A Tarot deck usually has 78 cards. Four suits number from 1-10, with four court cards each. These are called the Minor Arcana. The remaining cards are the Major Arcana.
When I teach Tarot, I like to begin with the Major Arcana. The following descriptions are my own understanding of the cards both from thirty years of study, countless decks I have used, and thirty years of experience. They may strike you as wildly different from other interpretations of the symbols, especially the more codified “Official Meanings”. I’m happy to debate or discuss differing interpretations. YMMV, as they say.
The first card is The Fool. Numbered as zero, it represents beginnings.
The Fool doesn’t refer to someone foolish, although it might seem so to an observer. Rather the Fool embodies the concept of the Beginner’s mind.
The Beginner is unrepentantly optimistic, enthusiastic and cheerful. They have a firm belief in their own ability to understand, learn or be anything. This is the newbie enthusiasm that is either annoying or exhilarating. The endless questions: the “Look at this!”, “Show me!” and “Why?” of the child.
Here, I depict the Fool as a child who begins her journey today (although we only assume it is a girl because of the way she dresses. Otherwise, she is the androgynous and archetypal Child). She takes nothing with her and her eyes are fixed on the far distance. We don’t know where she is going, but her determined stride evokes self-confidence
She steps off the firm ground to cross the water, seemingly convinced that it will hold her weight.The white dog, sometimes thought to symbolize the Fool’s sense of caution, looks on in concern. Perhaps he wishes his mistress would choose a safer footing.
In this card, I try to unify the four traditional elements as understood in the 20th Century European and North American esoteric/magical traditions.
In the distance sit the ruins of a castle, half buried in shifting sand. However, it is not sand, but clouds that hold the castle up, symbolizing Air, the element of the intellect. The castle represents education and training. The facts, attitudes and ideas that we all enter the adult world with. It is only through experience that one discovers which of these “hold up.”
Water is in the foreground. Beyond the Fool, dolphins cavort; but look more closely and you see the creatures are some sort of construct, embodying the creativity of the artisan and machinist.
The mountains in the far distance represent Earth. The Fool trusts that worry about the things traditionally represented by Earth such as food, clothing and shelter, is also distant. For now, they are content to take what the Universe provides.
Above all rides the hot, blue and white midday/midsummer sun. Fire is the element of passion and it is passion that starts the Fool on their journey.
Every card can be read either upright or reversed. Reversals, in my mind, have always represented the dark side of the thing. The dark side of the Fool is arrogance. The peculiar kind of “that can’t be so hard” arrogance that the intelligent and educated are especially prone to.
As human beings, we have a tendency to overestimate our own abilities. Especially, when we’re just starting out. That lack of humility causes frustration when we inevitably fail.
Reversed, the Fool can be said to be a person who judges talent and ability as fixed quantities. Failure becomes a reflection of their character rather than a learning experience. This is the student who has been taught that grades are an end unto themselves (meaning just about all of us) or the coworker in the meeting who is far more concerned with looking intelligent rather than contributing intelligently.
Since the Fool also represents the beginner’s humility, I’ve often read the Fool reversed as imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome tends to manifest in two forms: the first is the familiar “I’m not as smart as they think I am” and the second is the inability to take credit where credit is due. Women are especially prone to this.
Imposter syndrome does not read as humility but rather its own form of arrogance. To answer the compliment on a difficult task with, “Oh, it was nothing. Anyone could have done it,” is rude. The one who offered the compliment often feels embarrassed to have said anything at all. After all, if it was that easy, then the person offering the compliment is inadequate . The interaction leaves both feeling unsatisfied by what should have been a cordial exchange of esteem.
Reversed or upright, the cards of the Major Arcana represent the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Thus, the Fool is the state in which the seeker, the protagonist, the Chosen One begins. They have heeded the call to adventure and they set out to make their fortune in the world. Knowing nothing, their first task is to acquire a mentor. Generally, in mythic stories, the mentor comes in the form of the next card: The Magician.