XI. Senex - Geron - Old Man (11, 9)

Dominus Necessitatis - Lord of Necessity
Suit: Swords - Element: Air

Tempus, rerum edax. (Time, devourer of everything.)
Cronos (Chronos), Saturn.
2+6 = Virtue + Offspring (Water); 5+1 = Time + First (Fire).
4+4+4 = First of Triumph of Time.
Greek Letter = Lambda:
Lachos = fate; Leukophrus = of white eyebrows.


In the twilight an old man with a long, white beard walks to the left, carrying in his right hand a flint sickle shaped like an old crescent moon (i.e. concave toward him), and in his left hand a large (30 cm) hourglass, with conical chambers; most of the black substance has flowed into the lower chamber. He is dressed in black and dark shades of brown; his head is covered by a dark blue hood. Asphodels grow on the ground around his feet.


No power impedes the measured step of Time, Who eats away from everything its prime, For nought endures for long. Yet passing years May grant us peace and wisdom, free from fears. Attend the tread of Time: stark, yet sublime.


The Old Man symbolizes the inexorable flow of time in both its destructive and constructive effects. His decrepit body reminds us that Time is the devourer of all things and that, like the substance in the hourglass, his physical vitality will run out until it is exhausted. However, just as the hourglass can be inverted, so a new generation restores the font of physical vitality.

Yet Time is not wholly destructive, for the gift of Time is the serenity and wisdom that are attainable only through the experiences of a long life. Further, this Wise Old Man's white beard indicate that age has given him a new purity and innocence.

The downward flow of matter in the hourglass is balanced by an upward flow of spirit (spiritus, air). Thus the loss of vitality in the Old Man's body (lower vessel) is balanced by the increasing spiritualization of his mind (the higher vessel), which is now filled less with earthly matters and more with the spirit.

The flint sickle represents the harvest - cruel destruction for last year's crop, but nevertheless necessary to make room for the new crop and to reap the fruits of the current harvest. It is the old crescent moon, which is the end of the old cycle and the harbinger of the new one.


In the earliest Italian sources this trump is called either the Old Man (il Vecchio) or the Hunchback (il Gobbo). In one early sixteenth century Italian source, it is called Time (il Tempo), which is what it actually represents. In the earliest decks the Old Man holds an hourglass, but this has been misinterpreted as a lantern, which has led to the trump being called, incorrectly, the Hermit. The correct attribution is especially clear in a sixteenth century Ferrarese pack, which shows the Old Man as Chronos, Father Time, with scythe and hourglass; the card is labeled rerum edax (devourer of everything), which was how Ovid described Time (see below). Minchiate packs still show Father Time correctly. (Dummett 122; Moakley 94)

This is the first trump of the Triumph of Time, which comprises trumps 11.Old Man through 15.Tower. It corresponds to the Triumph of Death in Petrarch's Trionfi, which succeeds the Triumph of Virtue (Chastity), since even virtue succumbs in the end to time and death. Hermits are also associated with the Triumph of Death in medieval and Renaissance art, which may have contributed to the mislabeling of this trump (Moakley 95).

XI.Time does not have an associated trigram, because he is the Lord of Necessity, the yang force corresponding to the Lady of Necessity (XVI.Star), the opposing yin force; they govern the Second Ogdoad, the Universal Triumphs (XII-XX). Recall that I.Magician and X.Wheel are the Lord and Lady (yang and yin) of Chance; they govern the First Ogdoad, the Personal Triumphs (II-IX).

From the time of the ancient Orphics, Chronos (Time) has been identified with Cronos (Saturn), the father of Zeus (Larousse 90). In a well-known myth, Cronos, as Time (Chronos), robs the virility of his father Ouranos (Uranus, Heaven). The sky-father Ouranos would have never yielded to the younger generation, but for the intervention of his wife Gaia, for women understand better than men the changes of life. She fashioned from flint (a mineral, of her own substance) a sickle (harpe), the instrument by which life is cut down at harvest time. It was crescent shaped like the moon, a symbol of cyclic rise and fall. She then encouraged Cronos to emasculate his father and take his place, thus effecting the rotation of the generations. Thereafter Heaven and Earth were separated. (Larousse 88; OCD s.v. Kronos) As a consequence the sickle, and later the scythe, is a symbol of the cruel, unrelenting flow of Time, which in the end cuts down all things (Biedermann s.vv. Chronus, sickle; Cooper s.v. sickle)

In another well-known myth we discover that Cronos did not learn the lesson of his father's fate, for although he is the instrument of Time, its executer in deposing his father, he is also, in his own term, its victim. The new sky-father Cronos rebelled against time, for he did not want to be replaced; he tried to postpone the inevitable by eating the children destined to supplant him. Chronos (Time) destroys what it creates. As Ovid says (see below), he is the "devourer of all things." (Biedermann s.v. Chronus; Sharman-Burke & Greene 52)

