Harry Potter and The Hanged Man: Part 1 Rowling’s Most Loaded Tarot Reference

I began the discussion of Rowling’s use of tarot card imagery in her Harry Potter novels and post-Hogwarts efforts with posts about her interview and twitter comments through the years about correspondences between the Four Houses, the Four Humors, and the four playing card suits (‘Rowling: Elements, Houses, Card Suits). That conversation continued with an exploration of the likelihood that Rowling embedded a comic image of herself, the quirky, all-seeing author with a taste for the occult and divinatory arts, inside Harry’s adventures as Professor Sybill Trelawney (‘Is Sybill Trelawney Really J. K. Rowling? The Case for an Embedded Author‘). Both these posts were inspired by what Eglantine Pillet found in a Rowling biography aside, namely, that The Presence as a Comprehensive School student used to entertain her friends by doing tarot card readings.

Today I’d like to invite serious readers of the Hogwarts Saga and the Cormoran Strike books to consider one tarot card image in particular, the Major Arcana card called ‘The Hanged Man,’ and its possible importance in understanding Rowling’s work, its artistry and meaning.

I’m going to do this in three parts: first, a listing of ‘Hanged Man’ appearances in Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike, second, a survey of cartomancer opinions about the meaning of the card in itself and in card spreads, and, third and last, some speculation about how and why Rowling has chosen to make this card such a prominent image in her writing.

‘The Hanged Man’ as a tarot card is not named explicitly by Trelawney as is ‘The Tower’ (“The Lightning Struck Tower”). It does, however, appear both in name and as an image in Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, and Half-Blood Prince and most recently in the fourth Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White. Join me after the jump for a review of the places in text we encounter the image or name of ‘The Hanged Man.’

HogwartsProfessor discussed ‘The Hanged Man’ back in 2007 in response to postings at my BarnesandNoble.com classroom site. Those postings were taken down many years ago so the links at the post no longer work; I found what is almost certainly the same writer’s work, however, in the archives of the Chamber of Secrets forum discussion boards. Hats off to the first serious reader to make note of the importance of ‘The Hanged Man,’ whoever ‘Bscorp’ may be. 

Let’s try to put the references in reverse order of clarity and strength. The more obscure pointers to ‘The Hanged Man’ tarot card are the several occasions in which characters play the “paper and pencil guessing game” Hangman.

  • Ron and Harry play a game on the inside cover of the first edition (2001) of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The word is “Acromantula,” Ron does not get it in the requisite six guesses, so Harry (presumably) drew in a giant spider with the speech bubble containing the words, “You die, Weasely!”
  • In chapter twelve of Order of the Phoenix, ‘Professor Umbridge,’ Ron and Harry play a game in order to stay awake in Professor Binn’s class:

Today, they suffered an hour and a half’s droning on the subject of 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 his parchment with Ron, while Hermione shot them filthy looks out of the corner of her eye.

  • In chapter six of Half-Blood Prince, ‘Draco’s Detour,’ the Terrible Trio makes a visit to Weasely’s Wizard Wheezes:

A space cleared in the crowd, and Harry pushed his way toward the counter, where a gaggle of delighted ten-year-olds was watching a tiny little wooden man slowly ascending the steps to a real set of gallows, both perched on a box that read: REUSABLE HANGMAN — SPELL IT OR HE’LL SWING!

  • Rowling announced the title of the series finale, Deathly Hallows, on her original JKRowling.com website via an interactive game of Hangman. Visitors had to guess the title in six tries or “swing.” 

A bit more to the point is the visit Harry makes inadvertently in Chamber of Secrets to Borkin & Burkes while Draco shops and his father sells items he doesn’t want discovered if the Ministry raids his house (chapter four, ‘Flourish and Blotts’). There are two items we see here that resonate with ‘The Hanged Man.’

  • There is theHand of Glory,’ for one thing, which Draco purchases and puts to use in Half-Blood Prince. The ‘Hand of Glory’ traditionally is the left hand of a hanged man.

“Can I have that?” interrupted Draco, pointing at the withered hand on its cushion.

“Ah, the Hand of Glory!” said Mr. Borgin, abandoning Mr. Malfoy’s list and scurrying over to Draco. “Insert a candle and it gives light only to the holder! Best friend of thieves and plunderers! Your son has fine taste, sir.”

“I hope my son will amount to more than a thief or a plunderer, Borgin,” said Mr. Malfoy coldly, and Mr. Borgin said quickly, “No offense, sir, no offense meant -“

  • As if to underline this link, Draco takes a good look immediately after this at a rope before ogling the cursed necklace he also uses in Half-Blood Prince. Rowling specifies that it is “a hangman’s rope,” which might have gone without saying in this retail venue.

