Hanging and Hanging God (John Eric Killinger, 2014)

NOTE: This article is taken from the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, pp. 768-771:


Deriving from two Old English words hangian and hon, and supported by the Old Norse hengja/hanga, “to be suspended,” hanging is also influenced by the Sanskrit sankata, “hesitate,” and the Latin cunctari, “to delay, defer, suspend.” Despite the fact that the terminology “hanged” is usually reserved for legal language, the word has also extended into metaphoric usage (e.g., I’ll be hanged, hang-up, and hanging out). There are affinities in Hebrew ( לה , ta¯laˆ, “hang up, let down, dangle, put to death by hanging,” Genesis 40:22, 2 Samuel 21:12; Esther 9:14) and Greek kremamai and kremannymi (κρέμαμαι in the LXX (Septuagint), but seven times as Kremάnnumi (κρεμάννυμι) in New Testament, referring to dependence on the entire law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40), execution of the two crucified with Jesus (Luke 21:39), and specifically to “crucifixion” in Galatians 3:13, even though it is derived from the Deuteronomic code (,לױולא ta¯laˆ ’al in Hebrew for “hanging after execution”)). With the prepositions around and on, this Greek usage also literally meant hang, as in the millstone hung around one’s neck (Matthew 18:6) and the snake that bit Paul on the hand (Acts 28:4), respectively. Hanging upside down, as St. Peter reputedly suffered, is a mark of humiliation and derision, a reversal of what the person stood for prior to being hanged. Such a method of hanging was called “baffling” (Spenser 1978, p. 956).


Hanging was, according to the Old Testament, allowed but seems to have occurred after a person was executed. In compliance with Deuteronomic law, the body was to be removed before nightfall so as not to pollute the land given by God as an allotment. Even as early as the story of Joseph in Egypt, hanging consisted primarily of beheading followed by the displaying of the decedent’s head on a pike. King David’s eldest son Absalom caught the long locks of his hair in the low branches of an oak tree during his flight and was left hanging “between heaven and earth.” Disregarding the order to spare the king’s son, Joab, David’s chief general, kills Absalom with three spears to the heart (2 Samuel 18:9–15).

Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:9–15).
Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:9–15).

A liminal feature occurs in hanging. This is particularly true with regard to hanging gods such as Jesus the Nazorean who claims oneness with God, Odin the Norse All-father, Attis, and Osiris, who prior to his Dionysian dismemberment hung like Jesus for 3 days. According to Frazer (1914/1936, 1922/1996), the Phrygian satyr of Lydia, Marsyas, along with Adonis, Artemis, and even the fair Helen, ought to be included in this list of hanging gods. We might ourselves include Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab who had a crucifixion in his face (Melville 1967, p. 111) and the twelfth card of the Major Arcana in Tarot known as the Hanged Man. This liminal feature is intermundia, a state of being suspended between worlds suffused with death and rebirth – it is the presence of the absence of ananke, or necessity. It is not-space space and not-temporal temporality in much the same way as the alchemists called the lapis philosophorum the not-stone stone, or lithos ou lithos (λίθος oύ λίθος). Cicero (2000), in his De natura deorum, translates Epicurus’ term intermundia as metakosmios (μετακόσμιος), the place wherein he consigns the Greek pantheon. Metakosmios is derived from the verb metakosmeo (μετακοσμέω), rearrange, modify, and changed in aspect. Metaphorically it is a new arrangement, a change of condition, even a change of character, indicating its transformative aspect.

Dionysus hung on tree with sacrament of loaves of bread and jars of wine.
Dionysus hung on tree with sacrament of loaves of bread and jars of wine.

