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.

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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.

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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 Hermit, Revisited.

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What is it about this card that draws me so?

It’s not my soul card (the card of the sum of the digits of my birth date – which is the Chariot), nor is it the card of my zodiac sign (Death, according to the common Tarot-astrology tradition to which I subscribe). But for some reason or other, I identify very deeply with this card.

I suppose I know why this card has such a hold on my imagination. The Hermit was the image which first introduced me to Tarot, as I’ve recounted before. And it tickles me pink that it was the Hermit who introduced me. I mean, what are the odds that I’d first notice the character in the Tarot who holds aloft a lantern, a beacon for those who wish to follow him on a path towards enlightenment? What else am I using the Tarot for, after all? I don’t really think it’s a coincidence at all. I feel as though I am one of those few for whom the Hermit holds his lantern.

The Hermit is a solitary figure, as is made clear by his title. Like the Hierophant, the Hermit is a wise and spiritual man. Unlike the Hierophant, however, the Hermit doesn’t pontificate, or serve a particular spiritual or religious tradition, nor does he garner disciples or preach for congregations. The Hierophant can be easily found at the church or temple, and his teachings are widespread. His students are the multitudes.* Not so with the Hermit. He is not easy to find at all by comparison, and his students are relatively few. Only those who actively seek answers will find the Hermit. And they must be willing to put up with the solitude and his eccentric and ascetic ways. I doubt the Hermit is very forthcoming with his teachings. He avoids the company of his fellow man, and for him to be willing teach you, you must prove yourself to him. To learn from the Hermit is to learn by his difficult example, and it is not a lesson the Hierophant can teach. And the first step is to see the Lantern, and to make the hike to reach it.

I find this to be completely in line with how I found the Tarot in the first place.

Not only that, but the Hermit is very reminiscent of many of my favorite characters from fantasy and myth. Gandalf and Obi-Wan are Hermits, as is the Allfather Odin in many of his aspects.** He is the archetype of the Wizard, the Wise One, and it is a figure I’ve always emulated and admired.

And to be quite frank, I am often a bit of an anti-social myself, and so the Hermit speaks to me on that level, as well.

Considering these points about his character and what it represents in the Tarot, it is no wonder why I latched onto the Hermit when beginning my Tarot studies (and continue to look to him to this day for insight). But what does the Hermit really mean, past the superficial stuff? This card is shrouded in mystery, and I suspect it will take me a lifetime to unravel it. But I’ve made it my work to try. I’ve written some brief musings of him before, but I think it’s time for more. I know I’m not alone in this endeavor, that the Hermit appeals to many who read the cards, and so I’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts to exploring in-depth my thoughts about the various incarnations of this figure in the Tarot.

