Complete Book of Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot by Sasha Graham

Recently we posted about Stuart Kaplan’s generous foreword to this remarkable work. Keeping with the theme of beginnings, let’s look at how Sasha’s investigations into the creators of this deck shaped her ideas about the Fool. This book isn’t just a triple biography (Waite, Smith, and Kaplan) but also a close examination of the creation and meaning of the deck itself and an in-depth study of the symbols in each card.

The Fool

“Stories can be sung, some painted, some written in poetry or prose. But all stories can be told, and told so that every human being can understand them.”

~ PCS The Evening statesman. (Walla Walla, Wash.), 27 Feb. 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.


The Fool is infused with the energy of dawn and the possibility of a new day. He walks in pure optimism. The Fool brings life as he stands at the fore of unfolding consciousness. The Fool is so pure, fresh, he carries the number of ultimate potentiality, zero. He is the human soul manifest and aware of itself in the material world. He is so fresh that he does not think ahead of himself or place pre-conceived judgments on the world around him. The Fool is the state of the soul as it enters the world.

Waite says of the Fool, “He is the spirit in search of experience.” Waite could be describing each of us. Aren’t we all searching for experience? Existence is the lesson teaching us who we are. The Fool’s journey is the adventure shaping each and every one of us on the planet. Every day brings us possibilities and opportunities ranging the spectrum from pleasant to challenging. The Fool greets every experience head on. Doing so, the experience tempers who the Fool becomes as he travels through the tarot and down the road of life.

The Fool is a clearing house of the senses. He is perception, feeling and experience. He is the way in which he individual organizes the world inside the body. The Fool looks at the world in pure innocence and without pre-determined labels. He never tires of looking, seeing and observing because the world is continually new under his step.

The Fool contains every card of the tarot deck inside of him the same way you are the unique container for personal life experience. An individual’s life appears to occur outside because we view others from an external viewpoint. Life, however, occurs within each individual’s interior life. Individual consciousness processes events, happenings and relationships on the inside, not out. Buddha says, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

The Fool is the first card of the RWS deck. The number zero connects the Fool to the World card, acting as like a jewelry clasp between cyclical ending and the beginning. The Fool’s placement in tarot has changed over the decades. Ancient decks carried an un-numbered Fool. 18th and 19th century decks placed the Fool between Judgment and the World. The Golden Dawn placed the Fool at the front of the Major Arcana. This action allowed the corresponding astrology to line up with the cards. The most usable Tarot deck of the 20th Century was born.

Waite speaks to the Fool’s expression when he says, “His countenance is full of intelligence and expectant dream.” His statement reminds us the Fool is not a simpleton. The Fool is an energetic creature who desires stimulation and adventure. Waite calls him, “A prince of the other world.” The other world is the invisible world. The Fool passed through the veil from supernatural to natural, from subconscious to the conscious. Waite says “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.” Waite’s statement posits the Sun as the source of all life and magic. Waite speaks of the kabalistic journey of emergence and return when he states the Fool will return by another path. The Tree of Life’s paths are each connected to specific Tarot cards. The journey of emergence begins at the top of the Tree and moves downward until the soul, idea or thing, is made manifest in the material world. The journey of return occurs as the Fool moves back up the Tree to convene with the divine energy pouring though the top of the tree. Like the child who grows up and leaves home only to return home as a fully formed adult, so will the Fool move forth into the unknown to discover who he is.

Fool’s tunic displays ten circles. The circles represent the ten emanations (sephiroth) on the Hebrew Tree of Life. These emanations or circles connect the major arcana’s kabalistic paths. A careful examination of the circles reveals an eight spoked wheel inside each circle. Just as the Pentacle’s star represents four elements and the human spirit, the eight spoked wheel represents the Golden Dawn’s symbol for spirit.

A red feather sprouts from the Fool’s cap. Historically, a feather marks the Fool. The Visconti Sforrza deck’s Fool carried a slew of red feathers in his hair. Ancient Italian and Christian art used the feather, particularly peacock feathers, as symbols of immortality. The RWS deck’s placement of a red feathers on the Fool, Death and Sun card strings together the narrative of occult expression. The three cards are intimately connected. The Fool’s feather marks the occultist moving through degrees of intitiation and experience. The Fool is emergence, Death signifies rebirth and the Sun card merges the occultist with divinity.

Waite describes the Fool’s reaction to the gaping cliff before him, stating,”The edge which opens on the depth has no terror; it is as if angels were waiting to uphold him.” Innocence protects the Fool. Many interpretations suggests the cliff continues to regenerate under the Fool’s light step. The Fool remains impervious to any danger the cliff represents and represents a person unconcerned with external threats.

The Fool is assigned the Hebrew letter Aleph and the element of Air because he is the “Breath of Life.” The Fool’s dog is drawn in the same shape of the Hebrew letter Aleph, which is considered to be the animating principle of life. Geraldine Beskin, proprietress of the Atlantic Bookshop in London discovered Pamela’s source materiel for the Fool’s dog. The Fool’s dog is none other than Ellen Terry’s favorite pet. Famed actress Ellen Terry took Pamela under her wing after Pamela’s father passed away. In addition to Ellen being the muse for many of Pamela’s cards, so was her favorite pooch.

The Fool carries a bag fastened to the end of a stick. The Fool’s bag reflects the experience he brings with him into his new life. We may be done with the past but is the past done with us? His bag reminds us as new cycles begin, we bring the past with us. Experience and past events may be hidden, even forgotten, yet their imprint remains. The Fool’s bag of experience includes past lives, genetic inheritance, any event an individual has experienced.

The Fool’ walks from right to left. His movement imitates the Hebrew alphabet also written and read from from right to left. The World dancer moves right to receive the Fool’s energy. Only the Death card moves directly into the Fool card reflecting the end of the physical journey and the beginning of the spiritual journey.

The Fool’s left hand holds a white flower, yet he looks in the opposite direction. Does he acknowledge what he holds? Perhaps does not see his gift. Alchemical white reflects purity while flowers represent manifestation. The white flower thus becomes a potent symbol of seeking what already lay within. The Fool (each of us) enters our journey and life cycle innocently. Experience forges us into who we become. Each person we meet, challenge we face, obstacle we overcome, teaches us more about who we are. The Fool’s white flower is the glistening potential inside each and every one of us. It is the pursuit of this flower and the people and places we touch along the way that truly matters. In the end, no matter how wild the journey, we come back to ourselves. Like Dorothy of Oz, we find there is no place like home. The home and flower we sought lay inside us all along.

Written by Barbara Moore
The tarot has been a part of Barbara Moore’s personal and professional lives for over a decade. In college, the tarot intrigued her with its marvelous blending of mythology, psychology, art, and history. Later, she served as the tarot specialist for Llewellyn Publications. Over the years, she has ...