (Nichols 217-8)
The punishment of the traitor is to be baffled, to be hung head down, which symbolizes the debasement of rationality, and the stripping of the ego of its dignity. Since the ego has exhausted its powers of conscious control, the intellect is also baffled, for the two senses of "baffle" are related. The original sense seems to be "to mock," and derivatively, to disgrace, to cheat and to confuse. The ego is baffled in all these ways. This is the necessary prescription for breaking out of the established patterns of thinking, for turning them upside down. (Case 138; Nichols 215-6, 218; OED s.v. baffle)
Some decks have the Betrayer hanging from his right leg (e.g. Piedmontese, Gringonneur, Waite, Case/BOTA) and others from his left (e.g. Visconti-Sforza, Rosenwald, Parisian, Marseilles, Crowley, Hall/Knapp). In our image the Betrayer is suspended from his left leg, since his initiation "depends" on his unconscious processes, and requires that conscious action (the right leg, on which we step out) be held in abeyance.
There is an old tradition that Prometheus was bound to a pillar or tree at the top of Mt. Caucasus, and Butterworth argues that this is the World Tree or Cosmic Axis, which connects heaven and earth. This is clearly depicted on a well-known Laconian black-figure vase (Museo Vaticano Etrusco Gregoriano), which shows Atlas holding up the sky over the Pillar, to which Prometheus is bound; the eagle tears his liver, and a serpent crawls behind Atlas. The Tree is closely associated with Zeus, for it is called the "awe-inspiring ladder of Olympus" and the "road of Zeus to Kronos' Tower" (Pindar's Second Olympian Ode; cf. XV.Tower and XI.Old Man = Kronos), which towers over the watery abyss and connects it with the fiery heavens. The tree is in fact the alchemists' fiery water, the means of shamanic ascent. (Butterworth, Tree 47-9, 189, 202, 205, pl. 28; Hesiod, Th. 521; Jung, Phil. Tree 305, 309-10, 323)
The psychological tortures of the practice are noted in the alchemical "Book of Ostanes," which says, "It is a tree that grows on the tops of the mountains..., who desires the torment of the seekers"; it cannot be defeated, and the goal can be reached only through resignation, knowledge and understanding. The antagonistic confrontation is essential: "Unless thy stone [= the Tree] shall be an enemy, thou wilt not attain to thy desire" ("Allegoriae sapientum," Th. Chem. V, 1660, p. 59). The mind and soul must be tormented with long reflection and intense meditation, but attempting to right oneself and conquer the Tree through conscious rationality will lose the Stone of Transmutation, and put the seeker in danger of falling precipitously into the depths of Tartarus, the black pit of mental illness. The alchemist may think that it is he that will torment the stone, but in the end he will discover his mistake. (Jung, PT 320-1, 323, 325, 327-8, 330)
Knowledge of the secret name of the Stone of Transmutation brings great power. Thus, Prometheus won his release through his knowledge of the name of the mother of the new celestial regime. So also the magician may bind and compel the spirits if he knows their secret names, but in the end they will have their freedom. When Prometheus was released, he revealed the "Secret of Thetis" to Zeus; that is, the hidden power was given over to consciousness, thereby discharging its danger. (Jung, PT 327-8)
The World Tree grows near the springs of the chthonic Oceanus, who befriended Prometheus during his ordeal and in whose abyssal waters he will be reborn. It was Oceanus (who corresponds to Oannes and, in Mesopotamia, to Ea and Enki) who taught Prometheus crafts, arts and letters, for all true invention springs from the fluid depths of the unconscious. (Butterworth, Tree 203, 205-6)
According to Jung, the World Tree symbolizes the personality and the Self (the complete psyche), and so it has the attributes of completeness, the quaternity and double quaternity. As a quaternity it is the tree of four branches in the vision of Zarathustra, and the pillar is a four-sided herm, representing the fourfold Mercurius and the four sons of Horus. As a double quaternity it has eight branches representing the eight great gods. As we will see, the Tree has a female spirit, the snake, which is a female Hermes corresponding to Prometheus, who is a male Hermes. The two bound together constitute the Mercury Duplex of the alchemists, a duality that cannot be reunified without the extinction of consciousness. The Tree is the alchemical opus and the Eagle its consummation. (Jung, PT 279, 305, 315, 319, 332, 336)
On the other hand, some say that the Tree has seven branches corresponding to the planets, but Michael Maier (Symb. aur. mens., 1617) says that the wood corresponds to Mercury, the flowers to Saturn, Venus, Jupiter and Mars, and the fruit to the Sol and Luna. The four colors of flowers correspond to the four stages of the alchemical opus (black: nigredo, white: albedo, yellow: citrinitas, red: rubedo), and to the planets Saturn, Venus, Jupiter and Mars, respectively. The fruit, which restore youth (i.e. are means of rebirth), are gold and silver, corresponding to the sun and moon. Indeed, the Tree's golden apples are identified with the Apples of the Hesperides (at the western border of Ocean), which Heracles was seeking when he freed Prometheus from his torments. The trunk is golden or metallic in appearance. In alchemical terms, the Tree is the Arbor Metallorum (Tree of the Metals) since the planets correspond to the seven metals of alchemy. (Jung, PT 305, 307, 309-10)
Like Prometheus, Odin hung himself upside down on Yggrasil, the World Tree, seeking illumination. Osiris also, was trapped in a tree while he awaited rebirth. (Jung, PT 340; Nichols 217, 220-1) And when Innana went into the Abyss, she "was turned to a corpse / A piece of rotting meat, / And was hung from a hook on the wall" (Wolkstein & Kramer 60). This alchemical putrefaction is the nigredo, the descent into Saturnine melancholia, necessary for transmutation (Jung, PT 331).
