Fool and Zero

It is so appropriate that the Fool card in the Tarot is numbered zero: it seems like there is not much there, but what it does is change the shape and meaning of everything that is around it.

Mathematically speaking, the invention (or discovery, if you prefer) of zero is vital for the place value system of numerals. We are so used to the place value system (often called Arabic numerals) that we have trouble imagining how difficult it was to do even simple mathematics with previous systems. Have you ever tried doing division with Roman numerals? (What’s XXXVI divided by IX?) It goes beyond a simple unfamiliarity with Roman numerals: they’re just harder to work with because they encode information differently. Each numeral can require multiple steps simply to understand its value, because the numeral encodes information in a pattern similar to the way we count up or down to a number using lots of different reference numbers. The place value system, by comparison, uses only powers of ten as a reference, and thus goes much more directly to the exact value we want to work with. Additionally, because the information about reference numbers is encoded in a digit’s location within the number, we can do neat tricks like multiplication and division using the very layout of the number itself to guide our work, which is impossible with Roman numerals. The difference is due to zero.

All of the simplicity of the place value system of numerals depends on being able to have empty columns: we have to be able to tell 306 apart from 36, or 400 apart from 4. Zero is what makes that possible, which allows the simplicity of the place-value based system. The necessity of emptiness is counter-intuitive in a counting-based system, because it’s very uncommon to start counting with zero. This is precisely why it’s so fabulous and important that the Tarot begins counting this way – beginning from nothingness, which is a step that is necessary for other kinds of being and order to emerge.

But zero isn’t just about zero – it is connected to infinity, and this made it controversial when it was first introduced to the Western world; we’ll touch on this more when we discuss the World card.

This mathematical background is why I like to think of zero as symbolically holding space for potential to develop. I suggest that when we see the Fool in a Tarot reading we think of it as a similar placeholder – not just a void, but a space open to possibilities and change, a space made gravid by virtue of its emptiness.

Occupying the space of emptiness is something that we do need to do from time to time. Emptiness is when we seek to reset ourselves, or open ourselves to be able to receive something new. Emptiness is the place we start from at the beginning of a journey, which is how the Fool is usually depicted. At times that kind of zeroing out can even be great fun, such as I tried to invoke in the foolish ritual I wrote.

But foolishness has always had deeper implications, especially links to the idea of the sacred fool, or the holy wisdom of foolishness. (Laurie R King has written good fiction exemplifying this idea, for anyone who is interested.) One way to think about it is that the fool is a mirror, reflecting back the world around him, allowing others to see themselves in different ways. But achieving this kind of emptiness can be heartbreakingly difficult and dangerous. Exercising this nature of the fool for any long period of time is not a lighthearted endeavor at all, as Lear’s fool should show you.

Out of the difficulties of attaining Foolishness comes the possible reading of a warning: look out, the dog is trying to pull you back, be careful that you don’t run over a cliff. The danger arises when we mistake illusion for emptiness. There is a wonderful depiction of this in the Mystical Cats Tarot, where the Fool is thinking of herself as seated on a cushion drinking milk, and thus completely unaware of what’s going on around her. This kind of empty-headedness is not true openness but rather a covering-over of her surroundings which leaves her unable to deal with whatever is actually happening in the world around her. The work of emptiness, just like any other work worth doing, is not easy, even if it appears so at first.

From a mathematician’s point of view, the requirements and dangers of zero make it the perfect metaphor for beginning such a challenging sequence of ideas and archetypes as the Major Arcana. The Fool, as card 0, represents a state of emptiness that is the necessary precursor to other kinds of wisdom.

The Fool: A full moon ritual of play and possibilities

To start off the new year, here is a ritual I’ve written to engage with the Fool card of the Tarot, and specifically with the theme of play. Playing can be a way of opening ourselves up to new possibilities and to opportunities for re-envisioning our path forward. Especially for us as adults, this is not always easy, and it does not always seem reasonable. It’s not supposed to be reasonable – it’s play! Try approaching this ritual with an open mind and open heart.

To set the space, we play with each of the four Elements: with words, with actions, with laughter, and with what we wear (the way we present our bodies). Then we invite the goddess Luna to inspire us with her foolishness and wisdom, and try to bring that inspiration into being by playfully creating something. In addition to the freedom of experiencing playfulness, this creation can be a source of divination and possibly inspiration to help us imagine new possibilities for the year ahead.

Materials:

A silly hat or something else to wear that makes you feel playful. If in doubt, take something not normally worn as headgear and put it on your head.

Creative materials: crayons, water paints, construction paper and a pair of scissors, clay, whatever strikes you as fun. It’s important that you choose something that is open-ended, something where you don’t feel like you have to reach a designated end state or do it “correctly.” Have lots of starter materials (blank paper) available. You may want to start over, make multiple pieces, or something else: the point is to play!

Fool card: you may want to have the Fool card from your favorite Tarot deck available as inspiration. Any time you feel as if you can’t handle the silliness, look at the Fool and invite her to lead you a little further.

Ritual:

Cast your space by doing something foolish. Skip, jump, or hop your way around the perimeter of your circle. Imagine your circle as a giant trampoline and bounce up and down in it to get it moving. Visualize this time and space as a blank canvas for you to express yourself in ways that might surprise you.

Circle, circle, round and round, circle cast upon the ground.

Circle, circle, round and round, circle here and now is bound.

 

I open myself to the divine wisdom of foolishness!

Face East and use these or other nonsense words to invoke the playfulness of Air:

Snicker-snack, snicker-snack, the vorpal blade goes snicker-snack!*

I call the Air to hear my joy and send it onward, send it back!

Face South and use the silliest actions you can think of to invoke Fire. Start with sticking out your tongue and go from there: make faces, wave your arms, dance if you want. If you do this long enough, you should start to laugh at yourself, which leads to…

Face West and laugh. Laugh at yourself, at a funny joke, at a stupid joke, at the hilarity of the universe, and when all else fails, laugh at nothing.

Face North and put on your silly hat.

In the center, invoke Luna with these words or ones of your own:

Goddess of the full moon,

change the way I think and see,

bring your light and lunacy.

 

Foolishness here in play is revealed,

and deeper within lies wisdom concealed.

Engage with the kind of playful creativity you have chosen. Do whatever it takes to get yourself into a state of openness and activity. Try things like letting your eyes go out of focus or working with your nondominant hand. Practice observing what you create without labeling or evaluating it. Create something first, and then tell a story about it afterward, rather than trying to express a story. Try creating more than one item.

When you are finished – and only you know when that happens – rest, and ground and center yourself.

Give thanks to Luna for her inspiration and promise to spend time considering what you have created.

Bow deeply to the North as you take off your silly hat.

Grace the West with a smile and possibly one more laugh.

Blow a kiss to the South.

Tell the East:    I give thanks for the divine wisdom of foolishness!

Open your circle – perhaps by hopping backward? – and give yourself more time to rest and return to your usual mode of being.

Afterwards, possibly the next day, you may wish to journal about how it felt to do this ritual. What was difficult? What was easy? What surprised you?

Spend some time reflecting on your creation. Treat it as if it were a new Tarot card that you were trying to get to know: look for patterns, images, suggestions of all sorts. What does it suggest to you? Is there something here which might seem foolish but point the way to some other ideas for you to consider?

*With apologies to Lewis Carroll; this is part of my favorite nonsense poem, so it evokes the idea of playing with words for me.