The Three Magi.

I was playing with my new Hermetic Tarot when I noticed something interesting.

Every single card of the HT bears a subtitle originally given by the Golden Dawn, usually beginning with “Lord of…” or “Daughter of…” or something like that. There are three cards in the Major Arcana that are designated “Magi”: the Magus of Power, the Magus of the Eternal Gods, and the Magus of the Voice of Light. These cards are more commonly referred to as the Magician, the Hierophant, and the Hermit, respectively.

HPIM0440
I always thought these were some pretty awesome depictions of these three figures.

This reminded me of something interesting I once read: the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit represent the three magi or wise men mentioned in the Bible.*

Despite becoming a staple of modern Nativity scenes, the magi are only vaguely referenced in one of the four Gospels of the New Testament – they aren’t even specified as numbering three, they were only said to have arrived bearing three gifts for the infant Christ. They came from the East, the land of mysticism and decadence, and were of a class of magician-priests, probably Zoroastrian (which is one ancient religious sect that I know next to nothing about, and I am interested in finding more information). The three gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There are a few ways of interpreting the gifts of the magi; because of the scant mention of them, though, it’s all really just speculation. Probably the most common theory is that the gold symbolizes earthly kingship, the frankincense (a type of incense used in religious ritual) symbolizes divinity, and the myrrh (an anointing oil often associated with funerary practices) symbolizes death. If we take this to be the case, the magi are metaphorically revealing Jesus’ destiny by giving him these things. That they come from Zoroastrian priests from “the East” is important, because it suggests that all religions (including what, at the time, would have been among the greatest rivals to the burgeoning church) and all peoples, no matter how exotic, were subservient to the Christ child.

So, this begs the question: which card is which gift? We can associate the Magician with gold, the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit with myrrh, which maintains the order of both cards and gifts (that is, the order in which they were listed in the Bible). I can’t think of better matches than these, anyway; the Magician isn’t a king, but he does exhibit earthly power (he’s literally pictured manipulating the four earthly elements in most decks). It’s no great stretch to connect the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit often includes symbolism relating to death.

As if to drive the connection between these three cards home, they are spaced evenly apart within the Major Arcana, with three cards between them each. Of course, this could easily be coincidence, but it got me thinking: which card is three away from the Hermit?

Of course, the answer is Death, followed by the Star, followed by the World.

I believe I’ve mentioned the concept of complimentary cards before on this blog; the idea is that any two Major Arcana cards whose numbers add up to 22 (the total number of the Major Arcana) share a connection with each other. And it just so happens that the compliment of the Magician is the World; the compliment of the Hierophant is the Star; and the compliment of the Hermit is Death. The complimentary relationship between the Hermit and Death seems to confirm that it was indeed the Hermit who brought the myrrh. Following this train of association, it’s not a far leap from the Star to the Hierophant and the notion of the divine (and it’s not lost on me that these astrologer-priests were led to Jesus by a divinely-placed star), and the World could absolutely signify earthly kingship. These three cards, though inversely ordered from their compliments, even fall into line with the story of Jesus’ eventual destiny as predicted by the wise men: he died, ascended to heaven, and was thereafter lauded by Christians as “King of Kings,” ruler of Heaven and of Earth.

~~~

The Hermit and the Magician are the two cards in the Tarot with which I most strongly identify, and, as I am wont to point out, are actually two aspects of the same archetypal figure. This idea of the three magi has led me to wonder: is the Hierophant yet another aspect of this character that I’d not considered?

There is a detail on these cards that leads me to suspect that the Golden Dawn (or at the very least Godfrey Dowson, the artist behind the HT) was aware of the connection between them. At the top of the Hermit card is an oil lantern with three wicks, in the implied shape of an upwards-pointing triangle, or the alchemical symbol for Fire. The top of the Magician card depicts the caduceus, in the implied shape of a downwards-pointing triangle, symbol for Water. Between them sits the Hierophant, and at the top of his card is the “monogram of Hermetic Truth” (in the words of the LWB). This glyph implies the shape of the six-pointed star, or the two triangles of Fire and Water superimposed on each other, representing the reconciliation of elemental opposites to create the essence of life.

So perhaps the Magician and the Hermit are two opposing (yet not mutually exclusive) aspects of the same figure; and perhaps, the Hierophant isn’t a third aspect at all, but an incarnation that combines these aspects into that singular figure. Indeed, the traditional image of the Hierophant is the Pope, whose position is that of a bridge between Man and God, matter and spirit.**

~~~

The Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is an important concept in the Christian faith. The idea of a trinity is not peculiar to Christianity, though, and I often find myself comparing their trinity to that of the Hindus: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva, representing Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, respectively. Beginning, Middle, and End. God the Father is the Creator of the world; Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of Mankind stands for the Preservation of the world; and ultimately, everything dissolves and becomes one with the Holy Spirit – Destruction of the world.

