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?

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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.

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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).

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Sun and Moon Tarot

And despite having fallen into relative disfavor, the hourglass is not completely absent from modern Tarots. Paul Huson’s Hermit carries one, of course, but then again, his isn’t really meant to be modern. A better example is Vanessa Decort’s Hermit from the Sun and Moon Tarot. This card takes a culturally different view of the Hermit, placing him against a Hindu backdrop. He appears to be in a temple with writing on the walls, all of which is surmounted by a large “om” symbol. The presence of this symbol really drives home the idea of Universal unity that has been a common theme of this series.

The accompanying instruction booklet mentions both a lantern and an hourglass, but the hourglass is far the more prominent (I wouldn’t have thought a lantern was there at all if the booklet hadn’t told me so). Other details of this card are fascinating: in place of the usual Wand, this Hermit carries the Trident of Shiva, its three prongs representing past, present, and future.**

~~~

I’m trying to recall a witty tale of an old man accosting people with an hourglass, but I’m drawing a blank. I’m left to wonder what Diogenes would have done with an hourglass in his possession, instead of a lantern. Probably make some sardonic remark about how other people live their lives.

Next time, I will examine a version of the Hermit that defies virtually everything I’ve discussed up to this point. And you thought the hourglass variation was a wringer…

*I’m making this assertion based on Paul Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot, page 105. Many people actually seem to believe that the hourglass predated the lantern in the Tarot, and therefore the hourglass is more original to the Hermit, but Huson doesn’t seem to think this is the case, and I take the research behind his book a bit more seriously than I do the opinions of laypeople on internet Tarot forums. That being said, however, I do suppose it’s possible considering how little we actually know for certain about the early stages of the development of the Tarot. All I can say is where I get my information, not whether it’s 100% correct. It is interesting to note that, despite his writing, Huson chose to include the hourglass in his own rendition of the Hermit, pictured above.

**Shiva also appears in the SaM as the World Dancer in card 21, the Universe. This calls to mind the possible connection between cards 9 and 21 from the Wildwood Tarot, discussed in the previous post. Coincidence? Maybe, but if I discount coincidence in Tarot, things start to fall apart.

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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.

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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.

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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 mortal 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.

The Hermit, Part III.

I wrapped up the previous post with some thoughts on what I think are the five fundamental elements that make up the Rider Hermit card.

To recap:

  1. Lantern
  2. Staff
  3. Robe
  4. Age
  5. Outside

I examined each of these individually, trying to analyze them and what they mean. Now I will look at them all at once, trying to piece them together like a puzzle.

I think we can conclude the following about the Hermit, based on these elements: he has lived a long life, full of colorful experiences. He is well travelled, and knows quite a bit about the ways of the world. He is a simple man, abstaining from worldly luxuries, as well as the company of his fellow man. He’s probably a bit of an eccentric, but is very intelligent. He is also incredibly spiritual, and his spirituality gives him purpose. He is a very wise man. He listens rather than speaks. He marches to the beat of his own drum, preferring to follow the road less travelled.

The lantern throws light on the nature of this road (both literally and figuratively): it leads toward enlightenment. I think his lantern represents both what he has already attained, as well as what he seeks. He follows the light of the star, yet the star is within. The quest for enlightenment is never-ending, and yet paradoxically, by simply following the path towards it, it has already been reached.*

We don’t know what made the Hermit turn his back on society. We do know (or suspect) that he is searching for something, and the search is better done alone. This suggests a search for something internal, something no one but oneself can discover. I keep tossing the word “enlightenment” around, referring to what the Hermit is after/has achieved. What does that really mean?

Enlightenment’s not easily explained. Chances are, if you could really describe enlightenment, it means you’ve already attained it, and if you’ve already attained it, you’d probably have a hard time getting folks who haven’t, to really understand what you’re talking about. I’m also not entirely sure “enlightenment” doesn’t mean something different to everyone. These are a couple more reasons for why I think the Hermit searches in solitude. There are several kinds of enlightenment: intellectual and spiritual are the first that come to my mind, and I believe these both are embodied by the Hermit. Intellectually, the Hermit strives to push the boundaries of what he knows, what he can know, by exploring and discovering the world around him. And then once he’s sure he knows something beyond a doubt, he looks for an exception. In fact, that’s what I think he’s really searching for: to learn as much as he can about anything he stumbles across during his midnight wanderings.

