Mysteries of the Tarot: The Ship of Fools

The Ship of Fools: Heironymous Bosch

Ship of Fools, by Heironymous Bosch

As a great fan of Heironymous Bosch, I could not help posting a whole boatload of Fools! Note the little head in the tree!

I found an interesting source for the idea of the painting in a book called Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization by Hans Peter Duerr.


The Fool has a lot of resonance with Dionysus, God of Divine Madness.
Here it is:
“The maenads of Zagreus–Dionysus were closely related to the Couretes, and probably had the same roots. The Meanads were the ‘grasping ones’, the ‘tearers’, even more closely than the Couretes bearing traces of the Wild Hunt. Like the Erinys of Artemis, these ecstatic huntresses were spirits of the dead who raged through the land ‘between the times’, clad in the skins of panthers, deer or foxes, carrying the thyrsus and suckling wolf pups. they were given death offerings usually of milk and honey. The same offerings were later given to  the ‘bonnes dames’ and the ‘naht-frouwen’, the women of the night. On choes, the second day of the of the Anthesteria festival, Dionysus, the ‘great loosener’, the ‘god of blossoms’, rolled through the streets and alleys of Athens, seated on his ship cart. The cart was drawn by two satyrs, and the god was accompanied by the souls of the dead, who on this day arrived from the swamps of Lerna, the door to the underworld, to visit the mortals.
When a ship rolls on land, all matters are turned upside down. the rule of the masters did not prevail on choes, and the slaves were free and could do as they pleased. As late as 1133, a wooden ship on wheels traveled from Cornelimunster to Tongern and Looz via Achen and Maastrischt, where it was fitted out out with sails and mast. Wherever the ship haulted, women were overcome by wild ecstasy. half-naked or clad in short shifts, their hair loose, they danced around the ship and later engaged in behavior about which a monk who reported the event maintained he could only weep or be silent. Regrettably for posterity, he did not write while weeping, so we are left in ignorance as to what might taken place around the ship after nightfall.
Ships float in water, in no-man’s-land, as it were, not subject to the laws of one particular country. it is understandable, therefore, that in the latter part of the Middle Ages, ‘lawless’ fools were often represented on ships. If the ship then traveled over ‘someone’s land’, this was chaos overcoming order.”

The images here are amazing. If you read this paragraph slowly, allowing the images of the Maenads, the ship, the mad Fools to play in your imagination, you will see how one simple image of the Fool resonates, like fine poetry, into the deepest levels of the unconscious and tap into the Ancestral Memory where the Ship of Fools still exists as a ‘reality’.
This is how Tarot works. Images and symbolic keys to deeper meanings, many unseen, not obvious, require meditation to reveal themselves. Images from the Ancient Mysteries transmit core energies from the Soul of the World, fertilizing and ordering the imagination so that it becomes a mediator between times, dimensions, and levels of consciousness beyond the boundaries of the known.
For this to happen, you must do something that has gone out of fashion — you must slow down, savor, brood upon an image until it falls into your bloodstream and becomes part of you. Then, when you read the cards they will come to life and speak in ways no instruction manual can teach.
Next post will give a definition of Tarot with a few ideas on how to consecrate a Tarot deck.
Peter Breugel, Carnival

Peter Breugel, Carnival

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Mysteries of the Tarot: The Fool

The Fool

“...but we will speak only of those things which are difficult, and not to be grasped by the senses, but, indeed, which are almost contrary to the evidence of the senses.”
Paracelsus, Archidoxi Magica


Using my own handpainted Holy Grail Tarot, I will use this blog to teach the definitions of the cards and explore their deeper meaning. Their part in the Grail Legend will also be told, using the literary sources that inspired the outer images. I say outer images, for this Tarot deck is the result of an Initiation, and the real images came to me directly from the UnderWorld of Faery.
When I embarked on my visits to the Kingdom of Faery, I was no more sensible of the dangers and rewards than this Fool you see here blithely walking off a cliff. Heaven and Earth attempt to warn him to watch his step…but the Fool’s way is to venture into the unknown because there is no other way  for him to learn but through experience.
David Ovason, in his book The Zelator: the Secret Journals of Mark Hedsel,Way of the Fool.
“The Way of the Fool is the way of the independent traveler on the Path of Initiation. Such a traveler may study under a variety of Masters, yet will strive always to preserve his or her own identity, and rarely undertakes vows of silence which will bind his or her being to a particular school or teaching. The fact that this traveling Fool is on a Path is meant to reflect that he or she is following the way of experience, which in ancient Greek was termed pathein.”
He goes on to say that the Path of the Fool is about development of the higher Ego, or the Self. This is the Self that Jung talks about, “the droplet of Godhead which has sought experience through involvement in matter.” The  part of us that that knows itself to be divine. The Divine Fool is one whose folly is to surrender  to this Godhead. He is motivated by his desire for life beyond earthly existence. To find it, he steps into the unseen and therefore begins an journey into the unknown. But in his surrender to trust in the divine pattern of his life, he knows perfect freedom.


