Read part VIII, on the Deviant Moon, here.
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.