The Symbolism of the Hermit [in the Tarot]
Introduction: The Hermit is the ninth card in the Tarot pack. Usually, the figure is an old man representing both the concept of wisdom, but also the possibility of many past reincarnations – an old soul, an ancient philosopher, wise in metaphysics. He carries a lantern. The card often shows the surroundings as bleak, dark, stormy, and inhospitable – a world in which ‘ignorance’ prevails. The lantern sheds light on the spiritual, it is a source of illumination, but winds may be buffeting him trying to extinguish the messages he brings and he has to protect the light with his cloak.
The cowl the Hermit wears symbolically protects him and isolates him, to a certain extent, from the bleakness of the situation and the biting winds of derision and scorn. And other symbols may be used – the hourglass, the wheel, the staff, and the tower, to add richness to the overall meaning. Most Hermits, because they have to employ their intellect to explain and disseminate the wisdom, cannot ‘fly’ ecstatically, and are occasionally shown with tied wings denoting their inability to have only those forms of spiritual experience that are directly useful.
In the older Tarot cards, this is occasionally symbolized by lameness – the use of the intellect has in effect ‘hobbled’ the hermit, and the arrows of his sharp wit and understanding may block the very links that connect his mortal and immortal soul [the hourglass], but not completely. William Blake – from the Complete Poems Whilst Virtue is our walking staff And truth a lantern to our path We can abide life’s pelting storm That makes our limbs quake if our hearts be warm Blow boisterous Wind, stern Winter frown Innocence is a Winter’s gown So clad, we’ll abide life’s pelting storm That makes our limbs quake if our hearts be warm Hunchback and Saint and Fool Hermits are often shown bowed with the responsibility of the task given them.
This is why the early Tarot pack used the image of the hunchback – a man bowed with the overwhelming burden placed on him [and his tied wings]. The Minchiate al Leone Tarot deck, for example, uses the concept of the Hunchback rather than the Hermit. At one time the Hunchback card was labelled number XI whereas in more modern decks it became number 9. It is still depressingly low down the path of ascension.
Yeats – Selected Poetry – from The Phases of the Moon-
A rat or water hen splashed, or an otter slid into the stream, We are on the bridge; that shadow is the tower And the light proves that he is reading still, And now he seeks in book or manuscript What he shall never find. Aherne Why should not you Who know it all, ring at his door and speak …
Were not our beds far off, I’d ring the bell He would never know me after all these years But take me for some drunken countryman; I’d stand and mutter there until he caught ‘Hunchback and Saint and Fool’ and that they came Under the three last crescents of the moon, In other words, the positioning in the pack hides the fact that the three spiritually most important [usually male] roles are these three – Hunchback, Saint and Fool.
The Hermit may not be spiritually as high in the pack as the Fool, who is so spiritual he is almost permanently flying, [and loved by dogs and small children] but is, on the whole, a liability to himself and anyone who has to look after him as he is ‘not on this planet’! or the Hanged Man – the Saint carrying his own doctrine and the revelations he has been given, showering the riches of his insights on everyone, but also needing some looking after, organising and interpreting to bring the message to a wider audience. But the Hermit is no less important as he is the interpreter. Organised and wise, he does not have his head figuratively in the clouds and is destined to take the message the Fool and the Saint may give him and ‘travel the world’ [literally or figuratively] to spread the ideas.
Tao Teh Ching – Lao Tzu
The sage squares without cutting carves without disfiguring straightens without straining to enlighten without dazzling.
A great tailor does little cutting. The Sacrifice But the Hermit’s is the worst of all worlds because, in order to put a coherent message forward – bring illumination in the darkness, he has to give up some of his spirituality, in order to make the message accessible to others. There is an odd kind of supreme courage attached to this role, which few seem to understand.
It is a true sacrifice of Herculean proportions.
W. B. Yeats – Anima Hominis: Only when we are saint or sage and renounce Experience itself, can we in the language of the Christian Caballa, leave the sudden lightning and the path of the serpent and become the bowman who aims his arrow at the centre of the Sun. The solitary nature of the hermit The hermit is by nature [and definition] a solitary self-contained individual. Hermits are often intellectually extremely bright, which means they find the company of those less bright to be quite tiring.
Carl Gustav Jung: “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.” The hermit also has no need or desire to socialize; what marks out the hermit is the desire for peace and solitude.
Carl Gustav Jung – To Gustav Schmaltz – 30 May 1957 I …
feel not only the weight of my years and the tiredness this brings but even more strongly, the need to live in harmony with the inner demands of my old age. Solitude is for me a fount of healing that makes my life worth living. Talking is often torment for me, and I need many days of silence to recover from the futility of words. I have got my marching orders.
What you think of as a few days of spiritual communion would be unendurable for me … rest is silence!
This realization comes clearer every day, as the need to communicate dwindles. They need to be unassuming, lacking in ego, quiet, reserved, occasionally a little taciturn. They are not unkind or lacking in patience, in fact, patience tends to be one key characteristic they all have, but they do not achieve their ends through the bombastic display or self-publicity.
This is symbolised on the tarot card by the cloak which hides their true nature. Occasionally the lantern to is hidden under the cloak – they ‘hide their light under a bushel’.
But it is often their names that last in history forever – not the Saint’s or the Fool’s – because they were the ones who brought the illumination to others. The Light In some Tarot cards [not all] the light is shown in the shape of The Star of David. Although this star is now a generally recognized symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism, its symbolism is much older and it is used in mystic systems such as the Kabbalah and in Sufism.
Its shape is that of a hexagram, the compound of two equilateral triangles. In effect, it shows the meeting of two cones of energy and is equivalent in symbolism to the chalice or cup and the hourglass.
And this is why some hermits carry a lamp with a star, and some carry an hourglass. The only difference between the two is the degree of penetration. In some systems, the star symbol also signifies the mystical marriage – the union of one’s Mortal and Immortal soul – The Higher spirit and the Personality.
In Summary, In effect, Hermits are agents of change and often hugely dramatic change. But, the hermit also symbolises according to Cirlot “tradition, study, reserve, as well as patient and profound work”.
Furthermore, whereas the Hierophant uses only his intellect to deduce his findings, the Hermit receives spiritual help, very targeted help. But the Hermit gets much rougher treatment than the Hierophant, who is the conventional and accepted face of religion. They have to endure chastity and loneliness. They cannot ‘fly’ so the comfort of guides and visible support is denied because of their need to use their logical and rational abilities.
W. B. Yeats – from Selected Poetry from Fergus and the Druid Fergus: This whole day have I followed in the rocks And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape First as a raven on whose ancient wings Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed A weasel moving on from stone to stone And now, at last, you wear a human shape A thin grey man half lost in the gathering light Druid: What would you Fergus? Fergus: Be no more a king But learn the dreaming wisdom that is your Druid: Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks And on these hands that may not lift the sword This body trembling like a windblown reed …