Over the centuries the Fool has been a consistent character in the tarot. His role has morphed with time and societies’ changing archetypes.
The progenitor of the Joker, in the earliest tarot decks, this card was originally titled Le Fou, Le Fol, or Le Mat, which translate to English as the Madman or the Fool. Wearing rags, the jester’s motley, or a combined ragged motley, he was often depicted with signs of mental illness.
Left: The Fool from the 15th century Visconti-Sforza Tarot, one of the oldest extant decks, shows a man, seemingly mentally ill, in rags and with feathers in his hair. Center: Typical Marseille-style tarot decks, like this 1712 Jean Dodal version, dress the Fool in the jester's motley. Here, a cat scratches his leg. Right: This Fool, titled Le Fou, the Madman, from the 1780 Flamand Tarot is also a jester but with a dog biting his leg.
The original Fool was a character despised by society as a simpleton, a beggar, a suspicious stranger. The dog or cat on his heels, sometimes biting, might be chasing him out of a local village.
The Wise One
With growing interest in tarot as a tool for occult mysticism in early 20th century Europe, the Fool changed again. Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot reimagined him as a happy-go-lucky traveler (below right).
Like a character from a fairy tale, he appears as a penniless but good-hearted youth, setting out to seek his fortune in the wide world. He has become the Sacred Fool. And the dog now seems more like a companion.
This new patina speaks more honestly to our modern archetypes. As a jester the Fool can speak truth to power. As the madman he has “crazy wisdom,” ranting about the insanity of our society, truths too easily ignored by people busy with their daily lives.
Left: The Sola Busca Tarot from the 15th century is another of the earliest know decks. Like the Visconti-Sforza Tarot above, this Fool has feathers in his hair. Center: This 1810 Marseille-style tarot from Milan depicts a traveler in rags being bitten by a cat. Right: While Pamela Colman Smith modeled many of the illustrated Minor Arcana on the Sola Busca Tarot (left), co-creator Arthur Edward Waite had other ideas for the Major Arcana. Their deck set a new standard for the Fool.
Becoming the Fool
In the role of simpleton, the Fool wisely lives a simple, joyful life, while the rest of us chase our tails trying to capture happiness with the next purchase, after our financial goals are met, once the kids are out of the house—later. Not now! At some future date, when some illusive, opaque goal has been achieved.
In modern tarot decks, the Fool is the Wise One. Realizing we are all fools, we become blessed, forgiven for our follies and modern madness. Then, we too become the Sacred Fool, closing the circle. Released from anxiety, we are freed to live and love with joyful, foolish abandon! Hooray!
J.D. Hildegard Hinkel is the author and creator of the Tarot of Delphi. She is offering FREE 10-card reading packets while supplies last ($2.99 shipping). Visit the Tarot of Delphi Free 10-Card Tarot Reading page for details.