Kitos’ Solution to the Mystery of the Floppy Staff…maybe
I have written about this subject elsewhere and submitted my theory for public exposé, but I might as well start things off by presenting it to you here.
To me, the 17th-century Viéville deck is one of the strangest historical French decks in existence, since sometimes you can’t even tell what objects are being depicted, or what the scene is supposed to be. Look at that thing the Hermit is holding.
Should be a staff, right? But it looks kind of floppy. Is it a snake? A snake staff? A stiff snake? But it also looks like it has a flame on top. The only book-length study of the Viéville deck is Patrick Coq‘s magnificent two-volume work, the first of which is devoted to the Majors: Les Mystères de Viéville, 1ère partie: les 22 arcanes majeurs. He suggests a certain fluidity in objects. They might simultaneously depict more than one thing. In this case, a snake and a staff, à la Moses’ staff.
I at least want to augment what Patrick says, so here’s my theory. If I’m right, it would require that the artist be one cunning person. I’m not adamant about what I think it is, either. This is just a proposition.
First, some background: the standard accoutrements of the Hermit are things like a lantern, a staff, and an hourglass, right?
In other words, things associated with light, with movement, and with time.
Okay, what if there existed an object in 17th/18th century France which was associated with all three of those things, but which also looked like a snake with a flaming head?
There is such an object.
I am about 85% sure what the Hermit is holding is match cord, also known as slow match.
That is to say, it is a very slow-burning rope. This was a common thing in 17th-century Europe.
Essentially it’s a hempen rope which has been soaked in a certain solution and allowed to dry. Then, if you light the end of it, it will slowly smolder, perhaps so many inches
per hour, and then you can carry it around without worrying about it going out.
Forts fitted out with canons would have a length of match cord stretched out behind them. When it was time to fire, you’d just pick up the match cord and touch it to the fuse or touchhole on the cannon and boom.
So there’s your association with movement, the staff.
You can blow on the end to make it really light up. There’s your Hermit’s light.
You would even put a short metal sleeve on the end of your slow match which is exactly what the Hermit is doing in this card. So that explains that detail exactly.
But—and this is the thing—with some rough idea of how long your matchcord took to burn, people used it as as a timer.
And there’s your Hermit’s hourglass.
The artist of the Viéville deck came up with a way to combine the three separate symbols, the lantern, the hourglass, and the staff. into one. If I am correct, that is one efficient image.
At the same time, it has the shape of both a snake and, hanging like this, a staff.
What do you think? I’m burning to know if this sounds plausible, or if you think it’s some other thing.