Today’s card comes from the Thoth Tarot, designed by Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris. The card bears considerable esoteric symbolism. In the Golden Dawn system of tarot correspondences, The Hermit corresponds to the sign of Virgo, and hence we see the shafts of wheat forming the background. The Hebrew letter for the card is Yod, the first letter of the divine name. Yod means “hand”, and so the Hermit’s hand is at the center of the card. Virgo is ruled by Mercury (Hermes), who served as the psychopomp figure in mythology and esoteric philosophy, guiding souls between heaven, earth, and the underworld. Hence we see Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades, as the Hermit’s companion. The spermatozoon and serpent-coiled egg reinforce Virgo’s fertility theme, although we are dealing now with an esoteric understanding of fertility – the creative interplay between matter and spirit that gives rise to creation.
On the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, the Hermit card is assigned to the path from Chesed to Tiphareth. It thus represents divine life and blessing streaming into the soul center, symbolized by the sun-like light in the Hermit’s lantern.
More literally, the Hermit is a monk or other religious seeker who shuns the company of humanity to undertake an inward journey of discovery and transformation. He carries his lantern with him into the lonely and dark places, seeking to bring hidden truth to light.
As Crowley remarks, the legend of Persephone helps bind these diverse ideas together. Persephone, a maiden goddess with agricultural associations (hence Virgo) is taken into the underworld by Hades (hence Cerberus), where she finds her own power as Queen of the Dead, striking a bargain in which she travels between the Underworld and the surface (to ensure the continued fertility of the earth), with Hermes of course being the messenger and guide.
In The Hermit, we see how new life arises from what might seem like a bleak and solitary journey beneath the earth. Only by carrying the light of spirit into the deep places of body, memory, and unconsciousness can return to the surface realities of life and make them fruitful and vivid.
When I began my study of tarot, The Hermit was my special card, just because my personality was naturally inclined toward privacy, solitude, and study. (The Led Zeppelin album didn’t hurt either.) But The Hermit, like all the cards of the major arcana, is not just a personality type, but is a teacher, a guide on a great journey through different layers of experience and understanding. The Hermit is solitary not just because solitary study suits him, but because his mission of discovery and transformation can only be achieved in the interior landscape of contemplation.
He knows the way in.