The Fool

Do not deceive yourselves.  If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. 

Paul, I Corinthians 3:18

Waite-Smith Fool (1910)

For most of us, our initial reaction to the image contrived by Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith is that this young man is one step away from a catastrophic fall.  His eyes are open, but he is lost in the heavens when his attention ought to be on the ground.  He is flamboyantly dressed, and his sleeves billow out almost like wings; he wears a bright feather in his cap; but as light and ethereal as he appears to be, this youth is no bird, and if he tumbles off the precipice, gravity will certainly accelerate him into a flightless, bone-shattering, descent.

Is he aware of the danger?  In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, A. E. Waite suggests he is, and further that he stands at the edge of the cliff without fear; his portrayal of the youth evokes intimations of Jesus: [i]

He is a prince of the other world on his travels through this one….  His countenance is full of intelligence and expectant dream. . . .   With light step, as if earth and its trammels had little power to restrain him … [he] pauses at the brink of a precipice among the great heights of the world; he surveys the … distance before him — its expanse of sky rather than the prospect below.  His act of eager walking is still indicated, though he is stationary at the given moment. . . .   The edge which opens on the depth has no terror; it is as if angels were waiting to uphold him, if it came about that he leaped from the height.

The symbolism for the WS Fool begins with the sun, which blazes so brilliantly, it casts the heavens in gold.  Ordinarily, we think of the sky as being blue or gray, even white; bright yellow is not a color that comes from our perceptual experience, so we have to seek out a symbolic significance.  We associate gold with lasting incorruptibility: wedding rings are made of gold to represent the enduring union of two individuals, and gold treasures can be buried in the earth for centuries without losing their luster or value.  We can say, then, that the narrative suggested by the picture of the young fool takes place against a backdrop of eternity; it is archetypal.

The sun, itself, is white, and white is something of a contradiction.  Perceptually, we see white as a lack of color, but we also know that when “white” light passes through a prism, an entire spectrum of colors is revealed; so white paradoxically contains all colors.  The Fool is a character who adorns himself in a bright array of colors, and when we consider that the staff he carries over his shoulder appears to connect to and become, itself, a continuation of the sun’s extending rays, proceeding straight through the center of the Fool’s head, running down the length of his right arm, and passing out of the picture frame, we have to infer that the young man depicted in this image is, in addition to being a flesh-and-blood human being, an emanation of the sun.  This impression is reinforced by his golden hair, golden sun-boots, and the peculiar disk-patterns on his tunic which, being yellow with orange rays radiating out from the center, appear to be stylized representations of the sun.  In addition to this, the white rose, representative of the ephemeral nature of the Fool himself, is in full bloom with its two petioles uplifted toward the sun in a manner reminiscent of adoration.

The sun is the symbol par excellence of consciousness: it illuminates the world and allows us to see our way, and is, as Carl Jung quotes Ernest Renan of saying, “the only true ‘rational’ image of God.” [ii]   But the Fool in the WS Tarot seems to have left conscious awareness behind.  His head is turned up, so he does not appear to see the peril before him, as he fully commits himself to the eternal here-and-now, blissfully giving himself over to the wondrous sensation of the sun’s warming rays on his face, lost in the infinite expanse of the sky.  He wears a “feather in his cap,” which is an idiomatic phrase alluding to a decoration of some kind commemorating a successful or noteworthy accomplishment though this fool seems a bit young and soft to have earned such an honor; however people also wear feathers for other reasons: Robin Hood, for instance, is often pictured with a feather in his hat, giving him a kind of cheeky ostentation; and the Fool, similarly, displays a jaunty style that also suggests a certain lack of reverence for traditional norms of individual restraint. 

