Read part one of my thoughts on the Hermit here.
I’m going to begin by establishing the Hermit from the RWS as my basis for comparison of all Hermits. He is not the original Hermit of the Tarot, but he is the original for me personally (meaning he is the first version I’ve encountered), and he bears enough essential similarity to the Marseille pattern Hermit that, for all intents and purposes, they are equal in my eyes. I will always return to the Rider Hermit as the epitome of what I think this card expresses.
I’ve written elsewhere about the general meaning of this card. In a word, wisdom is the most important characteristic I think we can take away from all that. An understanding of this wisdom is the bottom line – the ultimate goal – for all that follows.
There are five elements that I think define the RWS Hermit (as well as that of the TdM), and these I will be exploring as a jumping-off point for these musings:
- His lantern
- His staff
- His robe
- His apparent age
- He is outside
We will discuss each of these in turn with the RWS Hermit in mind, before eventually turning to other versions of this international man of mystery.
The Hermit’s Lantern.
The lantern catches the eye first in this picture, and I do not think that is coincidence. It is a focal point of light in an otherwise dark picture. It is also the single object that sets the Hermit apart from every other figure in the Tarot, both Major and Minor Arcana. Other characters wear robes and carry staves; other characters are aged, and many stand outside. The lantern is the Hermit’s, and it is his alone.* The lantern is therefore, I believe, the key to unlocking the Hermit’s wisdom.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with the basics. A lantern is used for light (duh). In a literal sense, the Hermit uses it to guide his steps as he wanders the night. In a symbolic sense, it shines on the Path of Enlightenment, lighting the way for those who seek Truth. It also serves as an external metaphor for the internal light of the soul. The Hermit’s shines with clarity, because he has removed all external distractions from his life.
Dubbed the Lantern of Occult Science by S.L.M. Mathers, this object can signify illumination of any esoteric subject. It is interesting to note that the light emanating from the lantern is coming from a six-pointed star. This is often called the Star of David, or the Seal of Solomon, and it is composed of an upward-pointing triangle (alchemical symbol for Fire) superimposed over a downward-pointing triangle (alchemical symbol for Water). It is a symbol for the essence of Life, the perfect blending of elemental opposites to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The number six is also a very significant number in both Kabbalah and Pythagorean numerology, both of which Waite was influenced by when designing his deck. It’s very spiritual, pure and balanced. This is the star that fuels the Hermit’s lantern. Waite did not agree with Mathers in calling this the Lantern of Occult Science, but the use of such a symbol suggests many facets of the occult sciences converging on one point to light the way. By possessing such a lantern, the Hermit is clearly an adept of some sort.
The fact that it is the shape of a star, six-pointed or not, is also significant. Pre-modern peoples relied on the stars for navigation. The Hermit is following a star, using it as a compass to navigate the path he walks. He follows it, and yet, he carries it. He is his own compass. He blazes his own path.
Finally, he holds his lantern aloft, and from the top of a mountain for all who are looking to see. This suggests that he uses it like a beacon to guide and give hope to those who seek the same truths as he does. Not all versions of the Hermit are so generous; see my commentary on the robes below.
The Hermit’s Staff.
With one hand holding the lantern high, the Hermit supports himself with a staff in the other (in the RWS, the Hermit holds the lantern in his right hand, and the staff in his left). Like the lantern, there is both a practical purpose and a symbolic meaning attached to this object. While the lantern lights his way in the night, the Hermit uses the staff to help him keep his footing as he ascends to ever more precarious heights of the mountains. Any old man wandering about the wilderness at night can be expected to carry such items.
The Magic Wand is a symbol which appears many times in the Tarot, most especially as the eponymous sigil of the suit of Wands of the Minor Arcana. The Wand symbolizes the element of Fire, and is associated with energy, passion, creativity, and sometimes magic and spirituality. This suggests that the lowly Hermit is driven by a purpose, and a lofty one at that. He supports himself with it, holds it in front of him as he advances on his way. It is symbolic of a spark inside the Hermit which keeps him going despite whatever hardships he surely faces.
The Hermit holds his wand with resolved purpose. Compare him to the Fool, who also holds a wand, albeit carelessly slung over his shoulder. The Fool is oblivious to the power represented by such an item. The Hermit is not. He too was the Fool at one point, but he has learned many lessons since then. He respects the power of the Magic Wand. Without it, he would not have the strength to go on following his star.
