The Fool – The Tarot: Major Arcana
Learning the tarot can seem like a daunting task. It may be hard as a beginner to know what kind of deck to learn with, or how different portrayals of the same card can have similar and diverging meanings. We’ve developed this series to teach you about the history of the tarot, as well as provide you with some background on each of the 22 cards in the major arcana, the first half of the traditional 78-card tarot system. We’re also going to examine differences between different versions of the same card, as well as provide a little bit of extra information on how to start reading with any deck, regardless of the art style.
First off- what is a tarot deck? Tarot decks are sets of cards that have been used for hundreds of years as a tool to connect to divine sources for information. They were originally introduced in the 15th century as playing card decks for gaming purposes. They only began to be used for fortune telling around the 18th century. Just like most modern poker decks contain the same set of 52 cards, most modern tarot decks contain the same set of 78 cards. While each deck’s version of a specific card will share similar themes, the way these themes are illustrated can be quite different. The way we prefer to connect with these themes may determine which deck we feel most drawn to read with. To demonstrate this, let’s look at the first card in the tarot, the Fool.
The Fool is numbered 0 instead of 1 in most tarot decks because in its original playing card iteration it was not categorized as either a suit card or a trump card (most gaming tarot decks don’t number the card at all). In trick-taking games, one could play the Fool to avoid losing a more valuable card in their hand; playing the Fool would result in the player losing the round, but keeping the Fool itself and giving the winner whichever card in their hand had the least amount of value. In divinatory tarot decks, the Fool’s lack of numbering points to its symbolic meaning as both everything and nothing, or more specifically, the nothing that gives way to everything. They are a representation of the querent themselves, making their way through the lessons of the 21 cards in the tarot known as the major arcana or “the Fool’s Journey”.
These versions of the Fool also gave us its earliest imagery; most gaming tarot decks portray them as a beggar in tattered clothes sometimes wearing a jester’s hat and carrying a bindle over their shoulder while a dog or cat follows close behind.
(Left to right: Vergnano Tarot, the Soprafino Tarot, and the Tarot of Oswald Wirth, produced in 1889 by the Swiss occultist Oswald Wirth. Source: The Tarot Wheel)
So how does this affect the way we read The Fool in divination? When the Fool is pulled in a reading, it typically signifies new beginnings – with a healthy dose of inexperience! As the archetypal jester we are leaving the safe and familiar confines of the established kingdom into the wild unknown. Mistakes are likely to happen, but limitations can also be transcended and groundbreaking discoveries can be made. Sometimes we have to break out of our comfort zone to get a truly fresh start, and even though this can be scary, the benefit of personal growth is sure to outweigh the risk of failure.
In various versions of the card we see references to new beginnings, innocence, and potential. In the Rider-Waite, Fountain Tarot, African American Tarot, Zillich, and Pride decks, the protagonist can be seen on the edge of a precipice, confidently taking a leap into the unknown, despite having no knowledge of what awaits them on the other side.
(Pictured top to bottom: Rider-Waite Tarot, Fountain Tarot, African-American Tarot, Zillich Tarot, Pride Tarot)
In the Crow Tarot, the Fool stands perched on a floating log, blissfully unaware of the stormy and choppy waters that await them and trusting that the log will be enough to support them as they drift along on their journey.
(Pictured: The Crow Tarot)
The Fool in the Naked Heart Tarot is symbolized by a unicorn, hinting at the childlike curiosity that accompanies most of us when we begin to undertake such journeys
(Pictured: The Naked Heart Tarot)
In the Thoth tarot, the Fool is marked by the Hebrew letter Aleph, the beginning of the Tetragramaton or “the name of God”, further connecting it to the start of something that will bring profound spiritual growth.
(Pictured: The Thoth Tarot)
In the Rider-Waite, African American, Pride and Thoth decks we see another common Fool trope – the presence of an animal companion (The Naked Heart can be included in this if we think of the Unicorn as a familiar rather than the querent themselves). These companions symbolize our loyal essence, the part of ourselves we keep returning to after making the biggest of life changes. They remind us that no matter how much we evolve over time, we still carry the sum of our experiences with us.
(Pictured top to bottom:The Rider-Waite, African American Tarot, Pride Tarot, Thoth Tarot)
The last of the Fool’s most common features is taking very little with them on their journey. Most portrayals (including Rider-Waite, African American, Pride, and Zillich versions) feature the Fool in minimal clothing with only a bindle (a satchel tied to a stick) that holds the bare essentials. In the Fountain version, they carry even less, sparing the bindle and going barefoot as they make their leap. This symbolizes how material goods are of little use to us in matters of spiritual growth.
We can see that while each version of the card shares imagery from the original playing card versions, they also have their own unique distinctions that determine their appropriateness for certain readers in divinatory use. The Rider-Waite version of the Fool is probably the most well-known being that it is the first tarot deck with scenic imagery in its minor arcana (this was groundbreaking at the time it was published). Because of this, many decks released since have taken inspiration from the Rider-Waite without necessarily being aware of its playing card deck origins. The version in the African American Tarot closely follows the Rider template, but replaces the white character with a black character and their dog companion with a monkey. These changes make the imagery more regionally appropriate given that the deck is in homage to African history. This may also make the deck more accessible to a reader who has African ancestry and wants to see their self reflected in the cards. The Naked Heart and Crow Tarot have done away with the traditional imagery entirely, preferring to swap in animal protagonists for human ones. In these depictions, the core meanings of the card remain the same, but they don’t use the standard tropes to get them across. Just as well, many of the situations in our lives that can be described by the Fool do not have us standing literally on the edge of a cliff, holding a bindle, with a dog following along behind us. They are simply moments when we are confidently undertaking a new phase, without any kind of preparation or forethought. How that looks to you will determine which deck feels right to use at any given moment.
The decks pictured above can all be found at our brick-and-mortar store in Northampton, MA as well as online at inspiritcrystals.com/shop!
- Tarot Heritage
- Tarot Wisdom by Rachel Pollack
- Tarot Deciphered by T. Susan Chang and M.M. Meleen