The Shadowscapes Tarot (SST) is a breathtaking example of surreal fantasy artwork. Or 78 examples, to be more accurate.
It follows the RWS structure, with Strength as VIII and Justice as XI, and the suit symbols are traditional, with Coins being called Pentacles. Many of the cards, both Major and Minor, are clearly inspired by the RWS artwork.
So, as a Tarot for reading and divining, if you understand the essential structure of the RWS, than you can understand and use the SST. Now, I am a Tarot traditionalist at heart, and I don’t think there will ever be a RWS derivative that’s better than the RWS itself. However, the SST is nothing short of amazing in its particular rendition of this system.
It’s companion book – aptly titled Shadowscapes Companion – is co-authored by Barbara Moore and the deck’s artist Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. I thought the sections of the book by Moore were unnecessary, but if you are unfamiliar with the Tarot they are perhaps useful. The artist penned each of the actual card descriptions, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and which left me wanting more from her.
All in all, the SST is a phenomenal artistic deck with incredible detail. If you’re into that sort of thing, as well as fairies and dryads and the like, I highly recommend it. It is a deck that portrays a world alive and brimming with magic and wonder.
Read Part IX, on the Hermit’s common divinatory meanings, his connection with Quintessence, and his place within the greater context of the Major Arcana, here.
I finished my last post rather abruptly when I realized after more than 2,000 words that I still had some points to make. The purpose of this post, as I’d intended to fulfill by the close of the previous one, is to return to examine the Rider-Waite-Smith Hermit in light of all I have learned.
I think the thing that strikes me the most about the RWS card, despite all the symbolism and secret wisdom that I’ve been trying to unravel, is its simplicity. It is a simple picture of a simple man, and yet somehow, this only adds to all the mystique. It seems to beckon: no matter how much you think you know about me, I’ll always be hiding secrets.
Waite provided divinatory meanings for his Hermit that are much like those for any other version of this card; there is one notable deviation, however, when he adds “treason, corruption, dissimulation, and roguery”* after the typical stuff about seclusion and introspection. It’s probable that Waite drew from Etteilla for this odd interpretation. Etteilla’s deck has no card by the name of the Hermit, but it does have a card which pictures a Hermit-like figure, complete with lantern, cloak, and cane, titled “False Devotee” or “Traitor”. This character is clearly a monk, and he is pictured as he leaves his monastery, chased by a dog. He is an apostate.
Until now, I have by and large assumed a positive stance while studying the Hermit. I believe most people would agree that this card of wisdom is a positive card. But like every other Tarot card, there is a negative side, and I think Waite’s mention of roguery and such begins to scratch that surface. I am reminded again of Diogenes, who was as anti-social as they come, spreading a message of cynicism and being all around a poster-boy of counter-culture. I’m sure the keepers of the peace in his day were so fond of him. Not that the Hermit isn’t a peaceful character, because he is, but he marches to the beat of his own drum, and he encourages others to do the same, much to the chagrin of the Powers That Be. As much as I encourage individuality, it is undeniably true that society would not stand if the Hermit had his way. Not only that, but the Hermit shuns his fellow man. He is a loner, and in a sense, has betrayed his kind by opting out of participating in their system. Individuals always benefit from the lessons of the Hermit, but they cannot be applied to humanity as a whole. We would descend into anarchy. And if the world was burning, the Hermit would just hide behind closed doors. The suffering of mankind is not his concern. Few cards in the Major Arcana are as selfish as the Hermit.
It is fitting that the Hermit should be selfish. I spent a great deal of time discussing his place in the process of the development of the Self in the last post. The Hermit marks the moment of the discovery of the Self, the final piece of the puzzle of the ego, just before it’s all dismantled once again. And the very definition of a hermit means to be alone, with no one but your self. In spite of the selfless nature of his “enlightenment”, the Hermit as a person is incredibly selfish. He understands that all is one, and yet he chooses to live life separate from all others.
And of course, I’ve already written about the DMT Hermit. This is a great example of the negative sides of Hermit-dom, as well. This Hermit seems to have literally driven himself insane from lack of human contact. The truth is, we are not meant to be lonely beings. We need the contact of others to live fulfilling lives, and we need the influence of others to shape ourselves. If we leave that to only ourselves, we lose sight of what it really means to be human. And think about it. No real-life hermit is ever taken very seriously. They are just crazy shut-ins to most people.
In other words, there are risks attached to the Hermit. He is neither accepted nor respected by society, and he is liable to all the drawbacks of exile and pure loneliness. Not exactly an appealing lifestyle to most.
But even Waite, with all his talk of treason and the like, seems to think of this card in largely positive terms. He says that, above all else, this card is one of “attainment”.** While the traitor aspect embraces the negative side of the discovery of Self, the attainment aspect embraces the positive. After all, no matter what society deems, individuality is generally considered in good terms. We humans seem to be driven by conflicting needs both to be accepted and to be unique, and the Hermit represents giving up the former in order to follow the path of the latter. And to truly “know thyself” is no easy task, and is a respectable quality in anyone who has achieved such a thing.
