For the purposes of this blog, I will be using images from the Universal Waite Tarot Deck. The RWS deck has become a Modern Standard; the Coloring used by Mary Hanson Roberts shows the detail admirably, and reproduces well.
The image of the path leading off into the distance is a key image in Tarot, even though most of the cards don’t show it. In some cards, it’s presence is implied rather than shown, (such as in the 10 of Wands, The Chariot, and even The Fool card itself).
Clearly The Fool is starting out on a journey; in fact many Tarot teaching traditions consider the entire deck to be stages in the Fool’s Journey. The presence of an obvious path may not seem necessary, since The Fool is creating the path by virtue of starting out on his journey, (even though the first steps seem to take the Fool over a cliff.)
I’m reminded of the invisible path in the Indiana Jones movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”where Indiana has to step out into what seems to be empty space, taking it on faith that he will not tumble into the abyss, and finds that he is supported by a path that he couldn’t see until he was actually on it. The Fool is just such a character- able to take it on Faith that the path is there, even as he steps out into thin air. The mundane world would call him naive and foolish (what better reason to call him “The Fool”?). The fact that he is the key character in the Tarot, and that the journey through all the other cards is his journey, makes it clear that he is right, and that in order to grow and evolve, he must take that chance.
Let’s explore the images where the path is visible. Whether or not it indicates actual travel in the mundane sense, or represents an evolutionary process is up to the interpreter, and depends on the context of the reading.
Let’s begin with the Temperance card. A beautiful winged being with a shining face stands with one foot on land and the other in a pool of clear water. In older decks, this being is depicted as female, but in the RWS deck- the figure shown is androgenous.
A narrow well worn path rises from the water, leading toward the horizon. It meanders from the rocks at the water’s edge, through meadows and rolling hills toward lofty mountains that loom in the distance. A shining phantom crown hovers over those far peaks, seeming to beckon from the heights. The winged being pours fluid from one vessel into another. His head is surrounded by a halo of energy. On his forehead is a bright yellow sun symbol that seems to add to the radiance of his golden hair and halo. A symbol of alchemy adorns the breast of his white robe.
Traditionally, this card represents moderation in thought, word and action, but it also has a deeper meaning, given by the root of the word itself- “temper”-ance. First, there is the quality of self-control, of not indulging in extreme demonstrations of emotion- either negative, such as anger- or positive, such as passion or euphoria. Also there is the process of tempering metals for fine tools and edged weapons, (very similar to the repeated steps of distillation in the alchemical process), where the metal is heated, worked and cooled repeatedly, giving it a superior tensile strength and flexibility.
In short, following a disciplined path while keeping true to a firm set of principles will bring you to heights where greater nobility of character is attained. The message also seems to indicate that it is more about experiencing the process of the journey than about achieving a specific goal. The process is what creates the changes, rendering you- the traveler- into a stronger, purer metal and an instrument capable of holding a sharper edge.
The next card that shows the long and winding path is The Moon.
Again, it begins at the water’s edge, leading off into a mountainous distance. Two towers flank this path, as two animals- a wild wolf and a domesticated dog bay at the full moon shining above. A crawfish-like creature crawls up out of the water onto the beginning of the path. Yods- representing the gift of life energy- rain down from the shining moon.
Again, we have the indication of evolution- a journey that takes us from the watery realm of raw emotion and unconscious existence into the heights- a well worn symbol of enlightenment. The Moon, shining it’s yod-beams down upon the scene provides light for the creature to see the path it embarks upon.
Following this, we have the Ace of Pentacles- that most earthy representation of achievement. The scene is a garden of lilies bordered by a hedge of blooming red roses. In this case, the path starts out wide and smooth, leading to an archway that frames a view of a mountainous landscape. A hand offers a shining pentacle from a puff of cloud suspended in a pearl gray sky.
If we can tread the path from relative domestic comfort into the rough mountainous terrain, and not deviate from our purpose, the reward of earthly success is offered. Pentacles represent wealth and abundance, yet they also indicate the presence of creativity and the willingness to do whatever it takes to reach a goal. The fact that the path once again leads to the heights symbolizes that the reward will not just be a physical attainment, but also a refinement of character and spirit. Presumably, such processing will render the traveler more able to appreciate and manage the wealth that is gained with greater wisdom, creativity and fairness.
Finally we have the 8 of Pentacles.
A young man works diligently to create pentacles. He sits on his work bench, chiseling away at his current project, with a pleasantly absorbed expression. In the background, to the lower left hand side, behind the young man, a castle sits on a green slope. A yellow path partially hidden by trees leads up to the open gateway.
The process of perfecting one’s skills opens up the way to achieve many of the finer things in life. Becoming a competent and successful craftsman makes it possible to rise from your current position to the kind of person who could be invited to such a dwelling for commissions. Eventually, one could attain enough mastery of this skill to live in a place every bit as grand, and presumably support others in their quest for excellence in their turn.
Becoming a master at one’s craft does not stop at making beautiful and useful things, and basking in the wealth one is able to earn. It also means that you attain a sense of self-respect because you are living up to your potential. When you know you are worthy of it, you can achieve wisdom and compassion as well, and can act as a mentor for others, who like yourself, start small and work their way up to mastery of their craft. What the master craftsman creates is not limited to finer and prettier objects; the finest product of this process is a finer self.
What more could The Fool aspire to?