Stay tuned if you wish to join me on this journey to the summits of wisdom occupied by the Hermit.

~~~

*That’s the idea, anyway, although these days I don’t think the Hierophant as an archetype has all that much sway over the masses anymore. He’s an emblem of a bygone age. A respectable emblem, and one which I hold in high esteem, but of a bygone age nonetheless.

**Actually, Odin is a very complex character, and there are several cards in the Tarot which suit him. The Hermit, of course, but also the Magician, the Emperor, and the Hanged Man, to name a few.

The High Priestess.

More than anything else, the High Priestess is the card of binary opposites. This term “binary opposites” has appeared a couple of times before on this blog. But what does it really mean?

To really understand this concept, we have to go alllll the way back to the beginning of time, back to the Creation of the World.

According to more mythic traditions than I care to list, before there was the World, there was nothing, or everything, all mashed up together in an undefinable mess that was neither light nor dark nor up nor down, often called simply “Chaos” or something to that extent.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, Chaos began to fall apart.* Everything split in two. First was the split between Light and Dark, followed by Earth and Sky, etc. etc., all the way down to the emergence of animals and humans, which were split between male and female.

The halves of these splits are called binary opposites. It’s like any other opposite, except they are the most extreme, most fundamental opposites we can think of. Light and Dark, Earth and Sky, Male and Female. The list can go on, but I think you get the picture. The World was created through binary opposition, or so the myths would have us believe.

These myths of creation and the binary opposites they present us hint at an interesting aspect of our collective psychology: we can only understand our reality based on comparisons of opposites. For example, if the weather is particularly hot one day, you can only perceive it to be so because you can imagine what a cold day would feel like in comparison, and vice-versa. The night is only dark because you know the day is light. The extreme ends of the spectrum do not really exist except as concepts in our minds. No human has ever experienced pure, absolute Darkness. Everything we perceive on a daily basis falls somewhere in between the two poles of the binary opposites. It’s like the Yin-Yang symbol; everything dark has within it a kernel of light, and everything light has within it a kernel of dark. This is a reminder that the duality created by binary oppositions is really just an illusion. Everything is all just an aspect of a greater whole.

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The High Priestess – RWS

This brings me back to the High Priestess.** The binary opposites are pictured on the card as the two pillars behind her. This isn’t the only time two pillars are pictured on a Tarot card, but it is the first time, and because one is white and one black, it is clearer here than anywhere else that they represent binary opposites. But the letters on each pillar are not where they ought to be. The letter on the white pillar signifies darkness, and the letter on the black pillar signifies light. This again calls to mind the Yin-Yang. The High Priestess’ position between the two pillars suggests that she understands the mystery of the binary opposites; she has succeeded in reconciling them in her mind. She has a true understanding of the Universe. In order to join her in this understanding, you must traverse the entirety of the Major Arcana. She can only hint at this wisdom; she will not tell you outright.

The High Priestess represents binary opposites as a concept; she is also one in a pair of opposites herself. She represents the Feminine principle of receptivity, which is the other half to the Magician’s Masculine principle of activity.

If the Fool symbolizes the unconscious mind, the Magician and the High Priestess together symbolize the awakening of consciousness through the recognition of binary opposites. By himself, the Magician is nothing but an idea. The moment this idea crystallizes in the mind of a person, it’s opposite or negation is immediately generated as well. Thus, the moment the Magician comes into existence, so too does the Priestess. The number one is immediately followed by the number two. In fact, without two as a reference point, one is meaningless. It is essentially indistinguishable from zero. The Priestess’ place as the second (numbered) card in the Major Arcana is thus very significant, further illustrating the concept of binary opposites.

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The Priestess as the force that separates light from dark – SaM

So, paradoxically, the High Priestess simultaneously represents binary opposition as a whole concept, as well as one half of a single binary opposition. In her role as half, she signifies the Female principle of receptivity, as was stated above. While traditional and outdated gender roles suggest that women are supposed to be passive and men active, the Tarot’s gender roles are based on concepts that transcend earthly reality. In today’s society, it is largely accepted that men and women can possess the traits that used to be reserved for just one or the other. Women can be tough, and men sensitive, to use a generic example. The Tarot does not play the game of gender politics. It’s uses of male and female are symbolic, and not necessarily to be taken literally. As far as the Tarot is concerned, the opposites of light and activity are associated with male, and dark and passivity with female, only because it makes the most sense to do so. Humans, being creatures that can only understand the world through opposites, naturally are keenly aware of the fact that within their own species there exists a duality similar to that which they perceived in the world at large. Light was giving in nature, while dark was receiving. Or the Sky was giving with its rain and rays and sunshine, while the Earth was receiving of those things. Based on the functions of their reproductive organs and nothing else, men were associated with the former, and women with the latter.*** It was only through generations upon generations of social constructs based upon this idea that traditional gender roles came to be.

