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“Don’t Call Me Stupid”

October 18, 2018

From the time occultists started to write about the tarot, The Fool was given the significance of ‘foolishness’, however defined. For is it not logical to assume that a figure labeled ‘Fool’ and depicted as a vagrant in tatters being seen on his way by a neighborhood dog would represent mistaken choices, silly, even idiotic decisions? The design on the Waite-Smith card (which, let us remember, was an innovation back in 1910 when the deck came out, an innovation so novel that many wanted to know from whence the image derived) presents the Fool as a carefree youth, unconcerned that he is about to stride off the edge of a precipice as his attention is elsewhere. With change of image comes change of meaning; and sure enough, Waite’s picture of the Fool invokes in the tarot reader far kindlier thoughts and emotions than does the original image of a ragged beggar.

early Fool 1  early Fool 2  early Fool 3

The Waite-Smith deck didn’t really catch on in tarot circles until the late fifties/early sixties. Even then it took a while for it to become widely accepted. Right up to the start of the seventies, some manuals of tarot divination continued to cite the earlier interpretation of the unnumbered Trump.

What was this earlier interpretation? In what terms was ‘folly’ described by our predecessors in tarot lore? I have on record two gypsy meanings for the Fool from different sources. One is ‘Foolishness’ pure and simple. The other is ‘Aberration’, a term suggesting that the inquirer is going to do something totally out of character and not to his credit or his benefit – an act that can thus be categorized as foolish. Another interpretation is: “A thoughtless act may come back to haunt you.” These readings of the symbolism set the tone for the various interpretations of the idea of “folly” I am about to set before you.

It is debatable how old any of the gypsy meanings are. Some experts say that as late as the 1950s, gypsies didn’t make readings using the tarot at all. It might be worth noting, then, that Etteilla, writing in 1785 gave ‘Aberrations’ as one of the Fool’s meanings. The so-called gypsy meaning may actually have been adopted from Etteilla’s lexicon, some time in the nineteenth century or even later.

S.L. Mathers, in his short work The Tarot (1888), assigns the following meanings to the Fool card: Folly, Expiation, Wavering. Reversed: Hesitation, Instability, Trouble arising herefrom.

In The Tarot of the Bohemians, Papus reports that the card signifies “Inconsiderate Action, Madness”. However, another translation of his text gives “Impulsive act, Folly”, in which we clearly hear echoes of the ‘Foolishness’ and ‘thoughtless act’ recorded above. In his Tarot of Divination, Papus is more succinct but the message is the same. He writes, simply, ‘Impulse, folly’. Later in the book he speaks of ‘Expiation’ in relation to the Fool, and is here following out the same line of thought as Mathers. What both authors mean is that, whatever it is that is about to befall the inquirer, it represents the expiation of some act she has committed in the past. Thoughtlessness and blind impulse inevitably give rise to failure in one department of life or another. Which accounts for the appearance of ‘Failure’ among the meanings put forward by The Church of Light and also by British occultist Frank Lind. The former gives the meanings as ‘Failure, Folly and Mistake’, the latter as ‘Extravagant idealism. Folly. Mistake. Failure. Excess – which is the general meaning of this card; and so it lays emphasis upon the rest of the cards [in the reading], particularly those in its vicinity.’ Lind has taken on board significances assigned the Fool by Charles Platt (Card Fortune Telling, c. 1921), who says the card “represents the extreme in anything and everything, but not in a good sense. Reversed: the total neglect of duties, negligence, carelessness, vanity.” (This is a paraphrase.)

fool 0 allternativefool 0 frenchmodern tdm 22t

Sepharial, when not following C.C. Zain of the Church of Light to the letter, gives the Fool the meanings: “Necessity, privation, ruin, egotism; selfishness; vanity, credulity, blind credulity; ignorance, blindness, error, conspicuous folly, insanity. Unrestrained passions. Inconsequence; danger; detachment, isolation.” In this, he covers all the bases, delineating almost every form folly may assume in everyday life (from privation and danger at the lower end of the scale to complete ruin at the upper) and every cause of folly – from the blind credulity that leads some to invest their savings in get-rich-quick schemes to the selfishness and egotism that leads other people to conclude that they know what is best under all circumstances and on that basis to reject every entreaty or morsel of good advice offered them no matter how well intentioned or supremely rational those entreaties or morsels of advice may be.

