The archetype of the fool or the clown shows up in most every well-known story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This character appears in dramatic work in various forms from the “Wise Fool” of the Greek Tragedies to Shakespeare’s spritely Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Dori in Finding Nemo.
These “foolish” characters provide comic relief and a sense of conscience to the protagonist (as they do not follow society’s ways, are usually not the most fashionable, and always speak the truth). They invite us to wear masks — or to take off our masks and live a life free of labels and ideals. And they are usually a “lowly” character, and sometimes a blank slate, that will reveal the character of others based on how they themselves are treated. Sometimes an antagonist we thought was our friend will show their true colors by betraying or mistreating the fool, usually in the final act.
In Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, J. Phillip Newell writes, “The fool is calling us to be truly ourselves and points out the falseness of what we have become. He is not, however, over and against his hearers. Rather, he invites them to discover the fool within themselves. In All’s Well That Ends Well, when Paroles says that he has found the fool, the clown replies, “Did you find me in yourself, sir?”
In ancient Egypt (as early as 2400 BC), clowns served a socio-religious and psychological function in the court, with the role of priest and clown traditionally held by the same person.
In Native American traditions, the Trickster God is represented as Coyote, a sacred clown. During certain ceremonial performances, masks were made of clay and worn for each direction of the medicine wheel and a Heyoka (a mystic, a medicine man, an outsider) plays the role of the backwards clown, doing everything in reverse.
There is within Christian circles those known as “Holy Fools” or “Fools for Christ.” These are the ascetics, mystics, saints, outcasts. The Hindu equivalent would be Avadhuta (The Sanskrit word for people who “do not identify with their mind or body, names or forms, a person held to be pure consciousness.”). In Islam there are the Qalandariyya (whirling dervishes) and Malamatiyya (Sufi mystics with a staunch belief in self-blame).
The first card of the Major Arcana Tarot deck is that of The Fool. It shows him in all his youthful innocence stepping off a cliff and into the unknown without judgement, but also without wisdom. He is the embodiment of a new beginning. He is actively sacrificing his past. And he is represented by the number Zero. As George Leonard writes, zero is “the fertile void from which all creation springs, the state of emptiness that allows new things to come into being.” The fool represents what is known in Zen Buddhism as shoshin or “beginner’s mind,” the attitude that makes real learning possible. Continue reading