Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Fool

A few weeks ago, Charlotte's post on Tarot cards got me looking into symbolism and the history of the Tarot. Chris got me a vintage Rider deck, and for the past week I have been reading Arthur Edward Waite's book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which accompanied the cards back in 1910 when these particular cards were first issued. The book is complicated and rich in symbolism. Waite was a mystic, a member of The Golden Dawn, a Freemason, and later, the founder of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He was not pleased with the way Tarot cards were being used for divination. For Waite, the cards (particularly the 22 Major Arcana cards) served the purpose of preserving the divine, universal secrets of the humankind, which had been carried through the ages with the help of the trained, dedicated few and the chosen. It seems that Waite wrote his book as an attempt to clarify and fix some common misconceptions about Tarot cards, only to rely so heavily on age-old secrecy and symbolism himself that it is no wonder the Tarot have a bit of a reputation.


As I got my Rider deck, one card jumped at me immediately: the Fool. I had seen it before. In my continuing research in the history of psychiatry and concepts of madness I had often seen the image of "the traveling idiot" in strange clothes, carrying a staff and a pouch (or bladder, as they say) attached to it, often accompanied by a dog.

Back in the 14th century the fool was pictured with a tree branch, also known as the staff of madness.

The fool in a 14th century manuscript

Giotto: The Seven Vices: "Foolishness", 1306

In later imagery the fool is seen carrying a wider range of long, wooden objects. In some cases he leans onto a simple cane, in others he carries a child's pinwheel, with or without a pouch attached to it. (The staff or wand is also seen in imagery of witches flying on broomsticks.) The fool was often associated with the wild man, the man who lives in the forest. The branch or the wooden staff would fit this imagery. In some images his coat is also made of leaves, and in others, he wears a headpiece made of feathers.

Bedford Book of Hours, 14th century French manuscript

In all images, the fool's attire is questionable. Apart from wearing leaves and feathers, he is also shown in ragged or otherwise ridiculous clothing. By his appearance, he portrays someone who has lost all normalcy by abandoning proper clothes and a proper habitat. He is, then, in denial of all order, and of God. (Those who deny Christ are "foolish", according to Hans Holbein the Younger's 1547 work on illustrated Psalms.)

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli: Proverbi Figurati, 1678

The fool has often shared his imagery with the madman, especially the melancholiac. The planet Saturn has been linked to sadness and melancholy since the first century by the poet Manilius, and here lies the connection to the fool's common companion, the dog. The dog is an old symbol of melancholy and the planet Saturn. A 16th century author even called the fool's pinwheel "the Saturnian pinwheeler". In this sense, the fool becomes the representative of the sad and the morose.


Cesare Ripa's Iconologia: "Madness", 1645

Hans Holbein the Younger: Icones historiarum veteris testamenti, 1547

Bonifacia Bembo: Tarot card from 1460-1470 in Visconti-Sforza deck

From what I have read, the Fool card in Tarot seems to represent the old myth of the blessed, traveling fool of the Middle Ages. As the story goes, the village idiots (that is to say, the mentally or developmentally challenged individuals) were shut out of their towns and families and left in their own devices in the countryside. For a very brief period of time in history toward the end of the Middle Ages, the idea of the traveling fool represented someone in the search of their lost wisdom. The fool was childlike, innocent, unaware of the complexities of human existence. The fool was nearer to happiness than anyone with reason. Strangely enough, even though the history of the fool eventually took him from the countryside to confinement, the portrayal of the fool as a staff-bearing wildman persisted, even in semi-medical portrayals of the insane, the idiot, or the melancholiac.

Detail of Daniel Chodowiecki's plate "The physiognomy of illness and deformity", from Johann Gaspar Lavater's Physiognomische Fragmente, 1774-1778



Detail of Charles Aubry: Album Comique de pathologie pittoresque, "Saint Guy's Dance", 1823

Jean Louis Alibert: Physiologie des Passions, "Portrait of Anselm", 1826

The myth of the traveling fool seems to occupy the meanings attached to the Fool of the Tarot: the card depicts the journey of man through life, his childlike connection to the workings of the world. The rose the fool carries has come to symbolize his appreciation of beauty, and the meaning of the dog has changed from that of melancholy to the call of the physical, material side of the world. The number given to the Fool is zero, nothing.

Images: Sander L. Gilman's Seeing the Insane, and Wikipedia.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great observation, hon! This is a really cool post...very-very interesting, oxox, CR

Terri said...

I'm interested to know more about Waite's take on the tarot. The "village idiot" is an archtype to me. I have a distinct memory of singing in a Baptist church where the music was draggy and funereal. Several members of the audience were from the local home for "exceptional children" and they showed everyone how we should sing.