The Fool

Hand-Painted Images

The Visconti-Sforza Fool has the appearance of an ill-cared for idiot. He stands in rags, his bare feet show through holes in his stockings, and seven feathers are stuck in his hair. His ill-shaven face has a blank look, and over his shoulder he carries a long club.

In die Gringonneur cards the Fool has more the aspect of a clown, with a widely grinning vacuous face. He has a pointed cap with asses' ears and is arrayed in a form of motley, though bare legged. He plays with a string of balls or bells and about his feet four boys gather stones to throw at him.

The D'Este Fool is similar but less dressed, being virtually naked save for his head dress. This is more the conventional jester's tricorn, a belled centre point with long ear-like side points. He carries a stick with some kind of baubles attached.

Early Printed Card Tradition

On a seventeenth-century Parisian set he is more fully dressed, in jester's clothing, and carries a stick with a puppet fool's head at which he gazes.

In the Marseilles Tarot he is similarly dressed but carries a bag on a stick over his shoulder. He has a staff as a walking stick and is pawed from behind by a dog. (See Figure 2.)

Esoteric Versions

Oswald Wirth saw Le Fou much as the Marseilles card although the harrassing animal is feline rather than canine. A fallen obelisk and a crocodile also appear in the background.

Whereas the Wirth figure's face looks coarse and imbecilic, A. E. Waite stresses the innocence of youth. He shows the Fool about to walk off a high precipice in the mountains. The bag

Rosenwald Tarot Fool
Figure 2

over his shoulder has an eye on it and in his other hand he holds a white rose. A white dog beside him jumps for joy.

The Golden Dawn stresses innocence even more by depicting the Fool as a naked child, stretching his hand to pluck a golden rose from a tree, accompanied by a leashed black wolf or wolf-like dog.


In the game of Tarot the Fool has a special role, for with his Zero designation, he has no scoring capacity in the ranking of the Trumps. Rather, his function is that of being able to overturn all the rules. He is never played in the usual sense. Rather, the player who holds him shows him at the appropriate moment, and this excuses the player from having to follow suit with a higher card that he may wish to reserve until later. For this reason the Fool is often called the scusi - the excuse.

It is natural to assume that the Fool is the last surviving Trump in the conventional pack of cards, where he now appears, with a similar kind of playing function, as the Joker.

It appears however that there was no direct line of descent in this development. The ordinary pack never had a Joker or similar special card. It was a nineteenth-century introduction in America.

However, those who have some experience of the magical power of the Tarot archetypes, and the reality of the Platonic ideas of the magical universe behind the physical world, may be willing to concede that the Fool has willed his own re-invention or rediscovery. He in particular, of all the Trumps, is too important to be ignored.

The realization of this especial role and significance carries over into the modern esoteric tradition. For Manly P. Hall makes the suggestion that the Fool contains all the other Trumps. In the full page illustration to the Tarot section of his Secret Teachings of All Ages he shows this quite strikingly, with a picture of the Fool and a pyramid of the other Trumps superimposed over his body.

A. E. Waite also spoke guardedly, in his characteristic style, of the Fool being 'the most speaking' of symbols, which we may take to refer to its representation of the Word. The Word made Flesh in an esoteric Christian conception of the Tarot would certainly have all the characteristics of the Fool; the apparent insignificance and foolishness that is in reality a power and wisdom that transcends that of the mundane human world.

In his novel The Greater Trumps Charles Williams emphasizes this role in his description of the secret room where the original models of the images are kept. This is of course a very real inner condition, although for the conventions of the genre it is described as a physical place in the story. Here, on a table, about which are ranged symbols of the Lesser Arcanum, the Trump figures move about in self-propelled endless dance, in a golden haze and with a slight humming noise. This is a very evocative image, and it is even worth placing the cards out on a table physically in this manner and meditating upon it. The cards speak most strongly to those who physically 'play' with them.