The sky-father's wife was again the initiator of change; Rhea, the Lady of Necessity (XVI.Star) rescued Zeus, reared him in hiding, and helped him to lead the revolt against the Titans. Cronus was defeated and banished to Italy, to Latium, where he lay in hiding (latuit). There he was known as Saturn, since he brought agriculture (sator = sower), prosperity and abundance (satur = gorged). Thus banished, Saturn turned to gardening and applied his sickle to less violent ends. He was shown with it in the statue in his very ancient temple on the road leading to the Roman Capitol. Much wiser now, his reign was called the Golden Age, because he was incorruptible and there were no wars. He is fertility in its most exalted sense. (Larousse 205-7; OCD s.v. Kronos; Oswalt 261; Case 116; Crowley 89)

Having learned his lesson, Saturn eventually stepped down in favor of his son Picus (Woodpecker), and retired from human company. Some say he rules Elysium, the Isle of the Blest; others say he lies in a magic sleep, tended by nymphs, on an island near Britain, and that he will return to bring another Golden Age (see also V.High Priest and XXI.World). (Oswalt 76, 261)

Saturn shows us both sides of the Triumph of Time. On the one side is Time the Destroyer, the Grim Reaper, which places ultimate bounds on people and on all of nature. He rules the seasons, the birth-growth-death cycle, and all the inevitable declines and rebirths. On the other side, Saturn discovers that Time may bring long life, experience and spiritual growth that cannot be rushed, for in his exile and enforced solitude he learns the wisdom that comes to those who endure and wait in silence. In stillness and serenity Saturn has grown into his own "Golden Age," the only true Golden Age, the one within. Thus Saturn has become a symbol of quiet contemplation and wisdom, and here we may see a connection to the Hermit. However, his magic sleep reminds us that, removed from the warmth of everyday life, his personality may grow cold and dark, and he may lapse into lethargy and rigidity. Nevertheless, we know from alchemy that only a speck of the Philosopher's Stone is required to transmute the lead of Saturn into gold. (Biedermann s.v. Saturn; Case 115; Cooper s.v. planets; Nichols 170-2; Sharman-Burke & Greene 52-3)

Saturn is an example of the Wise Old Man archetype described by Jung; he is an authority figure, a god-like father, a spiritual guide, often appearing as a magician, doctor, priest, teacher, grandfather, etc. He may manifest in many forms, including a disembodied voice, a talking animal, a gnome (mostly for women), but especially an old man. He may also take the form of a young boy, in which we may see the dual aspect of Mercury; indeed Crowley (88) calls the Old Man the highest form of Mercury (see also I.Magician on Mercury and Saturn as alter egos). For women the Old Man represents the positive animus (masculine unconscious) and conscious spiritual effort. For men the Boy represents the filius regius (son of the king), the higher personality, but also the infantile shadow. When the Wise Old Man is united with the Hero (VIII.Victory), the result is the "mana personality," the complex-free, extraordinarily potent personality. (Jung EJ 118-9, 121, 123, 125-6)

One aspect of becoming the Wise Old Man is a fuller integration of the feminine components of the psyche. Some commentators have seen this androgyny represented in this tarot trump in the long robes and gentle appearance of the Old Man (Nichols 170). It may also be part of the meaning of the emasculation of Ouranos, the sky-father.

The Wise Old Man is often accompanied by a young girl of erotic character, who personifies life; for example, Lao-tzu and the dancing girl, Simon Magus and the prostitute Helen, Kingsor and Kundry. The pair is Logos and Eros, for they personify Meaning and Life. (Jung EJ 118-9, 123, MC 233; Crowley 88) Which girl accompanies XI.Old Man? Is it XXI.World (the dancing girl)? Or Fortitude or Justice? We will have to wait and see.

The hourglass is an obvious symbol of the inexorable, irreversible flow of time, but also of the "eternal return," for although the flow is irreversible, it will eventually stop; then everything must be inverted, and we will be back again at the beginning. Thus each Aeon has its own destiny, and each Aeon must yield to the next. (Chronos was also called Aeon - Aion = epoch, world, lifetime, generation.) (Biedermann s.vv. Chronus, hourglass; LSJ s.v. aion)

However the hourglass also has a more esoteric significance. The higher and lower vessels represent heaven and earth, and the descending sand or fluid represents the stream of spirit descending into matter; it shows us that although the life force runs out, there may be an inversion, a return of the spirit to heaven, and a rebirth. (Cooper s.v. hourglass) We may also interpret the hourglass as showing the decline of physical vitality (the sand or fluid) balanced by an increase of spiritual vitality (the air, spiritus); the Wise Old Man's head (higher vessel) is less filled with earthly concerns and becomes full of the spirit.

