The Fool: Meaning & Symbolism
A young man is just beginning his journey, the sun warm at his back. In his head is the blissful melody of song only he can hear. Each step forward into the unknown is as fluid as it is confident. He barely hears the dog barking at his heels. To him the dog’s warning makes no difference, as The Fool is determined to explore the unknown.
Keywords: New Beginnings, Child-Like Spirit, Personal Challenge
Correspondences: Elemental Air
The Fool, for many people, represents a new beginning. Whether you read intuitively or not, the allusion to a journey is obvious. Perhaps this is due to the correspondence of the card itself. Elemental Air symbolizes the realm of thoughts, and to some, can therefore represent the spirit or soul of a person. Together, the themes of a new beginning and spirit create the impression of being carefree or child-like. Many have come to recognize this now as a sort of innocence. To me personally, I prefer the idea of being child-like because it doesn’t involve the idea of being pure or impure. There’s no guilt factoring into The Fool, as, at the start of the journey, guilt is unknown. That’s why I choose to use child-like instead of innocent.
Broadening our interpretation of The Fool and his journey, we can start to utilize the symbols depicted. Different authors or sources notice a wide array of symbols within the Rider-Waite Smith. Not only that, but different authors will obviously assign different symbolic meaning to each of the depictions. So, in the interest of others, I’m going to note the sources for each of these symbolic interpretations. I’m also going to take a moment to disclose an obvious filter bias here. This is my blog, and so, for better or worse, I’m going to filter information through my own personal lens. Hopefully, you’ll find some interpretations that work for you. But remember, information can be discarded too.
For me, the first symbol I tend to notice with The Fool is the bag he carries. There’s something carefree about the whole affair. What’s interesting about this is that Rachel Pollack adds much to this symbol. The pack itself contains all of The Fool’s experiences, a burden that is light to carry. Not only that, but the eagle depicted on the bag alludes to the concept of the “soaring spirit” or an enlightened soul. Both of these symbols help us to better comprehend the journey The Fool is on. Over on Biddy Tarot, they arrive at a similar context to The Fool and his journey, but utilizing a different interpretation of the symbols. What I love about Biddy Tarot’s interpretation is that it tends to utilize the card’s background, not just The Fool himself.
Another aspect of The Fool’s pack or bag is the stick used to support it. Many different sources seem to agree that the stick is actually a magic wand. This magic wand is traditionally black in color, though I’ve noticed some Rider-Waite Smith decks have since changed this (notably the Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot). Magically, the color black often symbolizes the potential state. This works extremely well when it comes to the energy of both spirit and elemental air. Potential energy is, essentially, limitless possibilities. The Fool has just begun his journey, and as such, doesn’t know where to direct his energy. Rachel Pollack does have a fantastic story in her book The Tarot of Perfection to illustrate this point. The Fool embodies both limitless potential and an unknown air of arrogance.
The other prominent symbols on the card are both interestingly white in color. Both the dog and the rose seem to symbolize different aspects of the same concept. When I did my one card study of The Fool, I equated the dog to a protective force. I also equated the white rose with purity. When combined, the overall theme of both symbols starts to take shape. Both the dog and rose are white in color because they represent a purity of spirit. The rose might depict the blossoming energy of spirit, while the dog represents the protective energy of divine spirit. That’s my personal interpretation, so add or subtract what you will. For what it’s worth, Rachel Pollack compares the dog to the animal self of man. The Fool and the animal self are in harmony for this card.
Once we have an overall context of the card’s correspondence and combine that with the symbols within the card, we can start to interpret The Fool for the purposes of a reading. This is where Holistic Tarot really shines in my opinion. Benebell Wen does a great job of adding additional context, whether through the card’s individual archetype, psychological meaning, or symbolism that has been otherwise neglected. In the case of The Fool, Benebell Wen highlights the clothes The Fool wears. Many people consider these clothes rags, and in all fairness they still could be, but Wen makes an interesting observation that these rags are, in fact, nice rags.
This contradiction could be due to several reasons. The most likely to me personally is that tarot symbolism has become blended with time. The Marseilles Tarot System and the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot System both feature Fools, but in different places. Combine that with the fact some earlier tarot decks, such as the Visconti-Sforza, didn’t name the Trumps or Major Arcana at all, and things become muddy very quickly. The Fool’s overall appearance could have gone through a number of different depictions, representations that ultimately impacted how Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the card. This, as well as A.E. Waite’s strong opinions on what the card should represent, might explain the contradiction we see today in The Fool’s clothing.
But, what does it ultimately mean when interpreting tarot cards during a reading? Well, it might mean that the person cares a bit too much about their appearance. Vanity also lends itself to a host of other problems, overall arrogance being one of the most prevalent. To me, the more tattered state of the clothing means that this vanity is ultimately unintended. When The Fool’s energy is embraced, it is often in the form of untapped potential or possibility. Many people find that, when starting out, their opinions can come across as arrogant or prideful. This isn’t the case, they just don’t know they’re bucking the established system. The clothing is how The Fool is perceived by others, but not what is in reality. In reality, The Fool might just be shining brightly.
When The Fool shows up in a reading, the person can anticipate a new beginning. Their journey will require a leap of faith, a moment of trust. However, they will intuitively know this is the right step forward. Trusting their instincts may be difficult, but the universe is looking out for them. This is the time to listen to that inner voice and let their potential shine. While others may not understand or see things the same way, everything is clear to the individual. Their thoughts have possibly never made more sense, or at least, held them so captivated. That newfound energy is their true self, and it will lead to infinite possibilities.