Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols by Robert V. O'Neill The Fool

The Fool

Cliff Goulinat Visconti-Sforza
White Dog Goulinat Piedmontese T. Mantegna
Dog Leaping Wirth T de Marseilles T. Mantegna
Age - Youth Goulinat Bolognese
Red Feather Gebelin Bolognese Visconti-Sforza
Blonde Hair Visconti-Sforza
Looking Up Goulinat
White shirt Visconti-Sforza
Colorful Tunic Wirth T de Marseilles
Belt of Circles Gebelin T de Marseilles
Falling Boots Gumppenberg Visconti-Sforza
White RoseWestcott Met Sheet
Staff Goulinat T de Marseilles Visconti-Sforza
Purse Goulinat T de Marseilles


  1. White Sun - may refer to the KETHER, the Crown. In the Golden Dawn system, the Fool corresponds to a path leading downward from KETHER.

  2. Mountains - probably refers to the long mystical journey through the stark mountains. This is one the ways that Waite describes the mystical journey in his other works.

  3. Laurel Wreath - an obvious symbol of Victory, but why does it appear on the Fool, at the beginning of his journey? The answer may be that Waite saw the Fool’s journey as circular, and the Fool is beginning again after completing a previous cycle.

  4. The 8-spoked wheel is a symbol of Spirit, thought of as a fifth element. So perhaps Waite thought of the Fool as the symbol of the spiritual journey.

  5. Flames - same as the flames on the Tree of Life on the Lovers card.

  6. The Hebrew letter Shin can be found in one of the wheels on the tunic. This is possibly a reference to the letter correspondence used by Eliphas Levi. Levi placed the Fool between Judgment and World and gave it the letter Shin. In the Golden Dawn system, the Fool is assigned to Aleph.

    However, considerable caution is required before drawing any connections between the Hebrew alphabet and the Waite-Smith cards. A. Grinder points out that Waite stated in a number of places that he did not believe in any systematic correspondence. For example, “But wherever it (Fool) is placed in the series, the correspondence between Trumps Major and the Hebrew Alphabet is ipso facto destroyed” (Shadows of Life and Thought, 190-191), and “It may be well to add that I am not to be included among those who are satisfied that there is a valid correspondence between Hebrew letters and Tarot Trump symbols” (Intro to The Book of Formation, trans. by Knut Stenring, Ktav Publishing House, 13-14).

  7. The symbol on the Fool’s wallet is not clear. It may be a shell and represent the 'good luck' scallops that were carried on pilgrimages. It may be a bird and refer to the Golden Dawn attribution of the Fool to the element of air. Paul Foster Case (The Tarot, p 34) says that it is an eagle. If he is correct, the symbolism is appropriate because Waite says (The Book of Destiny, p 249) “To dream of an eagle in a high place good for those who are starting on some great undertaking.”

  8. This card is assigned to the element Air in the Golden Dawn system. This may explain the hair and tunic blowing.

  9. The white rose may refer to Fool setting off on a Rosicrucian journey. Waite was quite fascinated by the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. He wrote two books on the subject and regarded the Golden Dawn as a latter day Rosicrucian society. The three founders of the Golden Dawn were members of the “Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia,” the inner order of the Golden Dawn was the “Rosae Rubeae et Aurae Crucis,” and Waite’s own revised Golden Dawn group was the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Roses appear on many of the cards (Fool, Magician, Empress, Strength, Death) and seemed to have represented a rich symbolic complex for Waite.

    He presents extended discussions, with significant overlap, in “The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross” p 85ff, “Real History of the Rosicrucians” p 11ff and an article in “New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry.” Elsewhere (“Lamps of Western Mysticism,” p 327), he refers to “the beginning of discernment ...which lies within the centre of the Rose of Dante.” He also makes the interesting comment in “The Occult Sciences” that the Rosicrucian symbol “has no connection with the sublime symbolism of the Oriental world: Egypt, Thebes, Eleusinia and the sanctuaries of antique initiation are innocent of its import. It is a development of the monogram of the monk, Martin Luther, which was a cross-crowned heart rising from the center of an open rose.”

  10. The Cliff in the foreground of the card may be another reference to Rosicrucianism. The mountain or cliff appears on the Fool, Emperor, Lovers(?), Strength (?), Hermit, Death, Temperance(?), Tower, Moon (?), and Judgment. So this forms an important symbolic element in the background of many of the cards.

