The popular meaning of fool is someone stupid, gullible, or laughable. But the Tarot Card definition is quite different.

The picture I've seen shows a boy, smiling honest, eyes uplifted towards the sun above, about to step off the edge of a cliff. I like this because it shows both the happiness and the let-downs that come from believing that the world is a good, honest place. Personally, I'll be a fool anyday--the other options are certainly no better.

E2 Tarot Cards

Aleister Crowley's description:

Wrapped in perpetual bubble-wrap, the fool walks along cliffs as if falling off never occured to him. But he is karmically cloaked by his youthful enthusiasm, built like a baby to handle life's first really rocky paths. He is an initiator, because he cannot understand why anyone wouldn't want to leap ahead into the unknown, so people who follow him may topple over the side, but his road is easy and exciting, with little to hold him back. We merely call him the fool because those who carry any life experience know the pifalls. What he doesn't know won't hurt him.

Imagine plateaus surrounding him, maybe a coy-dog following him, as we watch him take his first really big step forward.

Under the zero, the fool carrys his small bag of what? as he faces out into the void.

The gaze on his face is one of ecstasy, watching everything becoming. He is caught in this state, one foot over the abyss, never managing to step. Will he be like Roadrunner, and walk across the void, or like Wile E. Coyote, and fall...

Often likened to Parceval, or Par-ce-val, "through the center" (I probably don't have that spelling right) from the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: "through the center". This knight said to be a fool, but nevertheless, as for any fool, things still work out.

Upon further reflection, an elaboration:

The stance of the fool has always seemed to me to be the attitude one must take towards one's own creativity. I have never been one to feel I can control what I create. When I'm working best, I don't care what pitfalls lie below--I just move on, through the center, in a daze. I am a slave to whatever is at the other side. I could fall, and often I do, but sometimes I don't.

The fool, of course, is the source of the major arcana because of this attitude. All else is an elaboration of the first word, the first step, the first rapt venture into the unknown--all could fail, but all could succeed.

Back to The Dhammapada

Chapter Five -- The Fool

  1. Long is the night to the sleepless; long is
    the league to the weary; long is worldly existence
    to fools who know not the Sublime Truth.
  2. Should a seeker not find a companion who
    is one's better or equal, let one resolutely pursue a
    solitary course; there is no fellowship with a fool.
  3. The fool worries, thinking, "I have sons,
    I have wealth." Indeed, when he himself is not
    his own, whence are sons, whence is wealth?
  4. A fool knows his foolishness is wise
    at least to that extent, but a fool who thinks
    himself wise is called a fool indeed.
  5. Though all his life a fool associate with a
    wise person, he no more comprehends the Truth
    than a spoon tastes the flavour of the soup.
  6. Though only for a moment a discerning
    person associate with a wise person, quickly
    he comprehends the Truth, just as the tongue
    tastes the flavour of the soup.
  7. Fools of little wit are enemies unto themselves
    as they move about doing evil deeds, the
    fruits of which are bitter.
  8. Ill done is that action doing which one
    repents later, and the fruits of which one reaps,
    weeping with tearful face.
  9. Well done is that action doing which one
    repents not later, and the fruits of which one reaps
    with delight and happiness.
  10. So long as an evil deed has not ripened,
    the fool thinks it as sweet as honey. But when the
    evil deed ripens, the fool comes to grief.
  11. Month after month a fool may eat his
    food with the tip of a blade of grass, but he still
    is not worth a sixteenth part of those who have
    comprehended the Truth.
  12. Truly, an evil deed committed does not
    immediately bear fruit, like milk that does not
    turn sour all at once. But smouldering, it follows
    the fool like fire covered by ashes.
  13. To his own ruin the fool gains knowledge, for
    it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness.
  14. The fool seeks undeserved reputation,
    precedence among renunciates, authority over monasteries,
    and honour among householders.
  15. "Let both laypersons and renunciates think that
    it was done by me. In every work, great and
    small, let them follow me"--such is the ambition
    of the fool; thus his desire and pride increases.
  16. One is the quest for worldly gain, and quite
    another is the path to Nibbana. Clearly
    understanding this, let not the renunciate, the disciple
    of the Buddha, be carried away by worldly acclaim,
    but develop detachment instead.

The Fool's Departure

In Shakespeare's King Lear, one of the most interesting characters mysteriously disappears. The Fool is present throughout the first half of the play, criticizing Lear, making sexual jokes, and predicting peoples' deaths. However, after Act 3.6, the Fool simply vanishes. There is never any formal mention by any character of his departure; it is as if Shakespeare suddenly forgot to write lines for him for the final two acts. One minute, he is actively participating in the play, the next, he is completely forgotten by all the characters. Surely The Bard would not make such an utterly obvious mistake of forgetting such a colorful character. I believe the Fool was removed for one or possibly all of the following reasons.