I think the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit can be seen as another example of the Trinity. The Magician with his earthly power creates, the Hierophant with his connection to the divine preserves, and the Hermit, whose compliment is Death, destroys (the Hermit can also be associated with Kronos, also known as Father Time, or “the Devourer of Things”). Of course, destruction only paves the way for creation, and the cycle continues.

This, I believe, is the true significance of the Three Magi.

HPIM0442
The Three Magi, as painted by Lady Frieda Harris.

*For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this. If I ever stumble across the passage again, I’ll be sure to cite it here.

**Or a bridge between the macrocosm and microcosm, represented by the six- and five-pointed stars on the Hierophant card (that is, the Crowley and Hermetic Hierophants – I don’t think they’re on any others). Normally, when the six-pointed star makes an appearance on this blog, I take it to mean the blending of elemental opposites, but the macrocosm is a viable alternative (if the macro contains everything, though, are these two interpretations of the symbol really all that different?). This thought makes me consider the implications of the Hermit’s lantern, which is often pictured as containing this symbol. Can the Hermit really exist outside of the macrocosm? One possible way to view these three cards that I haven’t explored above is that the Magician is the microcosm, the Hermit the macrocosm, and the Hierophant is the bridge between them. Wow. This is a long digression that might have been better included in the proper post. Oh well.

The Hermit, Concluded.

The Hermit Index

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.

HPIM0196
In case you forgot what he looks like…

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.

~~~

HPIM0193
An Etteilla-style “Hermit”

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.

HPIM0457
The Hermit as master of the Universe, from the Mary-El Tarot.

~~~

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.

hpim0405
From the Aquarian Tarot.

~~~

*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.

Part VIII, the Deviant Moon Hermit.

Read Part VII about the hourglass here.

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.

HPIM0279
Seriously, what’s up with this guy?

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.

~~~

Part IX

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?

HPIM0458
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.

hpim0395
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).

hpim0394
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.

Part VI, Fantasy Hermits.

Read Part V, on Mr. Crowley’s Hermit, here.

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.

HPIM0197
The Hooded Man – WWT

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.

