I always want to start with words! Our symbols may be nonverbal, but we have to talk about them with words, and those words become symbols themselves! Have you ever had a dream where your brain made a symbol or image out of a pun?
“Hermit” comes from the Greek erēmitēs, meaning “person who lives in the desert” (“desert” being erēmia). Perhaps this became attached to certain people because of the early Christian sect now called the Desert Fathers. The word may also relate to erēmos, meaning “lonely.”
Related words in English include hermetic, which refers either to an airtight or impenetrable seal or to the esoteric tradition of Hermeticism. The latter gets its name from Hermes Trismegistos, who named himself for Hermes, the Greek god of–among other things–walking between worlds and bringing messages from one to another.
Hermes Trismegistos founded the practice of alchemy, and in the process he invented a way to make seals on glass containers air-tight, which is where we get the hermetic seal. A coincidence having seemingly nothing to do with erēmitēs.
Another related word is hermeneutics. This refers to interpretation of a text, especially a holy one. This word comes from hermeneuein, Greek for “to interpret.” This word was at one time considered to have derived from the name of Hermes as well, as he is a god of messages and therefore words, writing and speech; but now we aren’t sure exactly. where it comes from.
Meanings of the Upright Hermit Card
When I read tarot, I tend not to use the “booklet” meanings. I like to look at the symbols on the card and interpret them based on my personal knowledge, therefore making the reading more relevant to me.
The classic Rider-Waite Hermit card is quite sparse, with only a few parts to comment on. Try this trick: before reading on, think about a problem that the Hermit could help you with. Then pick one symbol, one part of the picture, that resonates with you, whatever part seems most important. Maybe you’ll get a little bit of an answer in the following sections!
He almost always, even in other decks, has a lamp. But look closer: the light in the lamp is not from a candle in this classic version. It is the Star. When I read the Star, I do have one simple meaning for it (unless a deeper reading is called for, of course). And that’s Hope. So the Hermit is guided by Hope. But it is contained. Some of the shutters on the lamp are down. So his Hope–his guidance, his light, his strength–is coming from within him. It only illuminates the next few steps, but that’s all he needs to continue on. You only need enough hope to believe tomorrow might be better, and that’s enough to lead you through a dark time.
There is a folk etymology for the word “guru” that says it comes from the words for “darkness” and “light,” and means “a person who dispels darkness with the light of their knowledge.” And then of course there’s enlightenment.
The Hermit carrying his light means it’s visible to other people, especially as he walks in lonely, pathless places. So he is both seeker and guide. But he’s not waving the lamp around, making sure everyone sees it. It’s just there, for whomever is observant. “This Traveler is using his lamp to illuminate his own darkness. His light shines for others too, of course, but not deliberately so. If lives are brightened by his passing, it is because he has helped in perhaps the only way one human being can help another — by being fully himself.” Jung and Tarot, Sallie Nichols
“[T]he possibility of individual illumination as a universal human potential, an experience not confined to canonized saints but available, in some degree, to all humankind.”Jung and Tarot, Sallie Nichols
He wears a robe. You immediately think of a wizard, right? Maybe even Merlin himself, of whom a version did live in the wilderness for a time. It may recall a monk’s or nun’s habit, as well.
Monastic clothing is a fascinating subject in itself. Originally, these uniforms were based on the clothing that the simplest and poorest in their society wore–rough weave, plain dark colors. As time went on, and monastics stuck to tradition, those clothes became a way for them to identify as set apart from that society, to visibly proclaim themselves as impoverished to the world. Different orders added garments and accessories to denote various levels of authority.
The religious habit does several things, then: it identifies the wearer as separate from the world, and not concerned with worldly things like money or fashion; it removes distraction from one’s studies or worship; it is a sacrifice of self-indulgence; it surrenders the need for external validation of one’s looks and dress.
On the Hermit card, the robe may have other connotations, too, such as protection or hiding (in some decks, the lamp is covered by the robe). Is he hiding himself from the world, or protecting the world from his knowledge? What is he wearing underneath? That’s up to the reader!
He is on a mountainous path, also. There are “many paths up the mountain,” as any spiritual seeker knows. The Hermit’s journey isn’t easy. Some readers think he is on the same mountain off of which the Fool stepped, nine cards ago. Perhaps the Fool fell all the way to the bottom, and the cards show his journey back up? From where he is now, nearly halfway up, he can see much further. He can see the big picture, and connections he might have missed before. Perhaps he is on something like a vision quest. He hasn’t finished yet; he is still seeking.
“He seems to be telling us that life is a process, not a problem; that Tao is a journey, not a goal. Buddha said, ‘The world is a bridge; walk across but build no house upon it.’”Jung and Tarot, Sallie Nichols
His staff helps him along the way. Is it a magic wand, aged into a walking stick since the Magician used it? Is it a secret weapon, like Gandalf’s stick?
The number of this card is IX, 9. The most common “meaning” given to this number is that it is the last phase in something before a new cycle begins. Like the pause when you’re done exhaling, before you begin to inhale again. The contemplation before the next action. The Hermit is gathering knowledge–from his studies or simply from his lamp–before he takes another step.
