The Fool and The Hermit (Major Arcana #0 and #IX)

Contributed by Jack Peredur

I’ve used many Tarot images from the Yellow Corridor tapestries as illustrations in the Ravenwood books, re-creating them in a graphics program trying to reproduce the look of their black-bordered appliqué, and hope someday to publish them as a complete deck plus a guidebook. In the meantime I’ll be focusing on one or more cards in each Newsletter.

These tapestry images often differ substantially from classical ones such as the Marseilles Tarot or newer ones like the Rider/Waite/Smith deck most of us probably know best, offer new insights about their meaning, and often suggest close relationships among certain pairs or groups of cards.

The Fool (traditionally numbered zero in the deck) and The Hermit (IX) in the tapestry images seem to form such a pair…

It was not always so. In the old Marseilles deck there’s no suggestion the two cards are closely related. The Marseilles Fool (“Le Mat”) is a youngish adult wearing a sort of clown’s motley with pompons on the collar. Using a staff and with a hobo’s bag slung over his shoulder he strides along outdoors as suggested by a few nearby small plants. What appears to be a cat is attacking his leg from behind.

The Hermit (“L’Hermite”) from Marseilles seems much older, bearded and voluminously robed, also using a staff but standing still and holding up what might be a lantern. There is no evident facial resemblance between the two. The outdoor scene is ambiguous, the ground suggested only by a few curving lines.

In the deck Pamela Colman (“Pixie”) Smith created in 1909, guided by the teachings of the Order of the Golden Dawn, The Fool is more obviously young and looks carefree, dressed in something light and flowing though still with a (better quality) hobo’s bag, treading the cliff’s edge with scarcely a glance down while carrying a fresh-picked rose. The poorly drawn cat (?) has been replaced by a playful small dog.

The Hermit in Pixie’s deck remains substantially unchanged apart from being better drawn, since she was a far better artist than the unknown creator(s?) of the Marseilles deck. A new feature is that her Hermit now looks down from some mountain height and seems to be holding the lamp to better see, or perhaps even guide, some person or persons on the slopes and cliffs below.

According to Eden Gray’s The Tarot Revealed (New American Library, 1969), The Fool “is about to enter the supreme adventure – that of passing through the gates of experience to reach Divine Wisdom.” Some Tarot experts have tried to make the case that the twenty-two Greater Arcana form a chronological sequence illustrating that journey, though we at least find that implausible since the very next card is The Magician who’s clearly come far, far along that very path already. (We’ll have more to say about The Magician in a later post.)

Divinatorially, The Fool’s appearance in a reading means the subject faces an all-important choice in life: a choice likely correct if the card is upright, but not if it’s reversed.

The Hermit, Gray says, on the contrary “is Absolute Wisdom, the goal of existence, while The Fool typifies the same Absolute before manifestation. Consequently Tarot #0 is a youth looking upward in the morning light, while Tarot #9 is a bearded ancient looking down at night.” Divinatorially The Hermit’s card when upright means the reading’s subject will benefit from silent counsel from above or meet a guide to material or spiritual goals. If reversed, it suggests the subject is not mature enough to heed this guidance.

Many of the tapestry images we found in the Yellow Corridor resemble those in Pixie’s deck, while others differ quite dramatically, some clearly depicting Pagan or Wiccan rites. Our best guess is the tapestries were created by a group of witches drawn to the Corridor just as we were, sometime between the creation of Pixie’s deck in 1909 and our own first arrival in 1971, although no other trace of them seems to remain there.

On examining the Frontier Handbook I’d used in my early teens, Cissy Taylor (back then, Cissy Adams) remarked on the resemblance of The Fool in the Corridor to the Handbook’s depiction of a Frontier Boy prepared for a rite of passage to become a Compass Frontiersman:

“In wilderness camping you and a few others from your Cohort, supervised by your Trailblazer, will live, hike, swim, sleep, make fire and shelter, gather food, prepare and eat it, all out in the midst of nature and using nothing you have not made yourselves… Clothing is NOT an exception.  Do as our ancestors did: make your own, then wear nothing else while in the wilderness…”

Wilderness camping is an exercise to build self-sufficiency, self-confidence and teamwork in the midst of nature. The Fool seems about to undergo a similar rite of passage, though perhaps a solitary one. “Take very little equipment,” Cissy paraphrased the Handbook, “and four yards of flannel” – that being the raw material for nearly everything to be made and worn in the wilderness.

Like the prospective Frontiersman The Fool is wilderness-bound in just a minimum of clothing, “equipped” only with a staff, a strap holding something rolled up (a blanket? Some flannel?) on his back, and like the previous Fools a hobo’s bag slung over his shoulder on a stick. While his young dog plays at his side, we see no sign any human accompanies him. Cissy has suggested he’s off to find in solitude, along with self-sufficiency and self-confidence, those same desiderata she once listed for us in our Circle in the Mist:

“Silence, unless there’s something worth hearing.

“Meditation. Inner quiet; no pills or pipes required.

“Nature, in all its beauty. Sun and wind, rain and soil, green growing things, and flowers, and trees. Bugs and butterflies. Starry nights and sunsets.

“My own body, strong and healthy, in the midst of Nature and part of it. And best with nothing in between. At least when it’s warm enough!

“And the presence of Spirit: again with nothing in between. No priest putting words in Its mouth, saying what I ‘shalt’ or ‘shalt not.’ Just that silent voice inside.

“I’d found all those on my own, out hiking in the woods or pausing in some quiet spot, ‘wild and lone.’ Taking time just to bathe in Nature, without the distractions and hindrances life throws at us day after day…”

Rites of passage like the Frontiersman’s have been common throughout history and in nearly every part of the world. A person on the cusp of adulthood is sent out alone into the wilderness with very limited supplies and equipment, expecting hardship but temporarily free from life’s usual “distractions and hindrances,” hopefully to connect out there with Spirit in some form and return with new-found wisdom and maturity.

A well-known example is the vision quest in some Native American cultures, where the seeker spends several days and nights fasting alone at a sacred site in hope of a vision revealing Spirit’s purpose for him in life. Quite different, and far more pleasant, is Cissy’s approach of “bathing in Nature” a little at a time while its effects slowly accumulate.

The Hermit tapestry in the Corridor seems to show this same Seeker after years of questing. He’s older now, bearded, and while his equipment is still very simple – a loincloth as his main garment, his trusty staff from before (or one much like it), and a light cloak against the wind – these are surely well-used and comfortable now, chosen in preference to anything more elaborate. “The more you know, the less you need.” His dog is still with him but older too, comfortably lying down at his side where earlier it played.

As in older versions of the card he now stands looking downward, steadied by the staff and holding a lantern high in the starry night like a beacon to others who may follow in his footsteps. We may therefore trust he’s found and benefited from Cissy’s desiderata, passed through tests and hardship, and reached some goal higher up on that visionary mountain though perhaps not, as Gray suggested, its ultimate peak. Now he’s returned with knowledge and wisdom to pass along to others.

The prospective young Frontiersman has grown to be a Trailblazer in his turn.

Jack Peredur

Jack Peredur

Merry meet! I’m Jack Peredur, author of Ravenwood: A Seeker’s Memoir. You’ve probably read my bio on the main Associates’ page, so I won’t say more here. If you want to know, read the books or ask me in the Forum. Got lots of random knowledge to share!