But in doing so, he’s also attaining spiritual enlightenment. Personally, I believe that spiritual enlightenment comes from a deep understanding that all is one. The more the Hermit explores, the more he expands his consciousness, the more he realizes that everything is connected, no matter how disparate they may seem at first glance, like the Water and Fire symbolized in the six-pointed star of his lamp.

Such is my interpretation of the Hermit from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. I’ve said it before: this is my favorite version of this card, and I think it does the best job of expressing the solitary wisdom of this character. I do think that, in a general sense, everything I’ve said about this card can be applied to other versions of the Hermit, but every deck has its variations, some of which are significant deviations. I will begin to examine some of these differences and what they mean for the character of the Hermit in my next part of this series.

 

*I admit, I’m only speculating, here. I can’t claim to be truly enlightened, no matter how much I would like to think I’m already on the path towards it.

 

The Hermit, Part II.

Read part one of my thoughts on the Hermit here.

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Two renderings of the RWS Hermit (the original [miniaturized] Smith drawing is on the left).
I’m going to begin by establishing the Hermit from the RWS as my basis for comparison of all Hermits. He is not the original Hermit of the Tarot, but he is the original for me personally (meaning he is the first version I’ve encountered), and he bears enough essential similarity to the Marseille pattern Hermit that, for all intents and purposes, they are equal in my eyes. I will always return to the Rider Hermit as the epitome of what I think this card expresses.

I’ve written elsewhere about the general meaning of this card. In a word, wisdom is the most important characteristic I think we can take away from all that. An understanding of this wisdom is the bottom line – the ultimate goal – for all that follows.

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There are five elements that I think define the RWS Hermit (as well as that of the TdM), and these I will be exploring as a jumping-off point for these musings:

  1. His lantern
  2. His staff
  3. His robe
  4. His apparent age
  5. He is outside

We will discuss each of these in turn with the RWS Hermit in mind, before eventually turning to other versions of this international man of mystery.

The Hermit’s Lantern.

The lantern catches the eye first in this picture, and I do not think that is coincidence. It is a focal point of light in an otherwise dark picture. It is also the single object that sets the Hermit apart from every other figure in the Tarot, both Major and Minor Arcana. Other characters wear robes and carry staves; other characters are aged, and many stand outside. The lantern is the Hermit’s, and it is his alone.* The lantern is therefore, I believe, the key to unlocking the Hermit’s wisdom.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the basics. A lantern is used for light (duh). In a literal sense, the Hermit uses it to guide his steps as he wanders the night. In a symbolic sense, it shines on the Path of Enlightenment, lighting the way for those who seek Truth. It also serves as an external metaphor for the internal light of the soul. The Hermit’s shines with clarity, because he has removed all external distractions from his life.

Dubbed the Lantern of Occult Science by S.L.M. Mathers, this object can signify illumination of any esoteric subject. It is interesting to note that the light emanating from the lantern is coming from a six-pointed star. This is often called the Star of David, or the Seal of Solomon, and it is composed of an upward-pointing triangle (alchemical symbol for Fire) superimposed over a downward-pointing triangle (alchemical symbol for Water). It is a symbol for the essence of Life, the perfect blending of elemental opposites to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The number six is also a very significant number in both Kabbalah and Pythagorean numerology, both of which Waite was influenced by when designing his deck. It’s very spiritual, pure and balanced. This is the star that fuels the Hermit’s lantern. Waite did not agree with Mathers in calling this the Lantern of Occult Science, but the use of such a symbol suggests many facets of the occult sciences converging on one point to light the way. By possessing such a lantern, the Hermit is clearly an adept of some sort.

The fact that it is the shape of a star, six-pointed or not, is also significant. Pre-modern peoples relied on the stars for navigation. The Hermit is following a star, using it as a compass to navigate the path he walks. He follows it, and yet, he carries it. He is his own compass. He blazes his own path.

Finally, he holds his lantern aloft, and from the top of a mountain for all who are looking to see. This suggests that he uses it like a beacon to guide and give hope to those who seek the same truths as he does. Not all versions of the Hermit are so generous; see my commentary on the robes below.

