The Hermit

The figure of the Hermit has fascinated me for a very long time, from years before I encountered Tarot, in fact. My first encounter would have been the inner sleeve of Led Zeppelin IV (aka Four Symbols), where a tiny figure at the very bottom of a steep, rocky crag is struggling to reach a bearded and hooded sage holding a lantern whose glow forms the shape of a six-pointed star. At the age of 13, I’d yet to encounter the Tarot or Pamela Colman Smith or Aleister Crowley but I was pretty sure that something was going on here. 

The Hermit crops up in all manner of iconography. There’s a definite echo in Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ or Dumbledore in his tower, Gandalf wrapped in his grey cloak, Yeats in his Martello ready to “crack his wits” night after night, Caspar David Friedrich and his ‘The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog‘. Or even Yoda!

It has to be said, though, that it’s a very male archetype, the sorcerer secluded in a high img_9619place with his books and lofty insights. Women of power tend to gravitate to one another. Witchcraft, after all, is a much more social business than the solitary necromancer and his browning parchments. But a key part of the Hermit’s power is that sense that he is coming from a high place with hard-won gifts of insight and knowledge. 

The original could be seen as Moses who certainly operated from a place apart from the rest of the Israelites. From his birth to his death, he lived on a curious boundary between the secular and the divine. He was undoubtedly a wizard of some kind, able to turn his staff to a serpent and back again. And, of course, he spoke in a high place with the God of the Israelites, the challenging, intemperate Yahweh of the Old Testament. 

The Tarot Trumps’ Hermit has the number nine and is the tenth card in the sequence. If the traditional arrangement of the Major Arcana is a kind of life’s journey from birth through material success to a deeper kind of spiritual travelling, then the Hermit is on the cusp of that change, situated just before the life change indicated (recommended?) by the Wheel of Fortune. The Hermit isn’t about speculation – his is a path of learned insight into one’s situation. His message is to step back and ask “What now?” When the Hermit appears in a spread, I look for evidence of a lesson that someone either needs to learn or finally has time to take on board. The card is also often seen as heralding the appearance of a teacher or some other provider of wisdom. Reversed, it could mean the wrong teacher or a delay in the right teacher appearing or, more simply, “Not yet.”  If the questioner is looking at a change of career, the Hermit could suggestion a period of solitariness as an inevitable part of that. But the Hermit is also a promise. The lantern he carries is a spark of the divine, of your or my immortal spirit. It’s shaped like a star to remind us that we are indeed star-stuff – of the stars – and will eventually, albeit as part of a cycle of billions of years, return to the stars. 

The I Ching – coins vs sticks

Some weeks ago I finally sat down to learn how to consult the I Ching (or the Ji Ying if you prefer) using yarrow stalks. Or rather, yarrow stalk substitutes. Turns out it’s the wrong time of year; nothing resembling yarrow grows in my garden and even if there, I’m not really patient enough to wait for the stalks to dry out. So, this being a Time Before The Virus Came, I trudged around Hammersmith High Street until I found boxes of wooden pick-up sticks on sale in a branch of Tiger. Two boxes = fifty fake yarrow stalks and a bunch of spares.*

I’ve been a devotee of the Richard Wilhelm version for a long time but I recently stumbled across the giant red brick that is “The Original I Ching Oracle” published by the Eranos Foundation which, aside from positively vibrating with scholarship, has a beautifully clear explanation of the mechanics of consulting the I Ching with fifty sticks as opposed to three coins. 

With coins, the querent tosses three coins assigning a value of three to each coin that lands heads up and two to tails. A score of 7 (or 9) generates a ‘yang’ or unbroken line.  A total of 8 (or 6) refers to a broken (yin) line. The first line is the bottom of a hexagram. The ideograph is then built up from the ‘ground’ with the process repeated a further five times, generating one of 64 possible variations.  Forgive me for not going into any greater detail – there are any number of ‘how to’s scattered across the web

With sticks, the principle is still the same – carry out a consistent process to deliver a more or less random output of the number 6, 7, 8 or 9. By repeating six times, a hexagram is built up from line one at the bottom to line six at the top. One of the translators of the Eranos I Ching has put the full description of the process online.

