The Fool’s Dilemma (or “Reversal to the Rescue”)

That pesky Fool just won’t stay put. Modern tarot enthusiast are accustomed to seeing it  at the head of the trump-card cycle as the null, Zero, but it hasn’t always been that way. In decks that predated the esoteric tinkering of the 19th-Century “Occult Revival,” the Fool usually remained unnumbered to permit its use as a “wild card” in games, much the way the Joker is treated in current playing-card decks. Mid-19th-Century French occultist Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant) placed it at the end of the series as number 22, while Arthur Edward Waite left it as zero but stuck it between Judgement and the World (although many tarot scholars think he was being deliberately misleading). Aleister Crowley believed that the only logical place for it was at the beginning, designated as zero and, with the myth of the “Hero’s Journey,” C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell cemented in modern opinion the idea of the Fool as the naive adventurer setting out on a quest to become wise in the ways of the world by sequentially “growing into” the other 21 archetypes. In her book, Tarot Triumphs, Cherry Gilchrist likened the trumps to “floats” in a Medieval festival parade, with the unnumbered Fool able to pop up at will anywhere in the procession. There is even an alternate take on the subject that views the Fool as both the “Alpha” and the “Omega” of the series, sitting at the beginning as zero and the end as 22; anyone who has read Alfred Bester’s fascinating science fiction story The Stars My Destination will recognize the Fool come full-circle in the “redeemed” character of Gulliver Foyle at the end of the tale.

To be honest, none of this makes a whole lot of difference when the trump cards are decoupled from the sequence and used in divination, where how one reads the Fool depends upon the meanings that have been attached to it through study and practice. But there is one situation where its positioning as zero causes problems. Those who work with the trump-card “quintessence” approach to summarizing the cards in a reading through numerical calculation realize early on that the traditional method of “theosophical reduction” (by which the numerical values of the cards are added together into a total and then “reduced” by adding the digits of that total together as many times as necessary to obtain a number less than 22) can never arrive at zero. Like Rachel Pollock in her 21-card, 7×3 “septenary” array, we may as well ignore the Fool for this purpose since it will never become the “quint” by theosophical reduction. This is obviously unacceptable, so the typical work-around has been to just change the Fool’s number to 22 in line with Levi’s precedent. Personally, I’ve rejected this solution in my own work, preferring to leave the Fool’s numbering as-is and use an alternate approach to numerical reduction (like “casting out nines”) that can yield a result of zero if taken all the way down. (For example, the Moon, the Ace of Swords, the 2 of Cups and the Lovers reduce as follows: 18+1+2+6 = 27; 27-9 = 18; 18-9 = 9; 9-9 = 0, the Fool.)

But there is another way to look at it. When I first began playing around with the quintessence back on the Aeclectic Tarot forum, one of my forum-mates, “Amanda,” mentioned that she calculates the quintessence by subtracting the value of any reversed cards in the spread from the numerical total. This has the advantage not only of permitting a reduced sum of zero, but also of enabling the generation of a reversed quint card. As a strong believer in the value of reversed cards in adding nuance to my readings, I find this to be compelling evidence of its legitimacy. The World card is a good example. If we simply add its digits together it will always yield “3,” the Empress, as its “numerological counterpart;” thus, if we have the World in combination with any other cards, the lowest number we can derive from them is “1,” the Magician. (For example, the Emperor, the 3 of Wands and the World reduce as follows: 4+3 = 7; 2+1 = 3; 7+3 = 10; 1+0 = 1, or alternatively, 4+3+21 = 28; 2+8 = 10; 1+0 = 1).) On the other hand, if the World is reversed and we introduce it into the calculation as [-21], we can reduce the total down to zero or below. (In the above example, subtracting instead of adding 21 puts the total at [-14], Temperance reversed; taking a different example, if we have the Emperor, the 3 of Wands, Temperance and the World reversed, we get 4+3+14 = 21; 21+[-21] = 0, the Fool.

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