This is what I think Waite was referring to when he said “attainment”. The Hermit has climbed to spiritual and intellectual heights, and his lantern serves as a beacon for those few who wish to follow him. This is the Hermit as sage, as the mentor in the Hero’s Journey. It might not be prudent for us mere mortals to fully submerge ourselves into the life of the Hermit, but the archetype nonetheless embodies qualities that, when embraced in moderation, lead to a better, more spiritually fulfilling existence. For the layperson, that’s what the Hermit is really all about: guidance and advice, before moving on to grander things. I mean, for all his potentially negative qualities, the Hermit is enlightened. He is master of himself, and as I’ve said before, to be a master of yourself is to be a master of the Universe. In this way, the Hermit is indeed a wizard. He has valuable lessons to impart on the wise who listen.
If I had to sum up everything I’ve written thus far, I’d say this: the Hermit represents the paradox of enlightened existence; the defining of the self as separate from the world; the realization that separateness is an illusion. Everything else – the different lanterns, wands, cloaks, etc. – are just details. And yet, there is importance in the details, and they should not be overlooked. Keep the lantern shining bright, follow its glow, and take in all of the small things the world has to show you.
And of all the advice the Hermit has to give, I’d say this is most important: Listen, rather than speak. The world would be a better place if more people did that.
On that note, I think it’s finally time I drew this series to a close. I’ve said all I can think to say about my favorite Tarot card, the Hermit.
At least for now.
*Waite’s Pictorial Key, p. 197.
**Waite details his Hermit on pages 8-9 and 52 of the same book. I find issue with some of the things he says, but that’s not important for this post.
I began this series with some reminiscences about my relationship with the Hermit. This was the card which first caught my attention, as if the lantern’s glow put me in a trance. I would not know the Tarot if I did not meet this figure.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Tarot was a mystery to me. I yearned to know more of it; but most especially, I yearned to know more of the Hermit. I’m writing this series for myself, a year ago. In these posts is the sort of information I would have liked to read when I was getting started, beginning with some nebulous musings about the object of my fascination – the Rider Hermit – and then evolving through different examples towards a greater, more concrete comprehension of the “Universal Hermit”. I intended all along upon ultimately coming full circle back to examine the Rider Hermit in light of whatever comprehension I may have succeeded in grasping.
Here are some things we can conclude about the Hermit: we know the Hermit is old and that he is an ascetic based on his appearance and clothing. We know that he prefers solitude to the company of other people. We can also guess that he’s driven by a curiosity about the world, which is why he explores it by the light of his lantern.
There is a simple sort of wisdom in all of this, which we see manifest in the form of common divinatory interpretations of the Hermit. When this card is drawn, it can mean any of the following, depending on surrounding cards, its position in a spread, etc. Perhaps the most relevant interpretation is that the querent should take some time to him or herself for introspection. This interpretation draws from many of the conclusions set forth in the previous paragraph. The Hermit also usually suggests prudence and caution when approaching the matter in question, and of course, on a more negative side, isolation and loneliness for the querent. When the card doesn’t refer to the querent, it can probably represent a trusted mentor who is wise and embodies some or all of the above qualities.
Such is the practical divinatory application of the symbolism in this card. But there is something deeper – and more abstract, so bear with me for just a bit longer – for those willing to dig for it, and in the Rider Hermit these “secrets” are contained within the lantern. I have made mention of the lantern as the key to understanding the deeper meanings of this card elsewhere. In the case of the RWS Hermit, I absolutely believe this to be true. The source of light within this particular lantern is the six-pointed star, which is a symbol designating a combination of elemental opposites, the sum of this fusion being greater than its parts.
In other versions of the card, comparable symbolism may be elsewhere, but in most cases there is at least something hinting at this great mystery. In the TdM, it’s in the colors of the Hermit’s cloak; in the OWT, I believe it’s in the connection between the divine wand and impure serpent, and of course this is even clearer in the MST where the serpent wraps around the tip of the wand as an ouroboros; in the WWT there is the Wren, who as the Page of Arrows represents Earth of Air, and in the SST there are the Loons, who also represent a coming together of the disparate elements, albeit in a different manner than the Wren.
All of the former do show their respective Hermits carrying a lantern, and while among them only the RWS shows an actual symbol within the lantern, the very presence of the lantern at all nonetheless suggests these ideas of reconciliation. Remember that the lantern simultaneously guides the Hermit and is guided by him. This paradox is analogous (I think) of the mystery of opposites. Not to mention the sheer fact of its utility as an instrument of illumination leads me inevitably to think in terms of “enlightenment”, which, as I’ve explained previously, is itself paradoxical in nature (I think).