We know from Jungian psychology that birds symbolize thoughts and fantasies, which are not bound by gravity or any of the laws of science that otherwise govern our lives.  Birds can also represent inspiration, flashes of insight that come upon us suddenly, then soar to heights we scarcely believed possible (allowing us to leave the moment, and our bodies, far behind as we pursue their empyreal trails).  Pars pro toto,[iii] the feather, particularly so close to his head, suggests that this young man allows his own thoughts to fly, unfettered, through the heavens.  The connection is enhanced by the colorful clothing the Fool wears, which is not unlike the magnificent plumage of some wondrous bird, with wide sleeves that create a wing-like impression when his arms are outstretched.

The feather is red, the color of blood and thus associated with vitality and passion.  Perhaps it is the tail-feather of a Fire Bird.  In mythology, when the phoenix is ready to die, it bursts into flame, then rises, reborn, from the ashes, leading to an affiliation with the sun, which also bursts into flame at sunset, turning the western skies a brilliant reddish-orange, before slipping below the horizon to be reborn in the east. 

In nearly every Tarot deck, the Fool is a wanderer, and in most illustrations, he carries a sack on his back or attached to the end of a staff.  As to what this bundle contains, that is a subject of wide-ranging conjecture.  Some, Waite writes, believe it holds “the bearer’s follies and vices,” though Waite, himself, did not hold that opinion, stating that such speculation seemed to him to be “bourgeois and arbitrary.”  Rachel Pollack suggests that he fills the wallet with his experiences (I suppose if he is incapable of keeping them in his head, this is the next best place). Eden Gray thought the Fool carried “universal memory and instinct” with him, though how she arrives at this conclusion, I cannot begin to fathom, nor does she elaborate within her commentary, though such notions seem to me to be the kind of cleverness in which we might entangle ourselves for years while the Fool goes on his way, leaving us far behind.  Later in her commentary, Gray allowed for the possibility that “the wallet carries the four magic symbols that the Fool will have to learn to use.”  This seems to be a popular idea, though there is no evidence to support it.  It is rooted in the conceit that the Fool is an innocent seeking self-knowledge, a quest that mirrors our own as we set out through the Tarot to discover who we are and why we are here.  The four emblems which make up the four suits of the minor arcana correspond to the four classical elements which make up the world and all the things around us;[iv] thus mastery over them would allow one to unlock the great mystery of life and all the potentials therein.  Sheldon Kopp writes that the bag is filled with “unused knowledge.” [v]  This is particularly interesting since we can take that statement a couple of different ways.  It might mean that the Fool has the knowledge to not be a fool, but it is packed away at the bottom of his wallet, so it is not readily to hand when he needs it.  However, Hajo Banzhaf points out in his Tarot and the Journey of the Hero that it is not by accident that the Fool packs this unused knowledge away, for this conforms to a “typical, but important, basic attitude of The Fool.  [Because he] either knows nothing, or he doesn’t make use of his knowledge….  he … is not obstructed or blocked by what he knows.”

We might imagine that a seasoned traveler would pack food, a tent, perhaps, a change of clothes, some money.  Since he is experienced, he knows what kinds of things to expect on the road, and he is equipped for these contingencies; his preparation greatly enhances his odds of survival in a dangerous world, but he is also limited by his expectations.  In many instances, he will see just what he expects to see because he expects to see them, and he may be blind to opportunities that he is unable to recognize as opportunities.  This occurs quite frequently in fairytales: the would-be hero confidently sets off on the quest amid great fanfare only to be done in by his preconceptions and inflexibility.  For instance, when a fox comes into his camp begging a bit of wine and warm place by the fire, he sets his hound loose; the fox turns both adventurer and dog into stone, a fitting punishment for one so rigidly entrenched in his way of thinking, and it is a fate that awaits many such men.  The champion who charges past a beggar along the road, sparing him neither a thought nor glance, let alone the few scraps of food the old man desperately needs, never receives the talisman which will allow him to overcome his adversary or the information which will provide him the means to reach his destination safely.  If he does manage to find the enchanted castle, he will be turned to stone as soon as he crosses the threshold, for he does not possess the secret that allows him to enter undetected, and if he is never able to discover its whereabouts (for its location cannot be mapped, and it is rarely in the same place twice), then his fate may be even worse, for his grand undertaking simply peters out to nothing, and since he cannot return home in such a defeated, deflated state, he becomes an interminable wanderer himself, a mad man who must, like the mendicant he scorned at the start of his quest, beg the charity of others to survive.