Almost the entire English-speaking portion of the tarot world now embraces an upbeat meaning for the Fool. It is taken as indicating: Fearlessness, courage, joy of life, a new beginning, hidden potential about to be revealed, a higher than usual level of intuition, and being in the right place at the right time

Against this background, I stick with the significance I was first taught for the card: Folly, pretty much as defined by Mathers and Papus above. Why have I chosen to go against the trend? Two reasons. Firstly, the interpretation fashioned in the second half of the twentieth century for the card is based primarily on the Waite-Smith image. Having spent time in a Golden Dawn-type esoteric school, I am aware that the G.D. allowed this Trump two interpretations, one positive, the other negative. It is the positive G.D. meaning that is applied most often to the Waite-Smith card today. In Book T, the G.D.’s tarot bible, this meaning is given as “Idea, thought, spirituality, that which endeavours to rise above the material.” The Fool’s negative side is said to manifest as “folly, stupidity, eccentricity, and even mania, unless with very good cards indeed.” The constraint applied to the use of the positive meaning appears in Book T as: The card “is too ideal and unstable to be gen­erally good in material things.” The instruction in the school I trained in was that, unless the subject of a reading was purely spiritual (on the understanding that precious few reasons for reading the tarot are purely spiritual), the more negative meaning was the one most likely to apply.

Aleister Crowley, in The Book of Thoth, follows Book T almost to the letter: “In spiritual matters, [it] represents ideas, thoughts, spirituality, that which endeavors to transcend earth. In material matters [it] may show, if badly dignified, folly, eccentricity, even mania.” Similarly, Paul Foster Case, in his book The Tarot, lists the divinatory significance of the Fool as: “In spiritual matters: Originality, audacity, venturesome quest. In material affairs: Folly, eccentricity, inconsiderate action”. Both Case and Crowley received a G.D. training, and in respect of the Fool remain true to Order’s comprehension of the card.

My second reason for keeping to the older interpretation is that, by removing the concept of folly from the tarot we prevent the cards from giving us a rounded picture of the world we live in. We inhabit an era in which it is not politically correct to show disrespect to another person, and so a familiar cry of modern times is: “Don’t call me stupid!” Contrast this attitude with what you will hear blurted out every five minutes in the course of a typical car journey. “Idiot!” “Learn to drive, you moron!” And worse. There is a post on FaceBook that reappears every few weeks or so: “You can’t fix stupid.” Inconsiderate acts and foolish mistakes are alive and well in the twenty-first century and in my opinion it is as well not to exclude their appearance from our tarot readings. Especially when there is already a card to signify fearlessness and courage – Strength – and another to represent a higher than usual level of intuition – The High Priestess.

The duality expressed by the card, as well as the way opposing meanings are allocated in the Three Worlds, is conveyed by the Fool’s "Secret Titles”. At the highest level, the Divine World, the title is Radiatio meaning “radiation” or “to shine”. At the most basic level, that of the Material World, the title is Materia, “matter”. These attributions present the tarotist of an esoteric inclination with a paradox. Light shines; matter, considered esoterically, does not. Emission of light is a property of the sun and the stars; the Earth (matter) is illuminated by them, it does not itself radiate light. Esoterically, matter is often referred to as blind matter. Alchemically, it equates with the base metal lead. Light, on the other hand, is equated with gold. At one end of the Fool’s spectrum, we have lead, at the other gold. Alchemists believe there is an essential link between the two metals, and it is that link that would, under the right circumstances, permit lead to be transmuted into gold.