In this set-up the Fool is described as standing in the centre of all the moving Trumps, as stable focus and indeed Lord of the Dance. However, when someone such as Aunt Sybil looks at the table she sees the Fool in fact also to be dancing in amongst the other cards. Sybil is that remarkable person, a fully redeemed human individual, one whose realization of the true and the good is firm and sure, and who expresses this in her daily life. To her the Fool is a living active Fool, just as to the perceptive Christian, the Christ is a Risen and Active Lord in the presence of, and in relation to, all his created archetypes, rather than a formal theological or philosophical concept.

The traditional cards add a brutal side to the concept of the Fool that is akin to the Biblical account of the passers by who mocked the dying God at the crucifixion. This is demonstrated in the cards that show children gathering missiles to throw at the demented beggar man.

This reflects a common human characteristic, the persecution of the strange or the afflicted, a trait which extends even into the animal world. There are, of course, deep paradoxical truths in the wisdom of the innocent, as has been explored in Shakespeare's King Lear and Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

A. E. Waite's esoteric cards take up the theme of innocence as a quality of the virgin human spirit coming into the world. The Golden Dawn card also more overtly carries the quality of the miraculous child, one who can tame and control the fierce elemental forces or even the wolves of evil int ent, and pluck the golden blossom of the Tree of Paradise.

In esoteric allocation of the Hebrew letters to the Trumps, Eiiphas Levi favoured Shin for the Fool, signifying the three-fold fire of the Spirit. The Golden Dawn tradition allocates Aleph which, as Divine Breath, could also be held to be relevant.

The Magician

Hand-Painted Images

The Visconti-Sforza Magician is well dressed, in scarlet trimmed with ermine, including an ornate hat. He thus has the air of a merchant rather than a trickster or thimble rigger. He sits on what appears to be a chest and has various artefacts before him on a table, and a rod in his left hand. The objects are a knife, a cylindrical cup, two small round objects, and what appears to be a white soft hat as might be used by a conjuror for concealing things.

The D'Este Magician stands in a more active pose before a young audience. He is also richly dressed and with a plume in his hat. He holds a cup aloft, another larger cup is upon the table, together with three small round objects.

Early Printed Card Tradition

On the sixteenth-century Rosenwald printed sheets, the Magician wears a two-horned jester's cap and bells and faces straight out of the card, standing behind his table, a stick in each hand, with a number of small objects before him.

In the Catelin Geofroy card he is definitely entertaining three people to a performance of legerdemain, sitting with magic wand. The tricks of his trade are small objects and two down turned cups under which they might appear.

The Parisian seventeenth-century card also shows him with a two pronged jester's hat. He is performing before an audience and has a monkey and a dog beneath his table.

On the Marseilles card and its derivatives he stands without an audience before a table laden with a number of objects that include small balls or bells, cups, knives and a bag. He reverts to a wide brimmed hat in place of the jester's cap, though his dress does not appear to be motley. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3

Esoteric Versions

Oswald Wirth's Bateleur has a tidier table than the Marseilles card and placed upon it are emblems of the suits; a coin, a sword and a cup, which is filled with red wine. The magician holds the wand in his hand, which has a red sphere at one end and a blue sphere at the other.

Waite also puts suit emblems, including a stave, on the table, which now takes on the appearance of an altar. The magician holds another wand high in his right and with his left hand points downward, as if directing force from one level to another. A lemniscate halo is placed over his bare head, and red roses and white lilies bloom before his altar, with more red roses above his head.

The Golden Dawn Magician has a figure of Mercuiy in the air over his head as well as the traditional broad brimmed hat. The caduceus of Mercury is also emblazoned on the breast of his tunic, and on the square stone altar before him are the four suit emblems.


In the original tradition this figure is one who carries a power and glamour about him, whether conceived as a rich merchant from far away places, or as a master of tricks and legerdemain. To an extent, all actors, performers, fairground showmen, even market traders, and by extension, advertising men and 'image' merchants share in this archetypal role.