Then there are the Hermits which don’t even carry lanterns, but rather hourglasses, such as in the DFW and SaM Tarots. As I have shown, the hourglass takes a different route but ultimately ends up in the same place as the lantern in terms of symbolic meaning, by which I mean the reconciliation of opposites. The hourglass, however, actually can be made to illustrate that opposition is really nothing more than an illusion in a way the lantern can’t really do (well, maybe it can, but that’s a mental puzzle for another time).
The CHT Hermit deserves special mention. This one does carry a lantern which evokes the Star of David. There is also much Kabbalistic, astrological, and alchemical symbolism regarding unity in general, and in particular perhaps the greatest mystery of opposites: the mystery of the relationship between Life and Death. There cannot be one without the other – they are inextricably intertwined, like the serpent and the egg pictured on the card.
Mr. Crowley has something else to say about the lantern that doesn’t come up in his chapter on the Hermit. It’s in one of the appendices in The Book of Thoth. In typical fashion, the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire are assigned to Disks/Coins, Swords, Cups, and Wands. Crowley takes things a step further when he assigns the Lamp to the fifth element, Quintessence. In alchemy, Quintessence is a separate element that comes as a result of the combination of the essences of the other four. See where I’m going with this? Now, Crowley doesn’t explain why he does this, nor does he mention the Hermit in connection with this idea, but considering the absence in his Tarot of any other lamps or lanterns aside from the Hermit’s, and considering the Hermit’s connection with Mercury, a connection shared with the Magus,* I think it’s safe to assume that it is indeed the Hermit’s Lantern that contains the Quintessence.
If we grant that the hidden wisdom of the Hermit lies in the understanding that opposition is an illusion and the Universe is in reality one cohesive whole, then the Hermit’s wisdom can fit quite comfortably into a grander scheme that spans the entire Major Arcana.
One way to view the progression of the Major Arcana is a transition from unconsciousness (the Fool) to consciousness (the Magician through the Hanged Man) to super-consciousness (Death through the World). A major part of developing consciousness is the breaking down into opposites everything one perceives – I wrote extensively about this idea in regards to the High Priestess here – in fact, consciousness wouldn’t exist if our minds didn’t perform such an analysis. This begins the process of developing a sense of self or identity – or ego – which is separate from everything else. The ego thus develops step by step through the Majors, and we see examples of binary opposition the entire way: Magician and Priestess, Empress and Emperor, pivoting around the Hierophant (who sits between two pillars) to our first examples of opposition within a single card, with the choice of the Lover and the fury of the two horses in the Chariot. This is a steady process of defining opposites and then an attempt at balancing them to define reality. Opposition and balance are inherent in Justice, as well, and this is the first time the balance of opposites for the sake of a force greater than the Self is presented. This sets the stage for our friend the Hermit. The Hermit, by the light of his lamp, shows us for the first time the true mystery of the binary opposition. He doesn’t explain the mystery so much as just point it out; it is up to us to continue the journey on our own to really figure it out for ourselves.
In other words, the Hermit marks the point of change, the axis about which the Wheel turns, if you will. After him, we see a shift from recognition of opposites towards their reconciliation, beginning with the harbinger of change itself, the Wheel of Fortune (which gives a sort of preview of the World); followed by Strength, which is a taming of the tensions created by opposites (the Maiden taming the Lion); and onward until we get to Temperance, a very important point along the path towards reconciliation; and eventually the World, which signifies the ultimate universal unity to which the Hermit first alluded. Enlightenment achieved. Again, the first half of the progression centers around the recognition of opposites, and the second half around their reconciliation. Or, in other words, the awakening of consciousness through development of the Self, followed by transcendence towards super-consciousness through letting go of the Self. The ego needs to be strong, lest it get trapped somewhere between the Hanged Man and the Moon, but the goal is ultimately to dissolve it.
My favorite way to interpret the Major Arcana is through the lens of the mythic Hero’s Journey, which is not completely unrelated to the discovery and subsequent relinquishing of the ego. In this case, the Hermit is not the central character – in the world of Tarot, the Hero’s Journey translates to the Fool’s Journey, not the Hermit’s Journey, after all. But the Hermit is nonetheless integral to the story of the Hero. This is an archetype that is sometimes called the “personal father”. What this means is that, prior to making the symbolic journey into the Underworld, the Hero (or Fool) must learn his true purpose. Most often, this happens with the help of a wise mentor, who acts as a father figure or mentor to the Hero. This isn’t always the case; sometimes the personal father is antagonistic, but regardless, the Hero learns his or her identity through interaction with him. Assuming, however, that the personal father is kind and sagely, he takes the Hero under his wing after the Hero is exiled or for some other reason has left the world of his upbringing behind. Sometimes the Hermit is there to kick-start the Hero’s quest, sometimes he shows up only in time to see the Hero off towards his descent, but in either case, the Hero must eventually leave or lose (or beat, if the personal father is antagonistic) the Hermit.