The Serpent, "the most spiritual animal," represents the chthonic numen of the tree, which complements the Eagle, the spiritual principle of the Tree (see below). The Serpent (with a red and black face) is a form of the dragon-girl, variously known as Sophia, Sapientia, Gnosis, Agathodaimon, Melusina and Lilith - the feminine Nous (Mind). In psychological terms the Serpent is unconscious natural wisdom and cold, ruthless instinct. She descends the tree to be the heavenly spouse of the shaman, his familiar, the soror mystica of the alchemist, who assists his journey to the underworld. (There is a story that Zeus said that he had fettered Prometheus, because Athena wanted to have an affair with him - Graves 39.i. Also, some say it was Prometheus, not Hephaestus, who split Zeus's skull to release Athena - Larousse 108.) (Jung, PT 303, 315, 317-9, 321, 333, 340)
According to Butterworth, the fennel stalk corresponds to Sushumna, the spinal passage up which rises the fiery Kundalini Serpent. Prometheus stole this fire from the smith Hephaestus (shamans are often associated with fire and smiths) and put it in the fennel stalk; the consequences of taking the Kundalini power by means of the stalk were the torments he suffered on the pillar. (Butterworth, Tree 203, 206) The glowing fennel stalk also reminds us that XII.Hanged Traitor is the Second of the Sceptre, complementing XIII.Death, the Principal of the Sceptre.
Zeus's Eagle, which is the agent of Prometheus' torture, represents the agony of askesis (spiritual exercise), for the novice must offer his body to the chthonic spirits, who will devour it, so that he can be reborn. Destruction of the body releases the spirit, which the Eagle leads in its ascent to the celestial realm, called the Way of Zeus. (The Eagle corresponds to the Babylonian Zu-bird and the Indian Garuda.) By killing the eagle, Heracles released Prometheus from his initiatory torments, for Heracles represents the alternative, chthonic path. (Butterworth, Tree 201-4, 206, 209) Prometheus must "die" (13.Death) and "descend to Hell" (14.Devil) before he can become enlightened by heaven (15.Lightning) and ascend to the celestial realm (16. Star, 17.Moon, 18.Sun).
Each day the Eagle comes and tears Prometheus' liver, which is restored again at night. We call this organ the "liver" because it was thought to produce blood, which sustains life; the Babylonians, Etruscans and Romans thought that it was the organ of the conscious mind, and the ancient Greeks said that the liver is the spring of the deepest emotions, for it secretes bile (khole), which is the essence of wrath (kholos). So we see that as a consequences of his practice (askesis), Prometheus is torn by his bitter thoughts during the day, but at night he rests from his grief, for the Greeks said that breathing restores the bile. Through spiritual exercises comprising meditation and breathing, his ego consciousness and life are destroyed and reborn repeatedly. (AHD, App. s.v. leip-; Onians 84-9)
In many early tarot decks (Visconti-Sforza, Marseilles) as well as many contemporary ones (e.g. Waite/Smith, Case/BOTA, Hall/Knapp), the Traitor's hands are tied behind his back, so that his arms and head form an inverted triangle, like the alchemical sign for water. This triangle is surmounted by the cross of his legs, so the combination is an inverted alchemical sign for sulfur. In Crowley's deck, the Traitor's arms are spread out, so that the cross surmounts a fire triangle. In this case I think Crowley is incorrect, as I shall now explain.
