The Fool card in a Tarot deck is one of the most mysterious, and perhaps disturbing, of all the Tarot cards. Its many meanings, although superficially obvious, eludes concrete definition. It can mean many different things both within a Tarot reading and without; just when you think you have its meaning nailed, events conspire to show you how foolish that conclusion is.
Below are four different and sometimes contradictory meanings to help you understand the Fool, not just in a Tarot reading, but to understand the Fool within us. The differences between the four should not result in anyone attempting to reconcile those differences into a logical, rational whole. Rather, all four form an irrational feeling for what the Fool can represent.
1. A simpleton or Bodhisattva?
Historically, the Fool card was unnumbered, although there were exceptions and one of them was to number the Fool as either zero or twenty-two. By not assigning a number to the Fool, we are effectively placing it outside the pack of Tarot cards. We are saying that he lives outside the world, outside society and outside of the rules governing all phenomena. I find this strangely disturbing.
As observers of the Fool, safe behind all our experiences, all those experiences that have destroyed our innocence, holding us in like a walled city; we gaze out upon the Fool and we conclude, this is a madman, a simpleton; look how he acts – like such a Fool.
However there may be some who disagree, who mutter under their breath for they are afraid, experienced as they are, of who might hear; this is someone with great Spiritual awareness; a Bodhisattva come out of great compassion for he has renounced nirvana to save all sentient beings. It would be a mistake to see this as foolish; he is no Fool, but a great man!
The nature of the Bodhisattva is apparent from a teaching story in which three people are walking through a desert. Parched and thirsty, they spy a high wall ahead. They approach and circumnavigate it, but it has no entrance or doorway. One climbs upon the shoulders of the others, looks inside, yells “Eureka” and jumps over. The second then climbs up and repeats the actions of the first. The third laboriously climbs the wall without assistance and sees a lush garden inside the wall. It has cooling water, trees, fruit, etc. But instead of jumping into the garden, the third person goes back out into the desert and seeks desert wanderers to tell them about the garden and how to find it. The third person is the Bodhisattva.
Is this foolish or compassionate?
It is difficult not to judge the Fool within all of us. In fact, we judge him all the time. He is that embarrassing aspect of us that we need to work hard to silence. However, in one aspect of the Fool, it’s the silence of the Fool which is part of his innocence.
The most powerful of all the Trumps
The Fool is unnumbered, and without a number the Fool is free to travel wherever he wills, not constrained by traditional boundaries and being beyond the rules of Law, his wanderlust can end up destabilising the Establishment. In almost all ways the Fool serves no real purpose in a Tarot deck, or a pack of playing cards for that matter. Does the Fool upset our ordered and balanced Tarot readings? Why have we kept him around? It’s foolish don’t you think?
The Fool is easy to overlook
It’s easy to overlook the Fool, much like the court Jester in the Royal house. Although the Court Jester served no obvious purpose, it was this lack of purpose which gave the Jester so much power within the politics of the time. Able to mingle between different groups of people, he served as an excellent spy and in some sense, held power equal to the King or Queen; certainly this person was not someone to underestimate. There is an Old Italian saying still in use today, “To be like the Fool in Tarocchi” (Tarot), which means to be welcome anywhere. Although this seems like a positive saying, the role that politics has played in manipulating innocence, both the idea, in the sense of manipulating somebody with experience to look like he is innocent as a ploy in subterfuge, and in the sense of manipulating people; the saying takes on a slightly sinister quality.
2. The Fool as zero
This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fool card. Aleister Crowley, in The Book of Thoth writes, “The really important feature of this card is that its number should be 0.” I should point out that it doesn’t really matter all that much if the Fool is numbered zero or twenty-two. In the symbolism of number, twenty-one forms a complete cycle, so twenty-two can indicate a return to zero.
Zero indicates a divinity of absence; this is in contrast to the ‘divinity of presence’ which we are used to dealing with and thinking about (religion or defined routes of spirituality would be examples). The Fool indicates a place that lies beyond the command of language; a place where all contradictions are united; a place of ‘emptiness’; a place where knowledge becomes ignorance or when the events of history are forgotten but the remains of those events are present all around us. Ultimately, the Fool represents that irrational idea that something can come from no-thing and in this sense, the whole of the Universe issued forth from the Fool.
The Symbol of Zero
Zero is a numerical sign which derives its meaning from the Arabic word sifra (cipher). It has no value of its own and replaces the values missing in other numbers. In this sense it represents objects which have no properties of their own, but rather it confers properties upon other objects. An example of this would be adding a zero onto a number to increase its value. Zero therefore, depending on whether the sign which precedes it, in the sense of the sign being either subtraction, addition, division or multiplication alters the value of the object in question.
Zero, in connection with the Fool card, represents the initiatory aspect of the card; being unnumbered it may either validate or annul other cards depending on its position.
Zero as complete potential
Zero is the pause in generation; like the cosmic egg.
3. The Fool goes forward
In most depictions of the Fool, although there are exceptions, the Fool is moving forwards. This particular aspect of the Fool is emphasised in these particular decks for one possible reason. The Fool represents action, movement, going forward and, based on the images, in one definite direction. The overcoming of fears, taking risks and confronting the unknown are all traits that are portrayed in the Fool. Inexperience doesn’t hold the Fool back; innocence is what allows the Fool to move forward.
In some images of the Fool, the image of the cliff, the dog warning him of the danger ahead, is a classic portrayal of this card. Does this indicate a pure fool heading toward his doom, or the leap of faith and the purity of heart needed?
“Pure Folly leads to initiation” Aleister Crowley.
4. The Fool as innocence
There are many myths that are connected to the Fool. Most, such as Percivale, who wins the Holy Grail through his innocence and lack of experience; or Hoor-Pa-Kraat, the Egyptian lord of silence, who tread upon the crocodile god Sebek, the Devourer, indicate a quality to the Fool card that is difficult to understand. In the most abstract sense, if the Fool was to ever have a single thought in his head, he would no longer be innocent, rather he would be experienced. Thoughts destroy innocence. The connection that the madman, the simpleton and the Fool have to divinity is in their innocence; their lack of rational thoughts – their lack of politics and their ‘empty headedness’. It is their innocence which makes them appear, to rational human beings, as Foolish.
The Fool has always held a strange and slightly sinister attraction for me. It seems to serve no rational purpose, but I guess that’s the point. It is the irrationality of the Fool, the very concept of the Fool which seems to produce an uneasy feeling in me. In the Lovecraftian Mythos, there is, at the centre of creation, a blind idiot god from whom all is being created, yet this god is not recognised because another, more devious god is claiming the glory. As people, we never share the limelight with an idiot, a pure fool who does not understand the real value of success, power and influence; we compete and fight to take it for ourselves because, as people with experience, we rationalise that someone like that wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway.
The Fool can easily trick our minds; he is a prankster without plan or concern for consequence; his impulses can trap us and signal our ruin. The Fool isn’t even all that likeable.
The Fool is also, evidently, an aspect of Pan; but this idea is shewn in his fullest development by Atu XV (The Devil)…
Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley
How do you feel about the Fool? What does the Fool card mean to you? Let me know if you agree, disagree or if you feel I’ve missed out something important within this post.