One of the most important points to ponder when thinking about the Hermit card in the tarot is the meaning of the word "hermit," surely one of the more misunderstood concepts in modern culture.
Merriam-Webster dictionary online describes a hermit in the following manner:
Definition of HERMIT
a : one that retires from society and lives in solitude especially for religious reasons : recluse b obsolete : beadsman
: a spiced molasses cookie
— her·mit·ism \ˈhər-mə-ˌti-zəm\ noun
Examples of HERMIT
- <St. Jerome is said to have spent two years as a hermit in the desert, searching for inner peace.>
Origin of HERMIT
Middle English heremite, eremite, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin eremita, from Late Greek erēmitēs, from Greek, adjective, living in the desert, from erēmia desert, from erēmos desolate
First Known Use: 12th century
Now, while I'm secretly thinking about finding that cookie recipe mentioned in the second meaning, the first one clearly brings to mind the Hermit in the tarot. When the Hermit turns up in a reading, I like to explain and emphasize that a Hermit is not that crazy old man in the woods that so many people tend to think of at first. I'm not sure if somewhere along the way the concept of a Hermit got mixed up with the concept of a Hobo or Tramp. To me, being quite "bookish" as a child, the idea of being a hermit always kind of appealed to me. I tended to be a loner. I was usually off reading somewhere rather than playing with other kids. I'd read about the old man in the cave on the mountain, talking to God, in more than one book, and while I didn't believe you needed to be in a cave to talk to God any more than you needed to be in Church to talk to Him or Her..... I did kinda "get" that hermits tended to need to be alone to "hear" God talking back.
Maybe in some places, in some social circles, that qualified you to be considered crazy. All I know is, the hermit needed to leave the stimulation of the city, and society, behind in order to "hear" the inner voice, the soul of the spirit, the fire of inspiration, whatever. In fact, Merlin was considered a hermit throughout much of his life. Throughout Arthurian myth and legend, Merlin is alternately revered as a teacher and reviled as a sorcerer. But they don't usually tell you where he lives, just to say that at the end of his life, he was walled up inside the Crystal Cave by a spell placed on him by the sorceress he fell in love with, who stole his powers. And he waits there for the coming of the King when Arthur returns one day. At least, that is a summing up of the various versions of the story, in all the books I have read.
So the Hermit has been a source of much fascination and a subject of many artists, including the work pictured here by Mikhail Nesterov. He kinda looks like Santa Claus in a way, cheerful and warmly bundled up against what looks like a fairly cold forbidding landscape. I like him for some reason. He certainly doesn't look like a crazy man hiding out in the woods.
In many places, hermits are recognized for their "aescetic" stature and known to be a sort of "holy man" and the local people will often bring donations of food, clothing and other necessities and leave them outside his door. Since he has chosen to live apart from others, in order to hear the inner voice, he has gained some form of respect, even if people think him a bit strange. He doesn't usually hide in his cave all day long, but may come and go, walking in the woods, talking to the trees and animals, gathering his wisdom and his guidance to share with others when they come to seek his advice. In a way, he truly paves the way for a sort of therapist, counselor or even a psychic advisor.
I like how, in the tarot, the hermit is often seen holding up a lantern, symbolizing his wisdom and guidance, for the world to follow. Interestingly, my favorite image of the traditional tarot hermit comes not from a tarot card, but from the inside jacket of Led Zeppelin's 4thalbum. According to Wikipedia, "The original vinyl album cover of Led Zeppelin's hit album Led Zeppelin IV (as well as the liner notes for the CD release) contains a painted picture of the Hermit standing on top of a mountain peak looking down on a small village. The Hermit was the favorite Tarot character of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. The painting is attributed to Barrington Coleby, a friend of Page who now resides in Switzerland. The original painting has disappeared meanwhile but is said to be in the collection of a private person in the US. The painting is now associated with the song Stairway to Heaven, principally from posters and t-shirts showing the top half of the painting with the words "Stairway to Heaven" printed next to it."
Though I no longer have a record player, I keep my vinyl LP of this album specifically so I may show people the inside painting whenever I am teaching. I discovered Led Zeppelin, and this image of the hermit, before I had ever even heard of the tarot, so when I saw the hermit card I immediately had a reaction of "I've seen that image before!" There is also something vaguely Tolkien-esque about the painting and the atmosphere it evokes.
