The major arcana of the tarot traditionally consists of 22 cards. Arcana comes from the Latin arcanum, which means secret; a reference to the esoteric (secret) knowledge that is hidden in the cards.
The specific meaning of the archetypes and symbols used in the contemporary versions of the major arcana cannot be viewed separately from the developmental history of the cards. In the first centuries, the Fool was depicted as a ragged wanderer, without pants on. He lives in his own world and apparently does not care about the children around him who bully him.
Visconti Sforza deck (15th century)
Charles VI deck (15th century)
D’Este deck (15th century)
Feathers have been inserted into the hair of the Fool on the Visconti-Sforza deck (above left); a reference to the lightness/emptiness of his mind. This interpretation is confirmed by the empty gaze with which he stares into the distance. The Fool of the D’Este deck (above right) carries a flag with the colors black and white: he is connected to the duality of matter, and not to the oneness of the divine
The explicit nudity of the Fool on the d’Este deck, in combination with the children pulling down his pants, would definitely not be acceptable nowadays. And apparently even in the 17th century it was thought that innocence and madness should be portrayed in a different way, because on the Tarot of Marseille (below left), the tarot deck that laid the foundation for all contemporary decks, we see that the children have been replaced for a cat (or is it a dog?) that jumps to the genitals of the Fool.
Tarot of Marseille, Jean Noblet
Etteilla Thoth Tarot (early 19th century)
Oswald Wirth Tarot (1889)
The Etteilla Thoth Tarot by Jean-Baptiste Alliette (above center), from the early 19th century, is the first deck to visibly incorporate esoteric symbolism.On the Fool’s card we see a jester with his hands over his eyes.The card communicates ignorance, ‘not wanting to see’.The jester is a ‘fool’ who does not follow the road to the Kingdom of God.The basis for this interpretation are Bible quotes such as:
Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17)
The fool says in his heart: “There is no God.” (Psalm 53:1)
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God … (1 Cor. 3:19)
Left page translation: Foolish are those (as the psalmist writes) who say in their hearts that Jesus Christ is not the Messiah, David is so sorry that he has written against them in several places.
(Hans Holbein’s Icones Historiarum Veteris Testamenti, 1547)
Oswald Wirth (above right) adds a crocodile and a fallen obelisk to the Fool’s card in his tarot deck (1889). Two themes that will be incorporated by many other decks to come. Both the crocodile and the fallen obelisk refer to spiritual unconsciousness.
In many spiritual traditions, a crocodile represents our most primitive drives; the instinctive impulses from our “reptile brain” (that part of our brain that is also active with reptiles). Symbolically, being eaten by a crocodile means being spirtually unconscious; being driven by animal instincts instead of by the heart or soul. Living a materialistic and indulgent lifestyle.
An important demon in Ancient Egypt was Ammit, or Ammut, the “Devourer of the Dead.” Ammit was depicted as a composition of the three most dangerous animals in Egypt at the time: a crocodile, a lioness or leopard, and a hippopotamus. Ammit devoured the hearts of those who had led a bad / sinful life.
In Hinduism, defeating a crocodile is a mythical theme. Gods are depicted riding a crocodile, which symbolizes mastery over the animal instincts.
Another example is the legend Gajendra and Moksha (the Enlightenment of Gajendra) from the sacred writings of Hinduism.
The Egyptian demon Ammit, “Devourer of the Dead”
The elephant Gajendra is liberated by the god Vishnu
The river goddess Ganga sitting on her crocodile
The sea god Varuna on his Makara, a crocodile-like creature.
While bathing in a lake, the elephant Gajendra is painfully bitten in his leg by a crocodile and is not able to free himself (see illustration above) . At the end of his powers (according to legend after more than a thousand years) he begs the god Vishnu for help. As a sacrifice he keeps a lotus in the air. Vishnu frees Gajendra by decapitating the crocodile with his Sudharshana Chakra (a spinning sharp discus).
The story is a metaphor for spiritual awakening. The crocodile represents the animal instincts in our subconscious (the lake). The lotus held up by Gajendra symbolizes his opened crown chakra. A Sudarshana Chakra depicts the spiraling movement of the purifying kundalini energy. The moral of this myth is that Moksha (the state of enlightenment) can only be achieved if the animal instincts have been conquered. However, humans can not achieve this on their own. You need Gods (Vishnu’s) help.