hpim0221
Look at that little door – WWT

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.

~~~

hpim0390
Shadowscapes Tarot

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.

*Shadowscapes Companion, page 56.

Part V, Mr. Crowley’s Hermit.

Read Part IV about the Marseille and Wirth Hermits here.

Compared to the Hermits we’ve studied up until this point, the Hermit from the Thoth Tarot (CHT) seems like a radical departure from tradition.

HPIM0195
Thoth

It’s true, Crowley did reinvent the Tarot, creating his own, new spin on an old tradition. The Hermit plays an integral role in Crowley’s complex vision. I will discuss my understanding of Crowley’s ideas relating to the Hermit in this post, focusing on details that set this Hermit apart from the others, but ultimately, I intend to illustrate that at its core, this is still a Hermit like all the rest.

The artist, Lady Frieda Harris, was very clever in the way she portrayed this character. At first glance, this man, facing away from us, appears to have the long hair and beard we’ve come to recognize as characteristic of the Hermit. Look again, though, and you may notice that from this angle, his beard looks rather beak-like, and the hair is reminiscent of feathers, or perhaps an ancient Egyptian headdress. Why, this Hermit appears to be none other than the ibis-headed scribe of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, whose name graces the entire deck: Thoth himself. In Crowley’s companion text, The Book of Thoth, Crowley states in his entry on this card that the Hermit is indeed Mercury “in his highest form”.* Those who are familiar with classical mythology, as well as classical writers’ treatment of Egyptian mythology, will understand that Mercury and Thoth were thought to be two names for the same deity. The implications of all this are staggering. I will not go much more into it here, because I’ve already discussed this subject in great detail in another post, but suffice it to say that the Hermit is not only a very wise man, but he is supposed to be the embodiment of the God of Wisdom of ancient times. As a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Hermes being yet another incarnation of this god), that Crowley would associate this character with these names suggests that the Hermit is at the very center of his spiritual and magical philosophy.

Before I go any further, I should say that much of the symbolism we see in this card is derived from the Kabbalah. Now, Crowley was not the only person to use the Kabbalah with the Tarot – far from it. There are multiple ways to associate the Kabbalah with the Tarot, and they don’t all agree (for example, Wirth used different attributions than Crowley did). However, my understanding of this branch of Jewish mysticism is elementary at best, and this confusion is only compounded by the disagreements between occultists, so I avoid talking about it when I can. In the case of Crowley’s Thoth, however, it is so firmly entrenched in the imagery that I do not think I can avoid mentioning it this time.

So with that in mind, onto the next point. The Hebrew letter associated with the Hermit (according to Crowley) is Yod. Again, this illustrates to Kabbalistic types just how important the Hermit is. Yod is the first letter of the Tetragrammation, or the unpronounceable name of God (YHVH, to use the English equivalent letters), and the letter from which all other letters are formed. As such it symbolizes the “Father, who is Wisdom”. The Hermit’s body is drawn in such a way as to evoke the shape of the Yod, and because Yod translates to “hand” (“the tool or instrument par excellence”), the Hermit’s hand occupies the central point of the card.

In his hand is, of course, the lantern, which doesn’t just house any old star; it contains the Sun. However, in another streak of cleverness, Harris drew this lantern in a way which, if you look closely, evokes the Star of David in its shape. So we have both the symbolism of the Sun – illumination, creation, Fire, God the Father – combined with a subtle reference to the six-pointed star we’ve encountered already. Geometric beams of light shine from this lantern and seem to bounce around the card, illuminating much, but not all.

Just out of reach of the beams of light, peeking through sheaves of wheat, is an egg with a snake wrapped around it. This is called the “Orphic Egg”, and it turns up in various forms several times throughout Crowley’s Major Arcana, perhaps most notably in the Lovers. It is a symbol of the Universe and the mystery of Life – not entirely unlike the ouroboros we saw twisting around the Scapini Hermit’s staff. The Hermit Thoth seeks it.

The wheat itself is symbolic of fruitfulness and harvest, associated with Persephone. It suggests both life and death, the world of the Living and the world of the Dead, much like Thoth or Mercury himself. This duality is further emphasized by the sperm-homunculus in the foreground on the left, and Cerberus the three-headed hound of Hades on the right. The spermatozoon, as Crowley calls it, stands in for the Hermit’s staff, which is otherwise absent from this image. Like the staff, it represents a drive of sorts, but this one in particular is more primal, embodying the male aspect of reproduction and life. It literally contains within it the potential for a new person. The Cerberus is further representation of the Persephone myth, in that it stands on guard of the realm of the Dead. Two of its heads look forward, and one looks back.

So the Thoth Hermit seeks to reconcile life and death, to shed light on the secrets of the Universe. It is a card of alchemy as well as Kabbalah.

hpim0393
The Lovers, with the Hermit.

The Orphic Egg sits between the Emperor and the Empress on card VI of the Thoth, who are the titular Lovers of the card. There is a larger-than-life hooded and bearded figure who presides over their marriage. This is the Hermit, again referred to as Mercury by Crowley. Why the Hermit is the officiating minister is something Crowley opted not to explain. But I think that it is because the Hermit is the seeker of truth, of the secrets of life and death and the Universe. Around his arms is a Moebius band-like ribbon, symbolizing unity. Is this what the Hermit is all about? That reconciling of opposites, whether they be man and woman or life and death? Remember the Star of David, with its combination of the opposites Fire and Water. That star is the source of light in the RWS Hermit’s lantern, leading his way towards that which he seeks. Whether or not the Hermit realizes the answers to his questions are already at his disposal is unknown, but it doesn’t matter, because the symbolism of the lantern suggests that, if he stopped searching, he would extinguish his goal. Wisdom is in the search. That is why the Orphic Egg in card IX remains forever just out of reach of the Hermit’s light.

~~~

There are a couple small details I’d like to bring up before I wrap this post up. First of all is the fact that Crowley intended his Hermit to be representative of a certain formula that is tied to both the Ten and the Princess of Disks. This is a Kabbalistic idea regarding the descent of energy into matter and its reintegration into spirit. I want only to bring it up here; to delve into that discussion would take me farther off topic than I’d prefer, and I think there is sufficient material there to deserve a post all its own. So perhaps in the future I’ll tackle that one.

