Recently I had a very pleasant conversation with one of my virtual friends regarding the correct ordering of The Fool among the cards of the Major Arcana.
My interlocutor seemed surprised when I said that The Fool does not belong to the beginning of the Tarot deck and actually, he was not placed there until very recent times.
As many other Tarot readers, he thought that according to the Golden Dawn system The Fool, numbered zero, is the very first card placed before The Magician, the card which is traditionally numbered one.
What is known today about ordering the Trumps in the early Tarot decks is mainly based on different written sources in which the names of the Trumps are mentioned.
The currently known oldest source is a collection of preaches written by an anonymous monk sometime during the second half of the 1400s, entitled “Sermones de Ludo cum aliis.” Here, The Fool, “El matto,” is the card positioned at the end of the Major Arcana and presumably numbered twenty-two.
Pietro Aretino , famous poet and satirist, mentioned the name and order of the Trumps in his 1521’s “Pasquinata sull’elezione di Adriano VI.” Once again, “Il Matto” is the last card of the Arcana.
“Triomphi de Pomeran,” published in 1534, puts The Fool for the first time to the top of the list. “Triomphi de Pomeran” is a series of sonnets using the Tarot trumps to describe the noblewomen of Venice. The volume of verses is organised into four parts. The second part has a pictorial sub-title and consists of twenty-two stanzas of ottava rima, with headings associating specific women with the Trumps.
Il Matto, The Fool was the first card listed and attributed to Nicolosa Cornera.
The so-called esoteric tradition of the Tarot started to flourish and developed in France, and got the generic name “Tarot of Marseilles.” The earliest surviving cards of the Marseilles pattern were produced by Jean Noblet of Paris around 1650.
Yoav Ben-Dov noted that “the Tarot de Marseille evolved for many centuries in the hands of many people who left no written records about its meaning. Therefore, we do not have direct access to its original symbolic language. We have to figure it out for ourselves.”
In the Marseilles tradition, La Mort (Death), card numbered XIII was usually unnamed, while Le Fou (The Fool) has attributed the penultimate letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Shin, but no number.
Placing The Fool at the end of the deck, usually between The Last Judgement and The World was adopted and preserved by the vast majority of occultists. In the works of Éliphas Lévi, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, Oswald Wirth, Arthur Edward Waite and Gérard Encausse (better known as Papus), The Fool is positioned between The Last Judgement and The World at the end of the Major Arcana.
There is one notable exception. Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as Etteilla, put his Fool card at the very end of the deck and number it 78.
The Fool was put at the beginning of the Major Arcana by Aleister Crowley only 74 years ago.
Aleister Crowley was initiated into the Outer Order of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in November 1898 by the group’s leader, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Crowley progressed quickly through the lower grades of the Order and in 1899 requested to be initiated into the inner Second Order.
However, due to his libertine lifestyle and ambitious nature, Crowley was unpopular in the group and developed feuds with several members, including respected figures such as William Butler Yeats and A.E. Waite. When the London’s lodge refused to initiate Crowley into the Adeptus Minor Grade, Mathers personally admitted him in a ceremony carried out in Paris. Eventually, the whole conflict escalated into what was called the “Battle of Blythe Road” and resulted in both Crowley and Mathers exclusion from the Order.
Crowley’s involvement in the Order was brief, stormy and he never made it into the higher ranks of the Order.
Practically, the original Order has ceased to exist in 1903. Different fractions and offshoots claimed to be the legit successors, including Alpha et Omega, Stella Matutina, Isis-Urania Temple and A∴A∴.
What Israel Regardie and Chic Cicero called “the Golden Dawn system” is practically the altered interpretation of the system according to Aleister Crowley and by no means the genuine Golden Dawn system.
Crowley noted that “the really important feature of this card – The Fool – is that its number should be 0. It represents therefore the Negative above the Tree of Life, the source of all things. It is the Qabalistic Zero.” He argued that “it appears natural to a mathematician to begin the series of natural numbers with Zero.”
We are not discussing here the correctness of one or the other; I only want to set the historical facts right. However, in the conservative esoteric and hermetic tradition, The Fool was placed at the end of the Major Arcana between the Last Judgement and The World, numbered zero and sometimes, exceptionally twenty-two, but attributed to the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, respectively Shin.
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(Excerpt from the book “The Secrets of the Tarot – Volume One, The Old Way” by Attila Blága. Full or partial use of this text for commercial or non-commercial distribution by any means whatsoever is strictly prohibited unless expressly authorised by the author.)