Merlin as The Hermit in Major Arcana

by Sandra Marie

I have had The Rider Tarot Deck major arcana images of the The Fool, The Magician, and The Hermit on my mantel for quite a while. To me they show the growth of an enthusiastic youthful Fool into the solid metaphysical, spiritual Magician, who ultimately grows into the mature and wise end of life that is The Hermit. One could only hope for such a path.

The Hermit usually is depicted as a robed and hooded older person with a lantern (translation: illuminating the path of others by his/her own earned light). The Hermit’s tarot card is number 9, the number of being one with life, according to Steven Scott Pither, author of The Complete Book of Numbers: The Power of Number Symbols to Shape Reality. Some of the many attributes that belong to this number, according to Pither, include the giving of unconditional love, humanitarianism, universality, humility, compassion, selflessness, idealism, spiritual growth, pure knowingness, living spiritually, divine love, and transcendence. Surely, these are goals to which we might aspire in our journey.

The major arcana tarot card following the Hermit is number 10. Even more interesting, card number 10 is The Wheel of Fortune, the card of the wheel of life upon which we spiral upward in our cyclic journey. When you separate 10 into 1 + 0, or the Magician and the Fool, the cycle begins again, once more ending with the Hermit.

Pither’s number attributions for 0, the number of The Fool in the Rider deck, equates to “Nothingness,” “Nonexistence,” “Formlessness,” and “The unmanifest.” It is also the “Realm of Spirit” and “The potential of infinite possibility.” Altogether, it is a grand traditional description of The Fool.

Pither associates the number 1, that of the Magician, with the “will to be,” and “starting anew, creativity, leadership (with others or oneself),” among other very magician-like qualities. These qualities also work well with the 10 of the Wheel of Fortune (1+0 = 1), the card that turns us again to the beginning of the path.

I have always loved the figure of Merlin. The archetypal image of the legendary magician has always represented magic, mystery and the power of knowingness in action. I have several figures of him around my residence.

Then, one day, suddenly, I saw Merlin as the culmination of the growth process of my three favorite cards in the tarot — as the end point — The Hermit. I began to think about their similarities. Merlin often is robed similarly to the Hermit. Although he has his own varied stories to tell throughout the many fables about him, his end point is the same: knowledge that is arcane, magical, and spiritually useful in an earthly mundane world — knowledge that shines in the remote places of his final resting place.

Nikolai Tolstoy has written in his book “The Quest for Merlin,” that “As prophet and avatar of the High God, Merlin was a link between the divine and the human, and ultimately a Guide on the road to the Otherworld.” This is the Hermit as well, suspended as he is between heaven and earth on his mountain peak.

The Hermit most often is pictured on a rocky summit overlooking a chasm, not unlike the fool, but whereas the fool in youthful exuberance looks upward idealistically, ignorant of or ignoring the drop before him, the Hermit wisely surveys the terrain ahead, illuminating it before acting. The magician, in contrast to both, looks calmly straight ahead, aware of his choices and pulling divine inspiration for life’s journey. The magician is the fully realized man or woman and the Roman numeral I above could be seen easily as the word “I,” the ego-realized individual.

Then I began to research this concept, and found that like so many “discoveries” we make in life, we are not the first to have found them. It was wonderfully affirming to find that others had made the Hermit/Merlin connection in one way or another.

In The Arthurian Tarot: A Hallowquest Handbook, authors Caitlin and John Matthews see the higher realms of the spirit as tied to the myths of the land in which they are found — in this case, Britain. “…the characters of the Arthurian cycle are really archetypes of the highest order, having a reality far and above that of ordinary literary creations.” And as it turned out, their representation of the Magician is in fact, Merlin. They note that, “Merlin was born of an earthly mother and an Otherworldly father, thus establishing him as a prime mover and mediator between the two realities of this world and the Otherworld.” This echoes Tolstoy’s comments.

How perfect is Merlin therefore, to represent the culminated wisdom of the earthly carefree fool, we humans who set out to seek our fortunes and lead our lives, as well as the magical (read “spiritual”) side of The Magician, hopefully arriving at the state of wisdom and readiness exemplified by the Hermit.

The Matthews’ sees the “mythic function” of such entities as performing “archetypal actions” for humanity, which makes them “suitable for esoteric work” because their archetypal forces are “codified and aligned with natural and inner world paths.” What this means to the ordinary seeker is that such images as found in the tarot lift us out of our mundane world and allow us to begin traveling in other realms. Here we begin to perceive things that we can connect back to our ordinary lives in order to enhance them or to understand our difficulties better.

