Meaning: A hard won prize, the completion of a journey. Wisdom as the highest aim serves as a lantern in the dark, or an hourglass at midnight.
Reverse: Withdrawn and despairing, certain of defeat our deepest passions are often sacrificed first. Stay the long journey and you will gradually find your way.
After the scales of Justice come the sands of Time, or the light of the lantern, depending on who you ask. The lantern carrying figure may refer to the Stoic philosopher and freed slave Epictetus, with a stick for his bad leg and his famous lantern, or Diogenes who was known to wander with a lantern by day, ‘trying to find an honest man.’ The card serves us an ancient archetype of the minimally material lost in their head monkish type. But the hourglasses and luxurious attire of the Italian versions conjures a different image.
As a traditional fortune telling card, whether the Hermit or the Heirophant, we have a retiring character that describes a personality type well known. In our age of computers perhaps more people can relate to this sort of life, being consigned to a seclusion in which, presumably, one is managing some course of study. The calling to step back from the world in order to gain wisdom, mental disciplines, peace or recovery takes many forms, for the purist mechanic, musician or zen type devoted to refining just one skillset, to the monk who seeks some higher form of contact by living a discipline, to the cynic who drifts about disabling passing fancies with philosophy. As a result, the card has an occult reputation as a secret keeper, or the revealer of hidden knowledge, or the reward of such knowledge.
Looking at the mythopoetic images in the cards is stranger than this however, the hourglass reference and the posture of the figure closely resembles a popular card image at the time of Chronos, the horrible Titan eating his child with several others lined up. Even the gods face twilight. And whether it’s time or darkness that must be crossed, the ancient god Hermes, who got involved in the business of dead souls at times, was known to take a humble old man’s appearance when he performed this job, of was conducting typically important dead people away from their expired bodies to wherever their new homes might be. Between, Chronos and Hermes, we have old time gods of death, which were somehow retired yet kept around here as a helpful guide character instead, perhaps they still have a little clout with the underworld. The association with time and age is made stronger by the alternate use of these symbols, lantern and hourglass. Chronos has the sense of old time, ages past, the sands of time erasing history. It is the existential malevolence of time. Hermes has a sense of fleeting time, he is the buzzer at the end of the run, he arrives unannounced, unexpected despite being inevitable (again existential), and his four wings, the four winds, promise less doom than a swift change of state. In the early days, either the underworld or a new form was for ordinary people, but the elect, the kings and such, were swept away to the North Star, a labyrinthine spiral castle of glass, or other places of waiting to be placed again in history. The Hermit has stepped out of his cave, and his lantern is lit, he is ready to greet his visitor.
A deep view perhaps for the card more likely interpreted as the philosopher’s ideal behind the Tarot deck, the very embodiment of wisdom itself. But if the Hermetic theory of the Tarot proves to be the strongest, the Hermit is just one of many representations of Hermes or Mercury scattered throughout the deck. For reading look for Wisdom in the earlier cards, in the first two nobles, the High Priestess and the Empress, spiritual and worldly wisdom beside one another. They may rank low in the triumphs of the world, and are but disguises for something that is continued beyond, to higher views, nonetheless.
By being a psychopomp, which is not as glam as you’d think, the Hermit is likewise inheritor of the role of Christopher (Christ-Over), the Anubis and even the Jolly Green Giants of old European mythology. The one that takes people across on their shoulder.
In the old days, the pan-cultural symbol’s job was death, as the image of Time, but in the Tarot he has instead evolved into a picture of wisdom. A symbol of reward. In the old days, he ate the children, now he gives them a hand across the river.
And that’s an interesting reflection of the role of Death in the humanist Tarot – though the Hermit can be associated through folklore with old titans of death, there is a card for Death and it is no god at all, only a skeleton in a robe performing function as a formality, a caricature. Meanwhile the image of the Triumph as a chariot remained popular during the Renaissance, also for a game played with the Tarot, from which the Trumps get their name. producing Time as an elderly man, one one or two crutches, on a Triumph drawn by Stags.