Harry watched nervously as Draco drew nearer and nearer to his hiding place, examining the objects for sale. Draco paused to examine a long coil of hangman’s rope and to read, smirking, the card propped on a magnificent necklace of opals, Caution: Do Not Touch. Cursed – Has Claimed the Lives of Nineteen Muggle Owners to Date.

  • And while we’re in Chamber discussing relatively obscure references to hanged men, the mandrake plants that are the cure for Basilisk stares have an association.  Folklore holds that these plants grow beneath the gallows of hanged men, supposedly because the hanged, contrary to Lethal White, do not pee when they die but ejaculate (the mandrake, which looks something like a humunculus, is the ‘off-spring’ of this seed so planted). Just sayin.’

How about people and animals hanging by the neck, by the ankle as in ‘The Hanged Man’ tarot card, or by any other appendage?

  • In our first meeting with Neville in Sorceror’s Stone, we learn he was hung by the ankles once:

“Well, my gran brought me up and she’s a witch,” said Neville, “but the family thought I was all- Muggle for ages. My Great Uncle Algie kept trying to catch me off my guard and force some magic out of me — he pushed me off the end of Blackpool pier once, I nearly drowned — but nothing happened until I was eight. Great Uncle Algie came round for dinner, and he was hanging me out of an upstairs window by the ankles when my Great Auntie Enid offered him a meringue and he accidentally let go. But I bounced — all the way down the garden and into the road. They were all really pleased, Gran was crying, she was so happy.”

  • Filch leads those caught out of bounds later on in Stone to the Forbidden Forest where he threatens them with hanging:

“Follow me,” said Filch, lighting a lamp and leading them outside. “I bet you’ll think twice about breaking a school rule again, won’t you, eh?” he said, leering at them. “Oh yes… hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me…. It’s just a pity they let the old punishments die out… hang you by your wrists from the ceiling for a few days, I’ve got the chains still in my office, keep ’em well oiled in case they’re ever needed…. Right, off we go, and don’t think of running off, now, it’ll be worse for you if you do.”

  • In Chamber of Secrets, Filch’s cat is hung by her tail on a torch bracket:

“What’s that thing – hanging underneath?” said Ron, a slight quiver in his voice. As they edged nearer, Harry almost slipped – there was a large puddle of water on the floor; Ron and Hermione grabbed him, and they inched toward the message, eyes fixed on a dark shadow beneath it. All three of them realized what it was at once, and leapt backward with a splash..Mrs. Norris, the caretaker’s cat, was hanging by her tail from the torch bracket. She was stiff as a board, her eyes wide and staring.

  • In Prisoner of Azkaban, Uncle Vernon advocates hanging for dangerous criminals:

“When will they learn,” said Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his large purple fist, “that hanging’s the only way to deal with these people?”

  • After Lupin and Sirius fight as werewolf and animagus just outside the Whomping Willow, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are left with Severus Snape:

Harry looked desperately around. Black and Lupin both gone… they had no one but Snape for company, still hanging, unconscious, in midair.

  • Goblet of Fire is a gold mine of hanging, as we’ll see, that point to ‘The Hanged Man.’ In terms of people hanging, though? How about those floating Muggles suspended upside down by the Death Eaters? In case we didn’t recall this ourselves, when Harry tries out the Prine’s nonverbal Levicorpus spell and Hermione disapproves, she suggests the Black Hats in Goblet used this against the Muggle campground keepers (Prince, ch 12, p 241).

The floating people were suddenly illuminated as they passed over a burning tent and Harry recognized one of them: Mr. Roberts, the campsite manager. The other three looked as though they might be his wife and children. One of the marchers below flipped Mrs. Roberts upside down with his wand; her nightdress fell down to reveal voluminous drawers and she struggled to cover herself up as the crowd below her screeched and hooted with glee. “That’s sick,” Ron muttered, watching the smallest Muggle child, who had begun to spin like a top, sixty feet above the ground, his head flopping limply from side to side. “That is really sick. . . .”

  • Harry runs through golden Upside Down Dust in the third Triwizard Tournament task:

The world turned upside down. Harry was hanging from the ground, with his hair on end, his glasses dangling off his nose, threatening to fall into the bottomless sky. He clutched them to the end of his nose and hung there, terrified. It felt as though his feet were glued to the grass, which had now become the ceiling. Below him the dark, star-spangled heavens stretched endlessly. He felt as though if he tried to move one of his feet, he would fall away from the earth completely. Think, he told himself, as all the blood rushed to his head, think. . . But not one of the spells he had practiced had been designed to combat a sudden reversal of ground and sky. Did he dare move his foot? He could hear the blood pounding in his ears.

