Alchemy and the Tarot: Hanged Man on the Struck Tower

by John on March 25, 2007

Some wild and crazy thinking over at the “Waiting for Harry” Book Club this month! My favorite is a Tarot and Alchemy connection being forged by a reader calling himself/herself “BNMC2007.” S/he starts with the “hanged man motif” we’re seeing of late:

1) When J.K. Rowling announced the Title of Deathly Hallows, visitors of her website could play a game of Hanged Man to get the name.

2) We see a magical game of Hanged Man in the Weasley twins Magic shop.

3) The Hand of Glory that Draco uses – is a Hanged Man’s hand.

4) We see images of the Hanged Man anytime someone uses the Levicorpus Spell- in particular Snape in his Worst Memory. He simulates the Tarot’s card for a Hanged Man (Hung upside down by his ankles.)

From there, s/he explores a possible link between Deathly Hallows and “gallows,” The Fool, the Tower, and Temperance, the so-called “Alchemy Card” in the Tarot deck most people are familiar with.

If this link to the thread doesn’t work, please go to wwwBN.com, click on the Book Clubs tab (upper right corner of home page), sign in, and go to the Waiting for Harry discussion group (and say, “Hi, John!”). Here are my first thoughts on bnmc2007′s efforts:

Let me share three first-glance reservations about this alchemical Tarot theory first:

(1) Ms. Rowling has said on more than one occasion that she regrets the change Arthur Levine made to the Scholastic title for the first book in the series (supposedly because he was convinced no American would buy a book with the word "Philosopher" in the title) so the “Sorcery Stone” connection to the books is not a good one;

(2) The linguistic connections are ad hoc and not a little frenetic, coming as they do from a variety of internet sites hit from stray Google searches; and

(3) The connections made between the cards’ sequence in the most popular Tarot deck in use today (Waite-Smith) and the events of the books are tenuous at best, with some exciting exceptions.

Those are pretty damning reservations, but they are all about the current state of this idea not the core of the theory, which is that Ms. Rowling is using imagery from the Tarot in her books to show Harry’s alchemical progress from lead to gold, fool to Enlightened Man/Emperor, and perhaps with other characters as well.

The connection between alchemy and the Tarot is not new ground. If Ms. Rowling has read "a ridiculous amount about Alchemy" to set the parameters of magic and internal logic of the series (as she said in 1998), she has almost certainly read Adam MacLean, the dean of Alchemy studies (at least online!). Mr. MacLean thinks that the Tarot probably derives from Alchemical images rather than from Kabbalah. There are even popular Tarot decks that are called Alchemical Decks.

The connection between alchemy and Tarogi is the Four Elements that are the heart of this Hermetic form of divination and the traditional science of personal transformation. The only book I know of that discusses this symbolism at some length is The Tarot: A Contemporary Course of the Quintessence of Hermetic Occultism by Mouni Sadhu — and I cannot recommend it like I would Titus Burckhardt, Eliade, or even Jung. If you check out "Tarotpedia" online (I kid you not), you’ll find nine other books about alchemy and Tarot and the first book listed is by Aleister Crowley. We’re in some dangerous waters here, however interesting and relevant the subject almost certainly is to understanding Ms. Rowling’s work. Caveat lector.

What excites me about this theory is:

(1) its overlap with alchemy;

(2) its development and exposition of the Hanged Man image in Ms. Rowling’s books, to include her Comic Relief texts and even her website (a connection I thought of only in light of the many decapitation references in her work); and

(3) its pointing to a greater depth to The Tower drama than is evident in its "high place" in the story line.

Trelawney or P!Trelawney leaves little mystery that Ms. Rowling wants us to be thinking about the Waite-Smith Lightning Struck Tower card as we read that scene and BNMC is exploring this important connection. Three cheers for bnmc2007 and other readers thinking along these lines!

Post: A friend tells me there is already a Harry Potter Tarot Deck! I guess I’m very late to this topic.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

memyslfni March 27, 2007 at 6:01 am

We cannot forget the “hanged man pub” either!

Eeyore April 10, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Harry and Ron play Hangman in class in Order of the Phoenix, in Chapter 12, p. 229:

In Binn’s class, where Binns is lecturing on giant wars: “Harry heard just enough within the first ten minutes to appreciate dimly that in another teacher’s hands, this subject might have been mildly interesting, but then his brain disengaged, and he spent the remaining hour and twenty minutes playing hangman on a corner of parchment with Ron, while Hermione shot them filthy looks out of the corner of her eye.”

It seems to me there are a few other instances where they play hangman to pass the time when bored, but I’m not sure that isn’t just an impression I have.

Deborah April 25, 2007 at 2:13 pm

In studying chess terms “to hang” means to leave a piece on the chess board hanging, ripe for capture by the other side.

If you do hang a piece on purpose it is a sacrifice of chess material. One such method is the king’s knight gambit. That gambit is pretty much what happened in the chess game in book one.

If you “hang” a piece as a goof, that would be a blunder. A chess term for blunder is (tah dah!) howler.

Tying this back into to levicorpus, Ron was a hanged man. The hangman Tarot card is the card of a martyr. This matches the chess scenario in book one.

Also, on the alchemy thread on Leaky Cauldron, one of the members found references between alchemy and chess. I think it was called Enochian chess.

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