There is some color symbolism here, and again, it’s related to the Kabbalah. The Hermit’s robes are the red of Binah, the Sephirah of Understanding, “in whom he gestates”. This color shows up in connection with the number nine and the letter Yod again in the Moon, which I’ve already mentioned in a post about that card. I only call attention to it here because I think it is absolutely an intentional reference to the Hermit. I also think it is a great example, along with the Lovers, of the amazing cohesiveness of the Thoth Tarot. I’ve found that each individual card plays off of the others more so here than in any other Tarot I’ve used. There are many, many connections, and the Hermit occupies an integral spot among them.

~~~

So yes, this Hermit looks different than many of the others, and yes, the symbolism is probably more complex than that of most Tarots. But the basic underlying themes of wisdom and understanding through unity of opposites is not only here, but it is practically underlined and italicized for us, if we can only sift through all the esoteric mambo-jumbo. The fact that this card is more abstract and extreme than previous, more traditional examples serves as a reminder that, while a real-life hermit can be a very wise man, with the cards we are actually dealing with archetypes and symbols that transcend humanity.

For my next post, I’ll be taking a look at some Hermits who are more traditional in appearance than Crowley’s but come from Tarot packs that, on the whole, are perhaps less traditional that the Thoth.

*The Book of Thoth, page 88. In fact, everything I’ve put in quotations can be found on this or the next page of the book.

Part IV, the Marseille and Wirth Hermits.

Read Part III here.

hpim0383
TdM – OWT – MST

At first glance, the Hermit from the TdM appears to be rather different from that of the RWS. His wand is shorter, his head is bare, and he stands on flat ground rather than a mountain. Also, his lantern doesn’t contain a star that I can see, and his robe is, well, colorful.

hpim0384
CBD Marseille Hermit

For the most part, these differences are superficial, a result of the mediums of woodblock prints versus drawing, and they do not detract from the symbolic meaning of the card, although they do perhaps obscure it a little. Of course, whether the symbolism I discussed in the RWS was intended by the designers of the TdM is a mystery, but close examination will indicate that Waite and Smith were not just making things up when they designed their version of the Hermit.

For example, the six-pointed star is absent from the lantern of the TdM Hermit. However, the lantern itself is six-sided (or so we must assume, based on the three sides facing us in the picture). Thus, the symbolism of the number six as it relates to the lantern remains.

The body language of this Hermit is slightly different. His shoulders are bent, adding to the notion that he is an aged man, but his head is uplifted and uncovered, and his eyes are wide and eager. He almost appears to be smiling. While this seems less humble and meditative than his counterpart in the RWS, he appears to find more joy in the simple act of his excursion. The man in the RWS, by comparison, appears melancholy and tired, despite having somewhat better posture.

But I think the most striking difference between the RWS and TdM Hermits is the color. The RWS Hermit is rather monochromatic, while the TdM shows a Hermit wearing a mantle of many colors. Color symbolism can play a much larger role when interpreting TdM cards compared to other systems (although Wirth also made extensive use of color symbolism, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Using the CBD TdM (and the companion book Tarot: The Open Reading) as a basis, we can learn quite a bit about what the Hermit is supposed to mean based on these colors.

His most noticeable feature is an outer cloak of blue, trimmed with yellow. This indicates that the Hermit’s most defining characteristic is a deep, reflective personality, trimmed with practical intelligence. Underneath is a green robe with red sleeves and hood. This suggests life and growth, with an element of passion and energy. His wand is also red, which confirms the idea that the Hermit’s wand is a symbol of passion and drive. The combination of blue and red articles of clothing also suggests a combination of Water and Fire, leading to the life symbolized by the green, and reminding us of the Seal of Solomon from the RWS lantern.

Yellow in particular has different meanings depending on what is yellow. The lantern is a combination of red and yellow, which has alchemical significance (although I don’t understand enough about alchemy to explain that significance). The ground is also yellow, which in this case signifies divine blessing and is another sign of growth.

The only other colors are flesh pink and light blue. The flesh symbolizes humanity, obviously enough, and it is the Hermit’s face and hands which are this color. Fairly straightforward. His hair is light blue. I’m just going to use the words of Ben-Dov here, because I don’t think I could paraphrase better, and it perfectly describes the mind of the Hermit: “[Light blue] symbolizes a combination of matter and spirituality. It can also express clarity and transparency, truth and honesty, but also coldness and detachment. One can see in it a symbol of a wider, more comprehensive perspective, or an action which rises above petty and selfish considerations.”*

~~~

Oswald Wirth very clearly used the TdM as the basis for the designs of his Major Arcana. However, there are subtle differences in every card, which are significant in what they’re intended to mean. The Hermit is, interestingly enough, one of the cards that has some of the more noticeable differences. While color symbolism is just as important, if not more, to Wirth’s trumps as it is to TdM, Wirth’s Hermit is wearing a drab robe with the hood drawn, more similar to the RWS than the TdM, signifying austerity.

hpim0387
Wirth’s Hermit

He walks with the help of a wand, similar in length to the TdM, but with the difference that it looks to be made of bamboo with seven knots, which is a divine number. There is also a red serpent on the ground in front of the Hermit. The serpent represents selfish desires, but rather than stomping it, the Hermit “casts a spell” on it so it wraps around his stick (this is how Wirth describes it, even though the actual card does not picture the snake wrapped around the wand). This is interesting, because one would think that the Hermit would absolutely squash the serpent of selfish desires. However, the Hermit does no such thing, but rather uses those desires to his advantage, namely fusing them with his divine wand of passion. This creates a powerful drive for the Hermit’s search for truth and enlightenment.