The advice the Hermit gives to the Hero will provide guidance at a crucial moment in the Hero’s journey, when the Hero is alone and seems to have lost all, as I have previously discussed in my post about the Moon. It is the advice Gandalf gives Frodo in the mines of Moria – just before Frodo loses Gandalf to the Balrog – that ultimately saves the quest to destroy the Ring. Or take the example of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is possibly my favorite example of the Hermit from fantasy. He is there to guide Luke Skywalker towards his destiny, and it is he who first introduces Luke to the Force. And, of course, before Luke is able to destroy the Death Star and save the day, Obi-Wan is killed before his eyes. Yet, while Luke is attempting to destroy the Death Star, it is Obi-Wan’s advice echoing in his ear that leads him to victory.
In a nutshell, the Hermit reveals the Hero to his or her true Self. Only then can the Hero transcend.
I use the examples of Gandalf and Obi-Wan here because I mentioned them in my first post in this series, and once again, I wanted to come full circle. But there are many, many other examples of the Hermit archetype from myth and fantasy. There are also other examples of mythic archetypes fulfilled by the Hermit besides that of the personal father, many of which are related to magic and death (and time), but I will go no farther into that here.
Well, I had every intention of wrapping up this series with nine posts, which would have been apt. However, as it turned out I had a bit more to say about the Hermit than I’d originally planned, and I still have some more loose ends to tie up. Next time, I will conclude this series with a few final thoughts about the Hermit in general, and a final look at Waite’s Hermit.
*To read about Mercury’s connection with both the Hermit and the Magician, and their subsequent connection to each other, click here. To read about the Magician’s connection with Quintessence, click here.
I recently got paid more than expected for a performance, and the money was burning a hole in my pocket, so I went into the local metaphysical shop and purchased a new deck, just for funsies.
I did so with a hint of trepidation, because it wasn’t all that long ago that I had resolved to keep my Tarot collection small. Now I have double digits. I know that pales compared to the collections of some, but to me, it feels staggering. I knew it from the start. I’m a compulsive collector. It’s like I can’t help myself, and I don’t like that feeling. It troubles me.
There are worse habits to have, I suppose, and if I didn’t spend that money on some new cards, I’d have spent it on a case of beer anyway. Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with indulging in vices from time to time, but I’m sure I picked the more productive of the two options by spending my spare clams as I did.
At any rate, I had mixed feelings when I broke the cellophane of my new deck, and I suspect a lot of that had to do with the very fact of just having a new deck.* But enough preamble; if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t as interested in my issues as you are about the deck itself.
First thing’s first: the Aquarian Tarot (AT) by David Palladini is the least original deck I have. It’s not quite a Rider clone, but it’s pretty close. It’s a Tarot very, very firmly rooted in the RWS tradition, at the very least. It was first published in 1970, and was intended as a re-imagining of the classic Tarot for the New Age (that’s the Aquarian Age in astrology speak). Unlike the CHT, which is also designed with a new age ( or aeon) in mind, the main difference here is only superficial. It’s done in a modern, geometric art-deco style as opposed to the traditional linework of P.C. Smith. Any meaning beyond the artwork is more or less the same as Rider decks from the “old” age.
The main artistic differences are found in the Major Arcana. I cannot deny that some drastic liberties were taken on some of these cards, without any intention of changing the divinatory meanings. Many of them I really like; some of them, not so much. Most of the art work in the Minor Arcana cards, on the other hand, is very clearly inspired by their predecessors in the Rider pack.
Not that any of this is a negative thing. In fact, I rather enjoyed being able to use and understand these cards right out of the package. And the art style (and colors) does appeal very much to my sensibilities – overall, that is. The faces of the characters within are done in a way which stands out from the relatively abstracted everything else, and while I really like that in some, in others, it just plain doesn’t look very good. It’s only isolated instances which don’t look good, however, and in general, I really like the contrast. Also, this deck was done in 1970, and it feels it, which I also enjoy. It strikes me as a good deck to burn a doobie and crank some Yes to while reading.
On a card-by-card basis, these pictures are hit-and-miss. Some of them I think are absolutely amazing. The Six of Swords here is probably my favorite version yet. In fact, I really like the entire suit of Swords in this deck. The Wands are beautiful, too (well, they’re called Rods in this deck).
Others I absolutely don’t like. I was bummed first of all to find that Strength was a man with a dog, and a creepy mustachioed man at that. This isn’t my first deck with a male Strength card, but it is the first that I don’t like for that reason. It doesn’t evoke Strength to me at all, and I just don’t like it. It rubs me the wrong way. There are a few creepy mustaches in this deck, actually (must be a 70’s thing), although I can overlook some of them.
And yet still others are just fine, but not spectacular. But the very fact that this deck is varied like this gives it character, I think, and that pleases me, even if some of the cards don’t. And the overall style and colors of the deck are beautiful, I think. It’s not like I got an ugly deck with some pretty cards, but rather a pretty deck with some ugly cards, and that’s ok. After all, I can’t think of a deck I own that has 78 perfect cards.
