Monday, 23 February 2015

THE HERMIT CARD: Philosopher-therapist?

The fabulous Hermit from Erik C. Dunne's Tarot Illuminati

 'I love the great despisers because they are the great adorers, they are the arrows of longing for the other shore' ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (henceforth TSZ)

What's the first thought that strikes you when you look at The Hermit card?

He's alone.

Often depicted wandering in a forresty wilderness or even a starkly barren and inhospitable semi-arctic landscape, we already know that this card is going to be about being alone and removed from the everyday and the familiar. But why?

It's not a comforting card, somehow. The journey looks severe, harsh, difficult, hostile. He's wearing a cloak; he's hidden, again suggesting inaccessibility and perhaps secrets. What's he up to? Why trundle off out like this? Why the word "hermit"? Couldn't we have had some other figure, or trope, some other adventurer or wanderer culled from the annals of myth and history? 

What is it specifically about a hermit, then, that concentrates the primary significance of this card? And doesn't it conjure up a certain sort of remote separateness, perhaps sadness, almost certainly an escape of some sort, a retreat from others, a divorce from community, ergo a type of dissatisfaction or discontent? Does he despise or at least have reservations about the common world and longs for something better or more fulfilling? More worthy, valuable, wiser? You can see he wouldn't suffer fools gladly -  it's not hard to imagine him clubbing idiots out of his way with that staff. Ok, at least gently prodding them off the his path. No beaten track, this path. It's his own path.

Let's probe a little more deeply, then, into the hermeneutics of The Hermit (sorry, but that was utterly irresistible).

We'll start with the bricolage of resonances summoned up by the word "hermit". Of course, on a note of esoteric preamble, we might think of Hermes Trismegistus  ("thrice greatest" where 3x3=9: the number of The Hermit). 

But back down to earth and less obliquely, the very word "hermit" recalls at least three senses, all folded in together. First, there's "hermetic" as in a water-tight seal, suggesting impenetrability. Occult. Like a secret. Secondly, famously and eponymously, the word associatively calls up the  Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Already The Hermit signals himself: he is concerned with the esoteric nature of hidden wisdom (to be distinguished from knowledge or technē) and must discover or recover it for and by himself. This isn't technical, factual knowledge, or the mastery of a skill or a technique; it isn't mere instrumental knowledge. Nor is it knowledge disseminated through authority, nor yet the hegemony of "common sense". Rather, our Hermit is on a quest for uncommon wisdom, perhaps even inarticulable truths which can't be found in the everyday and inauthentic. He has a problem with that.

Reprising the first two meanings, we find our third and perhaps most obvious sense: that medieval classic, the religious hermit; the monk on retreat or sequestered in seclusion. Of course we needn't be hidebound by the gendered aspect of this. We could substitute a nun, and in some decks the hermit becomes Crone, or wise woman. In Jungian terms he is the archetype of the Wise Old Man or the Sage - possibly also The Outcast (the Wandering Jew, the Stranger, the Other). The Hermit is different, other than, in-dependent.

'Beware the good and the just! They would fain crucify those who invent their own standard of virtue, - they hate the lonely one' ~ Nietzsche, TSZ

There's a paradox here. On the one hand we might assume that a hermit or any religious order implies ascription to a shared set of beliefs. On the other hand, the hermit is definitionally aloof, alone, apart. Yet it's an accurate paradox in the sense that nobody is ever a causa sui, a self-formed or self-positing entity. You don't invent yourself out of nothing. To put it another way, even the need to remove oneself and find one's "own" truths is informed by one's prior construction or immersement in a social or shared context of meaning. Fleeing from X always presupposes X, if you will. You're still attached to X even if you're interrogating X. So our Hermit is informed by what he resists, as is all resistance and questioning. 

The term "hermit" is derived from the Greek erēmitēs or "inhabitants of the desert" (erēmia=desert), and perhaps also erēmos, meaning "lonely". The Hermits or Anchorites were the true solitaries of the medieval world, to be distinguished from the Cenobites who usually lived together, as the original Greek suggests: koinos (common), bios (life). 

But it could be said that there's also something Freudian about The Hermit. He seems pensive, brooding, singular, wistful, maybe sad and mournful. In this guise he is the trope of acedia.

Acedia was a kind of depression affecting the monks, solitaries and ascetics of the medieval world. It exhibited itself in indolence, torpitude, a desire to sleep, physical debility, inattention to everyday tasks, lethargy and ennui (I'm nodding with acedic recognition). Interestingly, the same register of meaning inflects the word trägheit. This is the word Freud uses to describe what it is or what it's like to experience the "death drive" (thanatos).

