I’ve been slowly and patiently working my way through Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Tarot de Marseille book, The Way of Tarot (a full analysis of which will have to wait for another time, assuming I get to the end of it). I came to it prepared to be disappointed, convinced by previous reviews that it veers too far off the beaten path to be worthwhile. But once I got past the self-congratulatory autobiographical trivia and discounted the symbolic peculiarities and unconventional color schemes associated with the deck he created with Philippe Camoin, I found that – although he is clearly on a parallel path that disavows modern esoteric theory – he doesn’t step that far away from the roots of the Western Mystery Tradition.
But upon reading his meditation on the Hermit, I had to stop and think a bit. Somewhere in the depths of the unique metaphysical perspective that drove his early surrealistic films like El Topo (of which I’ve always been a huge fan), he came up with the oddball notion that the Hermit is walking backward down the path he just ascended. I’ve read it twice now and, as near as I can tell, Jodo’s assumption is that the Hermit has risen as high as he can and has nowhere to go but back the way he came, while still keeping his eyes on the goal he labored so long and hard to attain. The idea seems to be that, by backing away, the Hermit’s field of vision will expand and permit him to fully embrace the dimensions of the knowledge and experience he gained along the way. Standing at the brink of the precipice, he was still too immersed in getting to the top to grasp all of its broader implications, so a period of recapitulation is in order.
I’ve seen other theories along these lines. One holds that the Hermit, having perfected his divine wisdom, will cheerfully leap off the mountain peak and back into the world, echoing the Fool and bearing the fruits of his contemplation to a waiting community of seekers. Some writers have asserted that this is not a card of solitary isolation at all, but one that actively invites engagement and emulation. In Qabalistic Aphorisms, James Sturzaker wrote: “Although named the Hermit, this is not the path of a recluse but of stepping out into the world. The path of being alone in the madding crowd, with a calm peace and quiet within in spite of the noise without.” The correspondence of this card to the astrological sign Virgo suggests a fertile field, plowed and prepared for sowing once it is turned back over to the husbandmen.
Personally, I’ve never considered any of the cards of the Major Arcana to posses a “reverse gear;” they all press irresistibly forward along the path of the “Fool’s Journey” (even the Hanged Man, who is only making a “rest stop,” and the Devil, who has taken a “detour”). The Hermit as the ninth trump may represent the end of the series of single-digit numbers, expressive of completion, but it isn’t the end of the trail by a long shot. I can certainly see the old man rolling “ass-over-teakettle” down the back side of the slope, clutching his lantern and staff with a wise and knowing grin on his face (as a cultural aside, if you’ve ever seen the Canadian comedy series The Trailer Park Boys, you may remember Julian stepping out of the car he just rolled over with a full rum-and-coke in his hand). But I think it more likely that the Hermit will just stand pat on the summit and wait for the Wheel of Fortune, driven by the Magician with the Fool in the back seat, to swing by and pick him up for the last half of the adventure.