An Egyptian obelisk
A pillar is a universal symbol for the spine, awakened by the kundalini-energy (click here for more info about the PILLAR as a symbol for the kundalini). This is also what the obelisk from Ancient Egypt stands for. These tall stone columns, shaped as sun rays, symbolized the sun god Ra. They were associated with resurrection and immortality. It was also believed that the spirit of Ra lived in the obelisks. These are all attributes that refer to the divine (solar) energy in the spine of an awakened (‘risen’) human being
If we extend this meaning of an upright obelisk to one broken / lying down, then this represents a spinal column that is not (yet) awakened: the spinal column of the spiritually unconscious fool.
The addition of a crocodile to the broken obelisk symbolically depicts the kundalini energy used to satisfy the animal drives (the lower chakras), rather than the realization of the higher nature.
Château des Avenières
The tarot, executed in mosaic, from Château des Avenières (right) has many similarities with the Oswald Wirth Tarot. The Fool wears the clothes of a jester. His pants are hanging down (spiritual “nudity”). His consciousness is narrowed: he is wearing only one shoe and does not seem to care about the dog that bites his leg. Neither does he seem to be aware of the crocodile and the abyss ahead of him. His eyes are on the moon, a newly introduced element.
The continuously waning and waxing moon is a universal symbol for the non-permanent nature of physical reality. Everything on earth is subject to cycles of birth and death, decay and renewal. The moon also represents duality; the polarities that are at the basis of physical reality. The always-shining sun symbolizes the divine, which is eternal, one, and unchangeable. Being focused on the moon refers to spiritual unconsciousness, to being trapped in duality.
Chateaux des Avenières
The Greek god Hermes with caduceus
The abyss in the picture represents the subconscious, in which the Fool will fall if he keeps looking at the moon. Unique for the Fool of Chateau des Avenières is that his hat has wings. This is a reference to the Greek god Hermes (Mercury with the Romans), who has a helmet with two wings (left). Hermes with his serpent staff, the caduceus, represents the divine kundalini-energy.
A jester’s hat, instead of a helmet, with wings symbolizes, just like the fallen obelisk, that the spiritual potential of the Fool is not developed..
All elements on this card match and reinforce each other, in terms of symbolic meaning. The Fool does not follow the road that leads to God (this makes him a jester and ‘naked’). He is focused on matter (the moon) and is about to die spiritually (falling into the abyss or being eaten by the crocodile).
The Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) Tarot
With his deck, which is released in 1909, Arthur E. Waite breaks with a number of the, at that moment, unwritten rules and customs in terms of the design and sequence of the tarot cards. His Fool is not a shabby jester with a narrow consciousness, but a happy, lively young man, clothed as a prince. Designing artist Pamela Colman-Smith has added many new symbolic elements.
Waite and Colman-Smith have chosen to emphasize the spiritual potential of this first card (according to some the last card) of the major arcana. We see a young man who walks around, carefree, in a dangerous environment (abyss). This can be explained as innocence and optimism, fueled by a trust in God. This attitude is supported by Bible quotes.
If any of you think he is wise in this world, let him become a fool so that he may become wise. (1 Cor. 3:18)
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Cor. 1:27)
Verily, I say to you: whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a child will certainly not enter it. (Mark 10:15)
Colman-Smith has incorporated various elements that give the Fool a potential of a spiritual awakening. No fallen obelisk in this case, but references to the caduceus, the staff of the god Hermes, that represents a kundalini awakening (see illustration above).
The red feather, that flows in an S-shape along the staff of the Fool, represents the divine energy that rises from the first chakra (color red) to the crown; comparable to the spiraling serpents on the caduceus. On card number 19, the Sun, this red feather reappears. Now it is standing upright on the child’s head: the awakening process is complete.
The arms of the Fool follow the form of the red feather, reinforcing the symbolism of flowing kundalini-energy.
The bag on the end of his staff has the head on it of (probably) an eagle. The eagle, the king of birds, is a universal symbol for expanded consciousness and the divine. A clever alternative, conceived by Colman-Smith, for the two wings at the top a caduceus. The staff of the Fool points at the sun, a symbol of the divine.
A prince also refers to spiritual potential, namely the prospect of a spiritual kingship. A prince represents the promise of the Kingdom of God. In fairy tales and myths this is an archetypal theme: the prince who has to overcome all kinds of (spiritual) difficulties before he can marry the princess (the sacred marriage), and can take his place on the throne of his father (read: Father). As an illustrator of children’s books, Colman-Smith undoubtedly was familiar with this theme and its deeper meaning. Card 4 of the major arcana, the Emperor, represents this accomplished spiritual kingship.