The fool approaches each experience with an open mind, and this presents him with opportunities to prove to everyone else what a fool he is (which happens frequently) but also opportunities to succeed where others fail, for he never refuses the fox, and though he is sometimes swindled, more often he acquires a staunch and wise ally who assists him in his undertaking; and he is always willing to share his meager provisions with anyone who asks, even apologizing for the poor state of his fare; thus, he receives the magical aid and prevails when so many others deemed far more worthy by society have failed. 

When it comes to a fool, logic simply does not apply, or rather the fool holds to his own kind of logic, which is utterly bewildering to us, though it is never our place to judge.  In one Russian folktale, a fool agrees to work a priest’s farm for the span of three years; at the end of that time, the priest gives the fool a choice of reward: he can either take a sack full of silver or a sack full of sand.  We know which we would choose, for only one has value.  But the fool is a fool, and for reasons only he can explain, he takes the sack full of sand.  In the course of the story, this turns out to be the right choice, for a short time later, he comes upon a princess tied to a stake atop a pyre.  The silver would have been useless, but with the sand he extinguishes the flames, rescues the beautiful maiden, and wins both love and riches.

At the end of the day, the Fool stuffs in his wallet what he believes to be important.  It is as likely to be filled with shiny trinkets as it is to contain deep philosophical truths or the true essentials of the road.  What we do know is that we will never guess its contents, and the Fool will never reveal them to us.

The Fool’s wallet is a rabbit hole.  One of the most fascinating aspects, for me, of the best tarot decks is the proliferation of rabbit holes they offer us.  I cannot state with any degree of certainty whether these seemingly innocent details which lead us into endless underground warrens of discovery, possibility, and dead ends, are purposely inserted as a kind of mischievous diversion designed to keep us chasing every fleeting scut that flashes just out of sight, until we are hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of our own design, or whether, due to the nature of our minds, we cannot help transforming even the most innocuous of features into deviously clever puzzles which, once solved, we think, will reveal fundamental truths and illuminate the path to enlightenment.  However, I will say there is nothing wrong with plunging into rabbit holes: we might be down there for years, end up miles from where we started, more confused than ever, or we might find ourselves in wild and unexpected places that we could never have reached in our travels through the sunlit world above ground.

I will also say that if we are going to peer into these rabbit holes, we ought to dive in.  Too often in tarot commentaries, writers allude to intriguing congruencies, make one or two superficial remarks, then rush off as though nothing further need to be said on the subject, leaving it to their readers to either accept the writers’ unsubstantiated speculations or earn them themselves by committing to the work the writers forsook.  Since I am not willing to simply “go along,” I have decided to explore these rabbit holes and warrens, perhaps foolishly, if only to see where they will take me, and since we are already considering the WS Fool’s pack, I will start here.

 “He has a rose in one hand and in the other a costly wand, from which depends over his right shoulder a wallet curiously embroidered.”  This is all Waite, himself, says about the bag his Fool carries;[vi] he does not even tell us what the image embroidered on it is, and we cannot quite make it out, but Eden Gray declares that it is “the sign of the eagle,” [vii] and once this suggestion is planted in our consciousness, we inspect the image again and see quite clearly an eagle’s (though Robert M. Place believes it to be a hawk’s) head.

Gray goes on to write, “[the emblem] betokens virile strength and is also associated with the zodiacal sign Scorpio.”  Unfortunately, she does not clarify this statement any further, and it does require some explanation.

