Part VII, Lantern v. Hourglass.

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 Visconti-Sforza Hermit, one of the oldest in existence.

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.

Huson’s Hermit, inspired by Medieval and Renaissance imagery – DFW

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).

Sun and Moon Tarot

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.


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