The Fool is the Universal Significator; everybody can see themselves in him.* It’s a special card for this and many other reasons (for one, he’s the only card of the Major Arcana to make it into modern decks of playing cards in the form of the Joker). Among the Major Arcana, the Fool is an anomaly. What is the significance behind this strange card that, on its surface, does not really seem very flattering?
The Fool is very often the first card in the deck, and so he is the one who introduces us to the Tarot. But he is not really a part of the deck, at least not in the sense the the rest of the 77 cards are. He’s only really placed up front because of his number, which isn’t really a number at all: Zero.
In the original Marseilles decks, there was no number on the Fool card, not even a 0 (these are the same decks that originally left card 13 without a title). This made it clear that he was not like the rest of the cards, as separate from the deck as the real Fool in the Middle Ages was separate from society. It also means that he can be comfortably placed anywhere within the deck without upsetting the prescribed numerical order. It’s as though he alone among the cards is able to travel from place to place, free from restraint. This gives way to the idea that the Fool is the central character in the narrative of the Tarot, progressing through the cards as if they were the chapters of his life.
Hence the “Fool’s Journey” method of interpretation, which is Tarot speak for what is more generally called the “Journey of the Hero”. The Hero’s Journey is a form of story that has been around for at least 4,000-some years. It is present in some form or another in every mythic tradition around the world and throughout the ages. It is also very common in modern (and otherwise not so modern) literature. Whether they’re aware of it or not, many authors use the Hero’s Journey structure when they write a story. This is especially true of fantasy and other genres of speculative literature, but you can find it pretty much everywhere.
In the Tarot, the Hero is the Fool. This might seem strange at first glance. After all, the Fool doesn’t fit today’s stereotype of the Hero. The Fool is an outcast, taken seriously by no one. His sole purpose, when he is considered to have one, is mere comic relief. To be called a Fool is to be insulted.
Some of this is certainly true of the Fool card. It may very well be a warning against potential foolish behavior. In the RWS and similarly inspired decks, the Fool appears to be unaware of the fact that he’s about to step right off a cliff. It could indicate that others are not taking you seriously, or that you are pushing social norms to their limits and might possibly consider reeling yourself in.
But the Fool also embodies a sense of pure innocence. He is unburdened by worldly concerns and possesses the simple capacity to see the beauty in everything. More than anything else, the Fool is free.
In many myths, legends, and stories, the Hero turns out to be the very person who seems the least qualified at the outset. A generic example: All of the macho knights have attempted to slay the terrorizing dragon with no success. The only remaining person willing to volunteer is the foolish youth. Nobody has faith that he can do it, but they let him go anyway. Of course, he slays the dragon, liberates the village, and is lauded as a hero.
The hero always begins his story with the end of his normal, every day life. Something occurs which jolts him out of his usual routine and sends him on his journey. The Fool card depicts the moment just before his story begins. The number 0 is indicative of this, as is his precarious position at the edge of a cliff. On a deeper level, these two aspects of the card represent the soul prior to worldly birth – still one with the Universe, within the protective womb-like enclosure of the Ouroboros. Once he steps off the precipice, he will descend into consciousness. This symbolism reminds me in particular of Hindu epic tradition. The heroes of these stories are usually mortal incarnations of gods. The deity exists in the bliss of heaven until the hero is born, and he falls to earth, landing in the hero’s body with little or no recollection of his divinity; he only gradually comes to recognize it, although his divinity still shines through in his virtuous character. The Fool is the pure soul, just before the inevitable fall from Paradise. The rest of the cards are just the quest to regain what was lost in the fall.
In a sense, the circular 0 also signifies completion. At the end of his journey, after the revelry of the World (card 21), the hero becomes the Fool once again, enlightened in his regained innocence (notice in the RWS, the Fool wears upon his head a wreath much like that which is pictured in the World).
It is therefore no surprise that the Fool works as a universal significator, because every person is the hero of his or her own life story. The Fool shows the child in all of us, and suggests that it’s not always a bad thing to embrace this aspect of ourselves, even at the risk of appearing foolish to others. In fact, we must embrace our inner Fool before we can ever hope to embark on the spiritual journey that ultimately leads to enlightenment. No other character has the capacity to simply begin. Every other character claims to know something, trying to make it seem like they know everything. But they don’t realize that everything includes the concept of nothing, and only the Fool is comfortable with knowing nothing. Only the Fool can say “I know one thing for certain, and that is I know nothing for certain” and truly mean it. This must be understood before the first step is taken on the path to Wisdom and Enlightenment.
*I call the Fool “him” only for simplicity’s sake. In many cards, the Fool is androgynous enough that he could easily be a she, and this is apt. At any rate, gender is a concept in the Tarot that, like just about everything else, is symbolic of an idea that transcends our worldly definitions, and is not necessarily meant to be taken literally.