Welcome to our new series - Tarot Deep Dive! In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found in the tarot, the meaning of the card and how it changed over time, and the symbols present within what is arguably the most well known tarot deck of today - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So grab your favorite RWS based deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards starting with our beloved Fool. Le Mat, Le Fou, Il Matto, Mattello, Il Pazzo, Le Fol, The Spirit of Ether
The trope of The Fool goes back to the time of the Pharaohs where the classic idea of slightly crazed performer entertained the court in Egypt. We find this trope in ancient Roman times, known as Balatrones, where they were paid for their jokes. We even find evidence of them in the mesoamerican Aztec empire from the 14th to 16th centuries. The classical picture of the fool, or someone who provides amusement through what is often considered inappropriate appearance and behavior, is a long standing tradition that morphed and evolved out of high society into the world of theatre where we find many fool like characters in the works of Shakespeare, into the modern cinema or the modern tradition of clowning.
During the creation of the Tarot depictions of the allegory of The Fool can be found all around Renaissance Italy in public places such as churches. The example we see to the right here was paintec by Giotto, a famed early renaissance master inside the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua baring a striking resemblance to the earliest versions of the Fool that we have today. Folly was a very common allegorical character in medieval morality plays who tempts the protagonist into foolish actions. In art this character often sat in juxtaposition to Prudence represenging a choice. This allegory often has connections with wild men, or the classical dieties such as Misero or Miseria associated with misery and misfortune. Interestingly the title Il Mat may be the etimological origins of the term 'Check Mat(e)' used in gaming today.
A Fool on a Journey The tarot is often described as "The Fool's Journey". How an average person moves not only through the mundane life, that that of a spiritual journey as well. The Fool as illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith has almost become synonymous with the Tarot in popular culture, and even in recent years you can easily find yourself a t-shirt, mug, or sticker featuring this now iconographic artwork. Yet, as we have delved into many times on this blog, there is more to the picture than meets the eye. A.E. Waite and P.C. Smith both designed this card to be full of symbolism, allegory, and visual nuances that help to guide tarot practitioners.
Casually strolling towards a cliff our dapper blonde hair young Fool carelessly sets forth on his journey in his tunic emblazonment with eight spoked wheels and greenery over a white shirt with yellow stockings and boots, and a long read feather in his cap. Over his shoulder a staff with a satchel at the end, a white rose in his left hand. At his feet a white dog on his hind legs. All under an bright white sun set against a yellow sky with blue mountains in the distance.
In the Tarot we see the Fool appear in early versions of the Marseilles tradition where this card was one of the most valuable trump cards in the game of Tarocchi. It was the penultimate wild card, and much of that symbolism and meaning translates directly into how we read it cartomantically today, spontaneity, new directions, risk. Even the placement of this card in the Major Arcana has morphed and changed over the years. In more modern decks we see him traditionally depicted as key zero, in other decks he has no number, existing outside of the arcanum. Yet, in other decks he is key XXII at the end of the major arcana. The first depcition of the fool that we have numbered 0 comes from the Sola Busca. It to this day remains the one Trump card included in most modern playing card decks - The Joker.
Evolution of Meaning
The Fool morphed and evolved greatly over the history of the tarot from the madman we see depicted in the early tarot like the Visconti Deck, to the troubled court jesters of the Marseille tradition, or the dapper fellow we have come to know and love on the Waite-Smith deck. Along with these changing depictions of this key its meaning as grown and evolved over time as well.
De Mellet (1781): Madness
Levi (1855): The sensitive principle, the flesh, eternal life.
Mathers (1888): The Foolish Man. Folly, expiation, wavering.
Golden Dawn (1896): The Spirit of Ether. Foolish Man. Idea, spirituality, that witch endeavors to rise above the material. But if the divination be regarding ordinary life, the card is not good, and shows follow, stupidity, eccentricity, and even mania unless with very good cards indeed.
Waite (1910): The Fool. Folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy.
Crowley (1944): In spiritual matters, the Fool means idea, thought, spirituality, that which endeavors to transcend earth. In material matters, it man, if badly dignified, mean folly, eccentricity, or even mania. But the essence of this card is that it represents an original, subtle, sudden impulse or impact, coming from a completely strange quarter.
White Sun - The White Sun is said to represent the light of Kether, the first Sefirot in the Tree of Life of Kabbalah. The sun in this context represents pure enlightenment. The ultimate goal of the Fool on his journey. It is the source of light that illuminates the path ahead of the Fool. Being of the element of fire, it is flame of creation, the point of origin from which everything comes from and to the point which everything inevitability returns.
Blue Mountains & Cliff - Mountains in any part of the RWS tarot always indicates challenges that we all face on our path. In order for the Fool to complete his journey he must traverse these mountains and any challenges they present him. Being capped in white snow, they represent the enlightenment that The Fool will receive in overcoming these challenges. The cliffs edge represents the dangers right in front of the Fool he is blissfully unaware of.
Eight Spoked Wheel Tunic - Just as the card The Wheel represents cycles in our lives, so does this symbolism translate to the wheels we find on The Fool's tunic. The Wheel here represents the spiritual journey the Fool is embarking on and how he will inevitably return to the start again, as we all do in life. This is echoed by the numeral 0 at the top of the card.
Also, a direct correlation to the Golden Dawn sun.
Yellow Boots - Yellow is the color of happiness, confidence, and intellect. Like much of the rest of The Fool's attire, he seems ill equip for the journey ahead - mountains and all. None the less it shows his eagerness and his willingness to give this journey ahead of him his all. One might say hes putting the best foot forward (sorry, not sorry.)
Feather & Wreath - Red is the color of life, associated with the fluid of life - blood. The feather a symbol of air is also associated with this card. The feather also appears in The Sun card and the Death Card which closely associates this card with cycles, birth, life, death, and resurrection. Much in the same way we see it portrayed in the Christ story. The wreath the feather is placed in represents the triumph of The Fool over the mundane celebrating his victory in overcoming his fear to set forth on this journey.
White Dog - The trusty companion to our Fool on his journey ahead. The white dog often is though to represent faith. It also represents a sacrifice that must be made in order to reach enlightenment. Sometimes it is also thought to be his subconscious or intuition, warning him of the impending cliff in front of him.
Satchel & Staff - Not only does this show how little our Fool is prepared for his journey it also shows us the burdens he carries with him as he ventures forth. The staff (or wand) represents the power and inspiration the Fool has to set forth on this journey after living what some may say was a privileged and full life up until the point he decided to pursue something more.
White Rose - The color white represents purity, balance, and virtue. Associated with the white Tudor rose we see in the Death card the rose represents both the beauty and the pain we go through in life - the flower and the thorns. I sometimes like to think of this as amazing bit of narrative foreshadowing within the Waite Smith tarot for key XIII, personally.
As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:
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Crowley, Aleister (aleister Crowley). Book of Thoth - (Egyptian Tarot). Red Wheel/Weiser, 2017.
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Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013. Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.
Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015. Images Sourced From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_image_resources