This is why the Magician is pictured as a man, and the High Priestess a woman. It’s as simple as that. The point of the progression of the Major Arcana is to ultimately reconcile these opposites, to bring back the unity that supposedly existed prior to binary opposition. It implies that even if you are the manliest of men, in order to be whole you have to incorporate so-called female characteristics, or your anima, into your personality, and vice-versa. We see this in the Hermit. He is a man, but he has harnessed the energy of the High Priestess. He is passive and meditative, despite being a man. Or look at Strength. We see a woman embodying the principles of action.

The High Priestess has connections with many other cards. The Hermit was already mentioned; she shines with the inner light of the Moon, and the Hermit has captured that aspect with his lantern. His wisdom doesn’t run as deep as hers, but he’s closer by far than any other card. If we consider the Hermit to be Odin, the Scandinavian god of Wisdom, the High Priestess can be his wife, Frigg. Odin was said to obsessively search for wisdom, often disguising himself as an old man wandering about the wilderness. He was the wisest of all. It was said in the Edda,**** however, that his wife Frigg was wiser still. She knew everything in the world, past, present, and future, but she would not divulge this information, even to her husband. Sound familiar? The Hermit might represent the archetype of the Wise One, but the High Priestess is Wisdom itself.

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The Popess – TdM

Her relationship with the Magician has also been discussed; together they literally represent two halves of what makes a human personality. She is the passivity to his activity. The passive/active dichotomy is the most fundamental of the binary opposites.***** Every other opposite we can think of boils down to this, hence the Magician’s and Priestess’ places as one and two of the Major Arcana. She has a similarly binary relationship with the Hierophant. She represents the secret inner, individual spirituality, while he represents the external, shared spirituality of the masses. In fact, in many decks, the High Priestess appears to be more closely related to the Hierophant than to the Magician (in the TdM, for example, she is called the Popess, and the Hierophant is the Pope).

Alternatively, we could look at the Female aspect, and subdivide it in two. Then we get the Empress and the High Priestess, or the light and dark aspects of Woman. If you are familiar with Sumerian myth, you’d recognize the Empress in Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, and the Priestess in her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Perhaps more familiar are Isis and Nephthys of Egyptian myth.

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According to Rachel Pollack, the two towers of the Moon card are the pillars of the Priestess seen from the other side – RWS

This brings to the surface a rather scary aspect of the High Priestess: a Goddess of the Underworld. Many people don’t associate her with this type of darkness, but it is an aspect of her nonetheless. Darkness is darkness, after all. It might hide you from what may be hunting you, but it also hides the hunter. She protects you and terrifies you, all at once. Which brings me to the final correlation I’ll make in this post: the Moon. This is a natural association, considering all of the lunar symbolism of the Priestess card and her astrological association with the moon, but it deserves some thought beyond the obvious. Behind the Priestess, hanging between the pillars of light and dark, is a veil. What is behind that veil? We can’t see for sure, but we catch a glimpse of the waters of the subconscious. Well, that card of confusion and terror, the landscape of the Moon, is what waits behind the Priestess. For all the peacefulness we see on the surface, there is the pure darkness of uncertainty underneath; this is the other side of the coin of passivity represented by the Priestess. As I’ve discussed in my post about the Moon, it’s not hopeless, and it is a necessary part of the journey. But that doesn’t make it any less scary, and while the Priestess is generally considered to be benevolent, if somewhat stoic and mysterious, she hides a much darker aspect than we might realize at first glance. This is precisely why she withholds her wisdom from us until we’ve experienced the rest of the cards. If we gazed behind her veil and saw the landscape of the Moon so early in our journey, it would destroy our sanity, like a Lovecraftian horror materializing before our eyes. We are just not prepared for that yet.

Luckily, in her infinite wisdom, the High Priestess does spare us from such a nightmare. She puts up the veil, and diverts our attention from it with her secret scroll. We’re meant to think that the scroll holds all of the secrets. She knows better, just as she knows that we’ll see the real secrets behind the veil in due time.

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The Priestess, clothed in light – CHT