Hanging, this pathos of the god, even human hanging, often occurs outside the city wall. Jesus was crucified on the green hill of Golgotha outside of Jerusalem. Odin underwent hanging on the windswept World Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, away from human and divine contact, yet rooted to all and none. Osiris was encased in Set/Typhon’s beautifully wrought sarcophagus that became hung up and further entombed in the trunk of a tamarisk tree after floating down the Nile, which is also “up” as it would be northward, for as above, so below. Attis, who in alchemy is synonymous with the Egyptian god Osiris, performs his self-mutilation under a sacred pine tree and, in accordance with later ritual, is portrayed in effigy and hung on the pine tree as the officiating leader of the Attis-Cybele rite sheds his own blood to promote the fertility of the crops for the coming year. The Attis-Cybele myth is linked to the Artemis-Actaeon myth (and that of Isis-Osiris) and those of the respective fragmentations of Dionysus and Orpheus, whose misogynistic “madness” causes the Thracian maenads to tear him apart. The spirit of union not yet extracted is still part of the greatest dilemma of human beings today, according to Schwartz-Salant (1995). This is the “conclusion” to the problem and recognition that fragmentation, rather than repression, has a greater significance for development and pathology. Thus, being wounded to the point where one is branded a heretic or even an apostate necessarily moves the soul to action.

Hanged Man Tarot, Effigy of Dionysius on Stake, Attis on a Stake

Prayers and other cultic acts carried out in the hope of fertile land and crop abundance occur in the rites of Tammuz. Ezekiel 8:14 refers to the lamentation of the women over the death of Tammuz ( תּמּזוּז , Θαμμούζ) as an abomination to the Lord in the kingdom of Judah. Tammuz, or Dumuzi (whose name means “proper son [or child]”), was the Sumerian shepherd who married Inana, died, and was resurrected by her. Even Inana must be executed and hung like a piece of rotting meat in the underworld. When she ascends, she gives up Tammuz in her place. He escapes, then is captured, only to be freed by the love of Inana. Like Persephone, Tammuz is to spend half the year in the underworld, the other half upon the earth. The mythology of Inana-Tammuz is reckoned to date back to 3000BCE and encroached upon ancient Palestine, being given some recognition in various circles of the culture of Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s astonishment is at seeing the lamentations of the Tammuz cult infringe upon the sacred center of Jewish religion. Despite such lamentations being viewed as supplementary to the worship of YHWH, the abomination of it lies in its being an insult to the “living God” and nothing short of apostasy.

Inanna on the Ishtar Vase French museum Louvre
Inanna on the Ishtar Vase
French museum Louvre

Tammuz is related to Osiris and also to the mythology of the Phoenician Adonis, whose origins are not of the Greek classical period but semitic. According to Zimmerli (1969/1979), the lament of the death of Adonis (the Phoenician vegetation god type) is also attested in the Septuagint versions of 1 Kings 14:13 and Jeremiah 22:18 (242). Adonis’ name derives from adon אדװ) ), meaning “master, ruler, lord.” Ado¯n is the aleph and tav, alpha and omega, the one who was, is, and is to come. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) uses Adonai to refer to the tetragrammaton YHWH, and this would connect Tammuz/Adonis/Osiris with Jesus in this respect. Not only this, it freights the reading of Ezekiel 8:14 with difficulty, imbuing it with a kind of fundamentalist repression, for example, “If you are not with me, you are against me.”

Etruscan Statue of Adonis, Semitic God that Dies and Resurrects Every Year
Etruscan Statue of Adonis, Semitic God that Dies and Resurrects Every Year

The liminal state involved in hanging may be long or short. The unusual swiftness of Jesus’ execution, which only lasted a matter of hours, comes as both a surprise and astonishment. Performed as a deterrent against rebelliousness, many Roman crucifixions lasted as long as 3 days. Jesus was forced to carry the patibulum, or crossbeam (also “dungeon,” “torture”), probably several hundred meters to the execution site where the seven-foot-tall stipes (vertical beam) would have been erected and awaiting him. Curiously, the vertical pole, called stipes in Latin, means both “tree trunk” and “instrument of torture.”