The meanings of the Fool card in Tarot are more complex than they seem. The symbol of the 0 is rich with meaning. As a newly incarnate soul, the Fool is the baby that has passed through the 0 of the birth canal, coming from the spiritual dimension into the world of matter. His consciousness is raw, full of sensations and visions of a former life of complete security, enclosed in warmth and darkness. He is jolted awake by pain and blood and light, beginning the journey of the Fool from the second the umbilicus is cut. He has no name and knows nothing. In many respects he is an empty 0 waiting to be filled.
In the Middle Ages, the Fool was known as the Lord of Misrule; he was unpredictable, anarchic, arcahic, somehow ‘inferior’ to us in his instictual abandon.  This uncouth manner is symbolized in traditonal Tarot cards by the Fool’s cap and bell, a residue of the old crown of asses ears that resonates so well with the sin-burdened scapegoat. To say it simply, civilized people sometimes long to return to the raw, unconscious, instictual stage of infancy expressd in the madness of the Fool. Because they fear a break down of their inner control, they joy in having someone else act it out for them. In ancient times it is easy to consider that the one who played the Fool too well was cast out or killed so that society could rid itself of these base desires for the rest of the year.

The Lord of Misrule


The little dog barking at the Fool to watch his step  symbolizes the  internalized, positive side of an instictual, natural response to life. Attuned to nature,  this instinct builds in protection when it is needed at the most dangerus junctions of the Path.
In his sack, the Fool carries his unknown Self, or Shadow. He doesn’t think he wants what is in that sack, yet he needs it, and it can never be left behind. It can be seen as a bag of Karma, that which must be paid out by the end of life. In my deck, the Fool, Parzifal, carries a bag of black and white squares, signifying his inability to see the shades of grey. Black and white thinking blocks subtle awareness, depth of perception and openess to the contradictions through which the Mysteries are revealed. It suggests that even as free as the Fool’s mind is, his clinging to easy answers causes him to fail to ask the questions that would bring the Wasteland to life again. In a sense, black and white thinking is the sign of an inner wasteland — an utter lack of imagination. In the legend of his life, Parzifal was raised alone by his mother in the deep forest. All she supplied him with was a set of rules. His story shows that blind reliance on the rules can bring disaster when creative solutions are called for.
It is not hard to see that the sack and staff have phallic conotations. In traditional decks, the sack dangles at the end of the stick which is over the Fool’s shoulder visually severing his head from his body. There is no more apt arrangement of symbols to suggest that much of the Fools’ instinctual bad behavior, and much of his mania, is sexual. On another level, this sexual imagery has less to do with sexual acts than with fertility of ideas, creative energy as yet unformed, direct from a source close to the divine.

” The Way of the Fool is a sort of balancing act on a tightrope. While the Fool has no wish to lose contact with his Higher Self, he or she wishes to gain experience of life…”
Though my Fool, Parzifal wears no Fool’s cap or horns, or asses ears, the trees behind him mimic those shapes. They are part of nature. This Fool is already partly redeemed, for  he wears the royal purple emblazoned with butterflies of transmutation, his bare head shines with gold and is free to recieve the angel’s blessings from above. He is wrapped in the yellow cloak of the mind in harmony with the body it floats around and supports like wings.
Parzifal walks out of the starry night of the forest  toward an abyss of stars in the UnderWorld, for unlike our forebears, we have seen the Earth floating in space; we know the earth is as divine as any other celestial body.  He is drawn to the wider world by a vision of ‘angels’– an encounter with the Knights of the Round Table whose armor shone in the sunshine like gold. Therefore, his motivation is a spiritual search.
The motley magpies represent  and gathering of bright things, also in their constant chattering, the Mystery Language of the Birds.  In the far distance the rising sun shines over the sea of origin, the source of all life.

Tarot meanings: Ignorance, naivete, entering the unknown, higher guidance, Idea, thought, that which endeavors to rise above the material, spiritual aspiration. In a reading about material concerns it shows folly, stupidity, eccentricity and mania unless balanced by very strong cards that stabilize.

To see the complete Tarot of the Holy Grail, go to www.whiteswan-tarot.com and look under Photo Gallery.

My services are also listed at that website.

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