Bald Eagle

Eagles are powerful and deadly predators that attack from above.  Many cultures consider them to be symbols of truth, majesty, strength, courage, and nobility.  They have cruel beaks and razor-sharp talons which allow them to catch, kill, and rend their prey.

The Waite-Smith image represents a watershed in the portraiture of the tarot Fool in which he is transformed from (predominantly) a bearded, manly figure in his middle or later years to a beardless youth of ambiguous masculinity and orientation; so, while an eagle’s head might well “betoken virile strength,” the bearer of that image does not in either his features or bearing evoke dynamic machismo or seem even slightly eagle-ish.

A more appropriate insignia for this free spirit with which to emblazon his possessions might be a flower, such as the one he carries in his opposite hand, or butterfly.  However, Smith drew an eagle’s head (according to Gray and other tarot writers), and Waite approved the design, so if we are going to note it in our commentary, we are obliged to explore such a striking incongruity wherever it takes us, and in the Gray commentary it takes us straight into astrology, for she remarks that the eagle “is associated with the zodiacal sign Scorpio.”

As the earth orbits the sun, it looks, from our perspective, as though the sun is traveling through the heavens on a kind of elliptical journey against a backdrop of stars; this excursion takes one calendar year to complete, and the path the sun “navigates” is known as the zodiac.  Within the zodiac are twelve constellations which the sun seems to pass through in succession from start to finish every 365 days, so the dates assigned to each astrological sign refer to the position of the sun at those times as we perceive it from our “stationary” point upon the earth.  Thus, the sun appears to be within Sagittarius roughly between the dates November 22 – December 21; from there it moves into Capricorn (December 22 – January 19); onto Aquarius (January 20 – February 18); Pisces (February 19 – March 20); Aries (March 21 – April 19); Taurus (April 20 – May 20); Gemini (May 21 – June 20); Cancer (June 21 – July 22); Leo (July 23 – August 22); Virgo (August 23 – September 22); Libra (September 23 – October 22); and finally enters Scorpius sometime around October 23 and remains within that constellation until late November.

Because the sun is “within” the constellation Scorpius during the late months of autumn (Northern Hemisphere), Scorpio is associated with the harvest and the decent into the underworld.  Halloween, Samhain, and other festivals of the dead belong to Scorpio; the ruling planets are Mars and Pluto (in astrology, Pluto is still considered to be a planet): Mars, the Roman god of war, possesses combative and aggressive qualities which influence those born under his aegis; Pluto is the Roman god who presides over the underworld, and in astrology, Pluto is the planet of death, sex, and transformation because these happen below the surface.

Once again, we are confronted with another incongruity, for the WS Fool does not give off the impression that he is combative, aggressive, or even slightly chthonic.  In another incarnation, such as the Tarot de Paris or Tarot de Marseille in which Le Fou or Le Mat is an older, bearded man, in the autumn of his life, Scorpio would seem to be a much better fit; but on the surface, it would seem that Taurus, ruled by Venus, with her beauty, love of aesthetics, comfort and luxury, and the dates which put her in the middle to late spring, would be more in line with the character Waite and Smith created; or Gemini, ruled by the youthful messenger-god Hermes; Sagittarius, ruled by Dionysus, the god of wine and pleasure (who was also depicted as somewhat effeminate); or even Capricorn, ruled by Apollo, who was frequently portrayed as a handsome, beardless young man who was also connected with the sun.

However, we will leave that idea to be discussed at a later time; for the moment, we are concerned with Scorpio.

