I have a wide variety of interests, though they’re all related. One of the things I love is the imagery and symbolism of the tarot. As a folklore and mythology junkie, I love exploring the various symbols found in world religions and belief structures.
The tarot is full of symbolism, as anyone well-versed in the system will tell you. The beginning of the journey is the Fool, often numbered 0 or 22. In many ways the fool is like the maiden seen in fairy tales. He is innocent and naïve, and he just flat out doesn’t have a clue about life or anything around him. He can be reckless and irresponsible, and, in literature, he is often seen hanging out by the well of the village.
The fool is the zero of the tarot, the one that comes before the beginning or after the end. He is pictured standing on a cliff with a dog biting his heels. He isn’t aware that he is about to tumble into the abyss, and it’s doubtful that he’d care if he did know.
The fool can grow into many things. He can become the knight and the hero, and he can become the father. If he refuses to grow, he can become the trickster, a person who is so self-absorbed that he is cruel to others.
We find the fool in just about everything that we read or watch. In Star Wars, he is Luke Skywalker, who must leave his home and claim his destiny, losing some of his selfishness along the way. In The Lord of the Rings, he is Frodo, who has to leave the comforts he has cultivated for himself and step into the world outside of Hobbiton. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he is Huck, and in the legends of King Arthur he is Percival and Gawain, both of whom are innocent and unknowing until they have gone on their quests.
In the story “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” from The Arabian Knights, Aladdin is the fool. He is lazy and unfocused, and this causes his father’s death and his mother’s grief. One day he is approached by an evil magician, who claims to be his uncle. This man takes Aladdin to a cave and orders him to bring out a lamp. The magician becomes angry when Aladdin refuses to hand the lamp to him and locks the boy in the cave. Aladdin rubs the lamp and frees the genie, who gives Aladdin everything he could ever want, including the Princess for a wife. Aladdin believes that his life will be nothing but peace and contentment, but the magician and his brother aren’t finished with Aladdin. The magician steals the palace with the Princess inside of it, and the magician’s younger brother convinces the Princess that she needs a Roc’s egg in the great hall of the palace. This request angers the genie, and Aladdin is forced to act on his own before he is allowed his life of peace.
Still, Aladdin never really learns the value of hard work or fending for himself. He is always dependent on the generosity of the genie to survive.
The fool can show us the way to the divine. In many of his aspects he is like the child – full of unharnessed potential – but in the fool’s case it is time for him to choose a path. He can’t wander in the meadow forever. There are stories, like the one about Aladdin, where the fool can maintain his foolishness and survive by sheer dumb luck, but most of the stories require that the fool grow up. He must choose a road and walk it, learning a trade or going into service to others. And this is where we can learn from him. We all have to find a way to support ourselves, and, sometimes, we are forced into careers that we don’t enjoy. But we have to go to work anyway. The fool can teach us to view this as a necessary stepping-stone, and, when combined with the child, he can help us find a way to change our career and lifestyle without losing everything in the process.
The fool is also seen as beginning. He can be the first step on a path, or the first step that comes after the trial of rebirth. Either way, he is full of optimism. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘can’t.’ When the child encourages us to go with a new concept, the fool can help us take that first step toward a new goal. He can encourage us to climb the mountains to the divine or our goals, and he can help us get through the trials as we carry our Rings to Mount Doom.
Traditionally, the fool replaced the king in sacrificial ceremonies, and he was the scapegoat for all human folly. He was not a positive symbol, rather, he demonstrated how easy it is for humans to fail. He spoke of human ignorance and the refusal to become wise.
Meditation on the fool can show us where we are being stupid. It can show us how our actions affect others, and it can point the way to wisdom. He can also provide optimism when we are lacking in it, but his optimism is born of ignorance rather than knowledge. He can show us the foolishness of our thoughts and the ignorance of outdated beliefs, but he cannot change these things for us. He can also show us where we are refusing responsibility and failing miserably. On the positive side, he can show us how to pick up and move forward rather than spinning our wheels in a hopeless endeavor.
While the fool, in modern times, is considered a harmless figure, this was not always the case, and it is important that we remember this. The fool can help us begin a new journey, and he can show us where we are stagnating, but he must be used with caution and understanding. And we must constantly remember that the fool has no wisdom or experience from which to draw. He lives by instinct alone.