~~~

When I go to the Tarot for divinatory purposes, I believe it is with the High Priestess that I am communicating. The cards are the mediators, moved by the invisible hands of the archetypes represented in the pack by the Hermit and the Magician. But they only move the cards according the the Priestess’ direction. And I am but the Fool, sitting on the other side of the spiritual divide, awaiting her cryptic advice.

 

 

*The driving force behind the dissolution of Chaos into Order is one of the great mysteries of all time. Most myths and religions give credit to some kind of deity for the creation of the world, but no one can seem to figure out what created the deity (or the deities that created it, or the forces that birthed them, etc. etc….). Creation myths are early mankind’s attempt to figure out where we came from, and how the world got to be the place it is today. Of course, there are no answers to these questions, only an endless regression – a chicken or the egg type of conundrum, if you will.

**The imagery described in this post is almost entirely based on the RWS version of the High Priestess. This card is not the most extreme departure from tradition to be found in the RWS, but it is different. I chose it because, while the basic symbolism is the same in most versions, the RWS Priestess is the most vivid in its depiction.

***While this was generally true of the ancient world, it was by no means universal. For example, ancient Egyptians believed the Sky was a female, and the Earth male.

****The Edda by Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson was written in the 1200s, a couple hundred years or so after the majority of Scandinavia had converted to Christianity, as a textbook on poetic form and subject matter. It is commonly called the Prose Edda to distinguish it from the so-called Elder or Poetic Edda, which is an anonymously compiled collection of mythic poetry. Many of the stories relayed in the two works coincide with each other, and together they contain the majority of the known Norse canon of myths.

*****Actually, the active/passive dichotomy can be further reduced to positive/negative. There is nothing more basic than this pair of opposites. However, I refrain from using them here because they have certain connotations, especially the word ‘negative’. Most people assume negative means bad. Of course this isn’t true, but I don’t use them anyway, because the last thing I need is some clown giving me crap for calling all women negative.

The Wise Man and the Trickster.

It was very common throughout the history of the Tarot to believe that it was derived from an ancient Egyptian Book of Wisdom. Considering that the Egyptian god of Wisdom was Thoth, it is only natural that Tarot masters such as Etteilla and Crowley would associate their decks with the ibis-headed deity.

Of course, we know now that, however still technically possible, it is highly unlikely that the Tarot we know and love today was actually handed down to us by Egyptian mystics in an attempt to preserve the secrets of the Universe.

True or false, this legend does give us an interesting perspective on the nature of the Tarot. Many readers, myself included, do consider this deck of cards to be a Book of Wisdom. But what does that really mean?

One of the great defining characteristics of mankind is our capacity for complex language. Our ancient ancestors often told stories about how the language they spoke* was a gift from God. Well, a god. More specifically, the God of Wisdom, or Thoth, as he was called in Egypt. Other cultures had a name for this deity, too. The Sumerians called him Enki, and the Norse called him Odin. This god was responsible for bestowing language upon humanity, usually only after enduring a harrowing death and descent into the Underworld. Of course, in every case, the Wise One returned once again to the world of the living with his intellectual boon for mankind.

To illustrate with my favorite example, Odin, head of the Norse pantheon, was the patron of kings, battle, strife, poetry, magic, and yes, wisdom. He often went out into the world, disguised as a grey-bearded old man, obsessively searching for wisdom. He pitted himself against formidable giants in contests of wisdom, and summoned seers from beyond the grave to inquire about what they knew. He had a throne from which he could see everything in the nine worlds, and he had a pair of ravens who flew around these worlds every day, returning to whisper into his ears everything they’d seen. He even gave one of his eyes in exchange for a drink from a magic well which granted – you guessed it – wisdom. But perhaps the most extreme measure Odin took for the sake of wisdom was when he willingly hung from the world tree for nine days with a spear driven into his side. He died on the tree, and was resurrected with the magic runes – language – in his possession.