I associate 9 with perfect formation, like a cube, or the atoms in a diamond. This may be because it is a square–3×3. You can do magic tricks with 9, if you know the secrets. I’m not great at math, though, so I’m skipping the rest of the Kabbalistic and numerological stuff. I encourage you to look into it if you’re curious, though.
This card is also associated with Virgo, who is obviously symbolized by the virgin. We can take this to refer to celibacy, which in religious tradition is meant to reduce worldly distractions. It can also mean, though, that one has never experienced a fundamental change of self–the virgin has not “changed” from girl to woman (obviously a silly societal construct, but symbols have weight until they are completely dispelled). So the Hermit stays themself throughout their studies, throughout the seclusion. We may also associate it with Kore, Persephone before she was taken to the Underworld.
Virgos are also notorious for things like perfectionism, planning, and being organizers–of items and of people–sometimes even shading into workaholism. Good traits for one who is dedicated to study!
Symbols from Other Decks
The Wild Unknown deck has as its Hermit a turtle, who carries a candle on its back. The turtle is a good and obvious symbol for this card: retreat and solitude, but also he has built a portable home with his secret knowledge, and it keeps him safe.
SickSadGirlsShop on Etsy sells stickers and patches picturing a Hermit who is a girl reading a book. The modern Hermit may study anything, not necessarily the classically “occult.” The focus is the, well, the focus. And the modern Hermit might not wear a robe. There are many versions of this card; often she is reading, but sometimes she is on a laptop, either studying or writing.
Another pop culture version uses the Yeti! What esoteric knowledge might he have?
Brian Froud’s Faeries’ Oracle makes the Hermit into the Sage. He is constantly learning, and has one blind eye–like Odin, archetypal sage–which looks into other realms and inside one’s thoughts with equal ease. He says, “love and compassion are the inevitable consequences of seeing truly.” (Empathy grows as we learn!)
It’s not a deck but check out this playlist?? They’ve made Spotify playlists for all of the Major Arcana, and they’re so cool! Can you translate the sounds, lyrics or moods from any of these songs into symbols for when you read the Hermit?
Other Ways to Read the Hermit
A seed putting down roots. Alone in the dark underground, it connects to the earth, gathering resources before it bursts into the sun.
A cave. The womb of the earth, a feeling of safety that reaches back to our earliest memories. My basement bedroom, dark but full of books. Lascaux. Hibernation. The Bear Skull cave at Chauvet. Mysterious fire-lit rituals. Secrets. The earliest cenobitic monastic communities.
Arthur Dent finding (temporary, as always) peace as a guru of sandwich-making in Mostly Harmless.
Perhaps he shrugs a lot, smiles, and says, “Maybe, maybe not.”Panopticons R Us
Self-care, perhaps in the form of turning off social media and reading a book, or going outside and learning from nature.
Jung’s mandala, as a spiral in towards the center, as Sallie Nichols mentions.
Odin, in his role as a seeker of wisdom, when he sacrificed an eye to bring runes–writing and wisdom–to the world.
A.E. Waite had a very different take on this card than we do today. In his Pictorial Guide, he says it means “also and especially treason, dissimulation, roguery, corruption.” I would put these in the reversed or shadow meanings, myself, but they were part of the original intent, so keep them in mind. I do see a lot of “counterculture” in the Hermit–all this not caring what society thinks and going off to learn in your own way–so there is something to it.
Sometimes in a reading, the Hermit will occupy a position that relates to a person who is not you. That person is probably a bit older, and well-educated, or becoming educated, in their field, which is probably something like therapist, doctor, shaman. Maybe even an older person of no particular profession, but who through their life experience has learned the answer to your problem. Or a young person who has rejected the outer world, having noticed that it’s bullshit.
The Hermit’s Place in the Fool Cycle
Let’s recap: after beginning his journey in his own card, the Fool has learned manipulation of reality with the Magician, secret knowledge with the Priestess and Heirophant, and power with the Emperor and Empress. Ultimately, as we find in many stories of personal growth, all of this was not satisfying. So he learned to relate to other people as the Lovers, and then he found self-discipline as a way to move forward in the Chariot.
He learned to master his animal nature in the Strength card. He took the discipline of the Chariot further, into quieting the old, wild parts of himself–the primitive brain stem, the monkey mind. Now he is ready to look into whatever it is he chooses to study, whether it is occult knowledge or himself, without fear of reprisal from the parts of him that would be afraid.
What will you study while you are the Hermit? You could look into shadow work, the study of acknowledging and bringing to light the darkest parts of yourself. You could figure out what you want to do in the world. You could concentrate on a large artistic venture, like a big project or writing a novel.
After the Fool becomes the Hermit, he learns that he must surrender to the world as it is. He learns to ride the Wheel of Fortune as it throws his life up and down. Things happen, he knows now, and with his new knowledge of himself and whatever it is he studied, he knows it will be okay.
Join me in my next posts, The Hermit Part 2: Reversed, and Part 3: The Hermit in Real Life, for more about this enigmatic card and what it means for you! How do you like to interpret the Hermit in your own readings? Would you like a reading from me, at 1$ per card, to see if he has any lessons for you? Let’s talk!
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