The Hermit’s Robes.
The Hermit is dressed in modest utilitarian robes, almost like a monk. This suggests an ascetic lifestyle. As I said earlier, the Hermit is not distracted by worldly luxuries, and this robe shows that. Along with the lantern and the staff, this robe could very well be all the Hermit has to count among his material possessions. Of course, we don’t really know that for sure, but notice that he carries no pack on his back. He has nothing weighing him down, only symbolic props holding him up. Yet his head is bowed, his gaze is lowered, and he covers his head with a hood. These details suggest humility.
Besides symbolizing a monastic lifestyle, the robes also have a protective aspect about them. He shields himself against the cold mountain air, and the drab colors offer camouflage in the night. He may not be comfortable, but he’s not miserable, either. Nor does he attract attention to himself, as its color and relative formlessness indicate. He is a loner, and he prefers it that way. All attention is diverted to his lantern, and that is the Hermit’s intent.
Interestingly, the opposite was true of many pre-RWS Hermits: he actually used his robe to cover the lantern. The idea was that the occult secrets guarded by the Hermit should not be available to the un-enlightened masses, and he would only reveal the light to those worthy of initiation. This idea of entitlement was shared by many in the occult community in the past. The secret society of which Waite was a part was especially notorious for this mindset. Waite took his oath of secrecy seriously, and this is why there is so much disguised symbolism in his cards (compared to decks like the CHT), and why his book on the cards is so confusingly verbose. However, by publishing the cards and the book at all, Waite showed his frustration with such ideas of secrecy, and this is especially evident in this small detail of the Hermit. Waite’s Hermit’s lamp is uncovered and held high for all to see, and Waite explains in his book that such things as the occult guard themselves against those who are unworthy of their secrets, and so to hide them is unnecessary.
In other words, the Hermit doesn’t need to hide his lantern, because those who are not worthy of his teachings will never bother to climb the slopes to find him to begin with.
The Hermit has seen many years.
This is implied by the Hermit’s long white beard. He must be an old man. Advanced age is symbolic of wisdom acquired through years and years of experience. Despite his age, though, the Hermit still climbs mountains, and aside from his bowed head, his posture is unbent. He is old, but he is not decrepit.
The archetypal wise characters in many myths and legends are imagined to have long white beards like the Hermit’s. It’s a popular trope for a wizard to have such a beard, just as it is for a wizard to carry a magic wand and wear long robes. The Hermit of the Tarot captures this image perfectly, and this is why many think of him as the embodiment of Prudence.**
The Hermit is Outside.
When one thinks of a hermit, one tends to think of a lone person sequestered away in some modest abode. Certainly our Hermit has a home somewhere to rest his head, but he is pictured outside, atop a mountain peak, during the nighttime.
This means that the Hermit travels and experiences the world around him, but he does it while everyone else sleeps. He is active physically, even while being receptive intellectually and spiritually. Despite being an ascetic Hermit, he is a worldly man. The snowy mountaintops of the RWS add an additional layer of meaning. The peaks represent intellectual achievement, and the white snow represents purity. The Hermit stands at the very summit.
Here we can make another comparison to the Fool: there are snowy mountain peaks off in the distance of this card. The Fool will eventually climb these, just as he will learn to use his wand for support, as he gradually learns the lessons of the Hermit.
I think that’ll serve as a good start for this series on the Hermit. Next time, I’ll attempt a synthesis of these elements, to try and see how they all work together, as well as consider some other points of interest. Then I intend to examine different versions of the Hermit, and see what insights into the Universal Hermit they give.
*In the classic RWS or TdM patterns, that is. Exceptions do exist. For example, the character in the 8 of Arrows in the WWT carries a lantern, as do a couple of figures in the Shadowscapes Tarot.
**A personified Prudence is conspicuously absent from the Tarot. It is the fourth cardinal virtue, the other three of which, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, are all present among the Major Arcana. A popular solution to this dilemma is to attribute Prudence to the Hermit, which does make sense considering the Hermit’s character. However, it’s not a perfect fit, as he is not Wisdom itself, but rather just a very wise man. I recommend Huson’s book Mystical Origins of the Tarot, in which he discusses this issue among many other things (he addresses the Hermit as Prudence, and ultimately rejects it).