Finally, the lantern this Hermit carries does not have anything particularly special about it. No star or number about it stands out. It is important as in any other version of this card, but in this instance, most of the symbolic details are given to the wand rather than the lantern. The lantern is, however, partially covered by the Hermit’s robe, which confirms that Wirth attaches occult significance to it, despite omitting other occult symbols. The significance of this detail was discussed in part II, so I see no reason to go into it here (the TdM Hermit looks as though he may also be covering his lantern, but it’s hard to say for sure if that’s supposed to be the case). In fact, Wirth has a lot to say about the lantern, and the Hermit and his search for truth in general, that includes numerology among other things, but these are covered in detail in his book (and are not necessarily inherent by design in the card), and I do not want to go too far down that rabbit hole at this time. Look up the book if you’re actually interested (I highly recommend it if you’re interested in occult symbolism or history of the Tarot).

~~~

hpim0386
Medieval Scapini Hermit

Luigi Scapini gives attention to both the wand and the lantern in his version of the Hermit, rather than only one or the other as we’ve seen so far. Both get symbolic details. The wand is derived entirely from Wirth, although it is embellished a bit. The lantern, on the other hand, is distinct from any we’ve seen yet. Scapini’s Tarot (MST) was influenced by many systems, but Wirth’s influence is, I think, heavier than most, which is why I’ve decided to finish this post with a look at his Hermit. The MST Hermit definitely shows the influence of Oswald Wirth, but he is his own entity, and therefore deserves his own discussion. This card is very rich in art and symbolism, enough that I could conceivably dedicate a separate post to it. But I’ve got several posts already planned, so for the sake of brevity, I think this Hermit fits well enough in this post.

I’ll start with the wand, because it is based on that of the OWT Hermit. It is connected to the number seven, but instead of seven knots in a stick of bamboo, there are seven flowers in progressing stages of development. This combines the notions of growth with the divine number seven (which is divine, by the way, because it combines spiritual [3] with worldly [4], similarly to the light blue of the TdM Hermit’s hair). Wirth is referenced further with the red serpent at the bottom end of the wand. In the MST, however, the serpent is now wrapped around the wand, and it bites its tail, creating an ouroboros, a symbol of eternity.

The lantern, again partially covered by the robe, has three sections, and its shape is reminiscent of an hourglass (the significance of this will be covered in a future post). The number six is forgotten here, but is replaced by three, which is another very important number in numerology. It suggests body, mind and spirit, three things which the Hermit has mastered. Past, Present, and Future is another trio that the Hermit is supposed to have conquered, and this is also suggested by the hourglass shape. The number three is also connected with the number 9, the number of the Hermit in the sequence of the Major Arcana, being the sum of three groups of three, or the “third completion”. The three colors of the lantern are blue, yellow, and red, which according to Wirth’s notion of color symbolism (as described by Decker in his companion text to the MST), coincide with contemplation, intellect, and action, respectively (very similar to the color symbolism posited by Ben-Dov for the TdM). These three colors are also featured in Wirth’s Hermit as the lining of the cloak, the underlying robe, and the snake. It is no accident that Scapini chose to color his lantern this way.

This Hermit’s robes and headgear are very distinctive, and are a deliberate reference by Scapini to the monks of Mount Athos in Greece. The same mountain is pictured in the background of the card. All of this suggests the monastic lifestyle discussed in earlier posts, and the discoloration of the robes suggest travelling and sun-exposure despite the monastic lifestyle, a notion which is reinforced by the fact that the Hermit seems to walk across an entire seascape, dotted with merchant ships, in a single step.

The only other detail of the MST Hermit that I think it is worth mentioning at the moment is his strange undergarment, which appears to be woven from straw. Decker suggests that it is perhaps another reference to Wirth, who associated his Hermit with the constellation Boötes the Herdsman (which Wirth apparently preferred to call “the Harvester” since he is often pictured with a scythe). I think this is a reasonable interpretation, but I would like to point out another connection to Crowley’s Hermit, who is pictured surrounded by sheaves of wheat. In any case, there is clearly some connection between the Hermit and the harvest which has not been brought up until now. I will, however, put off this discussion until my next post, which will center around the Hermit from Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot.

~~~

*Tarot: The Open Reading, page 64.