I’ve never been a great fan of the Waite deck. Perhaps that’s because my first introduction to tarot cards was through the symbols on the Marseille deck; and because they’re ancient symbols I’ve always classed them as the real deal. Sure, I’ve studied the Waite deck, but I’ve never felt comfortable with it. I’ve never been happy about his ‘correction’ and thus transposition of Strength and Justice. Let’s remember, he was in The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret occult society, where only those in the inner sanctum were permitted certain knowledge. So why did he suddenly publish such a big ‘secret’ for the masses to discover? Or was he trying to confuse us and make the tarot unusable as the sequence is out of synchronisation?
The big Strength/Justice debate is for another post, because today I want to explore the symbolism of The Fool and how reading the card using the Waite deck you can get a vastly different interpretation than by using the Marseille deck.
Let’s start by looking at the two symbols side by side.
To fully understand the Marseille tarot image we need to know a little bit about medieval lifestyle and symbolism. Nearly everyone thinks the dog has bitten the Fool and ripped his trousers. Bad doggie! Not so. In medieval times villages had a dog that would bark and shoo away strangers, which is what the dog in this picture is doing. It’s a warning, not an attack. The dog is saying ‘you’re not welcome here, you’re an outsider.’
Does the Fool care that he’s an outsider and doesn’t fit in their society? Not at all. The fact is that his trousers aren’t ripped at all. In medieval times each leg of men’s hose/trousers were held up separately and if you wanted to do the modern day equivalent of sticking two fingers up at someone you’d drop one side of your hose and show them your bottom. It’s a poo poo. It’s saying ‘Up yours,’ and ‘I don’t need to be a part of your society.’
If you look closely at the image of the Fool you’ll note that he’s walking on firm ground and using his stick to lean on and guide him. In tarot a stick is a baton/wand and this symbolises that he’s relying on his own nature to see him through. His head is tilted up slightly and there’s a suggestion of pride in being himself. He knows who he is.
He has a bag slung over his shoulder (and please don’t get too bogged down in the fact that he’s holding in his left hand and it’s over his right shoulder, because this image is redrawn from a wood-block and stencil deck, and those wood-carvers made many, many minor mistakes, which they later fudged over) and we don’t know what he has in that bag, apart from the fact that it’s what he needs to sustain him. Most likely food for his journey. It’s a secret, but he’s travelling light and has everything he needs to get by.
This version of the Fool shows him to be independent, a free spirit, a free thinker, and unburdened by the need for physical possessions.
Now let’s look at the Rider Waite Fool.
When looking at the Waite deck it’s useful to know, not only that Waite was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but that the artist Pamela Colman-Smith was an illustrator, mainly of posters and children’s books, and also designed theatre costumes. This gave Colman-Smith a rich background of stories to fire her imagination; and it’s said that she was natural story-teller, which would have made her popular in the days before T.V. and radio.
Waite-Smith have their Fool holding his head high too, but so much so that he isn’t paying any attention at all and is about to walk off a cliff. Suddenly personal pride is turned into vain arrogance, and stupidity. Well, they do say that pride goes before a fall.
There’s no naked bottom poo-pooing going on here, in fact the Fool is well dressed, and quite a dapper fellow. Waite described them as “gorgeous vestments.” The little dog is now white and cute looking, not a threat at all, with a much greater suggestion of it being a faithful friend who’s barking and warning him of the danger ahead. The dog has become the voice of his conscience, warning him to wake up and pay attention. Yet the Fool is oblivious, happy in his own tra-la-la world. Waite describes this as, “His countenance is full of intelligence and expectant dream.” Personally I’m not so sure of the intelligence, but I will agree with the dream. If we’re focused on our internal visions then we are not paying attention to the world around us.
He no longer leans on a stick, so there’s no suggestion that he relies on his own true nature, instead he holds a white rose high in his left hand, most likely a symbol of his beliefs; possibly The Societas Rosicruciana of which Waite was a member.
The other symbol of importance in the image is the radiating sun up in the top right hand corner. If you give a group of people a piece of paper and ask them to draw mountains and the sun, most of them will position the sun up in the top right hand side of the image. Now, why is this? As human’s we unconsciously acknowledge the right as going forwards, and the left as going backwards. Future and past. Therefore placing the sun to the right is a sign of hope and a desire to go forwards, while if it’s positioned on the left there’s a desire to re-live the past. The Waite-Smith Fool’s sun is positioned to the right, but the Fool is facing away from it and heading to the left, the past. He is turning his back on the future. By comparison the Marseille Fool is walking to the right, towards the future.
Arthur Edward Waite was a very clever man, and I often wonder if he was trying to hoodwink us with these designs and hide the truth, or whether he let Pamela Colman-Smith get on with creating pretty pictures and then made up interpretations for them. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which was originally published as a pamphlet to go with the boxed set of cards, Waite says, “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.” Personally I don’t buy into his explanation for the Fool looking like he might step over the edge at any moment. It’s a poor excuse.
Unlike Crowley, who was very vociferous about teachings, Waite liked to keep his cards close to his chest and wrote very little about each tarot card design. He never wrote anything about why the cards had the images Pamela Colman-Smith designed and his explanations in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot are at times flaky to say the least. Let’s face it, Waite didn’t like to share his secrets, or at least he wasn’t in the habit of sharing them on paper.
With any tool we use we have a choice of manufacturer, quality and design. It’s the same with Tarot. We’re all individuals so we choose the pack of Tarot cards that appeals to us at a personal level, and using Tarot is a highly personal experience. If you read the image alone and are not familiar with the meanings of numbers and how the system of tarot works as a whole, then you will end up seeing the Fool as foolish and dreamy if you use the Waite deck, and bold and free if you use a Marseille deck. Ultimately, the choice is yours…but I know which I prefer.
For beginners and more experienced tarot readers I have two books available in many popular formats.
Ever wondered what the Fool tarot card means in a tarot reading about sex and relationships? Find out in…
Sex & Tarot
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The System of Symbols, a new way to look at tarot
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