The Fool’s Journey: (0) The Fool – The Outsider

The Laughing Jester, at the Art Museum of Sweden, Stockholm. 15th century

The Laughing Jester, at the Art Museum of Sweden, Stockholm. 15th century

Ah, Le Fou!

He’s so hard to pin down! He has the number of zero, yet some place him (or her) at the start of the deck; others at the end; still others at the middle. And even when you think you have placed him (or her) appropriately, she or he pops up unexpectedly with words of wit that can ring clear and yet leave a a whelp where the truth hit! There are so many sides to this card–and in a reading, this only adds to its playful, trickster nature–should you be embracing your inner “fool”, or are you truly acting as a fool?

Many traditional interpretations site the Fool as a card which signifies new beginnings, a sense of adventure, free-spiritedness, absence of worries or planning, naïveté, a new perspective, ignorance, childishness, being rash, going where the wind takes you, being blind to reason…you get the picture. Its the first step you take on a journey–not knowing what to do to get where you must go. Perhaps you are scared, though you may also be excited! You don’t have many resources in your pack, but you are well on your way! Its the beginning of a cycle.

The fool from a Marseilles deck done by Jean Dodal. Dates to very early 1700s.

The fool from a Marseilles deck done by Jean Dodal. Dates to very early 1700s.

But this is not all the Fool stands for. Sallie Nichols wrote a book  Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey which investigates the Major Arcana’s archetypes from a literary and cultural (at times cross cultural) perspective. Sometimes, she touches upon the traditional meanings we find in Tarot. However, she looks for meaning in the cards from the Marseilles deck using literary, cultural,psychological, and religious sources. It is a very interesting read if only because it asks you to look at these cards from a new perspective. After coming to ponder all the different lights to see this card, I feel the overall theme is “Outsider”, with a more specific theme of “light-heartedness; wonder; folly; imagination; novelty; trust/mistrust”. 

I frequently wonder how the cards got their “traditional” meanings. Tarot puts life’s journey in pictorial form; however, it is a Western perspective on life which Tarot emanates. Today’s Tarot is heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian and Classical themes which are usually modernized. This is not to say that all symbols in all Tarot decks are Christian or Jewish or Greek or Roman. However, Tarot originated in the West. Even when the Golden Dawn or Crowley created their own decks, there was still a heavy Hermetic influence. As a divinatory tool, it retains those esoteric/religious influences. When I read Nichols, I am reminded that these archetypes extend past occultism, religion, magic, and literature. This book pulls from the fount of many cultural aspects to find meaning in the cards, not just religion/occultism.

How else can we view this card? Allow me to return once again to the Shakespearean Fool. He is a court jester: someone who is allowed to criticize the king, causing enlightenment and laughter. He was oftentimes harsh and sometimes obscene;  the other characters commonly took him for a truly idiotic person. Yet he delivered a scathing wit that was ironically correct. He reminds us that we all need to recognize our own faults, have some humility, lighten up, and laugh a little.

In contrast, some characters were outright Fools: the long winded and unwise Polonius from Hamlet, for example. Ironically, Polonius took himself to be quite wise, despite being rather dull. An outright Fool is the silly person who is actually in error. These fools may not always be trapped in obvious mannerisms: they may seem level-headed, rational, and completely realistic. This Fool warns us of being too self assured.

Nichols points out yet another type of Fool (she does not name these different “sub-Fools”. I will, however, for the purposes of organization). Les amis de Dieu were people in the Middle Ages with cognitive disabilities. In some communities, they were seen as persons particularly in God’s favor. Viewed as entirely innocent and pure, their lack of “knowledge” was compensated by immense spiritual graces. It was the responsibility of the community to take care of and cherish these members of the community. Using this knowledge to view the card, it alludes to the theme of “innocence” or “naïveté” found in many traditional meanings. It also communicates a sense of security: “All is well! Though I don’t know how, I shall be taken care of!” It is a pure spiritual state which is less encumbered by material trappings.