In the end, I am happy to have added the Aquarian Tarot to my collection. It’s not the crown jewel by any means, but it is a fun utility deck, and sometimes that’s all I need.
This Hermit is the exception to everything I’ve discussed up to this point. Extra emphasis should be put on the Deviant of the Deviant Moon Tarot (DMT). There is no lantern (or hourglass). There is no wand. There is no robe, nor any definitive indication of advanced age. This Hermit does not stand outside. And the one especially noticeable detail, the dead fish, is nowhere to be found in any other Hermit card.
This card seriously irked me when I first came across it. In fact, it was because of this card that I almost never bought this deck.
Because this card does deviate so much from the others, I’ve dedicated a special post to it. It just can’t be categorized with anything previous. This is also why I’ve saved it for last among my non-RWS Hermits for examination. You gotta teach the rules before you can teach the exceptions, after all.
This Hermit huddles in the fetal position, trying to hide from the world outside his alcove. It looks like a polluted world of impersonal industry, and the Hermit screams for want of a life more meaningful. He is naked, and covers his head with his arms in a show of despair. A piercing eye stares out from between blackened, claw-like fingers.
If the traditional Hermit has left society behind, this one is yet in its midst – a factory can be seen outside his hole. If this picture represents how the Hermit feels among the company of his fellow man, it is no wonder he prefers to hide away in the mountains or the forests. He seems to be in the throes of intense torment. His nakedness suggests exposure and his position is one of anxiety. This Hermit is not peaceful and meditative like most of the other ones, at least, not on the surface. Half of his face is in shadow – his subconscious – and this shadow face is serene. Deep down, the Hermit is the wise old sage we’ve come to know so well, but his external circumstances stifle him.
An interesting detail of this card is the direction of the Hermit’s shadow. The light source seems to be coming from inside his alcove. What’s going on in there?
There is no visible lantern. No wand. Just a dead fish. The instruction booklet says: “Even though he shuts himself off from the city, he is never truly alone. The rotted fish beside him is a reminder that we can never hide from ourselves.” I don’t really follow that connection. It does hint at introspection and self-discovery as befits a Hermit, but why the fish, I can’t say. This Hermit does look potentially insane; perhaps he’s a Gollum-type character who eats raw fish and talks to himself. It’s a creepy way to interpret the Hermit, but I guess it’s not wrong. That’s only a shot in the dark, though. Perhaps there is some symbolic quality to dead fish that I’m unaware of. Fish do appear multiple times throughout the DMT, including the Fool, but without a more in-depth explanation from the artist at my disposal, I can only speculate.
I’m at a loss with this one. And not just because of the fish. I’ve perused the Tarot forums, and found some credible interpretations for this card. The Hermit before he’s left society. The Hermit in anguish with the emotions of an empath. Or perhaps he has lost his sanity in the face of the enlightenment he’s been seeking. Enlightenment as I’ve been describing it necessitates a dissolution of the ‘self’. How terrifying would it be the moment you actually cross that threshold of oblivion? He does try to cover his face, yet he can’t seem to look away…
Any one of these interpretations is valid (I particularly like that last one). Regardless of how one chooses to see this card, though, it is undeniably an unflattering portrayal. This Hermit is decidedly darker and more disturbing than all of the others. But so is much of the pack from which it came, and after all, everything has a dark side. The Hermit is not an exception to that rule. And the Hermit would probably not be very wise if he never confronted his own darkness. Perhaps that’s what the fish represents: his own demons, causing him to rot from the inside out, until he is forced to face the terrible stench of the truth. Maybe then, he’ll finally find his peace.
Read part VI about the Wildwood and Shadowscapes Hermits here.
Many sources on the Tarot describe the Hermit with an anecdote about Diogenes, the classical Greek philosopher and eccentric who was said to walk among throngs of people with a lantern in broad daylight. When asked why he carried the lamp, he responded that he was searching for an honest man. It is not surprising that the Hermit might be inspired by this Diogenes, who lived in self-imposed poverty, openly questioned societal norms, and walked around with a lantern as a means of making social commentary. In this case, the lantern suggests a cynical attitude towards humanity, which a hermit may very well possess, but it also assumes the ability to symbolically reveal the inner character of a person. Of course, with the Hermit, I have worked under the impression until now that the lantern is symbolic of his own soul, but it can be more universal than that: the lantern’s primary function is illumination, and as the Hermit shines with enlightenment from within, so too can he illuminate the souls of people without.
There have been several variations from Hermit to Hermit that we’ve encountered so far, some subtle and some not so much, but in spite of these there are overarching themes bridging them all. These common factors amount to what I consider to be the fundamental meaning of this card, while the variables contribute to the depth of this meaning by providing different shades of interpretation, some of which can seem contrary on the surface. However, the fundamental meaning of this card, as I have hitherto attempted to show, revolves around a reconciliation of opposites, and so rather than detract, these contrary details actually enhance this meaning. The Hermit is indicative of a wise worldview in which everything is a part of one, cohesive whole. Of course, in order to arrive at this view, the Hermit lives a life of solitude wrought with midnight wanderings about the wilderness, ultimately brought on as a result of his rejection of society. Along with these lonely wanderings, only the Hermit’s lantern remains constant throughout. No matter what else is going on in a particular card, the Hermit always boils down to a lantern-wielding anti-social after the fashion of Diogenes.