The Hermit’s Staff.

With one hand holding the lantern high, the Hermit supports himself with a staff in the other (in the RWS, the Hermit holds the lantern in his right hand, and the staff in his left). Like the lantern, there is both a practical purpose and a symbolic meaning attached to this object. While the lantern lights his way in the night, the Hermit uses the staff to help him keep his footing as he ascends to ever more precarious heights of the mountains. Any old man wandering about the wilderness at night can be expected to carry such items.

The Magic Wand is a symbol which appears many times in the Tarot, most especially as the eponymous sigil of the suit of Wands of the Minor Arcana. The Wand symbolizes the element of Fire, and is associated with energy, passion, creativity, and sometimes magic and spirituality. This suggests that the lowly Hermit is driven by a purpose, and a lofty one at that. He supports himself with it, holds it in front of him as he advances on his way. It is symbolic of a spark inside the Hermit which keeps him going despite whatever hardships he surely faces.

The Hermit holds his wand with resolved purpose. Compare him to the Fool, who also holds a wand, albeit carelessly slung over his shoulder. The Fool is oblivious to the power represented by such an item. The Hermit is not. He too was the Fool at one point, but he has learned many lessons since then. He respects the power of the Magic Wand. Without it, he would not have the strength to go on following his star.

The Hermit’s Robes.

The Hermit is dressed in modest utilitarian robes, almost like a monk. This suggests an ascetic lifestyle. As I said earlier, the Hermit is not distracted by worldly luxuries, and this robe shows that. Along with the lantern and the staff, this robe could very well be all the Hermit has to count among his material possessions. Of course, we don’t really know that for sure, but notice that he carries no pack on his back. He has nothing weighing him down, only symbolic props holding him up. Yet his head is bowed, his gaze is lowered, and he covers his head with a hood. These details suggest humility.

Besides symbolizing a monastic lifestyle, the robes also have a protective aspect about them. He shields himself against the cold mountain air, and the drab colors offer camouflage in the night. He may not be comfortable, but he’s not miserable, either. Nor does he attract attention to himself, as its color and relative formlessness indicate. He is a loner, and he prefers it that way. All attention is diverted to his lantern, and that is the Hermit’s intent.

Interestingly, the opposite was true of many pre-RWS Hermits: he actually used his robe to cover the lantern. The idea was that the occult secrets guarded by the Hermit should not be available to the un-enlightened masses, and he would only reveal the light to those worthy of initiation. This idea of entitlement was shared by many in the occult community in the past. The secret society of which Waite was a part was especially notorious for this mindset. Waite took his oath of secrecy seriously, and this is why there is so much disguised symbolism in his cards (compared to decks like the CHT), and why his book on the cards is so confusingly verbose. However, by publishing the cards and the book at all, Waite showed his frustration with such ideas of secrecy, and this is especially evident in this small detail of the Hermit. Waite’s Hermit’s lamp is uncovered and held high for all to see, and Waite explains in his book that such things as the occult guard themselves against those who are unworthy of their secrets, and so to hide them is unnecessary.

In other words, the Hermit doesn’t need to hide his lantern, because those who are not worthy of his teachings will never bother to climb the slopes to find him to begin with.

The Hermit has seen many years.

This is implied by the Hermit’s long white beard. He must be an old man. Advanced age is symbolic of wisdom acquired through years and years of experience. Despite his age, though, the Hermit still climbs mountains, and aside from his bowed head, his posture is unbent. He is old, but he is not decrepit.

The archetypal wise characters in many myths and legends are imagined to have long white beards like the Hermit’s. It’s a popular trope for a wizard to have such a beard, just as it is for a wizard to carry a magic wand and wear long robes. The Hermit of the Tarot captures this image perfectly, and this is why many think of him as the embodiment of Prudence.**

The Hermit is Outside.

When one thinks of a hermit, one tends to think of a lone person sequestered away in some modest abode. Certainly our Hermit has a home somewhere to rest his head, but he is pictured outside, atop a mountain peak, during the nighttime.

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This means that the Hermit travels and experiences the world around him, but he does it while everyone else sleeps. He is active physically, even while being receptive intellectually and spiritually. Despite being an ascetic Hermit, he is a worldly man. The snowy mountaintops of the RWS add an additional layer of meaning. The peaks represent intellectual achievement, and the white snow represents purity. The Hermit stands at the very summit.

Here we can make another comparison to the Fool: there are snowy mountain peaks off in the distance of this card. The Fool will eventually climb these, just as he will learn to use his wand for support, as he gradually learns the lessons of the Hermit.