The lower and higher vessels have the shape of the alchemical symbols for fire and water, respectively: a triangle and a triangle inverted. The Wise Old Man represents the conjunction of the fiery and watery tendencies, for Water represents his tendency to withdraw and turn inward, while Fire represents his tendency to guide and teach others. He works both in heaven and on earth, and the fruits of his heavenly accomplishment flows down into his earthly activity. (Case 115; Pollack I.71, 74)

XI.Old Man also represents the Alchemist, for, as Eliade (F&C ch. 15) observes, the alchemist puts himself in the place of Time, by accelerating the entelechies of Nature. Thus the hourglass is also a kerotakis, a reflux condenser, which was one of the earliest alchemical instruments, attributed to Maria the Jewess (probl. before 3rd cent. CE). It comprises two symmetrical vessels connected one above the other. They are called Heaven and Earth or Heaven and Hades; use of this apparatus and consequent references to "things above" and "things below" may have been the source of the Hermetic axiom, "as above so below, as below so above." The principal use of the kerotakis is as follows: sulphur is heated in "Hades below," in the vessel of Fire. The vapors rise to "Heaven above," where they react with the metal to be transmuted. They condense to fluid in this vessel of Water, whence they descend again, as black sulfides and liquid sulphur, to be reheated in the vessel of Fire. Thus there is a continual recirculation between Above and Below with a consequent transformation and perfection of the metal; it consumes its own substance like the uroboros serpent. (Hopkins 74; Lindsay ch. 11; Read 15)

Saturn's head is often hooded, which represents the declining power of the setting, Autumn sun and that the Wise Old Man is hidden away from the world (Case 113-4; Cooper s.v. sickle). The colors associated with Saturn are black and the darker shades of brown and blue, which represent pitiless Time, renunciation, sadness and dissolution (black), but also wisdom, truth, peace, simplicity and contemplation (blue) (Biedermann s.v. Saturn; Cooper s.vv. colours, planets). Here, the blue hood on the black/brown robe of the Old Man represents a wise head on an aging body. His white beard and eyebrows represent purity and illumination (Case 113; Cooper s.v. colours). Note that there are only two things that will turn a beard white: age or a life-transforming crisis that ages prematurely. The plant most associated with Saturn is the asphodel, a symbol of regret, which grows in the Elysian Fields on the Isle of the Blest, which Saturn rules (Cooper s.vv. asphodel, plants). It is twilight, of course, because these times of day represent the threshold between the dark and the light, the warmth of life yielding to the cold of death, and the darkness of ignorance yielding to illumination of wisdom (Cooper s.v. twilight).

Typically Saturn holds the scythe or sickle in his right hand, the hand of conscious action (Seznec passim); the stream of time is held in his left, unconscious hand. The sickle is shaped like an old crescent moon to show that the Old Man is in the last phase of his life. He walks to the left to represent the process that Jung calls individuation, wherein the conscious and unconscious unite by means of the consciousness embracing the unconscious (Jung EJ 19-22).

In the Calendar of 354 Saturn holds the sickle in his right hand, and with his left he holds a himation (mantle) which is draped over his head and around his legs (Salzman figs. 8, 55). In Petrarch's Africa and in Albricius, Saturn is made "ancient in years," with a long beard. He is naked, but for a loincloth, a hood and a grey-green or blue-green mantle around his shoulders. He rests upon a mattock under his right arm and holds a sickle (concave toward him: old crescent) in his right hand. He devours one of his own children, holding him in his left hand. In the Tarocchi of Mantegna, Saturn is an stooped, aged man with a long beard and a ram-horned helmet. He holds a scythe and an uroboros dragon in his right hand, and lifts a small child to his mouth with his left. Four other small children play around his feet.

XI.Time begins the second Hendecad (group of eleven) of the Major Arcana. Therefore it has the character of the Monad, that is, a beginning or self-generating principle, everything in potential. This is apparent in the numerical values of the trump as Saturn, Time and Old Man: KRONOS O PROMANTIS (Promantis Ho Kronos, The Prophet Kronos) = 1431, reducing to 1-3+4-1 = 1; CRONOS (Chronos, Time) = 1090, reducing to 11+0-9+0-1 =1; O PRESBUS (Ho Presbus, The Old Man) = 1057, reducing to 7-5+0-1 = 1. (TA 1, 3-5; see also the Aces in the Minor Arcana)

Vergil said, Omnia fert Aetas, animum quoque - "Time bears everything away, including memory" (Ecloga 51).

Ovid said (Met. xv.234-6),

Tempus, rerum edax, tuque, invidiosa vetustas, omnia destruitis vitiataque dentibus aevi paulatum lenta consumitis omnia morte! That is: O Time, devourer of things, and thou, envious Age, together you destroy all things, and slowly gnawing with your teeth, you finally consume all things in lingering death!
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Last updated: Fri Jun 23 11:05:29 EDT 2000