The lantern is an attention-grabbing symbolic element that I think serves as the key to really understanding the card. In fact, without the lantern, a lot of this talk about illumination and enlightenment, seeking and discovering, would fly right out the window.
So what does it mean when you come across a Hermit that doesn’t carry one? What if he’s carrying an hourglass, instead?
The original Hermits did carry lanterns, and the hourglass was the variation, albeit a very early one that we don’t see too often anymore.* The initial effect on the viewer isn’t a very great one; after all, an hourglass is more or less the same shape and size as a lantern. Nonetheless the hourglass is a completely different device than the lantern, with an entire set of symbolic associations that are all its own. The lantern is an instrument of sight, of comprehending space. The hourglass, on the other hand, is an instrument of time. The hourglass is symbolic of a different dimension altogether, one which rules our lives, yet which we only pretend to understand.
I’ve already discussed how Mr. Crowley’s interpretation of the Hermit and Harris’ rendition of it remind that this old man is really an archetype and not necessarily a physical person. That archetype is of course the Wise Old Sage character, embodied by Thoth and Mercury in ancient mythologies. When the lantern is replaced by an hourglass, the archetype suggested becomes different, much older, and more primal. In classical Roman myth (where our lantern-carrying Hermit is Mercury), he becomes Saturn. Many know him best as Father Time.
That’s right. When the Hermit holds an hourglass, he can be considered Time itself, usually with the divinatory implication that the querent should take some time to him or herself to reflect. For divination, this is not very different at all from a typical interpretation of the Hermit with the lantern. However, the symbolism used to get to this end is very different, and it raises some questions about the basic meaning of this card’s symbolism. Why can the lantern be replaced by an hourglass? What logic is there in this?
The idea that the Hermit is the master of past, present, and future was hinted at in Scapini’s version of the card, in which the Hermit carries a lantern that is deliberately shaped like an hourglass. Mr. Crowley’s Hermit is followed by Cerberus, whose three heads are split with two facing forward and one facing back. This could possibly suggest looking to both the future (forward) and the past (back). So there are examples of the Hermit’s connection with time, but these are isolated and not incredibly important contributors to the overall meanings of the cards. Of course, the Hermit’s beard implies time, but not in exactly the same way as an hourglass.
Now, Father Time is often pictured as an old bearded man, sometimes with a cane, not unlike the Hermit. But this alone doesn’t strike me as a reason to change the archetypal identity of the card. I wonder if perhaps folks during the Renaissance figured that, considering the supposed divinatory meaning of the card, the old man with the hourglass just made more sense than the old man with the lantern. We’ll probably never know for sure.
So, what can I make of all this? Does the hourglass negate the enlightenment of the lantern and thus the esoteric meaning of the card, despite agreeing with the divinatory meaning? I’m going to say no, not really, although it does complicate things a little. After all, the other elements that define the Hermit are still there. He’s outside, aged, and dressed in robes. Granted, in Paul Huson’s Hermit, there is no staff, but his robes are colored with the familiar red, blue and yellow. Is this a tribute to Wirth? Huson doesn’t specify, but I think the color symbolism is intentional, whichever system it was derived from. His cloak is also lined with green, which suggests growth, as we’ve seen. He still exudes wisdom as he contemplates the hourglass. It may not light his way in a literal sense, but that’s no reason to assume this Hermit isn’t still an enlightened guy. As he gazes upon the falling sands, he’s comprehending a great mystery: Time.
What is time, anyway, but an illusion? As beings, we are stuck in time, experiencing the world around us on a moment by moment basis. This is analogous to perceiving space only an inch at a time. Could you imagine? All this does is perpetuate an illusion of separateness in our lives. If we could see time as a whole, what would it be like?
This is some fourth-dimensional, nonlinear thinking, and it’s a little mind-bending, to say the least. But bear with me. If we understood Time as we do Space, we would see ourselves everywhere we have been and will be at once. The future is the past; the creation of the Universe is its destruction, and everything is present. Everything is One. Sound familiar?
Indeed, the Hermit’s enlightenment comes largely from the recognition that opposition is only an illusion, and everything in the Universe is part of a singular whole. In a roundabout way, the hourglass symbolizes this by virtue of its being a timepiece. Now, I realize I may be stretching a bit to come to a conclusion, but am I wrong? I don’t think so. I mean, how much wiser and more enlightened can one be than if he or she truly understood time?
So which is it? Lantern or hourglass?
