"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. "-- Henry David Thoreau
Maybe its a perspective unique to western society that when we see the Hermit in tarot, we become a bit puzzled or worried. Our immediate association is to think he must be lonely, hurt or even pissed off at the world, a misanthrope. We imagine he probably got stressed out and fed up and, like Garbo, exited the social scene with a dramatic, "I just vant to be left alone!" Certainly no one would willingly, consciously choose a life of solitude. He must be an exile, banished, or one of those poor lonely souls like Eleanor Rigby.
Poor guy, alone on that mountaintop holding that lantern out as if he's looking for someone to come find him. Pity.
No doubt that we are social animals and we are not meant to live our lives in an entirely solitary fashion. However, there is a big difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness implies a negative state of being where something is being taken from you. Solitude, on the other hand, is wholly positive, an active state that one chooses in order to quiet the external stimuli and focus on the richness of one's inner being.
The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room
Pascal, Blaise, Pensées, 136 (1660)
Being alone is suspect. People tend to worry about you when you spend what they consider to be too much time alone. Something must be wrong with you if you're not in the company of others more than being alone. Personally, I enjoy being alone. I sometimes go to the movies alone, eat in restaurants alone, wander museums and spend a lot of time in my room alone. I tend to prefer it to what I experience as stressful chatter among people. Anne Morrow Lindbergh observed, "What a commentary on civilization, when being alone is being suspect; when one has to apologize for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it - like a secret vice." My solitude is even portable. I have developed this enveloping "bubble" that I wear when out in public so that even when someone speaks to me they often have to say, "Helllooo, I'm talking to you," to snap me out of it. So if you see me in the grocery store and I act like I'm ignoring you, I'm not. Well, I am, but not on purpose. Feel free to come right up to me and wave your hand across my face as it's probably the only way I will notice your presence.
So when I see the Hermit, I am not so inclined to feel sorry for him. I am more curious about what he's thinking about, to find out where his mind, left to itself, has taken him. I am less concerned about what drove him to that mountaintop than what he has discovered since being there. He has something important to tell me, even if its only to say I need to get some space to myself. That's good advice in itself.
The early Marseilles decks show the Hermit in similar fashion to the later Smith rendering: old man in a monk's robe, lantern, walking stick. The main difference is not in the image but in the titles. Earlier cards were labeled, "The Hunchback," "The Old Man," or "Time." Apparently his first appearances represented the iconic Father Time with an hourglass instead of a lantern. However, the associations with the exile, the hermit, can be drawn from the title "The Hunchback" as people with such infirmities were often ostracized. Old age is also associated with wisdom and understanding and the monk's garb is associated with the acetic, the Christian desert monks who retreated into the desert to avoid Roman persecution in the early days of the common era.
The Hermit could represent someone like Peter the Hermit
a monk living in the 11th century that is credited with the beginning of the First Crusade. He's a symbol of hope for the poor and downtrodden as it is said he rallied an army of paupers in order to secure pilgramage routes and holy sites in Jerusalem.
Guibert of Nogent's account of Peter is the earliest and is likely the more accurate than the much later inflated accounts which prevailed from the time of William of Tyre until the mid-19th century:
Therefore, while the princes, who felt the need of many expenses and great services from their attendants, made their preparations slowly and carefully; the common people who had little property, but were very numerous, joined a certain Peter the Hermit, and obeyed him as a master while these affairs were going on among us.Source: Dana C. Munro, "Urban and the Crusaders", Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Vol 1:2, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1895), 20
He was, if I am not mistaken, from the city of Amiens, and have we learned that he had lived as a hermit, dressed as a monk somewhere in Upper Gaul. After he had departed from there - I do not know with what intention - we saw him going through the cities and towns under a pretense of preaching. He was surrounded by so great throngs of people, he received such enormous gifts, his holiness was lauded so highly, that no one within my memory has been held in such honor.
He was very liberal in the distribution to the poor of what he had received. He restored prostitutes to their husbands with gifts. By his wonderful authority he restored everywhere peace and concord, in place of discord. For in whatever he did or said it seemed as if there was something divine, especially when the hairs were snatched from his mule for relics. We do not report this as true but for the common people who love novelties. He wore a wool shirt, and over it a mantle reaching to his ankles; his arms and feet were bare. He lived on wine and fish; he hardly ever, never, ate bread.
Though his fame may seem contrary to his status as a hermit, it really is not. It is within solitary walls that such inspiration and conviction is born. Whether one agrees with Peter's politics is not the point. Clearly he was not some social misfit but instead preferred his solitude for personal, spiritual reasons. The word hermit is from the Greek word for "desert" or "uninhabited." The term means "desert-dweller." The Christians didn't invent the concept of running off to the desert to escape civilization, but it was a good place to go when the early Christians were being persecuted. It had its basis, however, in the Old Testament story of Moses wandering the desert for forty years for spiritual enlightenment. In any case, early tarocchi players would have likely associated the Hermit in the deck to one like Peter, a veritable hero of the Catholic Church. They would not have made the negative associations with "loneliness" as we might today. He would have been seen more as visionary, wise mentor, and spiritual leader.
As with all of tarot, by questioning one's responses to the cards, they can serve as that wonderful soul mirror that can tell you so much about yourself. If you recoil from the Hermit or think him sad and lonely, it may serve as a sign that you need to examine why you feel that way about being alone. Does being alone equate to loneliness or solitude for you? Certainly the upside down meaning of the card would include the more negative, misanthropic and lonely aspect to one being alone or withdrawing from society, but upright the card holds no such meaning. More often he comes to represent that wiser part of oneself only accessed through solitude. He comes up when someone needs time to themselves to really consider what is true and valuable to them and when being embroiled in human drama is absolutely not the course you want to take.
He's a reminder, too, that there's nothing wrong with liking being alone. No, you're not weird. Ok, maybe wearing a loincloth and eating only honey and berries might be a little odd, but hey, whatever floats your boat. When you're alone, you can do as you please.