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.