So the Tarot is, according to legend, akin to these runes, or rather, to the hieroglyphs similarly bequeathed by Thoth. Hence the designation “Book of Wisdom”. Pretty cool, huh? It’s not uncommon, after all, for ancient alphabets to hold an esoteric meaning other than simple phonetics. Take the runes, for example, which were more often used for their magical powers (like divination) than for writing. How many runestones in Scandinavia are inscribed with letters that spell utter nonsense? Surely they were put there with another purpose in mind. Or take the Hebrew alphabet, which is especially significant to the systems of the Tarot. These letters also have deeper meanings. The twenty-two Major Arcana could easily be conceived as a similar type of “alphabet” (the Minor Arcana are of a different class, but this will be discussed in a future post).

But the Tarot isn’t just attributed to Thoth; Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, messengers, and thieves, gets equal credit. The Book of Wisdom is as much his as it is Thoth’s. But why?

The Romans were probably the first to make a connection between Thoth and Mercury. In the days before Christianity, when the Romans conquered a people, they would allow them to continue worship of their native gods as they pleased. However, the Romans would attempt to assimilate these people by renaming their gods after Roman deities based on shared characteristics (which shows that, even though Jung was the first to theorize about mythic archetypes, the notion was around long before him). But while Minerva was considered the wisest of the Roman pantheon, the Egyptian god of wisdom was equated with Mercury (this must partially be because of the respective genders of Minerva and Thoth, but there are deeper connections which come into play here).

First of all, one must understand that Mercury is a very complex character. While his primary function is messenger of the gods, he is responsible for much more, like science and medicine. He is based on the Greek god Hermes (and while the two are very similar, they are not the same, although the Romans would have you think so). Another function of Hermes/Mercury was to guide recently deceased souls to the realms of the dead. This is where we see the primary connection with Thoth, who was present during the journeys of Egyptian souls to the underworld, and their subsequent judgements. When combined with his connections to science, we can begin to see why comparisons were made between these two gods.

Odin was also likened to Mercury by classical writers, and for the same reasons. He too had the ability to travel freely to the underworld. In fact, Odin spent a great deal of time just traveling around all of the realms of the Norse cosmos. Mercury, along with everything else he did, was patron of travelers and hospitality (I’d say Mercury was probably the busiest of the Roman gods). There are stories from both cultures about their respective god in which they traveled in disguise, searching for lodging. The humble were rewarded; the proud who did not open their doors to the gods were always punished, sometimes very brutally.

There is another trait which Odin and Mercury shared: they were both very mischievous fellows.

The Trickster is a very popular figure in world mythology. He is especially prevalent in Native American and tribal African myths (and in those myths, he is often associated with storytelling and language. Hmmmm….), but he can be found in some form or another in almost every culture. Through his conniving, others found themselves in dire circumstances, and through his wiles, they were usually saved again. He was often the spark that generated conflict within a myth, and he was usually as loved by humans as he was disliked by gods, because his tricks tended to result in their benefit (like Prometheus’ gift of fire). Mercury is very often considered the Roman Trickster. And while Loki is the official Trickster of Scandinavian myth, he and Odin are similar in more ways than not. It’s my theory that Loki is in fact nothing more than a shadow of Odin, or the darker aspects of Odin’s character personified as a separate character. This is a common way to analyze mythic characters (and when this is taken into consideration, it makes the Norse cycle of myths all the more tragic. Those who know the basic story arc and the parts played by Odin and Loki will understand why). I could write an essay on why I believe this, but a Tarot blog is not the place. Suffice it to say that the archetypes of the Wise Man and the Trickster are very closely intertwined.

Language, death, and magic appear to be the lowest common denominators of Wise Men and Tricksters across the board. Now, I’ve spent almost no time discussing magic, but it’s derived from the association with language, which is itself derived from the association with death. If anyone wishes for me to write a post elaborating on this, please leave a comment below; for now, I’ll continue on to the main point.

