The Fool in Tarot represents a mystery. Who is he? What energies does he represent? Where is he going and where has he been? Even the mere placement (position) among the Major Arcana is a mystery to be pondered upon.
Today we are accustomed to seeing this card at the beginning of the Major Arcana; the zero preceding the other numbers, but this has not always been true.
Before the unveiling of the Golden Dawn system of initiation, the Fool was most often placed between the cards of Last Judgment (Key 20) and The World (Key 21). And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Bill Butler, in his Dictionary of Tarot, notes that the Fool is equally valid placed “before the Ace of Pentacles, after the King of Swords, before the Magician and after the World.”
It was the unknown author of the Outer Order rituals of Golden Dawn (probably the Masonic and Rosicrucian scholar Kenneth Mackenzie) who firmly placed the Fool in its contemporary position at the beginning of the Major Arcana as Key 0. Yet there is merit to remembering the Fool and his exact position in the Tarot deck was a matter of debate among the students of the occult for more than a century.
The very reason for this debate, besides being important in figuring out the correspondences (attributes) of the rest of the Tarot deck, is that, as Butler reminds us, “[The Fool] relates to every card in the deck.” He further notes that “In a sense, it is the spirit of The Fool which animates the entire Tarot deck.”
The Fool represents both the worst and best of humanity. It is all the potential possibilities of our nature as human beings. It is the utter foolishness and stupidity that plagues humanity, as well as the final result of initiation into the divine mysteries; it also represents all the steps along the way. The Fool is the Seeker of the Mysteries, as well as the homeless person on the street corner and the lay-about in the trailer park. The Fool represents both the folly of human beings and our potential to take our rightful place as children of the divine. It is this aspect of the Fool that complicates the meaning of Key 0 when it appears in a Tarot reading.
The meaning of Key 0 for most people can be best summed up in the words of S.R. Kaplan: “All of the drawbacks which a fool could possess.” Folly, mistakes, drunkenness, and general misfortune is what the Fool signifies to the majority of humanity.
But the archetype of the village idiot and pure folly, much like the characters of Homer Simpson and Earl Jehosophat Hickey, flows into that of the court jester (the ancient stand-up comedian) and the trickster figure of mythology and fairy tales. There is a fine line that divides human folly and divine madness, which is much like the fine line that divides insanity from sheer genius. The shaman and prophet can both appear totally insane to those who have looked directly at the face of the divine.
The Fool is much like a wicker man stuffed with vices, criminal tendencies, lusts, and accidents waiting to happen. All it takes is a proper application of intent to spark off a blaze that leads to a smoky pillar arising towards the heavens.
This potential for subduing our vices and turning them into fuel to reach the divine is one of the reasons why it is just as proper to place the Fool at the beginning of the Major Arcana sequence, as well as at any other possible position.
An important point to remember about the Fool’s placement at the beginning of the Major Arcana sequence is that, in a mystery school such as Golden Dawn, the Tarot is ordered descending down the Tree of Life which represents the energies flowing from the divine to manifest in our physical world. Therefore the Fool is the first step for the love of the divine to reach us. The Fool is also the last step when returning to the divine, the last step before complete union with the divine when one is working one’s way back up the Tree of Life.
A. E. Waite, a member of Golden Dawn said, in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, that “Many symbols of the Instituted Mysteries are summarized in this card, which reverses, under high warrants, all the confusions that have preceded it.” By finally joining with the divine, all the senselessness and random chaos of the world is revealed to have a purpose and direction set forth in motion by the Lord of the Universe, the parent and creator of us all.
Yet one must remember that the Golden Dawn associated this card with Harpocrates (Horus the Babe), who despite taming the wolf and reaching for the Rose makes the sign of silence, for the wisdom of God and initiates (receivers of the Kabbalah) appears to be folly to the common unevolved man.
Summary of meanings for Key 0, the Fool: Folly, mistakes and accidents, possible madness when appearing in readings about everyday issues. When present in Tarot readings involving spiritual matters, it represents the Seeker groping for truth and union with the divine.