Image result for scorpius constellation

The name Scorpius is Latin for “creature with the burning sting”; it is one of the brightest, most distinctive constellations in the night sky, and it really does look like a scorpion, especially around the tail.  Scorpions are predatory arachnids; because they are cold-blooded (are unable to generate their own body heat) they prefer to live in deserts and other semi-arid regions, though they can be found in many types of habitat.  Though they do not live in water (with the exception of the water scorpion) scorpions can survive submerged in water for up to forty-eight hours, and can last as long as a year without food.  They have existed on earth for more than 400 million years, meaning they were around long before dinosaurs, making them one of the most resilient creatures to have evolved.  They are eight-legged invertebrates (have no central spine), possessing exoskeletons and segmented bodies; but they are most known for their grasping pedipalps and the narrow, cruelly segmented tail which is characteristically arched forward and featuring a venomous stinger.  They are generally nocturnal, hiding under logs, bark, and rocks during the day and hunting at night, and they will attack, kill, and eat other scorpions, as well as insects, lizards, and small mammals, such as mice.  Though most scorpions are not fatal to healthy adults, they still have a reputation as being deadly, and in dreams, scorpions often symbolize dangerous individuals, stinging comments, poisonous remarks, vengeance and betrayal.  In one common mythical theme, a scorpion asks another animal – a frog, fox, or tortoise – to transport it across a stream; the other animal hesitates, fearing the scorpion will sting it, but the scorpion assures the animal that he will not, for if he does, both he and the animal will drown; the other animal sees the common sense in this argument and agrees.  Midway across, the scorpion stings, and when the dying creature asks why, the scorpion can only reply, “It’s my nature.”

Considering all this, we can understand the connection between scorpions and Pluto, for they send living creatures into his realm with a strike from their barbed and venomous tails.  We can understand scorpions’ association with Mars, for they are aggressive and combative.  What we cannot understand is the correspondence between these creatures and the Waite-Smith Fool.  However, neither Gray nor any other Waite-Smith tarotists make the argument that this youth evinces any scorpion traits; they only point out the eagle head on his wallet.

Ordinarily, the constellations of the zodiac are represented by a single central image, which can be a human figure, such as twins with Gemini and a virgin or harvest maiden for Virgo; it can be an object, such as a set of scales for Libra, or an idea, such as the water-bearer for Aquarius; but most often it is an animal, such as the crab for Cancer, the lion for Leo, the ram for Aries, fish for Pisces, the mythical centaur for Sagittarius, the bull for Taurus, and the goat for Capricorn.  However, with Scorpio there is a hierarchy of animals, an ascending scale which illustrates the evolution (or lack of development) for the individual born under that sign, and it does not begin with the scorpion, as we might think, but with the spider. 

Spiders, like scorpions, are arachnids; both are cold-blooded and venomous, though the vast majority of them are not capable of poisoning larger animals or people.  Spiders spin webs in which to catch their prey.  The spider, waiting in the center of its web, feels the vibrations from the struggling insect, and then either paralyzes or kills the unfortunate creature with its venom.  Thus, a spider dream might signify that the dreamer feels like he is caught in a “web of lies” or “web of intrigue” and being manipulated by someone.  Spiders are also associated with cleverness, people who use words to spin elaborate tales to perplex and take advantage of others; and as Sir Walter Scott cautioned us, when we tell lies, we create confusion that might end up ensnaring us as well: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” [viii]  Spiders represent our fears and worries, which might cause us to feel helplessly enmeshed.  They are also trickster figures in some cultures, using their cleverness to manipulate situations to get what they want.  So spider Scorpios are egocentric individuals who need to be the center of attention or care only for what they want and spin webs in which they entangle others to achieve their ends.

Scorpions occupy the next rung of the ladder.  Scorpions hide under leaves and stones, and they can strike without warning; thus scorpion Scorpios can be destructive and intimidating, controlling others through fear; they are thought to be childish, jealous, and very self-protective. 

Lizards are next up.  They are also cold-blooded, but in terms of Scorpio evolution, they represent something of a dormant stage.  Very few lizards are venomous, and these are typically not harmful to people.  Mostly lizards will bite only if they are handled.  As for what they signify in dreams, that depends on how individuals respond to lizards, but in general a dream of a lizard crawling might indicate a sneaky person in the dreamer’s life or danger, a betrayal.  A lizard Scorpio would be an individual who nurses his hurt feelings or anger and plans revenge, though outwardly he may appear calm; in this state, the lizard Scorpio is vulnerable to the toxins that accumulate within him and can fall into a black depression or even make himself ill.