~~~

I think that’ll serve as a good start for this series on the Hermit. Next time, I’ll attempt a synthesis of these elements, to try and see how they all work together, as well as consider some other points of interest. Then I intend to examine different versions of the Hermit, and see what insights into the Universal Hermit they give.

 

*In the classic RWS or TdM patterns, that is. Exceptions do exist. For example, the character in the 8 of Arrows in the WWT carries a lantern, as do a couple of figures in the Shadowscapes Tarot.

**A personified Prudence is conspicuously absent from the Tarot. It is the fourth cardinal virtue, the other three of which, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, are all present among the Major Arcana. A popular solution to this dilemma is to attribute Prudence to the Hermit, which does make sense considering the Hermit’s character. However, it’s not a perfect fit, as he is not Wisdom itself, but rather just a very wise man. I recommend Huson’s book Mystical Origins of the Tarot, in which he discusses this issue among many other things (he addresses the Hermit as Prudence, and ultimately rejects it).

 

The Tarot and Spirituality: or, Why I Do What I Do – Part II

I ended part one of this post with an explanation of why I do not subscribe to any religion. Here, in part two, I will bring together the themes of symbolism, mythology, religion, and spirituality that were previously introduced, and in doing so I hope to begin to illustrate the role the Tarot plays in my personal spiritual life.

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I’ve established that I do not follow a religion, at least not in the way a devotee would. I do, however, voraciously study literature from many world religions, as well as their mythologies (I actually prefer mythic to religious literature, but as they are interconnected, I believe it’s necessary to study both when possible in order to understand the big picture. Of course, many cultures are survived only by their mythic literature, such as that of pre-Christian Scandinavia. Religions such as Christianity, on the other hand, can have both available. For example, the Book of Common Prayer is religious in nature; Milton’s Paradise Lost is mythic; the Bible has elements of both. But I digress..). I feel compelled to try and hold as comprehensive a worldview as possible, and I think this is one way to work towards that end. I think of it as a never-ending quest for wisdom of Odinic proportions.

For a long time, I’d yearned for a different sort of “Holy Book” which could somehow synthesize the notions of the universal truth hinted at throughout the spiritual writings of mankind.

It is my personal belief that such a book does in fact exist.

This is where the Tarot comes in.

The Tarot – or, more specifically, the Major Arcana – has within it the mythic archetypes. Granted, it does not have all of them. Even if all 78 cards of the deck consisted only of Major Arcana, it would surely not cover every possible mythic archetype. What it does cover is the so-called “Journey of the Hero”. The Journey of the Hero was first made accessible by comparative mythologist and Jungian disciple Joseph Campbell, and is essentially a phrase encompassing a vast body of myths which are usually interpreted to represent, at their fundamental level, the subconscious spiritual development of the psyche. This means a story which serves as a metaphor for a guidebook on living spiritually. To use Christianity again as an example, the Gospels are four versions of the Hero’s Journey in which Jesus Christ is the hero.

If you’re interested in reading more on the Journey of the Hero, I recommend Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. For further reading on how this is reflected in the Major Arcana, I recommend Hajo Banzhaf’s Tarot and the Journey of the Hero. There may come a time when I will write a post elaborating on all of this archetype stuff, but for now I must try to keep my digressions brief.

The point is that the Major Arcana contains the archetypes that make up the story told, in one form or another, by every religion’s myths.

The Tarot is also immune to the effects of dogma which plague written books of faith, and for three reasons. Firstly, aside from the titles of the cards, there is no written language in the Tarot. The language of the Tarot is symbolism, as Eden Gray wrote. Pictures. Words have the tendency to be taken out of context and twisted for selfish ends by selfish people until even the original author would fail to recognize his intent behind loaded rhetoric. Or, perhaps less sinister, the language barrier between cultures can also twist and distort meanings. A symbol on a Tarot card, though, can not be taken out of context, because to see one symbol is to see the entire card, and there is no language barrier between pictures. Furthermore, words can and will be interpreted in numerous ways, regardless of the single meaning intended by the author. The symbols on the Tarot, by contrast, also have infinite possible interpretations – and that’s the point. People will argue tooth and nail over what a word means, but it is a given that no two people will see a Tarot symbol exactly the same way, and that’s ok.

Secondly, although I’ve been referring to the Tarot as a book, it is a deck of cards, and the “pages” can therefore be rearranged in any order. Unlike other books, the Tarot interacts with each reader differently, and to each situation differently. It’s as if your spiritual guidebook re-writes itself for you every time you read it. It is totally individualized, and cannot be susceptible to corruption over time the same way a fixed doctrine is.

Thirdly, the Tarot lacks a feature prevalent in other books of faith, and that is a code of ethics. It is ironically the moral ideals in a Holy Book which are most often bastardized. There are no fixed morals in the Tarot. Which is just as well, because I believe morals and ethics are highly subjective and entirely situational. All of this is not to say that you can’t go to the Tarot with an ethical dilemma; on the contrary, the impartial Tarot can be a valuable guide through these shadowy realms.