Lest we throw an overtly positive spin on something that has darker aspects, it is important to note that while this perspective is found in literature and lore, this was not always the reality. People are afraid of what they do not understand, and it can be very frustrating (though still an act of love) to care for someone who happens to have a disability or an emotional disorder. Whether we like to admit it or not, people with disabilities and/or emotional disorders can be discriminated against and/or mistreated. We have much evidence that people with various mental disorders and disabilities were neglected, abused, and/or left to rot in hellish asylums or hospitals. These citizens were misunderstood and feared. This misunderstanding, fear, and ostracism can be communicated in this card, particularly (in my own personal readings) were this card to be shown reversed or with another card which speaks to these themes. We must take care to remember not lock away own inner Fool. Though he can cause us troubles, he is a necessary part of us. We must remember not to judge to harshly when we encounter Fools. Were we in there shoes, what would we do? What would happen to us?

At times, our fears are founded. We have always feared the “mad” men or women amongst us. Serial killers, serial rapists, cult leaders, and overtly violent/anti social people can be a danger to us. We (the general public) do not understand how or why they can behave in such a manner. They operate outside of our conventions in unfathomable ways. However, these individuals make us reflect on what humans are capable of when nature or nurture decides to twist in a less favorable direction. Given the right circumstances, couldn’t we all go mad? And how do we define madness (another Shakespearean theme). Secondly, the presence of some of these “mad men” begs the question: what is it in us or in society that allows these traits to surface?

Nichols also makes a point that the Fool, being a creature of beginnings and youth, is someone in touch with his or her emotions, urges, and instincts–what I shall call the spiritual Fool. This is some one who shuns conventional logic for the whims of their own heart.

“The Fool’s spontaneous approach to life combines wisdom, madness, and folly.” (Nichols, 1980)

He serves as a reminder that not all wisdom is found in society’s trappings. Nichol also alludes to the fact that this aspect of the fool is in touch with his or her “primal” self. He knows how he feels; he is in touch with himself and the world around him; he has retained his instincts and follows his gut. He does not over intellectualize. He has successfully integrated different parts of himself: his emotional, intuitive, and physical self. Nichols doesn’t stop here: there are a few others ways we might see the Fool: the sad clown or stolid old Fool, the eternal child, and the trickster, to name but a few more.

Gustave Dore's illustration; Don Quixote fighting his "giants" (windmills) as the ever-faithful Sancho Pansa looks on.

Gustave Dore’s illustration; Don Quixote fighting his “giants” (windmills) as the ever-faithful Sancho Pansa looks on.

Overall, the Fool is an outsider. Someone we feel, for better or for worse, is apart from us. The trust, the innocence, and the wonder expressed by children and encompassed by the Fool is seen as lost to those of us who are adults. The folly of the fool is something we avoid; we hope not be rash, playful, or unconventional. The court jester is a special rank; les amis de Dieu are both “above” and “below” us in their functioning (according to traditional opinion, not my own). We do not want to be different, we want to be a part of the systems we have created. The Fool is one who, whatever his or her form, takes these systems and breaks free of them. The Fools we encounter constantly ask us to analyze our attachments to our systems, values, and relationships. Some fools trust entirely; others trust not at all. Which are we, and why?

Like any good Fool, this card’s meanings are so multilayered that when it pops up in my readings, I am always stumbling to find exactly what it means! Should I lighten up? Am I acting foolishly? Do I need to grow up? Do I need to get back in touch with my “inner child”? Am I in need of some humility? Am I in touch with my primal spiritual self? Do I need to be? In these times, I think a Fool would probably tell me that I am assessing a creature of the imagination with the tools of the mind in order to enlighten the heart. In short: trust your intuition! Learn to listen to your heart! Don’t forget about your head! It’s all  a folly anyway 😉

Nichols, Sallie. (1980). Jung and tarot: An archetypal journey. Weiser Books, Sang Francisco, CA. pp 22 – 43.


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