The Fool: Puer Aeturnus

foolA youth strolls alongside a cliff on a bright sunny day. In one hand he holds a flower, symbol of spring and regeneration, and in the other a knapsack, a sign of the itinerant. Clad in the clothes of a landed squire, with ten “wheel” patterns adorning his robe, his regal nature is implied by the crimson plume on his headdress. He is not unfamiliar at court, therefore, but he prefers to be a wanderer. Perhaps he has been expelled from court for telling uncomfortable truths, and is seeking another home? The mountain peaks behind him are frigid and snow-capped, yet his world is a warm and welcoming place.

But wait—a small white dog nips at his feet, perhaps to play or to warn him of the cliff ledge in front of him! Looking skyward unto heaven, he appears either blissfully oblivious to the looming danger, or he realizes what a fool he has been to have been constrained by the limits of time and space in his earthly plane of existence. Perhaps he is seeking that mystical state of samadhi, where the spiritual adept can transcend time and space altogether. Perhaps he believes that the flowing sleeves of his garment will bear him up like the wings of a bird in flight should he step off the cliff. And who knows, he might actually be the prototypical “base jumper.” Dude, look out!

The Fool is the only card in the Tarot that has a numerical value of zero, which indicates that he is a being of pure potential and has no established form; he is the “void” in Genesis from which the Creator emerges to form the world from nothingness. He is the prima materia, that undifferentiated mass of matter the alchemist transforms from dross to precious metal. He is the “unmanifest”, the Ein Soph Aur of the Kabbala, being summoned into being. He is the very act of Creation at its moment of inception. In a phrase, we can say about the Fool: In him all things are possible. Through him we can soar into the heavens, or we can plunge into the abyss—or we can stop and smell the roses, and enjoy a lovely view; for that may be all that he is doing, and all he would have us do.

If this strikes a chord, we should take care to distinguish the “Fool” from, say, a “jester,” or a “clown,” or even a modern “standup comedian,” for they are not interchangeable terms. First, there is nothing depicted in this scene that would suggest either the kind of madness or mirth—and the Tarot deck has no shortage of such images!—that one associates with, say, the jesters of Elizabethan comedy. Rather, the Fool seems to radiate the aura of a seeker on a pilgrimage. (Note that the flower and stem in his left hand form a cross.) The root of the word “fool” is the Latin follis, which we translate as “folly” but which in the original means a “bellows” or “bag.” That’s the significance of the Fool’s knapsack, and it would indicate that while he may be welcome in the homes of lieges and lords, his true home is elsewhere, and that a lifetime of wandering is his destiny. A person of this type can scarcely be concerned about material pleasures and the comforts of hearth and home. This quality sets The Fool him apart from a “jester,” who lives on retainer with his royal hosts, or a clown or comedian, who are professional entertainers.

Another distinction to be made: whereas the jesters of ancient history were frequently plagued by illnesses such as schizophrenia and epilepsy, there is nothing that appears the least bit deranged about our Fool at all. He simply believes things that others find absurd. He sees the world serenely, in a way that others can’t comprehend. He trusts his instincts, and his faith in Divine intercession is unwavering. Why else, then, would he willingly step off the cliff? 

The Fool, then, is thought mad by others; his own countenance has nothing to do with it. If he seems foolish—even childlike—to us, it may be that he has opened a window of perception that the rest of us, trapped in the bonds of ego that frequently govern the way we look at the world, are still fumbling to find. Perhaps it is us, not him, who have been fooling ourselves.

The path of the Fool, which connects Kether to Chokmah on the Tree of Life, is known kabbalistically as the Scintillating Intelligence. It is the first spark of Divine energy that brings all consciousness into being, and this helps to explain why the element governing the Fool is the element of Air. Without oxygen, after all, we cannot illuminate our world with fire—metaphorically speaking, we would still be trapped in primordial darkness—and we would be unable to receive our first breath of life.

The first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, is ascribed to The Fool. In the Talmud, we read of God creating the letters of the alphabet before He created the world. Knowing God’s plans, the letters began beseeching him: “Please, Father, create the world through me!” In other words, they each wanted to be the first letter in the Torah. Eventually God relented to the flatteries of the letter Beth, who reminded God that she among all the letters is the one that originates all blessings of the Lord. Thereupon God wrote “Bereshith,” which means “In the beginning,” and thus was the Torah begun. One letter showed exceptional humility during this contest: Aleph, and for her willingness to humble herself before God, Aleph was rewarded by being placed at the head of the alphabet, even above Beth. Take another look at the “fool on the hill” as depicted in Trump 0. Does he appear to be impatient for recognition, or does he seem content in his walk? “Does he appear to be saying, “Me first” or “Use me as you will”?

All letters in the Hebrew alphabet have a discrete meaning, and the meaning of Aleph is “ox.” This might seem rather mundane for the first letter of a sacred alphabet, but we should remember the importance of oxen in ancient times; they were typically a man’s most important possession, for it was by the ox that man could till and harvest his fields. The bull has been a powerful symbol of fertility and masculinity since the dawn of human consciousness; consider some of man’s earliest known expressions of creativity—the cave paintings at Lascaux, which date from 15,000 years ago, and which predominate with representations of oxen. Similarly, the Fool can help us to till and harvest our spiritual fields; for while danger appears to loom before him, he continues on his way knowing no fear. Perhaps his yoke is easy and his burden is light?

Look again, too, at the Fool’s flowing garment, in particular at the ten “wheels” that dot his cloak. These correspond to the ten Sephiroth on the kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Divine energy flow that emanates across all planes of consciousness throughout all universes, and which unites God and man in the realm of spirit. For a humble wanderer in the wilderness, he certainly has acquired some formidable psychic awareness.

In sum, the Fool is a seeker who has turned his back on the material comforts of society, who surrenders himself to God, and who wanders in the wilderness with nary a care for the morrow. In return for his devotion he is given powerful psychic insight and a “link-up” to the Divine that are generally reserved for the adept. He preaches a message of childlike faith that others find inscrutable, and that may earn him the wrath of his fellows. Surely we can think of some powerful figures in the history of human consciousness who were thought mad in their day—yet the truths they taught, and the miracles they worked, have resonated in men’s hearts throughout the centuries.

In other examples of Tarot literature, the “dark side” of this card, if it has one at all, often revolves around the concept of the Trickster God, another ancient archetype that is common to virtually all cultures. Attributes of this archetype are the basest powers of ego-projection—the power to fool others and to make men mad. Personally, I think the qualities of the Trickster are more appropriately ascribed to Trump I, The Magician, which we’ll discuss in an upcoming post, but obvious negative attributes of this card  in a reading could include: Misplaced trust, naivete, self-deception, “pride goes before a fall” and even “look before you leap.” As this “zero card” is the most distantly removed from our earthly existence in the entire Tarot deck, it isn’t of much practical use when attempting to answer an everyday question about material matters in a conventional spread. But it can certainly signify the dawn of a new day, hope renewed, the search for meaning, the beginning of an enterprise, a spiritual journey, the power of faith, and even Divine intervention. It was written long ago that “The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” Perhaps being thought foolish in the eyes of this world is what the Creator would intend for us.

Dante DiMatteo

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