I’m thrilled to present this guest post by Danny Lavery! It’s got me thinking about The Hermit in all sorts of new ways, and I bet it will get you to do the same.
“Never before had Brother Francis actually seen a pilgrim with girded loins, but that this one was the bona fide article he was convinced as soon as he had recovered from the spine-chilling effect of the pilgrim’s advent on the far horizon, as a wiggling iota of black caught in a shimmering haze of heat. Legless, but wearing a tiny head, the iota materialized out of the mirror glaze on the broken roadway and seemed more to writhe than to walk into view, causing Brother Francis to clutch at the crucifix of his rosary and mutter an Ave or two. The iota suggested a tiny apparition spawned by the heat demons who tortured the land at high noon, when any creature capable of motion on the desert (except the buzzards and a few monastic hermits such as Francis) lay motionless in its burrow or hid beneath a rock from the ferocity of the sun. Only a thing monstrous, a thing preternatural, or a thing with addled wits would hike purposefully down the trail at noon this way.”
–A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller
I’m not as familiar with the tarot as I might be, so I spoke with Jamie on the subject of The Hermit before writing this. He’s the 9th entry in the Major Arcana, immediately preceding the Wheel of Fortune and following either Strength or Justice (the only two cards, Jamie assures me, that ever swap order). The Wheel of Fortune is complex, complete, self-sufficient, a closed system, with a suggestion of perpetual motion; is borne aloft by a spirit, surrounded by attendants, and sometimes carries passengers, both stepping on and falling off. The Hermit’s lantern encloses a six-sided star that bears no small resemblance to the wheel of fortune, on a smaller scale; the same suggestion of riotous energy, of upheaval, of momentum, only here contained, girdled, pressed into iron and service, focused. The Hermit, then, is both subject to chance and known future events like the changing of the seasons, but freshly-founded in strength or recently fed by justice. Let us call this quality of the Hermit’s capableness. He is not master of the future, but he is worthy of the present moment.
The visual elements of the card are as follows, in no particular order: Lamp, robe, staff, mountains. Jamie tells me The Hermit is the first Major Arcana card to deal explicitly with solitude, “although there’s an argument to be made that The Magician is also.”* The Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot speaks further about the significance of the lamp:
The variation from the conventional models in this card is only that the lamp is not enveloped partially in the mantle of its bearer, who blends the idea of the Ancient of Days with the Light of the World It is a star which shines in the lantern. I have said that this is a card of attainment, and to extend this conception the figure is seen holding up his beacon on an eminence. Therefore the Hermit is not, as Court de Gebelin explained, a wise man in search of truth and justice; nor is he, as a later explanation proposes, an especial example of experience. His beacon intimates that "where I am, you also may be."
It is further a card which is understood quite incorrectly when it is connected with the idea of occult isolation, as the protection of personal magnetism against admixture. This is one of the frivolous renderings which we owe to Éliphas Lévi. It has been adopted by the French Order of Martinism and some of us have heard a great deal of the Silent and Unknown Philosophy enveloped by his mantle from the knowledge of the profane. In true Martinism, the significance of the term Philosophe inconnu was of another order. It did not refer to the intended concealment of the Instituted Mysteries, much less of their substitutes, but--like the card itself--to the truth that the Divine Mysteries secure their own protection from those who are unprepared.
“The Ancient of Days” is one of the names for God found in the Old Testament book of Daniel, a slightly unusual entry and piece of apocalyptic literature.
“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.”
— Daniel 7:9
“Light of the world” comes from the Gospels of both Matthew and John, where Jesus uses the phrase to refer to himself and his disciples. In the Christian tradition, hermits might either be associated with a single place (anchorites, pillar-saints and stylites, the cloistered orders) or with constant travel (mendicant friars, pilgrims, gyrovagues). They’re associated with the renunciation of worldly goods, of ambition, of comfort, of wealth, of reproduction, of reputation, of inheritance; many of the best-loved Christian hermits were former heiresses and noblemen’s sons. Hereford celebrates October 7 as the date Katherine of Ledbury (she of Wordsworth’s “Here I set up my rest”) abandoned all her lands and titles to become an anchoress. St. Francis supposedly renounced his father and his inheritance before the Bishop of Assisi, tearing off his own clothes and throwing them at his father’s feet to illustrate his disinheritance.
The Hermit may pass anything on, reveal any wisdom, share any knowledge – there is nothing the Hermit possesses that cannot be shared. Anyone might turn inward. Anyone might follow in his steps. Anyone might balance competing interests: a lamp for illumination, a cloak for concealment, the canny blending of conspicuousness and privacy. The illumination extends outward, forward, without; the concealment is of the body, the mind, the self. Whatever wisdom the Hermit has gained is not immediately visible and can only be passed along through speech or teaching. That wisdom, too, might prove evanescent – how many times in your own life have you said, This is the final truth about me, this and no other, I have found the truth at last, only for that realization to pass away, to be supplanted or forgotten by something else, more true than true?
The staff might rightly be called a tool of discernment; it can support the heavy weight of the body, test out shaky footholds, clear the path ahead of rubble, pick out the safest way forward, strike through a maze of brambles, navigate, steer, winnow, select, jab, administer punishment, beckon, gesture, direct, and steady.
