In today’s decks, the Fool card generally represents a person on a journey. In this interpretation, the Fool is a clueless person or in a formative state. Older traditions saw the Fool as a mad person, as a trickster, or a person with no concern with morality, but still a person on the move.
Taking a historical perspective, Robert McNeil notes that “the visionary voyage/pilgrimage/journey is an integral part of the Western experience,” which begins with Gilgamesh around 1600 BCE. Early card images reference such a journey. (See: https://bit.ly/3LFk4mN)
McNeil also notes the observation of the Fool as a “spiritual aspirant,” as in Corinthians 4:10, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.” (KJV) This observation corresponds to the role of the Tarot in occult practices on a path to self-discovery.
Michael Owen writes: “The Fool is also known as Il Matto (‘the Mad One’) in some Italian tarot or Le Mat (‘the Dull One’) in a Swiss deck. He is simple and like the simpleton, he has not yet been complicated and complexed by life. But therein lies his gift.” (The Maya Book of Life: Understanding the Xultun Tarot. Kahurangi Press. Kindle Edition, p 130.) It is the son without accomplishments who achieves the goal.
Paul Huson points out “The Italians used to say colloquially, ‘Esser come Il Matt nel tarocchi’ (to be like the tarot Fool)—all over the place, at home everywhere and nowhere. (Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage, Destiny Books, 2004, p 76.)
Where the Fool card is placed in the deck may suggest different interpretations (a different “card world”), an end and a new beginning. Most often the Fool is at the beginning, as the “0” or no number card. In some decks, the Fool is placed at the end of the Major Arcana, after 21 The World, or between 20 Judgement, and 21 The World.
Robert M. Place observes that there is no number for the Fool card because it is outside the series of Roman numbering, which did not have a zero. (The Buddha Tarot: A Mandala of Cards, REDFeather, 2021, p 111.)
According to Eden Gray, popularizer of the Tarot, “A word about Key 0, the Fool. Actually, it stands more or less alone, and there is no concrete evidence that it should be positioned as the first card of the Major Arcana. It is both before and after the 21 keys, the sum total of all.” (A Complete Guide to the Tarot, Bantam Book, 1970, p 15.)
For a scattering of cards, see the selection below. These images rotate daily on the home page.
This great purple butterfly,
In the prison of my hands,
Has a learning in his eye
Not a poor fool understands.
Once he lived a schoolmaster
With a stark, denying look,
A string of scholars went in fear
Of his great birch and his great book.
Like the clangour of a bell,
Sweet and harsh, harsh and sweet,
That is how he learnt so well
To take the roses for his meat.
W.B. Yates, 1869-1939, The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919. Along with the cards he personally created as a member of the Golden Dawn, he used a Milanese Tarot deck by Edouard Dotti.
Thus the whole series of the twenty-two trumps will give a connected sentence which is capable of being read thus: –The Human Will (1) enlightened by Science (2) and manifested by Action (3) should find its Realisation (4) in deeds of Mercy and Benefience (5). The Wise Deposition (6) of this will give him Victory (7) through Equilibrium (8) and Prudence (9), over the fluctuations of Fortune (10). Fortitude (11), sanctified by Sacrifice of Self (12), will triumph over Death itself (13), and thus a Wise Combination (14) will enable him to defy Fate (15). In each Misfortune (16) he will see the Star of Hope (17) shone through the twilight of Deception (18); and ultimate Happiness (19) will be the Result (20). Folly (0) on the other hand, will bring about an evil Reward (21).
S.L. MacGregor Mathers, The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling, and Method of Play, etc., 1888, p 8