In the theological context he is therefore an extension of the Fool - in fact almost the polar complement. One who demonstrates a wisdom superior to those whom he tricks or entertains, and so who also has a power over them. As wanderer, whose home is always elsewhere, he carries with him the ambience of another world, another dimension of existence. This is the attraction of the 'other' that leads all the adventurous young to leave home, or to seek the glamour of fame or fortune. In this aspect he is like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The esoteric cards conceptualize the magical and philosophical elements of this rather more formally by making the table into an altar of magical operation, and the thimbles and bells and other illusionist's tricks into the four suits of the Tarot with their implied elemental attributions. All of this sense is implied, perhaps more strongly if less obviously, in the traditional card design.

The Magician seems, with the advent of the printed cards however, to have come down somewhat in the world. From well heeled merchant traveller to fair ground or market mountebank. All these occupations are, of course, under the patronage of Hermes.

Eliphas Levi sought to see the Hebrew letter Aleph in the attitude of the figure on the Marseilles card, but this connection is of doubtful provenance.

In his broad potential the Magician is very much a Hermes figure - the psychopomp of all magic and knowledge and exchange. The chameleon like Mercurius of the alchemical process. The Golden Dawn card lays emphasis on this fact. The power of ever flowing creation and bringing through of power from one level to another is also well expressed in the Waite and Golden Dawn designs.

The High Priestess

Hand-Painted Images

The Visconti-Sforza figure is a seated nun in a brown habit holding a closed book in her left hand and a thin sceptre topped by a cross in her right. Over her tall white pointed wimple she wears a triple golden tiara.

These basic features are repeated in the Fournier Visconti-Sforza card although her threefold tiara appears more queenly than ecclesiastical in design. Almost as if she were a noble lady in charge of a convent - a practice that was not uncommon in medieval and Renaissance times.

Early Printed Card Tradition

The theme is repeated on the Rosenwald printed sheet but she holds a key in her left hand and a closed book on her knee with her right.

Book and sceptre appear in the Parisian printed cards and also the suggestion of pillars and veil behind, which becomes a prominent feature of later esoteric cards.

This feature is similarly apparent in crude and embryonic form in the Marseilles card, where, however, she has lost her sceptre but holds her book open in her lap. (See Figure 4.)

Esoteric Versions

Wirth's Papesse has her book closed, although she retains one finger at a particular page. The book has received an oriental touch by having a Chinese 'tai-ge-tu' sign emblazoned on its front cover. In her left hand she holds crossed gold and silver keys, and a crescent moon tops her three-fold tiara. Behind her the suggestion of pillars in the Marseilles card is made explicit, in red and blue, with a white veil between them, and the floor is of black and white paving, like a masonic lodge.

Waite gives the priestess a scroll in place of a book, on which the word TORA(H) can be seen. At her breast is an

Figure 4

equal-armed cross, and her silver head-dress is horned and indicative of the three phases of the moon. Her blue and white draperies flow to the floor with a suggestion of water, to a silver crescent moon by her feet. The pillars behind her are massive black and white ones, of Egyptian style, with lotus capitals, and bearing the letters B and J - no doubt for Boaz and Jachim, the Hebrew tides of the pillars of the Temple of Solomon the King, familiar to masonic tradition. The veil between them is decorated with a pomegranate motif.

The Golden Dawn High Priestess, in light blue draperies on a predominantiy light blue card, stands bare foot, holding a chalice, a silver crescent moon at her brow.


The original conception of this card seems to have been simply a noble lady of religious vocation. The allocation of the starding title of Popess, indicating an apparent readiness to concede at least equal spiritual temporal status to female as to male, is a notion that traditional religious authorities have found it difficult to come to terms with. The patriarchal bias ofJudaeo-Christian religious thought has tended to regard women as spiritually subservient if not inferior. A natural reaction to this unnatural attitude has been the supernatural elevation of the mother of Jesus, through the Cult of the Blessed Virgin, to Mother of God.

The esoteric development of this card has followed the Marian trend so that the symbolic associations now associated with it bring to mind titles that have been accorded to the Virgin - Star of the Sea, Fount of Wisdom and so on.

The root of much of this symbolism is found in the great pagan appreciation of the divine feminine in such goddesses as Isis and Ishtar. This reassertion of ancient channels of devotion has scandalized the Protestant wing of the church.