The Hermit is alone, but hardly vulnerable – girded from head to toe, all in grey, the color of obfuscation, of fog, of obscuration. The eyes are closed, either in contemplation or as a gesture towards contradiction, absurdity, the holy-foolishness of the Eastern Orthodox yurodivy, towards a set of values not immediately recognizable as prudent/sane/self-protective.
“Only a thing monstrous, a thing preternatural, or a thing with addled wits would hike purposefully down the trail at noon this way.” The Hermit is none of these things, but the Hermit’s values are not yours. This does not mean, of course, that the Hermit should be automatically trusted; reversed or blocked or simply read through a hermeneutics of suspicion we might find the Hermit paranoid, deluded, treasonous, treacherous, deceitful, corrupt, overly-cautious, cowardly, in love with his own wisdom, covetous, hypocritical, a false preacher, muddled, befuddled, lost, trapped, exiled. The Hermit, unlike the Magician, has no institutional affiliation – both for good and for ill, no one else is willing to sign off on his enlightenment. You may take him at his word, or not.
“The hovel proved to be a single room, windowless and stone-walled, its rocks stacked loosely as a fence, with wide chinks through which the wind could blow. The roof was a flimsy patchwork of poles, most of them crooked, covered by a heap of brush, thatch, and goatskins. On a large flat rock, set on a short pillar beside the door, was a sign painted in Hebrew.
The size of the sign, and its apparent attempt to advertise, led Abbot Paulo to grin and ask: ‘What does it say, Benjamin? Does it attract much trade up here?’
‘Hah–what should it say? It says: Tents Mended Here.’
The priest snorted his disbelief.
‘All right, doubt me. But if you don’t believe what’s written there, you can’t be expected to believe what’s written on the other side of the sign.’
‘Facing the wall?’
‘Obviously facing the wall...’
Now, thought the abbot, he’s looking at me as if I were one of Them–whatever formless ‘Them’ it was that drove him here to solitude. Staked, stoned, and burned? Or did his ‘I’ mean ‘We’ as in ‘I, my people’?
‘Benjamin–I am Paulo. Torquemada is dead. I was born seventy-odd years ago, and pretty soon I’ll die. I have loved you, old man, and when you look at me, I wish you would see Paulo of Pecos and no other.’
Benjamin wavered a moment. His eyes became moist. ‘I sometimes–forget–’
‘And sometimes you forget that Benjamin is only Benjamin, and not all of Israel.’
‘Never!’ snapped the hermit, eyes blazing again. ‘For thirty-two centuries, I–’ He stopped and closed his mouth tightly.
‘Why?’ the abbot whispered. ‘Why do you take the burden of a people and its past upon yourself alone?’
The hermit’s eyes flared a brief warning, but he swallowed a throaty sound and lowered his face into his hands. ‘You fish in dark waters.’
‘The burden–it was pressed upon me by others. He looked up slowly. ‘Should I refuse to take it?’”
Lately I’ve been revisiting A Canticle For Leibowitz, an old favorite of mine. The author, a Catholic convert and former World War II tail-gunner, follows a post-apocalyptic community of monks in the American Southwest who take as their patron saint a Jewish electrical engineer who smuggled books into the desert after a global nuclear war. Periodically the monks – some wise, some stupid, some earnest, some fussy, some precise, some weary, some ardent, some indifferent – are visited by a hermit known alternately as Benjamin, Eleazar, Lazarus, and “the Old Jew, Physician and Wanderer.” It’s an attempt of sorts to try to fashion a mutual tradition of hermeticism between Catholicism and Judaism, although more often than not it reads like the interest of someone who has converted once in the idea of converting again – one gets the sense that a number of the monks would jump at the change to exchange their present vocation for Judaism. By the end, the monks go wandering too, this time into space to avoid the second “world-ending” nuclear war; no one converts to anything.
The perils of the Hermit are as follows: Delusion, distraction, becoming so enamored with self-discovery that one is no use to anyone else, shirking one’s duties, ignoring the suffering of others, foolhardiness, stubbornness, isolation, loneliness, bewilderment, inactivity, uncertainty, blameworthy neutrality, misanthropy.
The virtues of the Hermit are as follow: Intrepitude, doughtiness, balance, cunning, wisdom, self-protection, mastery, sea-worthiness, independence, open-handedness, useful counsel, perspective, distance, solicitude, patience, a good temper, the transmission of knowledge and the sharing of burdens, simplicity, contentment, humility, woodcraft, God-consciousness.
The Hermit is inevitable in the same way of the Wheel of Fortune; cannot be sidestepped or dodged or avoided. Solitude comes. Self-knowledge cannot be entirely or permanently postponed. One must enter the desert. Do not think of the Hermit as a permanent state of being, or as the only source of knowledge. Everyone becomes the Hermit at one point or another; what he holds in reserve might be yours in time; there is nothing he knows you cannot learn. The Hermit’s hands are full; he is in possession of abundance and may either share it freely or reserve it for his own need. He stands atop a mountain, ready either to go down or to shut himself away on the roof of the world. His work cannot be undertaken in crowds or before an audience – what he has to give, may be freely given, but can only be given away one at a time.
*(This is Jamie writing now:) I didn’t note the High Priestess because for me, The Hermit and The Magician are about being alone w/r/t the outside world, and the High Priestess is about being alone internally, which feels like it needs a different word, although I’m not sure what.
Daniel M. Lavery is the proprietor of the Shatner Chatner and the author of Something That May Something That May Shock and Discredit You.
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