Revealing the Recluse: The Sad and Secret Lives of Hermits
The word “hermit” often elicits thoughts of men with long, scraggly hair and beards, eyes lined with wrinkles and filled with wisdom, and clothes a bit torn and dirty but otherwise, no worse for wear. Often, images of St. Jerome and St. Anthony come to mind, or the exiled Socrates—even Henry Thoreau may qualify for a period of his life. One might even think of a hermit crab. Interestingly enough, the latter is the most accurate description of who and what a hermit primarily is. In a nutshell, a hermit is someone who intentionally isolates him/herself.
The stereotypical hermit (public domain)
A Life of Religious Seclusion
Under most circumstances, one turns the life of a hermit for religious reasons. For example, off the coast of Ireland is an island called Skellig Michael. Archaeology has revealed numerous naturally carved caves and man-made huts—many which provide evidence of hermitage life. Further, early medieval texts discuss Skellig Michael (perhaps in not quite so obvious words), as a place where those looking for religious seclusion often venture.
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The Hermits Cave (The Hermitage) in Hermits Wood next to the village of Dale Abbey In Derbyshire. The wood contains the Hermitage which was made around 1130 AD by a Derby Baker called Cornelius who had a vision to worhip God here at Deepdale; as the area was formely known. He dug the cave into the hillside and lived there for about 20 years (CC by SA 2.0)
Skellig Michael is not the only location with a longstanding history of solitary contemplators. In fact, the tradition of living as a hermit stretches back far before Christianity arrived in Britain, and long before the practice became associated with religion. In Asia, the term “hermit” was not associated with religion immediately. The steretype today indicates there is often a correlation between the two ideas, however, this is a relatively recent perspective—especially in China. Ancient Chinese hermits were simple people who felt they were living in a world of corruption, and decided they had the choice to separate themselves from such a society. While early hermits from Japan were more spiritually influenced than their western counterparts, these folk fall into the category of wandering hermits, rather than recluses. Consider the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus of Nazareth: the wanderer offering reform and redemption. These early Japanese hermits functioned in a similar fashion.
Byzantine Hermits: Isolation in Public
There is no correct location in which one has to go to join the life of the hermits. The only “qualification”, if it may even be called that, is to be completely isolated from every day, regular life. While “hermitages” and “recluse societies” did exist—locations specifically for those who wanted to live a life dedicated in every aspect to religion only—they were not the “right” place to go. In fact, these locations could be argued as somewhat ironic notion; yet they were no less valid. Similarly, in the Byzantine Empire, the life of a hermit meant living in isolation in public. The tradition, referred to as “climbing a pole” enabled one to isolate his/herself by height, partaking in an existence of spiritual exclusion where all could see. Thus, the location of the hermit mattered far less than the hermit’s exclusion from regular society. Among the like and unlike, one maintained the title “hermit” if that one “rule” was followed.
Byzantine hermit Simeon Stylites sits on top of a pillar (public domain)
The Sad Life of a Child Hermit
In the medieval period, the hermitages and recluse societies were often populated by men or women who had been “gifted” to the church as children, called oblates. It was rather common, as a matter of fact, for the wealthy to do so; ironically, those children were then metaphorically imprisoned within the church. Texts dictate that a room was built in the wall, and the child “bricked” inside with an older caretaker. Essentially, the child was traded out of a life of luxury for one of strict rules and isolation by his/her parents. In most cases, the child could not or did not attempt to flee their situation. One of the only ones who did, Hildegard von Bingen, went on to continue her religious teachings in society.
An Escape from Society
Yet the lives of hermits are not limited to those who exist only for their religion. The term “hermit” can apply to those who simply wish to remove themselves from the “normal” world. Perhaps their opinions do not align with those of every day society; perhaps they would like to live away from toxic fumes or technological activity. Whatever their reasons for distancing themselves from the rest of the population, these non-religious seekers are nonetheless hermits.
The woman who time forgot. Agafya Lykova has lived as a hermit for decades in the Siberian wilderness (Siberian Times)
Community and Culture
Something interesting to consider is how pertinent the concept of community and belonging have been throughout the course of human civilization. It is considered unusual for hermits to live as they do; one of the first indicators archaeologists look for when investigating a region or examining human and animal evidence is how the people and what remains of their culture have been portrayed. Are they buried in groups? Does it appear that there were funerary rituals the civilization took part in as a whole? Is there evidence of home life—parents living with children, possibly also with their own parents? The questions go on and on, and most pertain to the way individuals interacted not only with their environment but with each other.
Hermits break this pattern. Perhaps that is why they are overwhelmingly fascinating to so many people. Further, the aforementioned hermitages and recluse societies appear to indicate that, despite a desire to separate from the civilized world, sometimes, it is not always as possible as one would believe. Even those who want to be on their own sometimes want to be alone together.
Two hermits in a cave. Some chose to be alone together (public domain)
There is much to be learned about the life of a hermit. Each hermit lives his/her life differently from the next, though the core elements of being a hermit remain. Those who believe themselves to be “other” than the “normal world” may find solace in solitude; those who seek religious enlightenment, or freedom from a governmental system they disapprove of. Some simply choose to live a life of simplicity. The reasons, and the dedication, of the hermit is far more intriguing than where he/she chooses to go. However, reasons and dedication cannot always be well-explained—particularly by those who are not engaging in a hermit’s life; so perhaps it is good—respectful, even—to leave the mysteries of the hermit to the hermit himself.
Top image: ‘A Player with a Hermit’ by Moritz von Schwind (public domain)
Campbell, Gordon. 2013. The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. OUP: Oxford.
d’Apligny, Le Pileur. (1st edition, 1776.) The hermit of the rock; or, The history of the marchioness de Lausanne, and the comte de Luzy. Accessed October 15, 2017. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=36wBAAAAQAAJ&dq=hermit&source=gbs_navlinks_s
de Vorgaine, Jacobus. Golden Legend. (trans. Christopher Stace, 1999.) Penguin Classics.
Inglis-Arkell, Esther. 2014. “The Secret History of Hermits.” i09. Accessed October 24, 2017. https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-secret-history-of-hermits-1666040708
Pine, Red. 2009. Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. Counterpoint.
Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. 2010. “Skellig Michael.” World Heritage Ireland. Accessed October 20, 2017. http://www.worldheritageireland.ie/skellig-michael/
Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. 2010. “Skellig Michael: Historical Background.” World Heritage Ireland. Accessed October 20, 2017. http://www.worldheritageireland.ie/skellig-michael/historical-background/