  11. In the Adeptus Minor Ritual, the mountain is referred to “This is the symbolic Mountain of God in the centre of the Universe, the sacred Rosicrucian Mountain of Initiation, the Mystic mountain of Abiegnus.” Jung (Aion, p 203) says “The Mountain means ascent, particularly the mystical, spiritual ascent to the heights, to the place of Revelation where the spirit is present.” The mystic, Richard of St. Victor, advises: “Ascend that Mountain and learn to know thyself.” In Lamps of Western Mysticism, (p 269) Waite says “...that process which I will call Ascending the Mountains of the Lord.”

  12. In the "Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross," Waite goes through "The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz" ~1616. On page 161, he says the main character is presented with a choice of roads - the first is the short and dangerous, rocky road (Implied in the Fool card?).

  13. A remarkable insight into Waite’s vision of the Fool symbolism is provided by Waite's poem, “At the End of Things,” published in The Collected Poems of Arthur Edward Waite. Access to the poem has been provided by the research of A. Grinder at his A. E. Waite website. Grinder is providing an invaluable service to the Tarot community by locating and posting the Miscellaneous Writings of A. E. Waite.

    The poem says:
    When I heard that all the world was questing,
    I look'd for a palmer's staff.

    "Palmer" is a Medieval term that refers to a pilgrim to the Holy Land.

    I cast around for a scrip to hold
    Such meagre needs...
    An old worn wallet was that they gave me,
    With twelve old signs on its seven old skins.

    The 12 and 7 probably refer to the Zodiacal Signs and the traditional Planets. In other words, the pilgrim started off with the traditional Occult knowledge that Waite refers to as Transcendental Science. (See “The Threefold Division of Mysticism” from the periodical The Unknown World Volume one, number one; Aug. 15, 1894, accessible at

    Waite points out that because of the lies and deceits of past occultists, many pilgrims were misled:

    The fools fell down in the swamps and marshes;
    The fools died hard on the crags and hills;
    The lies which cheated, so long repeated,

    But the present pilgrim is protected:

    But me the scrip and the staff had strengthen'd...
    The paths I've taken, of most forsaken,
    Do surely lead to an open sea...

    And the pilgrim reaches the mystical goal:

    Which then was wisdom and which was folly?...
    The fool, as I think, at the chasm's brink...
    Did, even as I, in the end rejoice...

  14. It has been suggested that W. B. Yeats assisted Waite and Smith in designing the cards. (See Magician footnote #2 for more detail.)

    It is interesting therefore to look at the character of the Fool as it appears in Yeats's early plays. The following is from Graf, W. B. Yeats: Twentieth Century Magus (Weiser, 2000), quoting Yeats himself.

    I had my Wise Man humble himself to the Fool and receive salvation as a reward... The Fool...wears a mask...which makes him seem less a human being than a principle of the mind.

    Later, Graf herself notes These fools possess a wisdom so corrosive that it strips them of their ability to behave appropriately or to be members of the status quo...They appear to be mad, but Yeats, following Plato, suggests that theirs is a divine madness.

    In one of his poems, Yeats says I would be - for no knowledge is worth a straw - ignorant and wanton as the dawn.

  15. The appearance of the Rose on the Fool card may also have been influenced by W. B. Yeats. Graf points out tht Yeats often used the symbol of the rose in his writings. She quotes from the Variorum Editions of the Poems (Allt and Alspach, eds., Macmillan, 1987) # 811:

    He saw the garden of Eden...and...came to a tall, dark tree..and told to go up...near the top of tree a beautiful woman, like the Goddess of Life...gave him a rose. The reference is to the Shekinah of the QBLH Tree of Life, and the Fool is positioned at the top of the tree in the Golden Dawn system.

Based on original research by (in alphabetical order) A. Grinder and R. O'Neill. To add to this collection of information, please email Robert V. O'Neill.

The Fool
The Magician
The High Priestess
The Empress
The Emperor
The Hierophant
The Lovers
The Chariot
The Hermit
Wheel of Fortune
The Hanged Man
The Devil
The Tower
The Star
The Moon
The Sun
The World
Introduction to Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

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