A solitary bearded figure stands at the top of a peak amid a snow-capped mountain range. He gazes pensively down at the valley below, his lamp burning in the night sky and shining the light of the six-rayed star. He wears an unadorned gray robe, symbolizing austerity and old age, and his only other possession beside his lamp and cloak is his yellow staff that holds him up. Does he seek a way down the mountain to be reunited with his brothers? Does he see someone approaching him? Perhaps, like Diogenes the Cynic, he has searched the world to find one honest man, and having failed to do so, has withdrawn from everyday life. That is what hermits do, after all! Yet this Hermit is still looking outward, pondering the world from whence he has withdrawn. That would tend to suggest some deep-seated connection to the world that has not been totally severed—that there is still a desire in his heart, however unconscious, to be as one with the world again. As we will see, there is a reason for that.
The archetypal hermit—the seeker in the wilderness, who spurns the comforts of the material world in order to pray and to meditate, to attain a deeper understanding of worlds unseen, and to pave the way for an eventual reunion with man—is familiar to anyone who has engaged in any kind of philosophical or religious study: The archetype is personified by Jesus’s 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, Gautama’s season in the shade of the Bodhi tree before attaining enlightenment as the Buddha, Arjuna’s years in exile before his momentous struggle with Lord Shiva, Muhammad’s annual retreat to pray at Mount Hira, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descending from the mountaintop to proclaim his love for humankind. In all of these aspects, we see an inner will to power being exerted as external obstacles to enlightenment are eventually overcome and the gifts of the Divine revealed. This is why the path of The Hermit, which conjoins Jovian Chesed with sunny Tiphareth, is known as the Intelligence of Will, for it is by this exercise of will, used in the pursuit of spiritual transformation, through which “the essence of the Original Wisdom” is obtained.
As we have just realized a formative, procreative union of the archetypes with The Chariot and Strength, we now willfully withdraw in the form of The Hermit to contemplate the experience, and to see what it has taught us about ourselves as we prepare to re-enter the physical world. Once again, the separation and reunion of polar opposites is the alternating current that flows continuously throughout the kabbalistic Tree.
The Hebrew letter assigned to The Hermit is Yod, or “hand”—specifically, an open hand of salutation or assistance, as opposed to, say, a clenched fist. The English occultist Arthur Waite saw this card as one of “attainment” as opposed to truth-seeking, and in that sense, The Hermit’s lamp shines not to guide him on the path to enlightenment but to guide others toward him. Today’s seekers often become tomorrow’s teachers, and in that vein, we are reminded that Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha undertook ministries of teaching and revelation once they had attained their enlightenment. So perhaps The Hermit is best seen as a teacher-in-waiting, extending a helping hand via his blazing lamp to a frigid world enveloped in darkness. Yod is also the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God (YHVH), so in that regard the light he shines can be seen as the hand of God extended to man.
Some Tarot scholars, Case among them, attribute a sexual characteristic to The Hermit since the Sephira on the Tree of Life that corresponds to the number 9, Yesod (Foundation), is said to correspond to the sexual organs and to the “foundation” chakra of Kundalini yoga, located in the perineum near the anus. The Hermit’s governing astrological sign is Virgo the virgin, however, so whatever sexuality this card suggests would, by implication, be of a more solitary, i.e., masturbatory nature. This shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand since this is how a great many—if not most—people are initiated into the ecstatic mystery of sexuality, and that first orgasm we experience marks a big step in our journey of self-awareness! Virgo is also an Earth sign, and this helps to explain The Hermit’s downward gaze; for whatever Divine knowledge has been revealed unto him, it is his deepest desire to share it with his brothers in the material world.
More mundanely, The Hermit reminds us of the need for solitude we sometimes feel—or should feel, if we are to lead well-adjusted and fully individuated lives. We all need to “go off the grid” from time to time, to take stock of our achievements, to examine our shortcomings, and to pray for guidance and direction for the future. Not all of life’s answers can be found on television or on social media—and in reality, very few are. Of course, it’s altogether possible to be “alone in a crowd,” so we don’t necessarily need to go wandering in an actual desert or live in caves like the Essenes to achieve a higher state of self-awareness; we do need, however, to close our eyes and unburden our minds of all the distractions and noise that confuse our thinking and lead us to misperception. This takes time, concentration, and at least initially, the assistance of a mentor or teacher. The Hermit, then, reminds us of the wisdom of seeking the counsel of others who have “been there, done that,” that we might then be empowered to share that same knowledge in time with others.
Meanings of this card in a reading can include the obvious aspects of prayer, meditation, reflection, a light of hope, withdrawal from society, the end of illusion, teaching or instruction, self-realization and any exercises relative to that such as psychoanalysis; but also misanthropy, unforced sacrifice, shallowness and vanity, antisocial behavior, false teachings, or self-destructive tendencies in general. We humans are by nature social animals who bond easily, but we aren’t only animals—and for that reason, we occasionally need to “get away”and engage in some “spiritual bonding” of our own in private; either that, or we should seek the company of someone who can help us along the way, so that we too one day might help others in like fashion. That’s the true meaning of the hand extended.