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The chronicling of Osiris the great Egyptian god of resurrection, found primarily in Plutarch (1936), had nine watchers and nine mourners, aligning it with Odin’s nine whole nights and nine songs. Like the division of the uroboros in the Pistis Sophia into twelve aeons, Osiris’ night realm was divided into twelve parts. In Kabbalah, the number twelve represents the philosopher’s stone. Twelve also is represented by the Hebrew letter lamed ( ל). Lamed is the heart and central letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Because it towers over the other letters, it represents the King of kings, an attribute also given to the Hanged Man, the twelfth trump of the Tarot’s Major Arcana. The poles of this Tarot card could refer to the Egyptian two-finger amulet that was placed either in the swaddling of the mummified remains of the deceased or loose in the coffin. These amulets represented the two fingers of the god who helps Osiris ascend the Ladder of Re¯.

The resurrection of Osiris, from a bas-relief carving in the temple of Sethos I at Abydos, Nineteenth Dynasty c. 1300 BC.
The resurrection of Osiris, from a bas-relief carving in the temple of Sethos I at Abydos, Nineteenth Dynasty c. 1300 BC.

The Norse god Odin’s hanging lasted nine whole nights, according to the Ha´vama´l of the Poetic, or Elder, Edda. Like Jesus, Odin suffered impaling with a spear, screamed as he reached for the runes, which might perhaps have been tinged with the horror of forsakenness (as he received no bread or drink-filled horn), and sacrificed himself to himself. In the process, he learned nine powerful songs. As his wisdom grew he came to know 18 powerful charms or runes, the twelfth of these, curiously, concerning the freeing of a hanged man for conversation. This death of god to become god is not unlike the death of Jesus on the cross. It is the death of God effected in God, the breaking of old patterns that bind, limit, or restrict one’s nature – the interface of religare (religion as tied or bound back to a previous state of existence) punishing religere (religion as embodiment of reflection and connection) or remembering versus unforgetting, as in the alchemical representation of the winged and wingless birds forever attached to one another. Odin, like Teiresias, goes through a purgation through suffering in token of new insight. Thus the metaphor of hanging as transformative act demonstrates that the hanged god moves through a transition from knowing about to becoming being, as in the movement from knowledge/curiosity to unknowable ultimate reality (K! O).

Odin hanging on the World Tree.
Odin hanging on the World Tree.

Like Odin, the Hanged Man card of Tarot’s Major Arcana is often depicted with his head deep in the earth, seeing its secrets as Odin saw the secrets of Yggdrasil. With the card turned upside down, the hanged man appears to be dancing in the abyss over which he had been suspended. This curiously links Odin with trickster associations. Connected with this is the sense of eutony (eu´tone_o, eutoneo¯), meaning “having or possessing faculties.” Its shadow aspect includes the meaning “distension.” Kestenburg (1978) describes eutony as a stretching out, “transsensus.” Characterized as breathful flowing, eutony/transsensus is similar to the diaphragmatic breathing practiced in yoga and tai chi, as well as choral and opera singing, and the playing of wind instruments that spiral us back to the Phrygian satyr Marsyas and the vanity of his musical challenge of Apollo. As a follower and comforter of Cybele following the death of Attis, he was renowned as a flautist, and because of his fame, he provoked Apollo into a musical contest. Marsyas would have won had not Apollo dared Marsyas to play his pipes upside down. Marsyas lost the duel, with the result that Apollo hung and flailed him upon a pine tree.

The Torment of Marsyas (Le Supplice de Marsyas), Louvre Museum, Paris.
The Torment of Marsyas (Le Supplice de Marsyas), Louvre Museum, Paris.

Such suffering, then, is helpful to us. It can indeed, as Moltmann (1974) asserts, be spiritually healthy. Despite being vulnerable, afraid, and alone, we wait for what will come and we are on the verge of something greater than we can know or about which we can think or attain through action. That is beginning to experience a new level of consciousness without preventing the advent of what can come, if indeed it is on its way.

Sarcophagus from 200’s or 300’s of Dionysus pole being lifted at Spring Festival
Sarcophagus from 200’s or 300’s of Dionysus pole being lifted at Spring Festival


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Mosaic from “The House of Dionysus” in Paphos, Cyprus, dated 300s A.D. A halo of light surrounds Dionysus’ head similar to popular Christian iconography
Mosaic from “The House of Dionysus” in Paphos, Cyprus, dated 300s A.D.
A halo of light surrounds Dionysus’ head similar to popular Christian iconography