The High Priestess is ultimately representative of the Holy Wisdom, the sancta sophia, the Holy Spirit seen as a feminine principle. This is indicated by the book or scroll that she carries.

The Pillars of the Temple of Solomon are by no means irrelevant to this conception for she might also be regarded as the Shekinah, the Divine Presence that ever accompanied the Ark of the Covenant, from the times of its travels in the tent of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness to its installation on the Holy of Holies guarded by Cherubim in the Temple of Solomon. The Veil before which she sits not only has relevance to the Veil of Isis, the barrier of perception between the planes (that were seven-fold in the legends of Ishtar), but also the Veil of the Temple that was woven by the young virgin, in scarlet and purple silk, in the apocryphal stories of Mary, and which was rent at the Crucifixion, opening to the world the potential of that which had been hitherto concealed and unrevealed since the expulsion from Eden.

The Empress

Hand-Painted Images

The Visconti-Sforza Empress sits crowned with sceptre in her right hand and shield in her left, upon which is the device of the black imperial eagle.

Early Printed Card Tradition

In the Rosenwald sheet the sceptre is in her left hand and she holds an orb in her right. The Parisian tarot returns the sceptre to her right hand and her left hand is empty. This is the same basic pattern as the Catelin Geofroy Card.

In the Marseilles card the sceptre is held in the left hand and has a large orb with cross at its top, and the eagle shield reappears at her right hand. There is also the suggestion of two pillars behind her - or else a high backed throne. (See Figure 5.)

reappears at her right hand. There is also the suggestion of two pillars behind her - or else a high backed throne. (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5

Esoteric Versions

Wirth's Impératrice is winged, and holds a grand golden sceptre surmounted with a cross, and also a red shield upon which is a white eagle. A halo about her crowned head contains nine five-pointed golden stars. Her blue mantle falls down toward a crescent moon, which has a representation of an eye above it.

Waite's Empress is out of doors on a green mound, with wheat growing before her, and trees, a stream and a waterfall in the background. She holds a short green and gold sceptre aloft, and wears a head-dress consisting of a green wreath with twelve golden five-pointed stars. Her robe is decorated with flowers and her throne is supported by a heart shaped shield emblazoned with the sign of Venus.

The Golden Dawn Empress sits before a green curtain on a brown throne on a dais. She wears a flat head-dress with a type of crown decoration upon it, and holds an ankh in one hand and a sceptre topped by a golden sphere in the other. A halo encircles her head, the sphere, and arms of the throne; and a golden bird that is emblematically portrayed beside her head.


In the original hand-painted images this represents the simple power of supreme rulership in its feminine aspect.

This is a more outward, or mundane expression, so to speak, of the principle of the High Priestess - just as the Magician might be said to be a more outward expression of the Fool.

It can be found in the archetype that overshadowed great queens such as Elizabeth and Victoria - or that mythical queen who was thought to reside in the heart of Africa.

The principle of sovereignty was a feminine figure going back to the oldest of times, as in the figure of Eriu, the sovereignty of Ireland, which is at root behind and beyond the Holy Grail legends.

In Christian terms the figure is represented by the great Mother Church - an outward, mundane expression of the inner church that is represented by icons of the Virgin. Again there is deep symbolic relevance to the church as Body of Christ; for the feminine principle in outward expression is that of the body, the vessel, ultimately the Grail.

A. E. Waite emphasizes another expression of this great ruling feminine principle by showing on his card the Earth Mother, and the Venus symbol that is upon her heart-shaped shield is a reminder of the inner tradition that Venus holds the pattern for the perfected Earth. This, however, is more immediately a product of the Golden Dawn's allocation of the Trumps and planets to the Paths of the Tree of Life. This is indicated on the Golden Dawn by the presence of a hovering dove, a bird sacred to Venus.

The Empress as a whole might indeed be regarded as, not only the goddess Venus, but all goddesses that rule expression in form, including the principle of motherhood.

Tarot Card Readings and Your Destiny

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