Fourth are snakes, which are possibly the most mystifying of all creatures and most impossible for us to categorize, for our collective mythological treatment of them is hopelessly conflicted.  In Genesis, we read that God created a paradise in Eden for Adam and Eve to live in unconscious bliss, but within the garden was also a serpent who “was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” [ix]  The sentence structure is perplexing, for if God created all wild animals, then we would expect it to read, “was more crafty than any other of the wild animals the Lord God had made”; however, as written it seems the serpent was not one of God’s creations, or at least not one of his “wild” creations, leading to the possibility that either the serpent was somehow independent of God or a servant of God.  In the Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha sat himself down on the Immovable Spot beneath the Tree of Enlightenment, a tempest arose to threaten him, but a mighty serpent king encircled and protected him until the storm had passed, allowing him to attain enlightenment.  The serpent in the garden instigated the Fall, tempting Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, saying to her, “God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4).  Later, when God drove Adam and Eve out, He said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.  He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever” (Gen 3:22).  The serpent told Eve the truth; he did not deceive her.  Though for many, the serpent is the devil who used trickery to bring about the ruin of man, in the Gnostic tradition, the serpent is the agent of good, the hero of the story, so to speak, for it was Yahweh who desired to keep man in ignorance, hoping that if his bondage were pleasant enough, man would not rebel against it, but the snake brought consciousness, much the way Prometheus did when he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men.

Historically, snakes have been construed as evil, for they are cold-blooded, they may remain coiled, still, seemingly indifferent, and then strike in a flash, and many are capable of killing men with their venom; we have an instinctive fear of snakes.  However, they also represent fertility, rebirth, transformation, and immortality.  The hero must slay the dragon who terrorizes the people, but the Greek god of healing and medicine, Asclepius, carried a rod entwined by a serpent, and the caduceus of Hermes (winged staff featuring two serpents coiling about it) has become a modern symbol of medicine.[x]  In many fairytales, eating a snake allows one to understand the language of animals.

Snake Scorpios may remain calm during crises, but there is something dangerously coiled within them, and they may strike without warning.  They are not capable of having genuinely warm feelings for others, so they have few close friends and are capable of making truly cold decisions based on necessity.  Earlier, we compared the serpent in the garden with Prometheus, who brought fire to men, but there is at least one glaring difference: Prometheus did what he did because he felt pity for men and wanted to help; we do not know why the serpent did what he did, but there is no evidence that he felt sorry for Adam and Eve and acted to benefit them. 

The fifth animal is the wolf, and here we leave the cold-blooded, egocentric arachnids and reptiles behind and enter into the realm of warm-blooded mammals which are capable of working together and forming relationships.  Wolves are highly social animals that travel together in packs and care for their young.  They are symbols of guardianship, loyalty, and wisdom.  All dogs evolved from wolves, but we should not take this as an indication that wolves pose no danger: in fairytales, the big bad wolf eats children as well as sheep, though a wolf did nurture and protect Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome.

In dreams, being attacked by a pack of wolves might indicate the dreamer feels that others are ganging up on him.  Though wolf Scorpios then are capable of warmth and empathy, they are also by nature pack animals and can be caught up in mob mentality or seek safety in numbers.  At times it might be easier for them to remain true to their values if they keep some distance from the group.

Sixth is the eagle, a symbol of courage and power.  The eagle also possesses keen vision, and because it flies higher than other birds, it sees what they cannot.  The eagle is the natural enemy of the snake; while it is slithering on the ground, the eagle attacks from above, kills and devours it.  In this way, the eagle is able to assimilate the mystical knowledge the snake possesses and apply it to more spiritual ends.  However, an eagle is still an eagle; as high as it flies, as spiritually motivated as an eagle Scorpio might be, the predator is never long absent.

