AUTHOR’S NOTE: The first half of this essay is an update of a post I wrote in mid-2018 as I worked my way through Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Way of Tarot the first time. I’m now nearly finished with my second reading and have a better grasp of what he was getting at with the Hermit. He repeatedly mentions that the solitary figure in the card is walking backward along a mountain path, holding his lantern high to show the way for those who are coming after him while not paying a whole lot of attention to where he is going; he is too self-absorbed to care.
Upon reading his meditations on the subject, I had to stop and think a bit. As near as I could tell at first glance, Jodo’s assumption was that the Hermit has risen as high as he can and has nowhere to go but back the way he came, while still keeping his eyes on the goal he labored so long and hard to attain. The idea seemed to be that, by backing away, the Hermit’s field of vision will expand and permit him to fully embrace the dimensions of the knowledge and experience he gained along the way. Standing at the brink of the precipice, he is still too immersed in getting to the top to grasp all of its broader implications, so a period of recapitulation is in order before he takes another step.
However, I’m now of the opinion that the Hermit is not retreating from the summit at all, but is cautiously and even furtively backing into the future (toward the right) while still clinging to his past experiences. He is preoccupied with mentoring those with the courage to accompany him into the unknown symbolized by the second half of the trump-card series that begins following the Wheel of Fortune. The Hermit represents the end of a sequence of development symbolized by the single-digit numbers and is about to embark upon a journey of expanded consciousness signified by the multi-digit numbers. The fact that he is backing into it suggests that it will be a subconscious voyage.
I’ve seen other theories along these lines. One holds that the Hermit, having perfected his divine wisdom, will cheerfully leap off the mountain peak and back into the world, echoing the Fool and bearing the fruits of his contemplation to a waiting community of seekers. Some writers have asserted that this is not a card of solitary isolation at all, but one that actively invites engagement and emulation. In Qabalistic Aphorisms, James Sturzaker wrote: “Although named the Hermit, this is not the path of a recluse but of stepping out into the world. The path of being alone in the madding crowd, with a calm peace and quiet within in spite of the noise without.” The correspondence of this card to the astrological sign Virgo suggests a fertile field, plowed and prepared for sowing once it is turned back over to the husbandmen.
Personally, I’ve never considered any of the cards of the Major Arcana to posses a “reverse gear;” they all press irresistibly forward along the path of the “Fool’s Journey” (even the Hanged Man, who is only making a “rest stop,” and the Devil, who has taken a “detour”). The Hermit as the ninth trump may represent the end of the series of single-digit numbers, expressive of completion, but it isn’t the end of the trail by a long shot. I can certainly see the old man rolling “ass-over-teakettle” down the back side of the slope, clutching his lantern and staff with a wise and knowing grin on his face (as a cultural aside, if you’ve ever seen the Canadian comedy series The Trailer Park Boys, you may remember Julian stepping out of the car he just rolled over with a full rum-and-coke in his hand). But I think it more likely that the Hermit will just stand pat on the summit and wait for the Wheel of Fortune, driven by the Magician with the Fool in the back seat, to swing by and pick him up for the last half of the adventure.
The Hermit is a complex card that nonetheless conveys great singularity of purpose. It can show the kind of inner resolve that thrives on isolation, but also implies the accumulation of practical wisdom that can serve as a beacon for others laboring up the same steep path to spiritual enlightenment. Astrologically, the Hermit is associated with the Earth sign Virgo, ruled by Mercury, which relates it strongly to the Magician. It might be said that the Hermit stands at the Magician’s right hand, reaching for the heavens in search of inspiration, while the Capricorn-linked Devil as Lucifer holds down the left hand, bringing a different kind of illumination to the masses. As the third iteration of the element, the Hierophant is responsible for reconciling the two by mediating between Heaven and Earth. The Hermit could be considered a (mad?) scientist working in a “clean room” (the phrase hermetically-sealed comes to mind); the door of the laboratory is locked from the outside and the Wheel of Fortune is holding the key.