The Dali Tarot
Accordingly, we could now speculatively claim that The Hermit is attempting to die into life. This is graphically depicted in the
Dali Tarot where the Hermit, instead of carrying the 6 pointed star in his lantern (the Seal of Solomon, a symbol of wisdom) shows us a foetus, upside down and ready to be born into life, aptly recalling Socratic midwifery where Socrates as wise mentor - a secondary significance of this card - helps his interlocuters "give birth" to their own ideas. Similarly, the Hermit needs to "own" ideas from a deep interior space where ideas are not simply imposed from without and replicated unthinkingly. In even older decks the Hermit carries an hourglass not a lantern, even more profoundly working together the interplay of time, life and death. 

The Acedic person is no longer interested in his or her surroundings or status in the world. Added to psychological depression, the concept of acedia carries a spiritual resonance where it signifies a deep dis-ease or unfathomable sense of wrongness. Thomas Aquinas described it as "sorrow of the world". It's the world experienced as without soul, a spiritual vacuum, missing what makes life valuable and worthwhile. Sometimes this ended in suicide for the ancient solitaries, a yearning to actually become the nothingness refracted through the experience of the modalities of depression: the death drive.

I am nothing.
"I know nothing, I am capable of nothing, I am nothing." This teaching of the Lord crowns in Rosicrucianism brings together acedia, trägheit, and thanatos as well as the "near the end" symbology of the number nine, the ascetic/acedic monk and, of course, The Hermit card in the tarot.

What's he looking for? In short, and as the corollary to spiritual emptiness, he's looking for spiritual plenitude and joy. For something to matter. His quest is for a respiritualization of the world and his place as a necessary part of that world. It is at once a tendentially redemptive card: the search is for a restoration of a certain sort of truth, one that re-enchants the disenchanted acedic or depressive, and rehabilitates a sense of belonging. He won't find it in everyday pursuits or the concerns of the everyday and the familiar for these are precisely the thin and empty vessels of his dissatisfaction. 

The familiar pegs into broader social scripts. The Hermit feels alienated from himself. He senses he is missing or has somehow been elided from how his life has been scripted through those narratives inscribing who we are, who we're meant to be, how we are supposed to behave, what we are expected to aspire to, and what we should think.This same societal space, however, affords moments within which to stand apart and reflect; fissures and hollows, interstices within which The Hermit can question and critique. Ironically, despite the seeming conformity of belonging to a religious order, The Hermit is a subversive figure of the non-integratable. In his non-conformist function The Hermit reminds one of Socrates sentenced to either death or exile for "corrupting" the youth of Athens, and arguably the first monotheistic religious prophet, the Persian Zoroaster.

Do you feel commodified, bullied, sense you don't fit in, can't accept your social construction or the roles you must perform to validate your idenitity? Do you object to who you're supposed to be and feel generally flattened under a weary weight of busy everydayness where the accretion of bits of life feel like sweat on the brow of the unattainable? Are you left with an image or chimera, a mimetic reproduction of achievement, success, and accomplishments which still fail to fulfil or even hollow out a deeper void? These are all intertwined Hermit moments. He appears when you need him before you suffocate in spiritual senselessness. 

When he comes up in a reading, you are being urged to think autonomously. Alone. Cloistered away. To be your own Tiresias. Tiresias was the blind "seer" who was yet wiser than the conventionally sighted. It is a sign for you to take reflective time-out, away for a time from the din of demand and the desires created through popular ideology. You are being called to assess your values, to re-value your values. What's it all worth? Is this the good life? Are your goals bringing you happiness or are you just "fitting in"? Feeling Acedic? The Hermit knows these subterranean places and asks you to be still and to think for yourself. As previously mentioned, he might also show up in the guise of a wise mentor who will help you to create your own way in order to reconfigure your sense of self. Even if others do not understand your journey.

'Now I ask you to lose me and find yourselves; not until all of you have disowned me, shall I return unto you' ~ Nietzsche, TSZ

'And whatever will break on our truths, let it break! Many a house hath yet to be built!' ~ Nietzsche, TSZ

© Donna Hazel at Tarotdon Tarot

For more juice on how The Hermit might affect you see this post by my friend and colleague Jenna Matlin Let's talk about the Hermit


  1. Great post. I feel like I am leaving with an essence of the Hermit. Loved your insights from literature and Jung. They brought depth to the idea of the Hermit for me.

  2. Thank you so much, Ava! I always felt that there was a whole lot more to our Hermit than the standard glimpses.