What difference does it make? For one thing, it slows the whole process of consulting this enchanting book down. Establishing a question, holding it in one’s mind, generating a hexagram to look up – it all becomes a precise, dance-like ritual. It stills the busy mind, clarifies and deepens whatever enquiry I might intend to ask and puts me in the kind of space where I’m prepared to listen carefully. It generates an opening.

Is there an equivalent for the tarot? One analogue might be the complex series of shuffles, cuts, counts and deals that MacGregor Mathers set out for the Golden Dawn.

But there’s a key difference. In building an I Ching hexagram line by line, you are literally constructing an image of the universe at a specific moment in time and space from the most fundamental materials imaginable – light and dark, ones and zeros, positive and negative. I feel that the reverse is true of some methods of Tarot card selection and patterning, that single, infinitely rich sets of heterogenous symbols are broken down and simplified. 

However, both tools – or books – demand seriousness. They might be playful but they never play games (unless one is foolish enough to play games with them). The main lesson of the question of sticks versus disks (as it were) is the need for stillness, slowness and to take advantage of whatever method might generate the silvery clarity of the scryer’s mirror**. 

*I could have bought some on Etsy but that really felt like I would have been cheating.

**Though if you sometimes have to get up in a rush and pull a single card for a clue or thread to follow through the day – that’s something the Tarot is  fairly forgiving of. Within reason.)

Tarot, ‘Tough Love’ and scary questions

Once upon a time, Oedipus heard a rumour that his mother and father weren’t actually his real parents. He went to see the Delphic Oracle who, ignoring his question, told him that he would sleep with his mother and murder his father. Unsurprisingly devastated, he left home, assuming that this would keep his parents safe. Leaving his hometown of Corinth and travelling to Thebes, he met an old man in a chariot blocking the road. Neither Oedipus nor the angry old man waving a royal sceptre would give way and, in one of the earliest reported examples of fatal road rage, Oedipus threw the angry pensioner out of his chariot, resulting in the old man’s death. A few days and one dead Sphinx later (are you seeing a trend here?), Oedipus accepted the hand in marriage of the beautiful dowager queen, Jocasta. Guess who Queen Jocasta and the angry old man would eventually turn out to be?

Was Oedipus really fated to travel this road? Or would he have done better to contemplate what the Oracle was trying to tell him about the consequences of – say –  poor impulse control?

Imagine a sixty year old man who comes to me and asks “Will my life-long habit of sixty cigarettes a day kill me?” The first card I pull is Death. The man decides, no matter what I say, that this means he is going to die. To me, the Tarot is saying something very different – it’s laying down a challenge for him to change his life, take the chance Death offers for a kind of rebirth. After all, Death virtually never refers to physical death except as part of the natural rhythm of all forms of life. A little while later, the same man comes back. This term, he draws the indulgent, solipsistic King of Cups reversed, flanked by the Queen of Swords on his left and the bleak 10 of Swords on his right. Curtains? No – tough love. The Queen of Swords could be seen as a stern warning of consequences (think of the savage Thoth Tarot image of the Queen with a sword in one hand and a head in the other) and the Ten of Swords in this context needs very little commentary. The message? Change now or pay the piper. 

Example of Tarot tough love

But to return to Oedipus…

The Oracle’s words (according to Robert Graves) were “Away with you, wretch! You will kill your father and marry your mother!”. This was not an answer he was ready to hear, or even a question he was ready to ask, and his immediate response was to run away from it.  

If Oedipus had been consulting a Tarot reader (me, for example), he might have been better advised to take a step back and think about the outcome he was looking for rather than asking a closed ‘yes/no’ question and expecting everything to be laid out in a neat, cut and dried way. Outcomes are interesting – they literally describe how things are going to turn out. This, rather than an exact date* for the questions like “When will I be famous”, is what the Tarot is good at. The Tarot counsels, advises, suggests, points out ways not taken that still could be – but if you don’t like the answer, you’re either asking the wrong question or missing the big picture. Sometimes, the scary answers the Tarot offers in response to the most seemingly innocuous  question are about what the question is that you really should be asking. Or even (and I think this is the key to the road not taken by poor Oedipus) whether you should be asking some questions at all.

