The Hermit: Waite’s Symbols

The next in our series of posts regarding the symbols in the Waite Colman Smith tarot deck is the Hermit. We compare Waite’s descriptions in the Pictorial Key, the textual descriptions by predecessors and contemporaries such as the Boot T and Mathers, as well as any “undocumented” symbolism in the illustrations, which may represent enhancements to Waite’s instructions by Colman Smith, or the latter’s own ideas.

9: The Hermit

In today’s urbanized, overcrowded and materialistic world, we remind the reader that the definition of a hermit is not just one who seeks solitude. The hermit withdraws from society for a life of religious contemplation. It is a tradition of asceticism which dates back thousands of years. Keep that in mind as you look at the Hermit.

ID symbol meaning
HMT lantern Waite: “It is said… that his lantern contains the Light of Occult Science. [it} intimates that where I am, you also may be.” Waite goes to great lengths so say that the Hermit card is not about the path to spiritual enlightenment, “as Court de Gebelin explained.” The Book T also described the Hermit as still seeking, not yet attaining: “the eternal seeker, the Pilgrim soul.” In contrast Waite portrays the hermit as already spiritually enlightened. He already holds the mysterious knowledge (see the star symbol in this card, also). The difference of course is that in Waite’s view, not only is the truth knowable, but that someone has it, and is shining it out for all to see. Anyone can come to this place where the enlightened hermit stands and thus attain the truth, too. This of course is the message of organized religion, that if one follows the path described by that religion, one receives the truth.
HMT precipice Waite: “a man who knows in his heart that all roads lead to the heights, and that God is at the great height of all, (miss all the high things) should (he) choose the way of perdition or the way of folly as the path of his own attainment.” Colman Smith depicts the Hermit peering down over the edge of his mountain. Contrast this with the Fool at the edge of the precipice. Waite essentially says that either you attain God and the heights, or folly should you not choose the path of enlightenment.
HMT staff Waite: “It is said… his staff is a magic wand…” Waite, complaining that his predecessors and contemporaries who concentrate on divination and occult meanings “…miss all the high things to which the Greater Arcana should be allocated.” This is probably a fair criticism. It also provides a context for Waite’s efforts to anchor the tarot to a more Christian point of view, which would be more of an “everyday” view for the times in which he lived. Mathers, for example, calls the staff a magic wand “in his left (hand) he holds his magic wand half hidden beneath his cloak.”
HMT star Waite: “A star which shines in the lantern.” Waite takes pains to note that he has directed that the star be inside the lantern, and that unlike previous illustrations, the Hermit holds the lamp out for all to see, rather than the lantern partly hidden behind his sleeve due to the angle of the viewer. Thus, the attainable knowledge is held out for all.


We will make the next post in the series a summary overview of the first group of major arcana, since we’ve now done ten. For now we will point out that the Hermit is in the same class as the two other spiritual members of the first ten, the High Priestess and the Hierophant. In all three, Waite has overtly inserted new symbols. He textually ascribes significant variations in meaning to all three cards. These variations can be said to shift the focus of the three. In order of their presence in the deck, they were formerly said to represent inner spirtuality, external spiritual authority, and the path to spiritualty. Waite now gives them to represent the spirituality of the Christian religion, the physical presence of the Christian church, and the success or failure of the individual Christion, i.e., attainment of the wisdom of life’s spiritual journey, versus whatever lies below for those who fall from the precipice.

The Hermit

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot? 😉