Between the Divine and Material Worlds there lies the Intellectual World, the world of mind and the imagination. In this world, the Fool’s Secret Title is Signum, “sign”. The sign generally associated with the card by occultists is called, in Latin, Furca, meaning a fork, and is typically represented as a capital Y. It represents a fork in a road. One path will lead the seeker to the radiant Divine World while the other leads to dark world of matter from whence she or he set out in the first place. One branch of esotericism places the Fool after the Judgment card and before The World, using this ordering of the Trumps to illustrate a parable. On reaching the interior experience marked by Trump 20, they say, the seeker’s soul is judged. If it is sufficiently developed in wisdom, compassion and understanding it passes on the state represented by The World, identified in this tradition with the Crown of the Magi. But if the seeker’s soul still contains impurities, it is returned to Earth and given another chance to climb the ladder of initiation.

The initiatory system is not a matter of receiving instructions in occult practice behind closed doors and having mystic titles bestowed on one. As one who knows has revealed: “The process of initiation is one of regeneration. It means developing our inmost essence, first to birth and then to full growth. This involves a rejection and mystical death of all the lower principles that obstruct your growth.” With each incarnation, the human soul starts this process over again from the beginning. Those who find their way to the path of initiation move forward by means of instruction and discipline; one is impotent without the other. It is by this blend of teaching and discipline that the schools of initiation purify and rectify the soul. The method is sometimes referred to as spiritual alchemy. Alchemy itself is known to the Wise as “the work of fire”, and in spiritual alchemy fire is applied to the soul so as to burn away impurities.

It the present age many profess a desire for initiation without understanding what they are asking for. Even in the twenty-first century, the old adage remains true: When the pupil is ready, the master appears. Often the complaint is made that true occult knowledge – which is instruction combined with activities based on the instruction – is reserved for a favored few, and kept under wraps by them. This is not entirely the case. The alchemist Artephius wrote that he had resolved to publish the whole truth of the alchemical method “sincerely and truly; so that men may have nothing more to desire concerning the work [i.e., the Great Work]. I except one thing only, which it is not lawful that I should write, because it can be revealed only truly by God, or by a master. Nevertheless, this likewise may be learned from this book, provided one be not stiff necked, and have a little experience.”

Artephius invokes qualities the Fool does not possess. The Fool is inexperienced and ignorant in the worst possible way because he depends for his knowledge on his own opinions, understandings, interpretations. Such a person cannot be taught and must endure incarnation after incarnation until he realizes that he cannot ascend the ladder of initiation unaided. This endless round is one of the meanings behind that arrangement of Major Arcana popular in certain schools of initiation where the Trumps are laid out in a circle, the unnumbered Fool between Trumps 21 and I, where he is at once the first and the last card.

22 aos     Arcane-Arcana-01-bateleur-magician

The circle is broken when the Fool grasps the significance of a Being greater than himself. On occasion the Fool is retitled The Foolish Man, bringing to mind the Bible verse: The foolish man says in his heart “There is no God”. Contrast that attitude with this remark about the great occult philosophers of old, Raymond Lully, Alain de l’Isle, John Trithemius, H.C. Agrippa, and others: “Faith was the beacon of light that led them on to conviction, by a free perspicuity of thought beyond things seen, to believe and hope truthfully, which is the distinguishing prerogative of all great minds.”

This insight comes from a school that imagines the Trumps in circular formation. In this arrangement the card is set on a knife’s edge, at the point at which faith dawns and the soul becomes truly aware of the realm “beyond things seen”. Esoterically speaking, the Fool is essentially a materialist. But the Juggler – the Magician, Trump 1 – is given the occult attribution Visible and Invisible (see card above). The Fool apprehends only the visible world; the Juggler recognizes both worlds, has access to both, can operate in both. The step from Fool to Juggler is the first step on the ladder of initiation.

One Comment
  1. This is amazing insight into The Fool! Thank you for sharing. I’m going to rethink the way I read that card now.

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