The equal-armed cross symbolizes completeness in general, but specifically the fourfold World Tree, which symbolizes the complete psyche. Its symmetry represents the stability and order of the earth, of civilization and of thought. It is the light of consciousness. (Jung, PT 332, 341; Nichols 221; Pollack 90)
The inverted triangle is the sign for water, and shows that the way is through the dark unconscious, for water is also a symbol of birth and rebirth, the amniotic fluid and baptismal font. The sign suggests the Mother's pubic triangle. We see that Prometheus' ordeal is a regressus ad uterum (return to the womb). (Case 135-6; Crowley 96, 98; Pollack 90)
Thus the cross over the triangle represents, cosmologically, the Tree standing over the Abyssal Waters, and psychologically, consciousness built upon the unconscious foundation, and the Self hanging over the Abyss. The cross represents the descent of spirit, and the triangle shows that it will descend into the Abyss. The cross and triangle are the sword and cup, the lance and grail. (Cooper s.v. cross; Crowley 98-9; Jung, PT 282)
The water triangle surmounted by the cross constitutes an inversion of the alchemical sign for sulfur, which represents a voluntary overturning of the sulfur principle. We saw in the discussion of X.Fortune that sulfur corresponds to the fiery principle at the topmost point of the wheel - nimis exaltatus (exalted too much). Prometheus knows that further progress requires that the king be overturned, that he hang head-down and descend with the wheel's rim into the Abyss. When the ego has been tossed over, the fiery spirit can join in love with the watery unconscious. There in the watery depths Prometheus may be reborn so that his spirit may ascend again.
The cross represents order and the tetrad; the triangle represents birth and the triad. Their product is XII, the number of the Hanged Traitor in almost all tarots, antique and modern (old decks from Bologna are an exception, in which its position is 13, as a consequence of Temperance, Justice and Fortitude being grouped together among the early trumps). This is of course, the number of the Zodiac, and symbolizes the Wheel of the Year, a complete cycle of manifestation. Twelve is the number of Fate, and the Hanged Traitor has willingly surrendered to the grasp of Fate. (Case 136; Dummett 6-7; Nichols 215, 219, 221)
Gamma is the Greek numeral for three, corresponding to the triangle, and gamma is the letter we assign to II.Empress. The Empress is also Venus, the Great Womb, the source of grace and "the hope that lies in love." Delta is the numeral for four, corresponding to the cross, and is the letter assigned to III.Emperor. Thus the triangle and cross represent the Empress and Emperor, as they also do in Case's tarot. The inverted sulfur sign shows that new conception occurs when the spirit of the Emperor descends into the womb of the Empress. That is: rebirth requires that the conscious spirit descend into the unconscious womb. (Case 136-7; Crowley 96)
Much of the symbolism of the Promethian initiation can be explained by Taoist alchemy, in which cinnabar (red mercuric sulfide, "Chinese Red") plays an important role. Cinnabar is a symbol of the blood as vital fluid, but when it is cooked it produces pure mercury. Thus it shows how death and putrefaction can lead to rebirth and rejuvenation, and so cinnabar was thought to be a longevity drug (which would, however, turn the hair and skin red). (Eliade, F&C 116-7; Nichols 219)
In the macrocosm, the Famous Fields of Cinnabar are K'un Lun, the Mountain of the Western Sea, frequented by the gods, corresponding to the mountain where Prometheus was bound. (This mountain has an hourglass shape, representing heaven and earth like the alchemist's kerotakis, a very ancient image; see XI.Old Man.) (Eliade, F&C 117-9)
In the microcosm, the Cinnabar Fields are in the gonads and in the Wedding Chamber or Secret Cave in the brain (tong-fang = Alta Major?). According to the Taoist alchemists, this internal cinnabar may be distilled from the semen by hanging upside down, which causes its essence to pool in the brain, bringing illumination. In this way the mind becomes filled with the spirit. (Eliade, F&C 117)
The second decade of the Major Arcana (trumps XI-XX) forms a Pythagorean sequence. XI.Time corresponds to the monad, the self-generating principle that gives rise to its successors. XII.Hanged Traitor corresponds to the dyad, which results from division in the monad, and is the principle of separation, strife, differentiation, movement and daring. The Traitor is the daring agent who creates opposition to the status quo and initiates the progress of the numbers. (Iamblichus, Theol. Arith. chh. 1-2) In confirmation, observe that the numerical value of PROMHQEUS O QEOS TITAN (Prometheus Ho Theos Titan, The Titan God Prometheus) is 1927, which reduces to 7-2+9-1-11 = 2 in the Hendecad.
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Last updated Mon Jun 7 18:36:10 EDT 1999