The Major Arcana of the Tarot is filled with timeless images of mysterious origin, each numbered and offering a plethora of interpretations for the purpose of divination. The Fool is a notable outlier of these 22 cards, as it holds the number 0 or no number at all; its placement in the order of these cards has been debated in the long history of Tarot, which has changed its interpretative value. Various occultists have placed The Fool between the 20th and 21st cards- Judgement and The World, respectively- or at the very end. More modern decks place the card at the very beginning, preceding The Magician. While the meaning of the card can be, and often is, interpreted simply as a caution to the querent, its historical ambiguity in its placement serves as an example that The Fool may not be as simple to read as it appears.
It’s easy to read The Fool as a warning. A young man is pictured, in the popular Rider-Waite-Smith deck, as being one step away from falling headlong over a cliffside with a small dog at his heels. His head in the clouds, as it were, he seems oblivious to the danger. To be called a fool, or described as foolish, can hardly be interpreted as a compliment. Thus, it’s tempting to associate The Fool with folly, over-exuberance, and lack of awareness with little or no other context. The Fool, however, also has his admirable qualities - he is pure of spirit and has a lot of heart, he is adventurous, and he is willing to trust his intuition. An innocent tumble from a cliff could also be interpreted as a leap of faith. Moreover, The Fool can symbolize simply stepping into the unknown.
A popular idea among readers of the Tarot, in fact, is that of the Fool’s Journey through the Major Arcana. In this context, each card can be read in order as a linear progression through life, as The Fool meets The Magician, The High Priestess, and so on. In this sense, each of us is a fool, or at least begins as one- and the rest of the cards follow a path that constitutes the journey of our individual lives. We all play the fool at some point, and at any moment when we find ourselves trusting our gut instincts and beginning a new venture, we become The Fool as we plot our way through it. While caution and self-awareness are valuable in these cases, the intuitive decisions made in our lives that “feel right” are powerful turning points, which can lead to ruin or fortune. What may seem to be a foolish decision can, and often is, a life-changing one. In this sense, The Fool in each of us is what prompts us to avoid becoming victims of our present circumstances. The Fool is a challenge to Fate itself.
In the spirit of foolishness and fate-defying actions, a comparison of two historical kooks who took similar leaps into the unknown might help to illustrate how the twists and turns of such decision making might play out. Submitted for your appreciation, here are the stories of Emperor Norton I and Lord Timothy Dexter.
Timothy Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1743. He was certainly not a “lord”, but he dreamed of being among those in the high society of Boston at the time. His ascent to wealth can, in large part, be ascribed to dumb luck. Saving money he earned in his youth, bolstered by a dowry through a marriage to an older unwed daughter of a farmer, he moved to Newburyport and opened a shop selling gloves and mittens. In a move that seemed absurd, he traded his tidy savings of gold and silver for continental currency, still new at the time. After the American Revolution, Alexander Hamiliton’s reforms to the banking and financial systems meant that Dexter became a millionaire for his seemingly foolish investment. He would go on to claim that he had been guided in a dream to make this decision, as well as later gambits that seemed very odd but only profited him.
He dubbed himself Lord Timothy Dexter, and proceeded to be an embarrassing bane to the wealthy community members in Newburyport. He preferred eccentric clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat that was several times too large for his head. He could be seen walking with a gold cane, accompanied by a small hairless dog named Pepper. He tried to claim himself the King of Chester, New Hampshire after buying property there, but it didn’t stick and he had to settle for his fake lordship- and his proclamation that he was the “first in the East, and first in the West, and Greatest Philosopher in the World”.
His business moves were always ridiculous, but in spite of it they only ever increased his wealth. He chartered merchant ships to send hundreds of cats, cases of mittens, and bed-warming pans to the plantations in the Caribbean. The mittens were sold to a passing ship, heading to the Baltic sea, and the plantation owners were happy to buy the cats as a means of rat control for their store houses. The bed-warming pans sold at a profit as well, being useful as ladles and strainers for vats of molasses. Eager to see Lord Dexter fail, other businessmen conspired to suggest to him that he ought to send shipments of coal to Newcastle, England- a town well-known for coal mining. So absurd was this proposal, the idiom “sending coals to Newcastle” had been a phrase meaning a pointless and foolish action. Dexter’s shipment just happened to arrive as a strike from the miners was underway, and he still made a tidy profit from what should have been a terrible business move.