As I’ve stated before, I don’t mean to tell anyone how to live their spiritual lives, and I don’t mean to question the validity of anyone’s religion. I enjoy studying the religions, and I value their messages. This post is rather intended to show that the Tarot can stand up as a spiritual guide comparable to any religious book. In addition, the Tarot is designed to work for divination. It can be used for magic and meditation. Being a deck of cards, it can also be used for gaming, and is thus a reminder to never take life too seriously. It deals with the spiritual realm through the Major Arcana, and connects the spiritual to the worldly realm through the Minor Arcana. We as humans are aware of nothing else. Mr. Crowley said the Tarot works as a model of the Universe, and I tend to agree with him. By “Universe”, Crowley was referring both to the Macrocosm and the Microcosm. We are all a part of one Universe, and we each contain the Universe within ourselves.

We are all powerless in the midst of this vast and seemingly uncaring Universe. By the same token, however, we are a part of that Universe, made of and from it, and therefore have all the potential that comes with it. We are each the masters of our own Universes, but can only truly be in control of the Micro by relinquishing our futile attempts at controlling the Macro. The Tarot helps to understand this as well, because in order to successfully use it, one must accept that he or she is simultaneously in and without control.

It’s seemingly paradoxical concepts like this that make the universal truth so difficult to describe with words. This is the purpose mythology serves: to illustrate with symbolic language those truths – not facts – which cannot be communicated overtly. This too is the role the Tarot plays, using symbols which are interpreted differently by everyone yet subconsciously understood by all, and it is why I’ve dedicated this blog to a better understanding of this mystical and magical pack of cards.

The Tarot and Spirituality: or, Why I Do What I Do – Part I

I am fascinated with mythology.

I believe that by studying the world’s myths, one can reach previously un-imagined depths of understanding of what it really means to be human. In other words, to me, myth is the solution to the existential quandary.

Virtually every culture around the world has created for itself a system of mythology. Each of these systems is different from the next, highlighting what makes each culture unique. However, there are striking similarities between all of them that seem to defy the boundaries of space and time. These similarities must point to a universal truth; what that truth is, though, apparently cannot be easily put in words except by using symbolic language. This has been the subject of study and debate among cultural anthropologists, historians of religion and literature, psychologists, and other experts in the vast field of the Liberal Arts for decades. Probably the most popular method of analyzing mythology is derived from the work of psychologist C.G. Jung, whose theories on archetypes and the collective unconscious have revolutionized the way we understand symbolism.

It is important to understand something here before I continue, lest I unintentionally upset the religious reader. A myth is not the same thing as fiction. While most would agree that a myth is not based in fact, a myth does illustrate certain underlying, psychological truths about what it means to exist in this world. What is the difference between truth and fact? That is a philosophical discussion which I do not wish to get into here, but please keep in mind that, as I continue to refer to myth within current religions such as Christianity, I am not dismissing the stories told in the Bible as mere fiction.

Some people confuse mythology with religion, usually thinking that mythology was the religion of ancient cultures. A myth is, at its core, nothing more than a symbolic story. Religion, on the other hand, is a structure upon which a group of people can organize their collective spiritual beliefs. Religion and mythology are two separate entities, but it is true that religion has often utilized mythology as a means of conveying its spiritual message. So, not all myths are necessarily religious in nature, but all religions do make use of myth to some extent. Sort of like how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.

It is characteristic of modern monotheistic religions to place their faiths in a book, such as the Bible or the Koran. The concept of a Holy Book certainly has its benefits for a literate society. One has only to look up the appropriate passage, and his or her spiritual question is answered according to the subscribed belief system. More importantly, the religious (and yes, to some extent, the mythic) legacy of a culture is preserved for posterity in a way many pre-modern societies never could do, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned historians of religion and literature.

But the Holy Book is prone to dogma, which has led to many unfortunate (and unnecessary) violent conflicts between groups of people who ultimately want and believe the same fundamental thing. We get caught up in our cultural differences, and the similarities we share – those which illustrate that indescribable universal truth – are forgotten.

I want to take this opportunity to say that I don’t follow any religion, because I don’t believe any single religion – or its Holy Book – is right. Or, more correctly, I don’t think any religion is wrong. Rather, they are all right (I don’t like the word “right” in this context, but for lack of a better term, it will do). For this reason, combined with the unfortunate historical tendency for conflict, I have done as the Hermit of the Tarot has done, and forsaken the religion of my upbringing in favor of a totally individualized form of spirituality. I don’t mean to tell anyone how to live his or her spiritual life; I mean only to implore that we all seek the harmony inherent in our religious and cultural differences. In other words: Live and let live!

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I will continue this post in Part II, and I promise I will actually get around to the point of the blog once there – how exactly does the Tarot tie into all of this?