PS While prowling around the net doing a little research and factchecking, I ran across this rather beautiful artefact by Eileen Hogan.

*I know – there are many methods for answering just this query. I don’t and won’t. 

Tarot dualities – the Lovers and the Devil

Most mornings – I try for ’every’ but am happy with ‘most’ – I get up before seven and pull a single Tarot card. The focus is always the same – what lesson is this day going to teach me? Sometimes, I meditate for fifteen minutes before I draw a card. Other times, I draw the card, prop it up on my altar and wrestle with it the way a Rinzai monk might wrestle with a tricky koan. Earlier this week, I drew the Lovers and on the following day, I pulled the Devil.

The Lovers in the Major Arcana

The Lovers is numbered six (VI) and has the not unexpected traditional meaning of new relationships or choices. The Marseille version dates back to the 17th century and shows us a youthful man caught between two women seemingly vying for his attention. Above, Cupid aims his ‘poison arrow’. Whom the arrow will strike is unclear. The image echoes myths like that of the Judgement of Paris, where Paris had to choose who was the fairest amongst the Greek Goddesses Hera, Athene, Aphrodite and the mortal Helen. Notoriously, he chose Helen. Choices, the myth reminds us, have consequences. 

The Marseilles and the Rider versions of The Lovers

The Lovers is also, however, a card which has acquired many esoteric meanings. Occultist A.E. Waite was very specific in his instructions for Pamela Colman-Smith’s designs for the Rider deck. Here we have an angel overseeing a naked couple. It could be a marriage scene or a depiction of Adam and Eve in the process of being warned about the terrible consequences of eating the wrong fruit. Waites explicitly relates it to the Old Testament story. The tree behind Eve is that of Knowledge of Good and Evil – note the serpent already curled around its trunk. Behind Adam is the twelve branched Tree of Knowledge. It is, says Waites, “the card of human love” before it is “contaminated by human desire”. To which I can’t help but feel ‘Ugh’.

The Devil in the Major Arcana

The Devil is the card numbered fifteen (XV). In numerology, fifteen reduces (1 + 5) to six. Waites’ revision of the imagery is relatively close to the Marseille and goes all in on the evils of the chains of materialism. This really is a card of consequences. It’s worth contrasting this with the other major Tarot strand of the 20th – Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris’ Thoth deck. Their version of the Lovers hews relatively close to Waites’ vision whilst more clearly emphasising the alchemical element only hinted at by Waites.  Their Devil, however, is about sex and is endearingly upfront about this. A whole book could be written about any one of the Thoth deck’s major arcana – here, let’s just note that the couple in Waites’ card have probably had sex and their consequences  seem to be limited to the faun-like horns and curly red hair and their attractive new tails*. The couple also wear their chains very lightly. Their hands are free – at any point, they could lift the chains of their necks. 

The Rider and the Marseilles versions of The Devil

In line with this imagery, the most common meanings given for this card carry themes of addiction and indulgence. I’ve found this to be true enough in many contexts but taken in relationship to its holier-than-thou twin, I wonder what the Devil has to say about the acceptance of limitations in a relationship and the unavoidable fact of the physical. Have the couple chained to the Devil’s altar devolved to a more animal state? Or have they simply accepted that the animal part of our nature is entitled to be given its due? And is the material really any less ‘real’ than the lofty but slightly preachy realm of the Lovers? And Rachel Pollack notes that many people see the Devil as the ‘party card’. 

As ever, look at the cards

Look at the Devil again. He looks straight out of the card, directly at you. His hand is raised in an unmistakable ‘Vulcan salute’. 

No-one knew about Vulcans or Spock in the early twentieth century but Leonard Nimoy once revealed that the gesture is actually a Jewish blessing and is in the shape of the Hebrew character Shin (‘tooth’), which is the first letter of words like Shaddai and Shekinah – the male and female natures of God**. Qabalah and the use that Western occultists and hermeticists from medieval times onwards made of Jewish mysticism is beyond the scope of this piece but the gesture forms part of a blessing in Jewish services where the light of God shines through the gap in the fingers of the officiant. 

