I have just returned from my long journey across Spain; while walking around 25 kilometers a day I expected to have a lot of thoughts milling in my head, but what actually happened was I seemed to stop thinking altogether. This had a deep impact on me that is still working its magic.
I found that I was much more sensitive to symbols. I mean that seeing a sign, or a work of art, or a building, was a much more esthetically intense experience than it normally would be.
I saw this icon of a saint in the little village of Boente in Galicia. At first I mistook him for Santiago himself, due to the fact that he is dressed as a pilgrim and has the scallop shells of Santiago on his cape and hat. But a friend of mine told me it was Saint Roch, and he is right. Saint Roch is also associated with pilgrimage because he made a pilgrimage to Rome from France in the 1300’s. Along the way he aided many people suffering from plague, until he himself contracted the disease and was banished into the wilderness where he lived as a hermit. Tradition says a dog brought him bread and cured him by licking his sores. Then he became a saint by healing others of the plague by miraculous means.
The Fool’s French name, Le Fou, cognate with the word “fire,” echoes his connection with light and energy. As the Jester himself might put it, “I am light and I travel light.” A symbol of Promethean fire, the archetypal Fool personifies the transforming power which created civilization – and which can also destroy it.
– Jung and the Tarot, by Sallie Nichols
What is immediately striking about this icon of Saint Roch is that it is nearly identical to the Tarot card of The Fool. I think it’s no stretch of the imagination to say Saint Roch is the original model for The Fool.
Saint Roch was certainly a fool to go wandering off into strange lands full of plague-ridden people. He was a man of means who was reduced to a pauper and an outcast. In the Fool card, this is depicted by a happy-g0-lucky adventurer about to walk right off a cliff to his doom. The little white dog, in the iconography of Saint Roch, is either licking the bubo (the plague sore) on the saint’s leg to heal him, or is bringing him a loaf of bread to feed him. In the Fool card, the dog is running alongside the wanderer, supposedly warning him of the cliff or otherwise guiding him.
But a fool is only a fool to outsiders. Spiritual illumination requires transformation, often symbolized in stories by “death” or “disaster.” What we think we are is destroyed, but what we truly are emerges.
Most people are not interested in being themselves. They want to be important.
– Thursday Night Tarot, The Fool, by Jason C. Lotterhand
Saint Roch is a good saint to watch over the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He understands the process of the journey. But there was another strange thing about the camino that made me think of him.
In Spain, large dogs are everywhere, and roam free. In most of the small villages along the Camino Frances route, people are rarely seen. I have no particular fear of dogs but as a wandering pilgrim who was obviously a stranger, many of these dogs objected to my presence. Their barks and growls were mostly bluff, although one came right up to me and pooped nearly on my foot. Another waited for me to walk by and made a pretend bite at my leg that had me jumping. So it doesn’t surprise me that many renderings of the icon of Saint Roch and the Fool card show him getting bitten by the dog rather than aided by him. Whoever made those icons and paintings knew a few things about the perils of foot travel.
But I think the underlying message was the same: the dog is doing this for the good of the pilgrim’s journey. The dog represents the awareness of our mind. And it’s easy to get mindless when walking aimlessly all day. The dog bites to say “Wake up!’ and “Pay attention!” because often something of real significance is right under our noses that we might miss. Like a little church with an icon of Saint Roch.