The Fool




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he Fool is the card that, perhaps more than any other, epitomizes the tarot deck itself. The major arcana have been described as "the Fool's journey" - if the other cards in the deck represent a spiritual landscape and its inhabitants, The Fool is the one who explores that landscape: the Fool is each of us.

The separateness of The Fool goes back to the very origins of the Tarot. This card was never regarded as one of the "triumphs" (the term used for the remaining 21 major arcana, which gave rise to the modern word "trump"). In most old decks, The Fool received no number. In the game of tarot, The Fool and The World are the only two cards that cannot be lost to another player. If you draw them, you are guaranteed to receive their considerable bonus of points and come that much closer to winning the game.

In the culture of medieval Europe, the character of the fool was something of a social relief valve. He was the lowest of the low. (Although it makes our modern sensibilities recoil, this was a time when people who were mentally or emotionally ill or "different" were routinely outcast, left to live on the streets, and derided.) But being beyond the pale of the class system and its hierarchies did have its ironic blessings: the fool could truly say and do as he pleased, because there was no point in impressing anyone. His low status also inspired some to see him as the paradigm of Christian humility: the fool, bereft of money, status, or pretention, was nearer to God than the rest of us. One need only read _King Lear_ to get a sense of the ironic quality of the fool, which could be used to great effect by a gifted writer or performer.

Modern Tarot interpretation emphasizes The Fool's spontaneity and innocence, painting quite a positive image of the card as the quintessential symbol of "Beginner's Mind". I sometimes think this is too shallow an interpretation. How many of us, eager to achieve The Fool's innocence, are willing to also take on his homelessness, his torn clothing, and his total lack of status and respect? The Fool is not, in the end, a very realistic role model for most of us.

In my own system of understanding the major arcana, The Fool represents the direct connection between the physical and emotional worlds. When it rains, he is wet. When it is dark, he sleeps. When there is no food, he is hungry. When someone is kind, he is happy. When someone is cruel, he is hurt. He lives in the emotional immediacy of an infant, with little control over his environment or emotional responses. Indeed, it has not occurred to him that such control is possible.

Some of us need to experience being The Fool in order to bridge the barriers our minds have imposed between body and feeling. If our emotions become too rationalized, they can become knots in our physical bodies, unacknowledged and dangerous. The Fool can help us release these internal burdens. The Fool, much more than any other card in the deck, knows the value of a good cry, a primal scream, or sexual release.

The Fool has a dangerous side, though, because he has no self-control, no caution, no judgment. He is susceptible to hedonism and addiction, to complacency and aimlessness. The Fool is solitary because he cannot function in relationship. Although not selfish in any sense, he simply does not see the reciprocal bonds of relationship. He lives so completely in the moment that responsibility, with its extended time scale, means nothing.

When the Fool comes up for you, contemplate what it means to be a true outsider, living through your senses, without any ties or plans.

Tarot Wisdom is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007-2008 Tom Waters