His relationship with Lear

The Fool is foolish by nature. That is his character; he can't help himself from singing rhymes, making puns, and telling dirty jokes. However, as an ironic twist, the Fool was also blessed with incredible insight and wisdom. While he is still present, the Fool is constantly criticizing Lear while trying to help him. Lear is slowly going mad from the abuse he is taking from his manipulative, immoral daughters, Regan and Goneril. The Fool basically is Lear's wisest advisor. He sees through the evil daughter's scheming and tries to warn Lear. However, because of his foolish nature, Lear ignores him. Eventually, Lear hits rock bottom during the trial scene in the storm (in Act 3.6). It involves Lear setting up an imaginary trial to prosecute his wicked daughters. Because of all the bad decisions he has made, Lear ends up homeless, without power, and playing make believe in a shack. It is plain to see by this scene that Lear has gone mad. The Fool, playing the contradictory role of a wise man in a fool's suit to contrast to the foolish King Lear, is no longer needed. With Lear completely down and out, the Fool has no more use as a foil to contrast his wisdom or to try to prevent disaster, as it has already occurred.

Cordelia comes back

Cordelia, the youngest and only loving daughter of King Lear, is expelled to France almost immediately in Act 1.1, and stays there for a majority of the play. Interestingly, the Fool enters the play shortly after she leaves, and leaves shortly before she returns. This theory is similar to the above theory that his relation as a foil and advisor to King Lear was no longer necessary after he went mad. Basically, there are three foolish characters in the play: the Fool himself, King Lear, and Cordelia. Cordelia is foolish because of her refusal to play along with his game of public proclamations of love. By doing so, she was kicked out of Britain, thus giving the sinister Regan and Goneril a chance to usurp the kingdom. Sadly, she was the only daughter of the three that truly loved Lear. The Fool, in a way, becomes Cordelia while she's gone. He and Lear are very affectionate when they aren't insulting one another. The Fool, being the only person left to love Lear, tries to save him from the evil daughters and his own madness. However, when Cordelia returns, she can take that role back. Once again, the Fool isn't needed.

The Madness balance

I like this theory the best. At the beginning of King Lear, the only crazy character is the Fool. Everyone sees him simply as a jester that sings seemingly nonsensical songs (unbeknownst to them, they are subtly laced with prophesy). As the play progessess, Lear slowly becomes mad and Edgar, a nobleman's son, is forced to disguise himself as an insane drifter named Poor Tom. All three crazy characters end up together during the critical mock trial in Act 3.6, the Fool's final scene. After the trial, Edgar eventually gets rid of his disguise and Lear almost recovers his sanity before the tragic ending. If you were to measure the "Madness level" of the play, it would look like this:

          !  ---Trial scene (Act 3.6)
         / \    
        /   \  
       /     \
Act 1 /       \ Ending 

The Fool was therefore removed during the climax of the madness. A possible reason could be to balance the madness of the two halves of King Lear. Doubling and shadows were an important theme in the play, so that would connect.

The Fool's disappearance from the play could be related to any of these reasons, or even all of them combined. It is still a point of dispute to Shakespeare critics today.

"With light step, as if earth and its trammels had little power to restrain him, a young man in gorgeous vestments pauses at the brink of a precipice among the great heights of the world; he surveys the blue distance below him --- its expanse of sky rather than the prospect below. His act of eager walking is still indicated, though he is stationary at the given moment; his dog is still bounding. The edge which opens on the depth has no terror; it is as if angels were waiting to uphold him, if it came about that he leaped from the height. His countenance is full of intelligence and expectant dream. He has a rose in one hand and in the other a costly wand, from which depends over his right shoulder a wallet curiously embroidered. He is a prince of the other world on his travels through this one --- all amidst the morning glory, in the keen air. The sun, which shines behind him, knows whence he came, whither he is going, and how he will return by another path after many days..."

The above passage, a lovely, lyrical description of the Fool card of the Tarot deck, comes from The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, at the very end of "Numbers", which is one of my favorite poems of all time. It appears in quotation marks, but I'm not sure where the quote is from, or whether Creeley invented a quote for the occasion, and sometimes I'm not even sure it's part of the poem at all, but either way I think it's exactly it's the right kind of drifting off into infinity ending for a poem about numbers.