I’ve always thought that hermits and remote caves go together like bread-and-butter, pretzels-and-beer or salt-and-pepper; the sequestered hermit covets outer solitude to stimulate his inner vision. So what’s this guy doing out of his hole and on a mountain-top in the middle of the night? The answer would seem to be “aspiring;” he stands at the ultimate pinnacle where Earth meets Heaven, and is positioned to receive spiritual enlightenment of the highest order, or in the words of Paul Foster Case, “union of the personal consciousness with the Cosmic Will.” Once enlightened, his mission is to reveal the source of that wisdom to those below. Case describes this succinctly: “Although the Hermit seems to be alone, he is really the Way-shower, lighting the path for climbing multitudes below.” The number 9 signifies “completion,” and the Hermit has climbed as high as humanly possible to find what he was seeking; thus, he has nowhere to go but down, back into the world with his prize. But I don’t see him cheerfully handing it over to any fellow seekers he meets on the way down; more likely he will point back up the path and say “Just keep going. It’s up there!”
Case continues: “He stands in darkness . . .” symbolizing a wisdom that is “darkly incomprehensible to our intellects. The darkness represents also the hidden, interior, subconscious field of the Divine Operation. Yet he himself carries his own light, and holds it aloft for the benefit of those who toil upward toward him.” It strikes me, though, that his beckoning lantern will only be visible to those who have already climbed high enough under their own power to distinguish its light from that of the remote stars above. You have to already be “on the path” — and perhaps “around the last bend” — before you can “see the Light.” The Hermit’s remoteness still renders his wisdom hard to fathom, suggesting arduous individual effort as the only practical way to harvest his insights. Case, in talking about the exaltation of Mercury in Virgo, says “. . . self-training in right interpretation of experience . . . is what bears fruit finally in union with what is pictured here as the Hermit.” Ain’t no free lunch here.
Aleister Crowley chimes in with: “Illumination from within, secret impulse from within; practical plans derived accordingly.” Many of the traditional meanings relate to the presence in this card of the methodical, discriminating Virgo nature: “prudence; circumspection” (Waite and Case); “wisdom from above (Case and Gray); “silent council;” guidance “on the path to material or spiritual goals;” openness to advice and aid (Gray). Crowley characterizes Virgo as “the lowest, most receptive, most feminine form of earth,” while Case observes that the Cosmic Will, as the cause of all particular manifestations, is related to “that which is basic, fundamental, and therefore at the bottom of things.” Thus, the Hermit is a link between the “lowest of the low” and the “highest of the high,” with Mercury (both ruling and exalted in Virgo) as the Magician uniting “above” and “below.” Case again: “Virgo is dominated, therefore, by self-conscious initiative, and represents the state in which the highest manifestation of self-consciousness is experienced.”
In more useful terms, the Hermit symbolizes pursuit of a lofty goal by dint of the “sweat of one’s brow.” A Mercurial epiphany may help, but you still have to reach a level of attainment — one laborious step at a time — where you can bring it to bear. This card suggests that a gratifying end may be in sight, but it’s no time to sit down and rest, waiting for the Hermit to swing by and drop it off. If you’re still standing at the bottom of the hill, it’s more a source of inspiration than fulfillment, too far removed to offer immediate satisfaction.
The Hermit depicts the “inner path” to attainment of self-awareness and practical wisdom. It can be seen as a solitary journey to the pinnacle of spiritual enlightenment, but also as a state of lonely isolation. It has been mentioned, however, that this is not solely a card of navel-gazing concentration, but also one of consummate poise when stepping out into the freedom of the wider world. The key to the broader implications of the image is the lantern in the Hermit’s hand. It implies “service to others,” as might be expected from the connection of the card to the sign of Virgo. Having achieved perfection, he is lighting the way for others to follow in his footsteps. It a more practical sense, it can show withdrawal or separation from superficial engagement in social affairs or personal relationships, more as a way of self-willed exclusion (and perhaps self-preservation) than one of pursuing any kind of spiritual epiphany. His motives and objectives may not be obvious to others, leading to the negative observations made by Waite, and the allusion to closely-held secrets in Crowley’s commentary. The taciturn Hermit is not the most forthcoming or inspiring of traveling companions on the road of life. It could be a mistake to see him as completely harmless.