An Inward Search: The Hermit’s Noble Mission in Tarot
When looking for answers, the best place to start is within. And, at least when he shows up in a tarot spread, the Hermit is your guide!
“Buckle down and don’t take your nose out of that book until the exams are over.” – The Little White Book
Of all the major arcana, The Hermit is most definitely the one you’d want to hang out with on a lazy Sunday afternoon! Death would be spontaneous fun until things got out of hand. The Magician would be a little too bossy about brunch. But The Hermit would let you get lost in record shops and bookstores while letting the mimosas sink in. This is because he is all about introspection, and all the blessed quiet and solitude you need to do it right. And perhaps because of this noble dedication of purpose, the history of tarot’s Hermit has been a pretty straight line for the past 500 years!
THE ARCANE ORIGIN OF A PHILOSOPHICAL FELLOW
Back in the early days of traditional tarot, The Hermit developed a few elements he would keep for pretty much the rest of time. In the Visconti-Sforza deck, the oldest tarot deck we still have today, he is an old man with a walking stick, out on an amble and alone with his thoughts. We know this because he’s staring into an hourglass, almost like he’s hypnotized by its movements. This is not a distracted mind; he is focused and following his thoughts wherever they may lead.
Over the following centuries, The Hermit’s fellow arcana went through significant changes as other cultures took in the pastime and made it their own, but he stayed remarkably the same with a few notable exceptions. The Marseille tarot seems to be the first instance of the hourglass being replaced by a lantern, though different tarot cards gave him other objects instead, including a book (more on that later!). The lantern proved surprisingly resilient, making its way into the Court de Gebelin deck and the one made by pseudo-mystic Ettelia, lasting all the way up to the world-famous Rider-Waite deck in which he assumed his commonly accepted form today. In that one, the biggest change is a star within the lantern to light his path, and instead of staring into an object of fascination, he’s staring at the illuminated ground. This is commonly thought to mean that the Hermit’s learning and insight is limited only to what he can immediately see before him.
We think this shift is partly to make things easier on beginner cartomancers! The image of a wise old man holding a lantern can be simple to interpret – he’s lighting the way in the darkness, bringing illumination to the world, yadda yadda. The hourglass, on the other hand, is a bit inscrutable and can mean almost anything. But that’s the thing: a key piece of understanding this tarot card’s meaning in a divination spread is not the education of others. The Hermit’s journey is inward, towards a greater understanding of self, and this is why his tools become so important.
A PAUSE TO PONDER
At the Pennyland Amusement Park at the turn of the century, Madame Prognostica had a strong attraction to The Musterberg Tarot in particular for very good reason: its playful inventiveness gave her staff of hardworking mystics a lot to grab on to. And The Hermit is a shining example of this, an updated image rich with symbolism. First, and most mysteriously, are three snips of ribbon floating just behind him. Pennyland’s Guide to Cartomancy tells us this represents the trichotomies pursued by ancient philosophers, meaning the Hermit is on an analytical search for answers. So, the Hermit isn’t about floofy casual curiosity as much as hard-won knowledge gleaned from books and serious contemplation. No wonder he has to hermit himself to figure all this out! He still has the walking stick, representing his inborn qualities of intuition and creativity; this is the support of his search for knowledge. And his object of fascination is the book that was made popular in 18th century vintage tarot cards – but with a twist! You’ll notice it’s turned to a giant “H” which means he’s reading about himself in a book about tarot. This is the introspection that’s key to the whole thing, because when you draw this card, it means it’s time to stop the insanity of life and think, to go to your inner record shop and ponder the universe and your place within it.
And isn’t that what tarot storytelling is all about in the end? We rarely have enough time to slow down our busy lives to think about anything, never mind philosophical trichotomies. And whether or not he’s holding a lamp, our dear friend The Hermit is lighting a path for us to follow and find a place for ourselves in the world that means more than a sum of all the stuff we have to do. What a guy!
Ready to learn more about some of your favorite tarot cards? Have a look at our series of articles on the meaning of tarot's most famous cards here:
Want to dive further into the history of tarot decks? Check out the other articles in our history series here: