Here’s a little anecdote about synchronicity, if you’re interested.
Above is a photo of the Sentinel reading I performed on my birthday last week. Notice the Death candle between my rune-bowl and the tree-lantern. I’ve taken to calling it “Candle XIII.”
Candle XIII was a gift from a close friend of mine, received towards the end of the summer. I did not light it; Death is associated with Scorpio, my sign, and I resolved to burn it for the first time on Halloween, my birthday, as I laid down a personal year-end spread. I liked it as a symbol of clearing the old to make way for the new, and as a memento mori on my celebration day – a reminder of the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Not to mention, it has a certain aesthetic as a Halloween decoration.
When the time came, and the sun had set, and I had a proper birthday-buzz going, I prepared my reading table, selected my significator (the Prince of Cups, again based on zodiacal attribution), and shuffled my cards. I lit the tree-lantern,* Candle XIII, and a third stumpy little candle stub, and turned off all other lights, opting to read only by the eerie glow. I counted out twenty cards and set the rest of the pack to the side. I turned over and placed the cards according to the design of the spread, down to the last one, which was to be the conclusion.
As I was about to turn that card, I was seized by an inexplicable hesitation – something told me this card wasn’t right. I gazed into the flame of Candle XIII, scrying for a pointer.
I don’t normally scry, although I have done it a few times before (usually to natural phenomena rather than a crystal ball or something like that). Scrying is a different class of divination than cartomancy or sortilege, and I tend towards the latter. The same instinct that told me not to turn the card led my eyes to the Death candle’s flame, and I couldn’t have planned or explained it. The air was very still in my darkened room, and the flame was tall and motionless. As I watched, the tip of the flame appeared to fork, like a snake’s tongue, without inducing so much as the slightest flutter. In a motion, I cut the deck and removed a new card for my conclusion.
I guess that’s just the Universe’s way of saying,
*The tree-lantern is my usual card-reading lamp, which I always burn during my ritual weekly readings to help set the mood. I consider it a symbol of my patron, the Hermit, and the tree represents the World Tree at the heart of the cosmos.
Last time, I elaborated a bit on the Magus’ baboon. It’s the first time we see a creature besides the Magus himself in the card. It’s odd, too, because the first card is supposed to represent singularity. But because we know that the Magus is Mercury and the baboon is Thoth, and Mercury is Thoth, we can surmise that the baboon is an aspect of the Magus. More accurately, the baboon is the Magus’ shadow, or his Devil. The Devil is essentially the trickster gone bad, or the Juggler at his most extreme. The baboon suggests the pitfalls of language, how it pulls us further from the divine, not closer to it. It also hints at the brutal reality of a wild animal just beneath our fragile constructions.
In part four, I discussed the demiurge, or the creator of the world. The demiurge is not the supreme power in the Universe, although he is not necessarily conscious of forces beyond his sphere of influence.
In mythology, the demiurge typically manifests as a masculine sky god. This includes figures like Zeus and Odin, as well as Jehovah. The stories say he created order from chaos, and that the world was shaped by his actions or his commands, and can be altered according to his will. The Magcian similarly manipulates the worldly elements on his table.
In some myths, the Sky Father subsequently assumed control of Creation and all its occupants by ostensibly declaring himself King Of The Castle. Zeus and Odin are each the pater familias of his respective pantheon, and while the Biblical God has no divine peers, He descended from heaven to Mt. Sinai to pass his Commandments along to Moses and his people. Thus the demiurge becomes the Lawgiver. We can easily recognize this development in the Emperor.
Even more rudimentary than the law is the language in which it is written. The myths that tell about the invention of language and stories often involve death and magic. The god of wisdom journeys to the underworld to obtain the letters, and then returns with his boon for mankind. This is Thoth, and Odin. With the aid of monkey-Thoth and the quill and scroll, the Magus can ascend to the heights represented by the Hermit, who is this god of wisdom. And with storytellers such as Anansi, we see again the ties to the trickster.
The trickster, the demiurge, and the wise man. The Devil, the Emperor, and the Hermit. What do all of these have in common? I pondered this for some time before the obvious hit me over the head one evening: they are all men, like the prototypical Man that is the Magus.
It is often said that three is a magic number. What’s that occult saying? From One comes Two, from Two comes Three, and from Three comes everything…? Something like that. The idea is that consciousness boils down to recognition of three (not two, as I asserted in part four to make a point about the Magus and the Priestess). The archetypes are the Father, the Mother, and the Child. Man, Woman, and the integrated Individual. One, Two, and Three. Each of our many perceptions are unconsciously constructed from a pair of binary opposites, and the self stuck somewhere in between them.
I’ve read that the corresponding Tarot cards are the Magus, the Priestess, and the Empress, because of their respective numbers. This makes enough sense, but I believe that the archetypes actually match up like this: The Father-Magus, the Mother-Priestess, and the Child-Fool. After some playing around with the Major Arcana, I found a way to divide the cards into categories based on these three. Each card depicts either a Father figure, a Mother Figure, or the Hero at some point along his quest for individuation. I will eventually write more about this; but for now, back to the Magus.
