The Fool

major arcana

The Fool or The Jester is one of the 78 cards in a Tarot deck; it is in a suit of 22 trump cards called the ‘Major Acana.’ In many esoteric systems of interpretation, The Fool is usually interpreted as the protagonist of a story, and the Major Arcana is the path he takes through the great mysteries of life and the main human archetypes. This path is known traditionally in Tarot as the ‘Fool’s Journey,’ and is frequently used to introduce the meaning of Major Arcana cards to beginners. The Fool is considered either the XXII or the 0 card in the suit, the highest or lowest trump). Traditionally, the Major Arcana in Tarot cards are numbered with Roman numerals. The Fool is numbered with the zero, an Arabic numeral.

The Fool is titled ‘Le Mat’ in the Tarot of Marseilles, and ‘Il Matto’ in most Italian language tarot decks. These archaic words mean ‘the madman’ or ‘the beggar,’ and may be related to the word for ‘checkmate’ in relation to the original use of tarot cards for gaming purposes. In the earliest Tarot decks, the Fool is usually depicted as a beggar or a vagabond. In the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck (c. 15th century), the Fool wears ragged clothes and stockings without shoes, and carries a stick on his back. He has what appear to be feathers in his hair. His unruly beard and feathers may relate to the tradition of the woodwose or wild man.

Another early Italian image that relates to the tradition is the first (and lowest) of the series of the so-called ‘Tarocchi of Mantegna’ (flash cards for upper class children). This series of prints containing images of social roles, allegorical figures, and classical deities begins with ‘Misero,’ a depiction of a beggar leaning on a staff. A similar image is contained in the German ‘Hofamterspiel’ (one of the first card games); there the fool (German: ‘Narr’) is depicted as a barefoot man in robes, apparently with bells on his hood, playing a bagpipe. The Tarot of Marseilles and related decks similarly depict a bearded person wearing what may be a jester’s hat; he always carries a bundle of his belongings on a stick slung over his back. He appears to be getting chased away by an animal, either a dog or a cat. The animal has torn his pants.

In the ‘Rider-Waite’ Tarot deck and other esoteric decks made for cartomancy (fortune telling with cards), the Fool is shown as a young man, walking unknowingly toward the brink of a precipice. He has a small dog with him and holds a rose in one hand and a bundle of possessions in the other. In French suited tarot decks that do not use the traditional emblematic images of Italian suited decks for the suit of trumps, the Fool is typically made up as a jester or bard, reminiscent of the joker in a deck of playing cards.

In the various tarot card games such as French Tarot, Tarocchini and Tarock, the Fool has a unique role. In these games, the Fool is sometimes called ‘the Excuse.’ The tarot games are typically trick taking games; playing the Fool card excuses the player from either following suit or playing a trump card on that trick. Winning a trick containing the Fool card often yields a scoring bonus.

The Fool is the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool’s wisdom and exuberance, holy madness or ‘crazy wisdom.’ On his back are all the possessions he might need. In his hand there is a flower, showing his appreciation of beauty. He is frequently accompanied by a dog, sometimes seen as his animal desires, sometimes as the call of the ‘real world,’ nipping at his heels and distracting him. He is seemingly oblivious that he is walking toward a precipice, apparently about to step off.

One of the keys to the card is the paradigm of the precipice, Zero and the sometimes represented oblivious Fool’s near-step into the oblivion (The Void), represented by the open jaws of a waiting crocodile. The staff is the offset and complement to the void and this in many traditions represents wisdom and renunciation, e.g. ‘danda’ (Sanskrit, also a punctuation mark meaning ‘full-stop,’ which is appropriately termed a period in American English). The Fool is both the beginning and the end, neither and otherwise, betwixt and between, liminal.

In his ‘Manual of Cartomancy,’ Grand Orient (a French masonic organization) has a curious suggestion of the office of ‘Mystic Fool,’ as a part of his process in higher divination (‘to foresee, to be inspired by a god’). The conventional explanations say that the Fool signifies the flesh, the sensitive life, depicting folly at the most insensate stage. When the Fool appears in a spread (an array of cards chosen by the cartomancer), he is a signal to strip down to the irreducible core, and interrogate whether the self-vision of the Querant (knowledge seeker) is obscured. It may also be a warning that significant change is coming. Another interpretation of the card is that of taking action where the circumstances are unknown, confronting one’s fears, taking risks, and so on.

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