To elaborate – the Devil is holding up his hand in a gesture that lets the illuminating light of God filter through to us without instantly blasting us into dust. Think about that.  

What does all this mean?

 Tarot is a relative phenomenon – it depends where you’re standing. For me, early in the morning two or three days ago, it was an admonishment to pay attention to the needs of my body and to what I can control. And perhaps to take the very material struggles I was going through and use them to light a bit of a fire on my tail. What might it mean to you? I have no idea – you’ll have to ask the Devil, who may well be a holier and more helpful individual than his appearance suggests.

*Look closely. Pamela ‘Pixie’ Colman-Smith was a bit of a trickster and the Devil appears to have set the man’s tail on fire. I wonder what she means!

**I really recommend watching the whole video. Nimoy first used the gesture in the wonderful Star Trek Classic episode ‘Amok Time’

Tarot decision making

Tarot cards are fantastic decision making tools if you apply a bit of self-discipline.
D, my yoga-teaching partner, was wrestling with two options for scheduling the start date for a new yoga class she was planning. It came down to a ‘this date’ or ‘that date’ choice and she couldn’t make up her mind. Could we do a reading to see what the ‘right’ answer was?
Yes, I said, we could.

How to ask the question?

One of the most crucial parts of a Tarot reading is getting the question right. A poor question (“Will I die?”) will get the answer it deserves (“YES!”) but the shape of the question also helps shape the reading. After some discussion, D settled on “What is the best date for the class to start – this Monday or the following week?”

This narrowed the question down to two possibilities. D shuffled the cards, cut, handed them back and I started by reading one card for each of the two dates.

Reversed cards! Aargh!

The Five of Wands and the Two of Wands, both reversed. L thought it looked ominous for both dates. At first glance, you can see why. But life seldom works in black and white and a reversed Tarot card is no different. Wands, the Fire suit, traditionally refers to the kind of energy that surrounds work and creativity. Upright, the Five suggests a blustery, competitive environment. Reversed, that energy is damped down (though in combination with other cards this could be very different). Meanwhile, the Two of Wands could relate to a decision made but when reversed still suggests uncertainty.

“What will happen if you put off starting until the later date?”
“I’ll probably worry and dither all week and be back where I’ve started.”
“Then you should go for the earlier date.”

Don’t be afraid to state the obvious!

“But what if no-one comes?”
I pulled another card. The Hermit, reversed.
“It’s the Hermit! No-one will come!” D wailed*.

The Hermit, like all the Major Arcana, is full of occult symbolism and mystery. But sometimes, the Tarot can be refreshingly blunt. There are occasions when a reversed card has a completely different meaning, occasions when it simply refers to more of the same but every now and then, it simply means what it says. The reversed Hermit? You won’t be alone.

Read the pictures

But L was unconvinced – would it really be worth the effort. She drew one more card for a result – the Seven of Swords. Swords relates to thinking and (to some extent) conflict or exchange of ideas. Traditionally, the seven might be a breakthrough of some kind. But the image caught my attention. In the Colman-Smith-Waite deck, we see a man sneaking away with an armful of stolen swords. When in doubt, read the pictures.
“I think the person in the card is you, stealing a march on yourself,” I said. “You just need to stop prevaricating and move forward”

The last word

Nonetheless, L wanted to check on the outcome of the second date. We pulled the Nine of Wands. I saw that as her, not having lost anything, but tired after a long week of worrying and L agreed.

Closing thoughts

Tarot requires you to put the work in. A lot of the time, it’s about clarifying and facing up to something you’re avoiding. On this occasion, there was little to choose between either start date in reality, beyond minimising the wasted effort in time spent worrying. Interestingly, the longer term concrete outcome – would the class be a success? Would there be lots of people? – didn’t surface as an issue. On this occasion, the Tarot wasn’t delivering world-shattering insights and prophecies. It was playing the role of the friend who says, “Look, you know what you need to do – just get on with it.”

*She didn’t actually wail. It was of an eye-roll and a “Oh typical!” sort of shrug.