The Fool strikes me as a representation of exactly my favorite kind of liminal/transformative mythic clueless trickster figure, if that makes any sense. My impression is that there are very few purely wise or purely foolish Trickster characters in myth, but rather that Tricksters tend to misjudge their1 own cleverness (usually by overestimating it), and that's how they prove themselves fools, time and time again. Yet for me they also embody the spirit of occasionally achieving great things, even things previously considered impossible, simply by virtue of not knowing those things supposedly couldn't be done. Is it innocence or ignorance that's bliss? When all is said and done, I think I don't so much identify with the Fool as aspire to Fooldom.

  1. I tried to write this sentence using singular masculine pronouns, since, as the trickster writeup elaborates at greater length, the Fool and his kindred are predominantly male. But inclusive language won the day.
No I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Fool is consciousness without self-consciousness. He is first card of the Major Arcana and, in many ways, the rest of the Major Arcana are the actuality that follows from the Fool's potential. Because he is a clean slate, the Fool knows nothing, completely ignorant of the customs and ways of the world around him. This is not always a disadvantage, however: those who's sight is colored by the life they lead and the things they have learned often miss truths that the Fool can see as plain as the nose on his face. This is why in the Shakespearean tradition of Drama, seen especially in King Lear, the Fool is often the only one who speaks the truth.

Perhaps the most relevant part of the quote from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is not so much the statement of the narrator that he is the Fool, but rather that he is "at times" and even then only "almost" The Fool. The entire selection has him speaking of himself with his own voice, defining himself and defining himself as, "politic, cautious, and meticulous," three things that are as far from The Fool as one can possibly get. But at times, at times the speaker is still almost ridiculous, almost The Fool. At times the speaker comes so close to becoming the Fool that he can feel it within himself, and for a moment his self consciousness passes away.

This is the nature of The Fool. Very few of us can remain so foolish all the time, so completely out of touch with the world around us and with our own histories that we are consciousness untouched and unspoilt. Instead we are pressed upon by society and by our obligations. Every once in a while, however, even the most self-conscious of us has a chance to let ourselves be carried away into a state of unspoilt purity, the land of The Fool.

The concept of fana from Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, resonates very much with The Fool. In Arabic, fana means "passing away" not in the sense of dying so much as in the sense of simply ceasing to be. When one attains fana one has let one's ego pass away, the matter of one's life simply melting off of the core consciousness. Similarly, many forms of Buddhism refer to what they call beginner's mind, which involves the mind passing into the state it was in the beginning, before learning everything it did. This idea crops up in the Christian tradition as well. In many of the gospels, both those in the Bible such as Gospel of Matthew, as well as more apocryphal works, such as The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus implores his followers to become like children.

The Fool is a symbol of a person who is not defined by his surrondings. The Fool stands outside the progression of the cards from one to twenty-one, himself the zero-th card of the Tarot. The Fools stands outside of the real numbers largely because he is both a point of beginning and a point of ending. This is often literal, as we all enter the world as complete Fools and in our old age our minds are taken once again from us, but it is also true from a path of spiritual development, for as we travel along our path to enlightenment we carve more and more of the world out of our consciousness, until the only thing left is the purity of our souls standing apart from the body, the senses, and even the thoughts that rage in a tempest around it.

taken with permission from

"Every man must journey forward and choose between good and evil. If he has no philosophy, he is the fool."
The Tarot Revealed, Eden Gray, pg. 150, Publisher: Signet, 1969.

Like Icarus of Greek mythology The Fool embodies childlike innocence and blissful dreams without regard for consequences.

The fool is not only a starting place within the tarot, but also an ending. We begin our adventure into life smiling and blissful, with divine optimism and trust. We end our cycle in the same way.

This card represents a quest into the unknown. In most versions of "The Fool" the character portrayed is that of a youth stepping from firm ground into a chasm or deep water. A warning figure (can be a dog, however in the Light and Shadow tarot it is a monkey!) tries to hold the youth back while he steps forward with a smiling face.

Despite negative representation in some of the older decks The Fool truly illustrates the first and last lesson we all face in life. The Fool connotates one who is free from base forms of desire, about to embark on a supreme adventure with joy.

Without petty distractions the fool is blissfully innocent and unaware of the dangers he may face on his journey. This is a strength: if he stops to consider the troubles he will face it may stop him from carrying out his plan, and prevent or delay his journey. He is capable of pushing forward.

In his innocence he believes he is truly capable of anything, having not yet placed limitations on himself.

The Fool speaks of a profound choice. When this card appears in a Tarot reading, the questioner is being faced with two roads he may travel. Petty fears and worries are warning against the great adventure while the spirit desires the abandonment and freedom of a child.

Discretion is advised, and the querant should use all the powers at his disposal to make a choice. If upright, the individual will rise above the obstacles at hand. Reversed, the suggestion is that taking the "other path" is likely to lead to failure. In either case consider all the options at hand before committing to action.

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