From The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
by A.E. Waite (1910)
0 – Zero – The Fool
With light step, as if earth and its trammels had little power to restrain him, a young man in gorgeous vestments pauses at the brink of a precipice among the great heights of the world; he surveys the blue distance before him-its expanse of sky rather than the prospect below. 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. His countenance is full of intelligence and expectant dream. He has a rose in one hand and in the other a costly wand, from which depends over his right shoulder a wallet curiously embroidered.
He is a prince of the other world on his travels through this one-all amidst the morning glory, in the keen air. The sun, which shines behind him, knows whence he came, whither he is going, and how he will return by another path after many days. He is the spirit in search of experience. Many symbols of the Instituted Mysteries are summarized in this card, which reverses, under high warrants, all the confusions that have preceded it.
In his Manual of Cartomancy, Grand Orient has a curious suggestion of the office of Mystic Fool, as apart of his process in higher divination; but it might call for more than ordinary gifts to put it into operation. We shall see how the card fares according to the common arts of fortune-telling, and it will be an example, to those who can discern, of the fact, otherwise so evident, that the Trumps Major had no place originally in the arts of psychic gambling, when cards are used as the counters and pretexts. Of the circumstances under which this art arose we know, however, very little. The conventional explanations say that the Fool signifies the flesh, the sensitive life, and by a peculiar satire its subsidiary name was at one time the alchemist, as depicting folly at the most insensate stage.
From Wikipedia [edited]
The Fool or The Jester is one of the 78 cards in a Tarot deck; one of the 22 Trump cards that make up the Major Arcana. The Fool is unnumbered; sometime represented as 0 (the first) or XXII (the last) Major Arcana in decks. It is used in divination as well as in game playing.
The Fool is titled Le Mat in the Tarot of Marseilles, and Il Matto in most Italian language tarot decks. These archaic words mean “the madman” or “the beggar”, and may be related to the word for ‘checkmate’ in relation to the original use of tarot cards for gaming purposes.
In the earliest Tarot decks, the Fool is usually depicted as a beggar or a vagabond. In the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, the Fool wears ragged clothes and stockings without shoes, and carries a stick on his back. He has what appear to be feathers in his hair. His unruly beard and feathers may relate to the tradition of the woodwose or wild man. Another early Italian image that relates to the tradition is the first (and lowest) of the series of the so-called “Tarocchi of Mantegna”. This series of prints containing images of social roles, allegorical figures, and classical deities begins with “Misero”, a depiction of a beggar leaning on a staff. A similar image is contained in the German Hofamterspiel; there the fool (German: Narr) is depicted as a barefoot man in robes, apparently with bells on his hood, playing a bagpipe.
The Tarot of Marseilles and related decks similarly depict a bearded person wearing what may be a jester’s hat; he always carries a bundle of his belongings on a stick slung over his back. He appears to be getting chased away by an animal, either a dog or a cat. The animal has torn his pants.
In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck and other esoteric decks made for cartomancy, the Fool is shown as a young man, walking unknowingly toward the brink of a precipice. In the Rider-Waite deck, he is also portrayed as having with him a small dog. The Fool holds a rose in one hand and in the other a small bundle of possessions.
In French suited tarot decks that do not use the traditional emblematic images of Italian suited decks for the suit of trumps, the Fool is typically made up as a jester or bard, reminiscent of the joker in a deck of playing cards.
The Fool is the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool’s wisdom and exuberance, holy madness or ‘crazy wisdom’.
On his back are all the possessions he might need. In his hand there is a flower, showing his appreciation of beauty. He is frequently accompanied by a dog, sometimes seen as his animal desires, sometimes as the call of the “real world”, nipping at his heels and distracting him. He is seemingly oblivious that he is walking toward a precipice, apparently about to step off. One of the keys to the card is the paradigm of the precipice, Zero and the sometimes represented oblivious Fool’s near-step into the oblivion (The Void) of the jaws of a crocodile, for example, are all mutually informing polysemy within evocations of the iconography of The Fool.
The staff is the offset and complement to the void and this in many traditions represents wisdom and renunciation, e.g. ‘danda’ (Sanskrit) of a Sanyassin, ‘danda’ (Sanskrit) is also a punctuation mark with the function analogous to a ‘full-stop’ which is appropriately termed a period in American English. The Fool is both the beginning and the end, neither and otherwise, betwixt and between, liminal.
The number 0 is a perfect significator for the Fool, as it can become anything when he reaches his destination as in the sense of ‘joker’s wild’. Zero plus anything equals the same thing. Zero times anything equals zero. Zero is no-thing, a lack of hard substance, and as such it may reflect a non-issue or lack of cohesiveness for the subject at hand.
In many esoteric systems of interpretation, the Fool is usually interpreted as the protagonist of a story, and the Major Arcana is the path the Fool takes through the great mysteries of life and the main human archetypes. This path is known traditionally in Tarot as the Fool’s Journey, and is frequently used to introduce the meaning of Major Arcana cards to beginners.
In his Manual of Cartomancy, Grand Orient has a curious suggestion of the office of Mystic Fool, as a part of his process in higher divination. The conventional explanations say that The Fool signifies the flesh, the sensitive life, depicting folly at the most insensate stage. When The Fool appears in a spread, he is a signal to strip down to the irreducible core, and interrogate whether the Querant’s self-vision is obscured. It may also be a warning that significant change is coming. Another interpretation of the card is that of taking action where the circumstances are unknown, confronting one’s fears, taking risks, etc…