Now, there are many cards in the Tarot that deal with the themes mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are two in the Major Arcana, however, that exemplify the Wise Man and the Trickster especially well.

The Tarot card which best illustrates the Odinic search for wisdom is, in my opinion, the Hermit. In the RWS, the Hermit even looks reminiscent of Odin, with his grey beard and his hooded cloak. And in the CHT, the Hermit appears to have the head of an ibis, like the god the deck was named for (seriously, take a look at it and tell me he doesn’t).

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The Hermit is Thoth – CHT

His staff can represent the endless travels of the Wise Man, and the lantern shows his ability to shine light on dark secrets. The image of Cerberus in the CHT illustrates his connection to the underworld. With his robes, apparent age, and meditative visage, he is the very image of the archetype of the Wise Man, at least as he is popularly imagined in the West. The importance of the Hermit in the Book of Wisdom that is the Tarot cannot be understated; he is quite literally the personification of the legendary mythic figure that gave it to us. Or, at least, he is one of the personifications of that figure.

The other can be found in the card called the Magician or the Juggler. The Magician is very intelligent, more so than any other card in the pack. But he is not necessarily wise by definition of his character. His mental dexterity gives him the qualities found in the Trickster. He can talk his way into and back out of any situation, and he is not above using slight-of-hand tricks to fool unsuspecting onlookers into thinking he’s more powerful than he actually is. This is especially obvious in the TdM, where he is pictured as a lowly street performer (in other decks, he is pictured as a more respectable magician in ceremonial robes, and in the CHT, he is Mercury himself, but you can still spot the dubious smirk on his face). This isn’t to say he’s bad. He’s a neutral character by nature, who operates in the gray areas of life, but one should keep in mind that so is the Wise Man; wisdom in and of itself does not make a virtuous person.

I think the Hermit and the Magician – and, on a deeper level, the Wise Man and the Trickster – are two sides of the same figure. I’m not alone in this opinion: Crowley asserted as much in his Book of Thoth, calling them each a manifestation of Mercury (he never used Odin for an example, calling Norse myth a “debased” version of Classical and Egyptian myth. While I grudgingly admit that I see where he’s coming from, I think it’s too harsh a treatment for such a colorful mythos, and as I illustrated here, examples from Norse mythology can easily be applied to the Tarot, and to good effect. Or so I hope, anyway). So, the Magician and the Hermit represent two complimentary aspects of the multi-faceted Mercury, or Hermes, or Thoth, or Enki or Anansi. Or, if you prefer, the Magician is the Loki to the Hermit’s Odin. The list can go on.

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The Magician is Mercury – CHT

 

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The Juggler – TdM

No matter how you name it, the personalities inherent in these two cards are indicative of a dichotomy that I believe is integral to the successful use of the Tarot. I have a respect for every card in the Tarot, but the Hermit and the Magician together are representative of my personal approach to using the deck. The Hermit or Wise Man is passive, and stands for the study of the theory behind the Tarot. He seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The Magician or Trickster, on the other hand, is active, and stands for the practice and application of the Tarot (you’ll notice that the implements at his disposal are also the symbols of the four suits of the Minor Arcana). He seeks knowledge as a means to an end. Only together can the skills of the Magician and the Hermit lead to a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the Tarot, just as any good Wise Man needs powers of illusion to be considered a wizard, or any good Trickster needs a modicum of prudence to maintain balance and not send the world around him into a blazing Ragnarok.

 ~~~

*To be technical, it was written language that was granted by the Wise One. During the times that these myths originated, writing was the privilege of a select learned few. This added to the mystique of writing. Manipulation of spoken language is more in the realm of the Trickster’s operation. It is very interesting to note that Odin was responsible for both: the runes, as a result of his death on the world tree, and poetry, or spoken language, as a result of his acquisition of the Mead of Poetry (which he obtained through trickery). This is just one of the many reasons why I believe Odin to be both the Trickster and the Wise One.