He had two choices – try and move, or send up red sparks, and get rescued and disqualified from the task. He shut his eyes, so he wouldn’t be able to see the view of endless space below him, and pulled his right foot as hard as he could away from the grassy ceiling. Immediately, the world righted itself. Harry fell forward onto his knees onto the wonderfully solid ground. He felt temporarily limp with shock. He took a deep, steadying breath, then got up again and hurried forward, looking back over his shoulder as he ran away from the golden mist, which twinkled innocently at him in the moonlight.

  • In the maze, Harry may be turned upside-down by the giant Spider guarding the Triwizard Cup. It certainly does a number on his leg:

“Stupefy! Impedimenta! Stupefy!”

But it was no use – the spider was either so large, or so magical, that the spells were doing no more than aggravating it. Harry had one horrifying glimpse of eight shining black eyes and razor-sharp pincers before it was upon him. He was lifted into the air in its front legs; struggling madly, he tried to kick it; his leg connected with the pincers and next moment he was in excruciating pain.

He could hear Cedric yelling “Stupefy!” too, but his spell had no more effect than Harry’s – Harry raised his wand as the spider opened its pincers once more and shouted “Expelliarmus!” It worked – the Disarming Spell made the spider drop him, but that meant that Harry fell twelve feet onto his already injured leg, which crumpled beneath him. Without pausing to think, he aimed high at the spider’s underbelly, as he had done with the skrewt, and shouted “Stupefy!”just as Cedric yelled the same thing.

The two spells combined did what one alone had not: The spider keeled over sideways, flattening a nearby hedge, and strewing the path with a tangle of hairy legs.

  • Harry is described as “hanging” when tortured by Voldemort in the Little Hangleton graveyard:


It was pain beyond anything Harry had ever experienced; his very bones were on fire; his head was surely splitting along his scar; his eyes were rolling madly in his head; he wanted it to end … to black out… to die …

And then it was gone. He was hanging limply in the ropes binding him to the headstone of Voldemort’s father, looking up into those bright red eyes through a kind of mist. The night was ringing with the sound of the Death Eaters’ laughter.

  • In Order of the Phoenix, after Harry and Dudley meet the Dementors, Arabella makes a hanging reference:

‘Keep your wand out,’ she told Harry, as they entered Wisteria Walk. ‘Never mind the Statute of Secrecy now, there’s going to be hell to pay anyway, we might as well be hanged for a dragon as an egg. Talk about the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery… this was exactly what Dumbledore was afraid of – What’s that at the end of the street? Oh, it’s just Mr Prentice… don’t put your wand away, boy, don’t I keep telling you I’m no use?’

  • Hagrid gets The Hanged Man treatment in the Valley of the Giants:

‘I knew it was no go before I’d opened me mouth. He was sitting there wearin’ Karkus’s helmet, leerin’ at us as we got nearer. He’s massive, one o’ the biggest ones there. Black hair an’ matchin’ teeth an’ a necklace o’ bones. Human-lookin’ bones, some of ’em. Well, I gave it a go – held out a great roll o’ dragon skin – an’ said, “A gift fer the Gurg of the giants —” Nex’ thing I knew, I was hangin’ upside-down in the air by me feet, two of his mates had grabbed me.’

  • And then there is Snape, quite clearly the very image of ‘The Hanged Man,’ in the Phoenix chapter, ‘Snape’s Worst Memory:’

Behind him, the Impediment Jinx was wearing off. Snape was beginning to inch towards his fallen wand, spitting out soapsuds as he crawled.

‘I wouldn’t go out with you if it was a choice between you and the giant squid,’ said Lily.

‘Bad luck, Prongs,’ said Sirius briskly, and turned back to Snape. ‘OI!’

But too late; Snape had directed his wand straight at James; there was a flash of light and a gash appeared on the side of James’s face, spattering his robes with blood. James whirled about: a second flash of light later, Snape was hanging upside-down in the air, his robes falling over his head to reveal skinny, pallid legs and a pair of greying underpants.

Many people in the small crowd cheered; Sirius, James and Wormtail roared with laughter.

  • In Half-Blood Prince, we learn that Tom Riddle, Jr., plays his own kind of Hangman game at his orphanage, one without paper and pencil. As Dumbledore learns from the Orphanage keeper:

She squinted at him as though deciding whether or not to trust him. Apparently she decided she could, because she said in a sudden rush, “He scares the other children.”

“You mean he is a bully?” asked Dumbledore.

“I think he must be,” said Mrs. Cole, frowning slightly, “but it’s very hard to catch him at it. There have been incidents. . . . Nasty things …”

Dumbledore did not press her, though Harry could tell that he was interested. She took yet another gulp of gin and her rosy cheeks grew rosier still.

“Billy Stubbs’s rabbit. . . well, Tom said he didn’t do it and I don’t see how he could have done, but even so, it didn’t hang itself from the rafters, did it?”

“I shouldn’t think so, no,” said Dumbledore quietly.