Aside from the Magus, the male cards are the Emperor, the Hierophant, the Hermit, and the Devil.* Three of these were mentioned at the start of this post; the fourth – the Hierophant – also has a connection to the Magus, which I discussed here. Each of these characters is only a possible manifestation of the Male archetype, which is mythically associated with the sun and sky; the Magus is this archetype in its purest form (in the Tarot). And like Mercury, he has a suit for every occasion, able to perform with skill any role he takes on.
I think it’s interesting that the lemniscate, whether overt or implied, is one of the only constants in all three versions of this card that I’ve covered so far. This is what I’ll be exploring next time, and I believe it is the key to understanding the Magus, no matter which version you’re dealing with.
*I’ve just named four Tarot cards, coinciding with the number of elements or suit symbols on the Magician’s table. This tickles me. Off the top of my head, I’d associate the Emperor with the Pentacle, the Hierophant with the Cup, the Hermit with the Sword, and the Devil with the Wand.
I didn’t come up with the idea of Tarot patrons. It’s an idea that is significantly less widespread than significators (at least, as far as I can tell), although I think they go hand-in-hand when it comes to identifying on a more personal level with your cards. The first place I came across it was a on fellow Tarot blog. Since reading about it there, though, the patron has become an essential component of how I understand the cards and my relation to them, which is why I recommended my friends select their own patrons as a follow-up to the selection of their significators.
While the significator was an exercise aimed specifically at getting familiar with the court cards, the patron is all about the Major Arcana.* In many respects, the patron and the significator are very similar. If nothing else, you should identify with them both. But there is a difference. The difference between a significator and a patron is essentially that of the Courts versus the Majors: the former represents actual people, while the latter represents something altogether higher.
I like to think of it like this:
The Tarot, as I have stressed before, is akin to a book. More particularly, a book containing myths, such as Hesiod’s Theogony or Snorri’s Edda. If the Tarot is the story, the significator is the hero archetype, or the protagonist. His or her divine beneficiary would then be the Tarot patron. Thus we have gods and heroes, the characters of our very own personal myths and legends.
For example, during the seige of Troy, Menelaus at one point challenged Paris to a duel. Paris engaged and was ultimately bested. At the last moment, however, Paris was saved when he was shrouded in mist and teleported to safety by Aphrodite. If Paris chose for his significator the Page of Cups, Aphrodite would be his patron (or matron, as the case may be), and she’d probably be the Empress.**
You don’t have to believe in any god to participate in the patron exercise. In this case, consider “god” a metaphor to represent whatever it is you consider an ideal. The patron is a guiding voice, something you strive to emulate. In particular, the patron should express your relationship with the Tarot, although it certainly does not have to be limited to that.
So, how should you go about selecting the patron? If you know anything about the cards and their meanings, then you should be able to select the card or cards which best illustrate your worldview with little difficulty (or, perhaps, a lot of difficulty, depending on how sure of yourself you are). But these posts are aimed at the beginner, so I’ll suggest this approach: which one do you like the best? Which picture strikes you? Everyone has a favorite, and in my experience, a person’s favorite Major and their “patron” often turn out to be one and the same.
For example, my patron is the Hermit, which should come as no surprise to any regular reader of this blog. Not only did the Hermit introduce me to the Tarot, but he represents my approach to the cards, and indeed, much of my spiritual philosophy.
You should pick one card for your patron. Having made that decision, though, I think there is nothing wrong with going back and selecting others as you see fit. The Hermit is my patron, and would be my only patron if I were to select only one. But a more complete understanding of my relationship with the cards requires at least one more: the Magician. I can continue with more, but at the end of the day, it is these two figures that I think best defines my relationship with the Tarot.
Now, there is something to be said about the Major Arcana as a sequence. Regardless of which card is your patron, it is imperative to incorporate them all into your worldview. The patron serves only to introduce us to the pantheon. He or she may look upon us in favor, and so we would naturally be inclined towards that figure. But they are all an aspect of a greater whole, and that includes your patron as much as it does your least favorite card. In fact, your least favorite card can suggest as much about you as does your favorite, but that’s a subject for another time.
Perhaps the idea of the patron is not as well-known as the significator because the concept it represents is a bit more abstract. I hope I did a satisfactory job of explaining what a patron card should represent. Once you’ve selected both your significators and your patrons, you should begin to have a handle on how you personally connect with your cards. As I said in the previous post, these exercises are not meant for getting better at using the cards. In fact, while the significator can be used in divination, the patron has almost nothing to do with the actual practice. It’s an idea, something to hold in the back of your mind while you are divining. As Jack of Wands asks in his blog post I linked above: “Under whose auspices do you read Tarot?” It is a question worth asking of anyone who uses the cards, I think, and it is in that spirit that I pose this exercise.
*Technically, you could use a Major Arcana as your significator. I’ve done it before. But just for fun, let’s try and stay within the parameters I’ve set for these exercises, at least for now.
**Paul Huson’s DFW Tarot assigns famous names from antiquity to the court cards based on popular renaissance attributions. The Page of Cups is Paris, according to his sources, hence my assumption that he might select this card as his significator. The Empress-Aphrodite correlation needs no further explanation, I hope.
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.
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 (Vishnu, by the way, has a tendency to incarnate himself within a mortal frame so he can better serve mankind, not unlike the Christ); 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 both the human and 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.
*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 in my collection). 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 reconsider 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.
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.
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.