Personally, I prefer the lantern. Most Tarot designers today do, as well. The hourglass is outdated, a little confusing, and probably wasn’t in the hands of the original Hermits, anyway. And from an artistic perspective, a man wandering the wilderness with a lantern just makes more sense than one with an hourglass. The lantern can be taken to mean many things, while the hourglass is relatively limited. But that’s not to say the hourglass is wrong. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking twist at the very least. And the association with Saturn opens an entirely new discussion on possible mythic implications that are absent from the connections with Mercury (like the lantern, I prefer Mercury to Saturn, but to each his own, I say).
And despite having fallen into relative disfavor, the hourglass is not completely absent from modern Tarots. Paul Huson’s Hermit carries one, of course, but then again, his isn’t really meant to be modern. A better example is Vanessa Decort’s Hermit from the Sun and Moon Tarot. This card takes a culturally different view of the Hermit, placing him against a Hindu backdrop. He appears to be in a temple with writing on the walls, all of which is surmounted by a large “om” symbol. The presence of this symbol really drives home the idea of Universal unity that has been a common theme of this series.
The accompanying instruction booklet mentions both a lantern and an hourglass, but the hourglass is far the more prominent (I wouldn’t have thought a lantern was there at all if the booklet hadn’t told me so). Other details of this card are fascinating: in place of the usual Wand, this Hermit carries the Trident of Shiva, its three prongs representing past, present, and future.**
I’m trying to recall a witty tale of an old man accosting people with an hourglass, but I’m drawing a blank. I’m left to wonder what Diogenes would have done with an hourglass in his possession, instead of a lantern. Probably make some sardonic remark about how other people live their lives.
Next time, I will examine a version of the Hermit that defies virtually everything I’ve discussed up to this point. And you thought the hourglass variation was a wringer…
*I’m making this assertion based on Paul Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot, page 105. Many people actually seem to believe that the hourglass predated the lantern in the Tarot, and therefore the hourglass is more original to the Hermit, but Huson doesn’t seem to think this is the case, and I take the research behind his book a bit more seriously than I do the opinions of laypeople on internet Tarot forums. That being said, however, I do suppose it’s possible considering how little we actually know for certain about the early stages of the development of the Tarot. All I can say is where I get my information, not whether it’s 100% correct. It is interesting to note that, despite his writing, Huson chose to include the hourglass in his own rendition of the Hermit, pictured above.
**Shiva also appears in the SaM as the World Dancer in card 21, the Universe. This calls to mind the possible connection between cards 9 and 21 from the Wildwood Tarot, discussed in the previous post. Coincidence? Maybe, but if I discount coincidence in Tarot, things start to fall apart.
After examining the unique Thoth Hermit, I think it’s time to return to some more typical interpretations of this figure. Oddly enough, the Wildwood Tarot is among the least traditional Tarots I use, with only a shared fundamental structure with other decks keeping it a Tarot at all. Every Major Arcana card is renamed and redesigned, as are the suit symbols, court cards, and small cards of the Minor Arcana, and the entire thing is designed with the Wheel of the Year system in mind. With all that being said, however, the Hermit, or Hooded Man as he’s called here, is actually very similar in appearance to the Hermit of the RWS. He is among the most traditional cards in this deck.
The Hooded Man carries a lantern and a staff, and wears a hooded robe. He’s also outside, which aligns with almost all of the elements of the card I discussed in part II of this series. The only thing missing is the appearance of advanced age, symbolized in most decks by a long, white beard. Not only can we see no beard on the Hooded Man, we can’t see his face at all. It is totally hidden by the hood. This imbues him with an aura of mystery.
His lantern and staff are unadorned by the symbols we saw in both the RWS and OWT. They are just that: a lantern and a staff. They mean more or less exactly what they mean with any other Hermit – illumination and support. Deeper symbols of the occult are left out – the Wildwood has no place for them – but the simpler symbolism of the Collective Unconscious still finds its way through. His cloak, on the other hand, is decorated with a pattern resembling holly leaves.
If you use this deck and are familiar with the Wheel of the Year, you know that the Hooded Man stands at the Winter Solstice. This is why he wears the holly pattern, and it is also why there is a holly wreath above his door (we’ll get to that door momentarily). The holly symbolizes hope because of its tenacity in the face of the cold and dark of winter, a time when most other plants have long since withered and died. The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year; afterward, the days begin to finally grow longer once again. It is a time of darkness, yes, but more particularly it is that glimmer of light at the end of the dark tunnel. Hope is a relatively novel concept with the Hermit. So far, we’ve seen wisdom and reconciliation – enlightenment – but not so much in reference to hope. Wisdom and hope are not mutually exclusive, though; in fact, I think the symbols of hope pictured here illustrate a wisdom that comes with the experience of enduring harsh winters. Like the RWS Hermit, the Hooded Man’s lantern is a beacon of hope in the dark to those searching for the way.