His mansion on High Street became a local eyesore, as he decorated the property with wooden statues which stood as grotesque interpretations of historical figures and animals. He wrote a book, called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress, which contained his alleged philosophy. It was also written in his own form of English, with inconsistent spelling and no punctuation at all. It sold out and went into further editions, and in these later editions he added a few pages of various punctuation marks that the reader may “peper and solt it as they plese” throughout the text. The disdain from his neighbors and his wife was obvious, but he had a troop of hangers-on who were happy to encourage his ridiculousness for a chance at his money. In order to prove loyalty from those around him, he faked his death and observed his “funeral” from his house. When he eventually did die, at age 63. The ‘Newburyport Nut’ attracted thousands to his real funeral, and is still remembered for his eccentricities.
13 years after Lord Dexter's death, Joshua Abraham Norton was born in London- although the city he is most often associated with is San Francisco. Fate brought him to the era with dreams of striking it rich during the gold rush, but he decided money was better made through mercantile trade in the city. He did well, until greed got the better of him- in an attempt to corner the market on rice, he bought every shipment that came into the city and charged a premium. When ships laden with rice arrived from South America, the bottom fell out and he was ruined. A few years later, the down-and-out rogue would walk into the offices of the San Francisco Bulletin and solemnly tell the editor “I am the Emperor of the United States.” The amused editor, who likely was in the midst of a slow news day, agreed to run a front page article with Norton’s proclamation. Citizens of San Francisco were amused as well, and fell in love with this shabby character who would soon proclaim that he had abolished Congress, and that he had decided he was also The Protector of Mexico.
His reputation grew, and he would hold court in a rooming house or be seen walking around town in his tattered military uniform. He is often portrayed as being accompanied by stray dogs, namely the celebrity strays Boomer and Lazarus, although it seems this relationship was apocryphal. He issued his own currency, which was largely honored; he implemented taxes that were paid by the amused “subjects” of his empire, and would ride the rails for free. So beloved was the Emperor, that a century after his claim to the title he would be honored as a Saint in the pseudoreligion of Discordianism. Co-author of the Principia Discordia Greg Hill wrote “Everybody understands Mickey Mouse, few understand Herman Hesse, hardly anybody understands Einstein, and nobody understands Emperor Norton.”
When Norton I collapsed on a street corner and died in 1880, his funeral lasted two days and was attended by 10,000 people. As an emperor, he was held as a beneficent one. His obituary said that he “killed nobody, robbed nobody and deprived nobody of his country- which is more than can be said for most fellows in his trade.”
The similarities between the two men are obvious- each claimed a title of nobility, each made absurd decisions that forever cemented their associations with their respective cities, and each had a flair for eccentric clothing and are depicted accompanied by dogs. It is interesting to see that while Dexter attained wealth, he lacked the respect of his community, while Norton was destitute but widely loved and respected. The association with dogs is also curious, considering that The Fool depicts a small dog at the heels of the title character. This harkens back to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, the original cynic, who eschewed social norms and spent his life looking for an honest man, living in abject poverty among the stray dogs. It is more than fitting for Norton I to be sainted by the Discordians, as Diogenes and others exemplify the concept of “The Holy Fool”, those subversive characters who are able to enact social changes through profoundly eccentric behavior. Various cultures have examples of such figures, who behave in an extravagantly weird fashion in order to reflect the absurdity of the society they have abandoned back at it. While Dexter’s inscrutable attempts at philosophy amounted to little more than complaining about his treatment by those around him, his garish and opulent excesses which so offended the elites of Newburyport make a salient, albeit likely unintentional comment about greed and excess. Norton used his platform as a notable kook to advance progressive social ideas such as civil rights for African Americans following the Civil War.
Foolishness can be a powerful thing, and can lead to profound changes in one’s own life as well as effects throughout society at large, and even down through the ages. The Fool and its trickster nature within the top 22 cards of the Tarot deck should ever be a reminder that Fate, along with its many and varied wyrd pathways, need not hem us in with cliff sides or nipping hounds at our heels. The Fool is a bridge builder, and summoning that energy from your own gut can sometimes be just the thing to break you from the bounds of a liminal rut. Short of taking a leap of faith, it at least behooves us all to get into the open air and face what’s coming with a smile. After all, it’s The Fool’s world- we just live in it!