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Seeing in the Dark

Updated: Feb 2


The Hermit from the Rider-Waite Deck. Art by Pamela Colman Smith

The hermitage offers the seclusion required to hear one’s inner voice, a knowing that is often drowned out in the noise and bustle of daily life or, even worse, silenced by society’s enculturation. For people like me, breaking through the internalized restrictions of society requires an internal struggle, our own voices entangled with what we have been told to be. In such circumstances, solitude becomes all the more necessary to differentiate the driving forces in one’s life.

Perhaps this is why I have always been fascinated by the stories of female mystics in their hermitages. For instance, in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, Parzival’s cousin, Sigune lives in a hermit’s cell. Dedicating her life to prayer, she exists on the margins of the Arthurian court and is, therefore, not bound by her courtly responsibilities. Her hermitage frees her from the repressive societal rules pertaining to women. In some ways, this bestows her with social power she would not otherwise hold. She is known for her wisdom and receives nourishment directly from the Grail every Saturday evening (438, 439). Sigune’s strength is found not in her aristocratic rank or wealth, but rather in the wisdom she has found in the seclusion of the hermitage.

Sigune separated herself from society and committed to a life of poverty and prayer. Eschenbach’s Sigune resembles the female mystics who arose during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who also separated themselves from the world in order to devote their lives to prayer. Their vivid visions were often seen as threatening, but being divinely inspired, they were not threatening to God. As the medieval scholar Caroline Walker Bynum explained, “When religious superiors denied the cup or the host to women…Christ often fed them directly in visions” (Bynum 118). These female mystics challenged the societal spaces that were not available to them by finding wisdom within.

The Hermit card offers a similar invitation.

In Myths of Light, Joseph Campbell tells a story told to him by Ramakrishna, a story of a tiger who was raised by goats. The tiger grew up believing it was a goat because goats were the only family this young tiger knew of the world. The tiger ate grass, grazed the fields, and bleated as goats will do. And yet, the tiger always felt out of place, unfulfilled, and experienced an unsettledness that seemed to be ever-present.

One day, while the herd grazed, a large elder tiger hunting for food pounced on the herd. The goats scattered, but the young tiger held its ground; an instinctual impulse from within urged the small tiger to challenge this aggressor. The large tiger looked down in astonishment, asking why this small one lived amongst the goats.

The young tiger answered with a bleat and then continued to eat grass. The strange response disturbed the aged tiger. To see one of its own so disconnected from its true nature was upsetting. There had to be something done about this situation. So the elder tiger grabbed the young one by the scruff of the neck and took it to a nearby pond. “Look,” the elder tiger said, “You are not a goat. You are a tiger.” The young tiger appeared confused, but the elder tiger kept at it, teaching the young one day-by-day the various experiences of a tiger.

Eventually, the tiger nature within the young one awoke and took hold. Driven by something deep within, the young tiger stretched out as far as its body would allow and released the uncertain rumblings of what might be interpreted as a roar. At least, for the elder tiger, it was a vision of what might be possible once the young one embraced its true nature.

Campbell returned to this story often, finding it meaningful, he said, for it showed how we are each a tiger living among the goats, mirroring the behaviors surrounding us and silencing the pull from within to become something different, something more, something that is more genuinely ourselves. Campbell found within this story an invitation to ignite our inner light. As Campbell states, “go into the forest, and in the forest of the night, find the tiger burning bright in your own profound depths” (138-140).

For the young tiger who thinks of itself as a goat, this process of finding one’s inner light begins by separating from the herd. The image of the Hermit evokes this journey. One must disconnect from society to find one’s own inner light, the tiger burning bright in our own depths. In the Rider-Smith-Waite deck, the Hermit carries a lantern, illuminating the pathways in the darkness. The Hermit invites us to leave the material world in order to illuminate our internal world. We maneuver these depths not with our intellect but by following our intuitive wisdom, by learning to see in the dark. The paradox of this journey is that to find one’s own light, one must venture into the dark, for it is the darkness that teaches us how to find the light within.

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