The holly wreath hangs over a door which is in the side of a great tree. This tree is the Hooded Man’s abode. There is a comforting light emanating from it, and it seems warm and inviting against the snowy backdrop. It’s a quiet place of rest and recovery from the elements outside.
Nowhere in the companion book does it say so, but I believe that tree is none other than the World Tree pictured in card 21. This means that the Hooded Man lives in the metaphorical heart of the Wildwood, which is itself nothing more than a vivid mythic-forest metaphor for life in this Universe (as any good Tarot ought to be a metaphor for). It’s the same thing as implying the Hermit of the RWS hangs out with the the World Dancer. The Hooded Man is not the World Tree. He just lives there in his solitude. He lives within, yet remains without. This reminds me of that paradox of the lantern I discussed in the RWS, which he simultaneously follows yet carries. In this instance, it suggests to me consciousness amidst unconsciousness. Super-consciousness, if you will. This makes sense when you consider everything we’ve discussed about the Hermit up until this point: an endless (but not fruitless) search for wisdom towards enlightenment. The Tree is enlightenment. The Hooded Man knows where he is, and the only reason he is capable of living there is an austere lifestyle combined with the midnight urge to discover.
The only other detail on this card is the Wren perched on the Stone. Both of these have significance within the Wildwood mythos: the Stone is the emblem for the suit which is traditionally called Coins or Pentacles, and therefore represents the element Earth. The Wren is the Page of Arrows (standing in for Swords) among the Wildwood court. It symbolizes cleverness and wisdom above all else.
We’ve seen references to Fire (with all those Wands), as well as subtler references to Water in tandem with Fire (in the Star of David of the lantern). And while I haven’t mentioned it yet, Air is a big part of the Hermit, in that he is always outside, and is often atop a mountain, not to mention the number 9 being the number of intellect. Crowley has a lot of Earth references in his Hermit, but they are buried under astrological and Kabbalistic symbolism, and I didn’t feel compelled to try and explain it all in my previous post. The Hooded Man is grounded, despite his lofty spirit. And the Wren is his friend in the forest, trading secrets and reminding him that, like the holly, there are things that live and flourish in the cold when there seems to be no hope.
The Hooded Man of the Wildwood does seem more down to earth than many other Hermits. There is a stark contrast between him and our next Hermit, the Hermit of the Shadowscapes Tarot. This Hermit’s head is firmly planted in the sky. I’ve lumped these two Hermits together in this post, because they are the two in my collection who exist in Tarot packs that present their characters in the context of deliberately-created fantasy settings. In examining them each more closely, though, I’ve found that these two examples provide some interesting points of contrast. Much of this contrast derives from the respective Earthiness and Airiness of these two cloaked figures.
The first thing I notice about the SST Hermit is his lack of a Wand. Perhaps he needed the spare hand to climb to his precarious perch, but in any case, this staple of Hermit-dom is just not there. This Hermit is clearly young, at least in comparison to other Hermits. Not only did he reach the pinnacle without the Wand of drives and passions to lean on, he has no long white beard, and a posture bent for balance rather than under the weight of the years (is how that looks to me, anyway). He looks lithe and otherworldly.
I suspect this was an aesthetic choice on the part of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, the artist. To balance the figure on such a pinnacle (which is a geographical feature characteristic of the Shadowscapes), a staff might seem awkward. The energy of a staff is more or less conveyed in the youth of the Hermit, but at the cost of the wisdom gained through experience. I have compared the Hermit to the Fool earlier in this series, and I want to point out the similarity of this Hermit’s position to the position of the Fool in many Tarots. This is not a typical way these two characters overlap, and in fact I find it interestingly at odds with the prudence normally attributed to this character.
The lantern is the center of focus in the guidebook. It is said to contain a captured star, and the star wants to go home. It pulls the Hermit along. He doesn’t even really know where he’s headed. He is conscious of a desire to leave society behind, though, and there is an interesting detail about how “others have been here before him”*. This young Hermit is not the first, nor will he be the last. So in a way, the wisdom of experience is in the process of being experienced here. It’s a novel approach to the Hermit, but I like it.
The Hermit stands on a pinnacle that reaches so far into the sky that there is not so much as a glimpse of the horizon which must be somewhere beneath him. The stars glow with incredible intensity and mesmerizing clarity. The light of his lantern is almost home. Even the birds soar below the feet of the Hermit. They are loons, different from the Hooded Man’s Wren, and they represent tranquility as well as familiarity with land, sea and sky (there are seashells embedded in the rock). We see a mixture of the elements as we’ve seen before, only this time in favor of the Air. Even the stone of his perch is pierced by a bubble of air. This sort of bubble appears many times throughout this deck, and they could represent any number of things. I’ve read on a forum that they could possibly represent confinement, in which case the Hermit stands above it. He has left humanity behind to chase the promise of the stars. Or, as I like to continue calling it, enlightenment.
So far, the Hermit’s Lantern has remained the most important key to understanding the card. However, the Hermit has not always held a lantern, and this variance will be the subject of my next post in this series.