  • Peeves gets into the Hanged Man act, too:

“AHA!” screamed a voice from overhead and both of them jumped; unnoticed by either of them, they had just passed underneath Peeves, who was hanging upside down from a chandelier and grinning maliciously at them.

“Potty asked Loony to go to the party ! Potty lurves Loony! Potty luuuuuurves Looooony!”

  • And Dumbledore:

A jet of green light shot from the end of Snape’s wand and hit Dumbledore squarely in the chest. Harry’s scream of horror never left him; silent and unmoving, he was forced to watch as Dumbledore was blasted into the air: for a split second he seemed to hang suspended beneath the shining skull, and then he fell slowly backwards, like a great rag doll, over the battlements and out of sight.

  • Deathly Hallows opens at Malfoy Manor and the spectacle of ‘The Hanged Woman:’

The drawing room was full of silent people, sitting at a long and ornate table. The room’s usual furniture had been pushed carelessly up against the walls. Illumination came from a roaring fire beneath a handsome marble mantelpiece surmounted by a gilded mirror. Snape and Yaxley lingered for a moment on the threshold. As their eyes grew accustomed to the lack of light they were drawn upwards to the strangest feature of the scene: an apparently unconscious human figure hanging upside down over the table, revolving slowly as if suspended by an invisible rope, and reflected in the mirror and in the bare, polished surface of the table below. None of the people seated underneath this singular sight was looking at it except for a pale young man sitting almost directly below it. He seemed unable to prevent himself from glancing upwards every minute or so.

  • Grindelwald gave Gregorovitch the Hanging Upside Down experience:

‘Give it to me, Gregorovitch.’

Harry’s voice was high, clear and cold: his wand held in front of him by a long-fingered, white hand. The man at whom he was pointing was suspended upside down in mid-air, though there were no ropes holding him; he swung there, invisibly and eerily bound, his limbs wrapped about him, his terrified face, on a level with Harry’s, ruddy due to the blood that had rushed to his head. He had pure white hair and a thick, bushy beard: a trussed-up Father Christmas.

‘I have it not, I have it no more! It was, many years ago, stolen from me!’ ‘Do not lie to Lord Voldemort, Gregorovitch. He knows … he always knows.’ The hanging man’s pupils were wide, dilated with fear, and they seemed to swell, bigger and bigger until their blackness swallowed Harry whole –

And then there is the much more specific ‘Hanged Man’ effect of the Levicorpus spell.

  • Harry tries it out early on in Half-Blood Prince:

Pointing his wand at nothing in particular, he gave it an upward flick and said Levicorpus! inside his head. “Aaaaaaaargh!”

There was a flash of light and the room was full of voices: Everyone had woken up as Ron had let out a yell. Harry sent Advanced Potion-Making flying in panic; Ron was dangling upside down in midair as though an invisible hook had hoisted him up by the ankle.

“Sorry!” yelled Harry, as Dean and Seamus roared with laughter, and Neville picked himself up from the floor, having fallen out of Bed. “Hang on — I’ll let you down —”

  • Ron is the object of Harry’s use of the same spell a little later when he eats the love potions chocolates from Romilda:

Harry turned to leave; he had got two steps towards the door when a crashing blow hit him on the right ear. Staggering, he looked round. Ron’s fist was drawn right back, his face was contorted with rage; he was about to strike again.

Harry reacted instinctively; his wand was out of his pocket and the incantation sprang to mind without conscious thought: Levicorpus!

Ron yelled as his heel was wrenched upwards once more; he dangled helplessly, upside-down, his robes hanging off him.

‘What was that for?’ Harry bellowed.

Enough? I’m guessing you recall that the pub in Little Hangleton in which Fred Bryce is convicted and crucified figuratively by his neighbors for the murder of the Riddle family is called ‘The Hanged Man.’ It isn’t described, but I’m guessing the pub sign is of the tarot card.

And the town’s name comes up again in the finish because faux Moody’s portkey transports Harry and Cedric to the Little Hangleton graveyard.

The fourth book of the Hogwarts Saga begins and ends in Hangleton and starts with a drop-dead, in-your-face reference to ‘The Hanged Man.’

Did I mention that Lethal White, the fourth book of the Cormoran Strike series, gives a hanged man and gallows making a central place in that mystery? Not in my two posts on the Goblet-Lethal links I didn’t! See here and here.

Images of ‘The Hanged Man’ permeate Harry’s adventures, and though Professor Trelawney never mentions the card or figure in her druken Half-Blood Prince ramblings, it is named at the opening of Goblet.

Next up, what those who do tarot card readings think this card means. Let me know in the comment boxes below if you can think of Casual Vacancy, Cursed Child, Cormoran Strike, or Harry Potter allusions to the figure that I’ve missed in my list!









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