On the Prince/Fool’s clothing we see a pattern of wheels with eight spokes, and pomegranates.Both are a symbol for the kundalini energy.
The white rose in the Fool’s hand is a classic symbol for innocence, purity and chastity. In the RWS deck, the white rose returns on card number 13, Death. It has the meaning of spiritual cleansing on both cards. On the helmet of Death we, again, see a red feather: this tells us that the kundalini energy is the active force in the purification process.
The Thoth Tarot
The Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley (below left), first released in 1969, 22 years after Crowley’s death, is in no way like his predecessors. Uniquely designed and full of symbolism, this deck has inspired countless artists in their version of the tarot.
Crowley’s version of the Fool also emphasizes his spiritual potential. This is expressed by symbols such as the caduceus , the butterfly, the white dove (the Holy Spirit), a bag of coins with signs of the zodiac and planets, the vulture (Ancient Egypt), and the grapes (divine ecstasy). The green clothing refers to the mythical ‘Green Man’ and spring, and with this to fertility. With both legs the Fool enthusiasticly makes a leap into the unknown.
The Fool of the Thoth Tarot
The Hindu goddess Durga
The sun at the height of his crotch is an unmistakable reference to the kundalini energy. The pine cone on top of the caduceus stands for the pineal gland, which is activated by the kundalini, as it rises to the crown.
The tiger symbolizes the danger that the Fool faces during his spiritual journey. This animal represents the energy of the second chakra (color orange). If the kundalini-energy is not raised after awakening, but remains ‘stuck’ in the abdomen, and is used for sexual activities (second chakra), this leads to spiritual death (being eaten by the tiger).
Where the crocodile (at the bottom of the card) stands for our animal drives in general, the tiger stands more specifically for sexual energy. In Hinduism, the tiger – like the crocodile – is used as a mount for the gods (see goddess Durga above right). The message is: whoever wants to experience the divine must gain mastery over the animal instincts.
The tarot is a set of 78 cards, containing profound spiritual wisdom. In the 15th century the Fool was depicted as a vagebond, a wanderer; nowadays he more clearly represents spiritual potential. Some decks emphasize his spiritual unconsciousness – the poverty of a life without God – others approach it more positively and focus on his childlike innocence and future possibilities, which are presented by the other cards of the major arcana.
In biblical terms, the Fool is “the prodigal son” who returns home, to his father (read: God), after he got completely stuck in life (on earth).
Below: two alchemical illustrations of the inner PURIFICATION required for the ‘Magnum Opus’ (God-realization). In both images, among other things, a figure with a JESTER HOOD leaves the body of the alchemist:the FOOL of the tarot!
CLICK TO ENLARGE
Knapp-Hall Tarot (1929) by the writer Manly P. Hall
The blindfold refers to spiritual blindness.
Classic Golden Dawn Tarot (2004)
The Fool on this card is pure and innocent “like a child” (Bible), with mastery over his animal drives (the wolf). The tree symbolizes the awakened kundalini energy. The six roses represent six fully opened chakras; at the sixth chakra the sacred marriage has taken place. They are wild roses, which always have five petals.This is a reference to the ‘Rose of Venus’, also a kundalini symbol. In essence, this card represents the end of a spiritual journey.
The Sun and Moon Tarot (2010) by the Belgian artist Vanessa Decort
Both the spiritual dangers and the growth potential are made clear, in easy to interpret symbols.
The Haindl Tarot (1990) by the German artist Hermann Haindl
According to Haindl: “The wounded swan represents the fall, the departure of mankind from the garden of Eden.”
This symbolism is derived from the Grail romance/poem Parzifal, ‘the pure fool’, who kills an innocent bird (a swan in Wagner’s opera of the same name) with his bow and arrow. Haindl is thus linking the Fool of the tarot, and the search for the Holy Grail.
Pinocchio as the Fool is spot on!
Carlo Lorenzini, the spiritual father of Pinocchio was a freemason. The story of the wooden puppet (symbol for spiritual unconsciousness) who goes on a journey and wants to become a man of flesh and blood, is a metaphor for the journey of spiritual awakening
This article was published in Paravisie Magazine (febr ’19). Copyright Anne-Marie Wegh 2019