Moyra Caldecott says in her book Crystal Legends that, “The very ambiguity of myth is its strength. Myth is a kind of mirror — we see what we are capable of seeing, what we want to see and what we need to see (italics mine). We see ourselves, but in greater depth than we would in an ordinary mirror.”

You may ask how these connections are helpful to us living in the real world — as interesting as they may be theoretically. I’d like to invoke some words from the author R.J. Stewart to help draw together the threads that bring us to the Hermit as Merlin (or vice versa),

Stewart has spent a fair amount of time researching the historical and mythological roots of Merlin, and is the author of several books dealing with the entire Merlin mythology, including The Merlin Tarot: Images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin. In his book, Merlin: The Prophetic Vision and The Mystic Life,” he notes that Merlin is “what is often referred to as an ‘archetype’; he typifies wisdom from a source that is not personal or human, yet applied to humanity both individually and at large. This was his role in the guidance and original creation of Arthur, and this is his role in the stimulation of our imaginations and the creation of our hopes to survive or even prevent our own Atlantean style of holocaust.”

Interestingly, although he sees Merlin as associated with the aged Hermit, and as the youthful Fool and developing soul of the Magician, he inserts yet two more layers as part of the Merlin/Hermit growth process — The Guardian (The Devil) and The Hanged Man (a three-fold death) — that we will deal with in a future column.

In his Merlin Tarot, Stewart makes a distinction between “the Old Man” image (or what he calls a “superficial stereotype of the Wise Elder”) and the Merlin of archetype, who is so much more. Stewart notes that in an ancient Merlin text titled the Vita Merlini,” the magician withdraws eventually into spiritual contemplation, refusing to lead or advise any more. So does the Hermit, says Stewart. “Eventually, the way of the Hermit is to dissolve personality utterly, and then withdraw consciousness itself into the unknown.”

In Sallie Nichols’ book, Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, the Hermit is also likened to Merlin. Although she uses the Marseilles Tarot for her discussion, the basic imagery is the same. She says it is “obvious that his lamp penetrates spiritual rather than temporal darkness, for the sky above him is light and cloudless. His insight pierces through our arbitrary divisions of space and time to reveal the meaningful pattern of the ever present now. He sees so deeply into the present that he clarifies all time, past and future and their interrelationships. That this wise man, like Merlin, possesses the seer’s magic power to master the riddle of time is further evidenced by the fact that in some of the older decks he holds an hourglass and is called Time.”

And interestingly, it’s once again numbers that lead us to a conclusion of how the Hermit/Merlin works (in the Rider deck) to bring us to the realization of our “selfs.”

Nichols says that the number 9 has “mysterious qualities,” noting that it always returns to itself. If you add each number, up to and including 9 (1+2+3 etc.), you get 45, the sum of which is 9 (4+5). Also 9+9 = 18, which in turn is 9 (1+8), and “9 multiplied by each digit from 1 through 9 produces a result that reduces to 9.”

Her conclusion is one that resonates well with the entire concept of a Hermit/Merlin. “It is easy to understand why nine is the number of initiation, because it symbolizes the initiate’s own journey into self-realization. In whatever circumstances the initiate begins his journey, and whatever experiences he may encounter along the way, he also must, in the end, return to himself.”

And that, I think, is a major lesson of The Hermit/Merlin.

Further Reading

The Arthurian Tarot: A Halloquest Handbook, by Caitlin and John Matthews; published by Thorsons, London and Calif., 1995 (earlier published by The Aquarian Press, 1990); ISBN 0-85030-755-4.

Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, by Sallie Nichols; published by Samuel Weiser, NY, 1980; ISBN 0-87728-480-6 (hardcover) and 0-87728-515-2 (paperback).

Merlin: The Prophetic Vision and The Mystic Life (two vols in one book), by R.J. Stewart; published by Arkana Penguin Books, 1986; ISBN 0-14-019372-3.

The Complete Book of Numbers: The Power of Number Symbols to Shape Reality, by Steven Scott Pither; published by Llewellyn Publications, Minn., 2002; ISBN 0-7387-0218-8.

The Merlin Tarot: Images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin, by R.J. Stewart; published by The Aquarian Press, England, 1988; ISBN 0-85030-630-2.

Crystal Legends, by Moyra Caldecott; published by The Aquarian Press, England, 1990; ISBN0-85030-872-0.

© Sandra Marie

Sandra Marie Matuschka has been involved with the tarot since the late 1970s, first as a student of the late Rusty Carnarius, a dedicated tarot teacher, and later as a collector and continuing learner. She is a writer, editor, and photographer currently living and working in Rhode Island.

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