Seventh, at the top of the evolutionary ladder, is the mythical Phoenix.  The phoenix is related to the sun, for like the sun, it lives its brilliant life, dies in a burst of flame, just as the sun sets the western horizon ablaze every evening, before vanishing, only to rise again in the east the next morning.  The phoenix Scorpio rises above, comes through hardships triumphant, and since he is focused on the spiritual, he no longer nurses poisonous thoughts of revenge and hatred within him; he is able to let all that darkness go.

Even were the Waite-Smith Fool to be a Scorpio, he is too young and inexperienced to have evolved to the eagle level of that astrological sign; thus, it seems unlikely that the eagle-head emblazed wallet belongs to him, whether it is legally his or not.  We might speculate on how he came by it, but that exercise would serve no constructive purpose; nor does it particularly matter whose wallet it is (or originally was).  Rather we ought to be asking why he has it.  What does it mean when someone has something that belongs to someone else? 

In Psychology and Alchemy, Carl Jung addressed this in the first of a dream sequence in which the dreamer dreamed he put on a stranger’s hat.  Our clothes frequently define us.  Sometimes they signify our vocations or social roles, but they also indicate personality traits.  A person who is inherently conservative will dress in a way that does not attract attention, while someone who thrives in the spotlight, so to speak, will dress to be noticed.  A hat encircles the head, where much of our identity resides, not only in our faces but our personalities, memories, aspirations, fantasies.  When the old sovereign dies, his successor goes through a coronation ceremony, in which the crown, symbol of regal authority, is set upon his head, and it is that moment when he truly becomes king.  Jung writes, “a stranger’s hat imparts a strange personality.” 

It is an odd notion, but we can invest things with psychological significance to such an extent that they can become imbued with the personality of the true owner.  If we walk in another person’s shoes, we will gain a better understanding of him; if we put someone else’s glasses on, we will see things from that individual’s perspective.  But what does it mean if we carry someone else’s baggage?

In the 1960s, people would ask, “What’s your bag?” meaning “what’s your problem,” “what’s your issue?” or “where are you coming from?”  In counseling, “baggage” has come to refer to all the intangible (frequently emotional) “stuff” we carry around with us that holds us back; impedimenta that belongs to our past but which we cannot part with.  In dreams, luggage often symbolizes desires, responsibilities, expectations, experiences, problems – things which weigh us down, even crush us.  In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned by Zeus to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity after he led the Titans in a series of battles against the Olympian gods.  He was to suffer this fate until he could trick or persuade someone else to relieve him of his burden.  We encounter similar motifs in other stories and fairytales; thus, we are warned that it can be perilous to assume another person’s estate.

In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly offers the image of an invisible bag which we all drag behind us and into which we stuff different parts of our personality that are not socially acceptable.  We learn very early on to stuff our aggression into the bag, our selfishness, our wildness and impulsiveness – whatever it is that people, beginning with our parents, then teachers, friends, peers, bosses do not like about us or for which they criticize us.  By the time we are finished, very little is left of our original personalities.  We are nice men and women, but we lack much of the energy we had when we were younger and less civilized.  The bag does not exist in order for us to tidy up, like putting books neatly on a shelf; we are not trying to organize our personalities – we stuff things into the bag that we want to pretend are not a part of us.  We go to great lengths to hide our bag stuff from other people for, we think, if they only knew all our deep, dark secrets, they would despise us.  Sometimes, we when confront or are confronted by our bag stuff, we even despise ourselves.  We do not inventory the contents of the bag, just keep shoving more in.  As a consequence, we become increasing unconscious to ourselves.