When I set about designing the hermit card for the Pagan Tarot, I deviated greatly from this traditional image. Most of my deck is pretty far from traditional in its imagery, although I do feel that much of the symbolism I learned while using the Rider-Waite deck is still present, just in a hidden form. In the Pagan tarot hermit card, the central character is a young woman living in today's world. It is next to impossible to truly go off and be a hermit in real life these days without also giving up the ability to represent the rest of the images in the deck. What I mean is, I could not simply have the girl go off and live in a cave in the woods, not when she also needed to be present at work in other cards, dealing with car issues, or having group ritual with friends, etc. She needed to remain an interactive person, but also represent the meaning of the hermit spiritually and symbolically.
On days like today, when I am spending the entirety of the day alone in my room with only my cats for company, and I'm not even on Facebook as much as a normal day, and I'm spending the day meditating or thinking about what I am going to write next, or designing a tarot card like I was the day I did the Hermit card, I realize that you can be a hermit one day at a time. You can choose to withdraw from the stimulation of the outside world, remaining cocooned indoors or in a secluded garden or wooded spot, choosing to focus your attention inwardly instead of on the problems that seem to invariably surround and barrage you from every direction at once. World news, friends and family having issues, even your own huge pile of research and information which you might need to sort through, all sometimes need to take a back seat to the need for solace and quiet in your own mind and heart.
The heroine in this card may be alone physically, but if you look around her, she is still *way* more than buried in stimulation of a different sort. She's burning the candle at both ends, surrounded by books and research information, the tools of her Craft, yet she still seems to be mentally stymied or suffering from some kind of writer's block. I can surely relate to that, as can most people. We've all been this deep in something before, and as usually happens, we cannot see the forest for the trees when we get too deeply involved in something. Actually, if you think about that, this makes for a kind of "Anti-Hermit" hermit. Just as going within can quiet the hammering away at your senses, just as withdrawing from life can help you clear your head, sometimes you need to get OUT of yourself in order to get away from the overload and subsequent burnout that being in over your head can lead to.
When I was in college, I got so burnt out one semester that I found myself unable to go on. I registered for a bunch of classes for the next fall, but I was really messed up in the head and couldn't even function. I took a summer job at my father's sewing factory, and spent 40 hours a week for the entire summer standing in one place, at a long table, turning half finished baby shirts right side out so they could be hemmed. They came in bundles of 60 at a time, and you could only spend 2 minutes on a bundle, so it seemed fairly rushed, but it settled into routine, and before I could even think about it, my body formed a rhythm. My mind was able to be idle while I did this. We were discouraged from socializing while working, except on breaks, so I just went through my rhythm all day long. By the end of the summer, I had not only gotten my head cleared and straightened out, but had even composed a musical play to present for my senior thesis.
You could also consider the analogy of the hermit crab in thinking about this card's other meanings. A hermit crab is called so because it takes up residence in after another of abandoned or otherwise empty shells. They are enjoyed as pets because they are interesting and they can adapt to very colorful shells and live in an aquarium, thus being neatly contained and visible. The idea of living an uncluttered life, with your entire home upon your back, everything simple and straightforward, has a lot to offer in many cases, and is clearly the antidote our heroine in the Pagan tarot needs to find.... simplification and decluttering.....
In the end, I consider the appearance of the hermit in a reading as a sign that the client needs some form of restoration of the spirit; whether from too much workload, too much stress, or too many problems and too much bad news all around. A mental vacation can be as healing as a physical one. The ability to take some time away from something that has been consuming one is important, because the very real danger of tunnel vision is close at hand if the pattern is not changed. In the end, creativity and all manner of possibilities and opportunities may be found, if you only make room for them to beat a path to your door.
And now, I shall leave you with the tasty image of that other type of hermit, the hermit cookie which so tantalizingly tempted my imagination away from this article in the very beginning. I have linked it to ONE recipe for hermit cookies which I have found on the internet. Having never baked them, I suppose I am about to embark on a totally different type of adventure, a culinary one. I'd love to hear if any of you have a favorite recipe for these or if you've had some kind of hermit tale you'd like to share!
Yours in tarot,
Gina M. Pace (aka Wicce), creator of the Pagan Tarot, published by LoScarabeo, and webmistress of Wicce's Tarot Collection, one of the internet's largest former tarot review websites and PENDING NEW AND IMPROVED SITE