The Fool: What Symbols does Waite Mention?

In the previous post, we noted that symbols were something of which multiple instances could be found in a given card. As an example, the Magician contains various symbols including a lemniscate (infinity symbol), an orobouros (a snake grasping its own tail in its mouth, i.e., something with no beginning, no end), and various others, including the four suits themselves.

What this post and some of the next posts will do will be to take a card, and note the specific symbols that Arthur Waite described in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910). We will then put Waite’s explanations (in quotes) for each symbol alongside them. The importance of that is that previous writers, for example, MacGregor Mathers (The Tarot, 1888), whom Waite specifically mentioned, and others such as the Book T of the Golden Dawn society, described the keys/major arcana with very short descriptions. We will attribute additional quotes as needed.

In some cases, Waite mentions a symbol, but doesn’t provide further explanation. We will attempt to use other writings either contemporary with or before Waite, to “fill in.”

This exercise will accomplish several things:

  • Begin to identify the most important symbols for future interpretation.
  • Provide a structure (symbol/description/citation) by which we can begin defining structures in a database for the storage of the information. In fact, we will present the data in table format below.
  • Begin the building of a search/query framework to draw connections between cards containing one or more of the same symbols. For example, the lemniscate, which we’ll see in the next card, the Magician, appears not just in the Magician, but Strength as well.
  • Provide a convenient means of analyzing Waite’s contributions by comparing his symbols and explanations to descriptions written by his predecessors and contemporaries.

0: The Fool

ID symbol meaning
FOO dog Waite: “A dog… is attacking him from behind, and he is hurried to his destruction unawares.” Mather also states “while in some packs a tiger, in others a dog, attacks him from behind.” It does appear that Colman Smith drew the dog as a bit more friendly than her instruction described.
FOO precipice Waite: “He is looking over his shoulder and does not know that he is on the brink of a precipice.” The Book T, however, provides the underlying idea for the precipice: “The Fool means idea, thought, spirituality, that which endeavours to transcend Earth.” (italics added).
FOO wallet Waite: “His wallet is inscribed with dim signs, to shew that many sub-conscious memories are stored up in the soul.” The Book T may be the source for depicting the wallet, specifically: “if question is material, it means folly, stupidity, eccentricity, or even mania.”
FOO wand Waite merely notes it is “a costly wand.” I have not yet found any contemporary or previous explanation for the wand, much less its costly nature.
FOO white rose Waite has no explanation, merely noting its presence. The white rose is generally acknowledged to represent purity or innocence, which would tie into the card.
FOO young man Waite: “He signifies the journey outward, the state of the first emanation, the graces and passivity of the spirit.”

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot? 😉