It is not a bad thing to be civilized, to obey the rules, to be guided by parents, teachers, and other authorities: we would not be able to live together in our communities otherwise.  The harm occurs when we identify with the ideal selves we present to the world, our personas, and deny the greater share of our personalities because we consider those aspects of us to be inferior and shameful.  Robert Bly suggests that when we shun parts of ourselves, stuff them into the bag and try to forget them, they regress and become hostile to us; it is this phenomenon which makes Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde so compelling even to this day: Dr. Jekyll was a highly respected and prominent scientist who was known and loved for his charitable works, but when he opened his bag, the monstrous Mr. Hyde slumped out.

If the bag really does belong to someone else, then all the stuff inside it is someone else’s as well; the bag would represent a burden the Fool should not bear and dangers with which he is not equipped to deal.  We know from Jungian psychology that after years of filling our unconscious bags with all the bits of us that we do not want others to know about (and quite a lot we would rather not know about ourselves), we are left with very little to call our own.  The image of carrying or dragging this bag along with us is quite apt, for we have not really gotten rid of those unsavory bits; we have simply put them where we do not see them and do not have to be reminded of their existence, but they remain part of us, continue to influence us unchecked because we are not watching over them, and they can cause us all kinds of problems. 

When we are younger, we try to identify completely with the personas we’ve created, those thin slices of personality we show to the outside world, usually because they are socially acceptable; however, they are incomplete and therefore not quite human.  We require our social masks in order to get along with others and protect ourselves from the slings and arrows we feel are aimed at us, but at some point, if we are going to individuate – become the individuals we were meant to be – we must begin the process of reclaiming our shadows (unpacking our bags) in order to inventory and reintegrate those suppressed and repressed contents back into our personalities (make them conscious).[xi]  We might even think of the Fool’s journey through the Tarot as a pictorial representation of that process, but in order for him to benefit, it must be his journey, and the contents he works to reclaim must also belong to him.

Of course it may be that the bag really does belong to the fool, but the image of the eagle is incongruous.  What does it mean when an individual prominently displays an emblem so inconsistent with everything else about his appearance? 

It might be that the eagle head represents the fool’s ideal, what he hopes to evolve into.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as he is conscious of it.  There is a vast difference between someone displaying an eagle head in order to remind himself of the goal he is working toward and someone displaying it in the attempt to convince others (or possibly himself) that he is already an eagle when he is, in fact, at a much lower stage of development. 


[i]        Matt. 4:5-6; Luke 4:9-11

[ii]        Symbols of Transformation par. 176.

[iii]        pars pro toto – the part can be taken for the whole

[iv]       Coins-earth; Cups-water; Swords-air; Wands-fire

[v]        Kopp, Sheldon.  The Hanged Man: Psychotherapy and the Forces of Darkness. 1974.

[vi]       Waite, Arthur Edward.  The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination.  Weiser Books: Boston, MA/York Beach, ME, 2004.

[vii]       Gray, Eden.   A Complete Guide to the Tarot.  Bantam Books: New York, 1970.

[viii]   Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto VI, stanza XVII (frequently and erroneously attributed to Shakespeare).

[ix]     New International Version (NIV) Genesis 3:1.  All biblical citations will be from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

[x]       Originally the caduceus of Hermes was a messenger’s staff (Hermes was the messenger of the gods), the snakes being two white ribbons.  Later it became a symbol of commerce, again keeping with Hermes’ character.  Though Hermes himself was never a prominent healer, Apollo, who was a healer, gave the caduceus to him. 

[xi]       John A. Sanford gives one of the most helpful insights into individuation I have yet found.  He writes in his book The Man Who Wrestled with God: “there is a process that goes on within people seeking to transform them from unconscious and egocentric people to whole people, and that Jung called this process individuation.  Individuation is a basically simple idea since everything that is alive seeks to fulfill itself.  If we looked at a great oak tree with its spreading branches and mighty limbs we could say, ‘There is an acorn that has individuated.’  The oak tree is the potential of the acorn and, given the right conditions of climate, soil, and moisture, the acorn will become the oak tree.  It is also worth noting that although oak trees form a common species no two oak trees are exactly alike; when something individuates it becomes both a complete and unique expression of life.”

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