There are questions about the origins of April Fool’s Day, favorite of pranksters around the globe who play practical jokes on family and friends. Legends says the day became notorious during the reform of the Julian Calendar and subsequent adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in the late 1500’s. Spring had been the traditional advent of the new year. So when King Charles IX of France announced that the new year would commence on January 1st, those who stayed with the traditional April 1st were called “April Fools.”
Regardless of origins, the day reminds me of two traditional archetypes, the Trickster and the Fool. One perpetrates the hoax and the other is the unwitting and gullible victim. Or is he? To explore another interpretation of the Fool, let’s look at Tarot.
In traditional Tarot decks the Fool universally resembles a vagabond or traveler. He carries his knapsack in a carefree manner, skipping along on a bright sunny day, picking the flowers as though he has neither a destination nor an agenda in mind. He gazes toward the sky, seemingly oblivious to the yapping dog or other ferocious creature nipping at his heels. His meandering would seem quite innocent if he weren’t about to step off a huge precipice. The Fool, in his reverie, remains completely oblivious that he is about to plunge into an enormous chasm onto the rocky waters below.
Countless cultural images of the Fool abound. A few come to mind:
Mr Magoo of cartoon fame. Interestingly, promotions for the 1997 movie version starring comedic actor, Leslie Nielsen, depict a man tugging a small dog “heeling” on a leash, about to step off a skyscraper building into the cavernous Manhattan street below. The image is taken directly off the traditional medieval Tarot card! Check it out.
Raj Kapoor in Shree 420. Another movie icon, Raj Kapoor, classic Bollywood star from the 40’s and 50’s. In the famous 1955 movie, Shree 420, he wanders the countryside, Charlie Chaplinesque, rucksack on his shoulder, savoring the Maharashtrian countryside. Falling into one trap after another in the big city, while being taken as a country bumpkin, he is nevertheless guided by his own innate wisdom and despite many wrong turns, ends the story as a hero. If you watch the movie on video, first check out the great Wikipedia explanation, complete with translation of some of the iconic songs, because the subtitles are poor. (Or engage a Hindi speaker to watch along with you!)
The Jester in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The Jester is a variation on the Fool. In this famous version, he is the only character who actually tells the truth. The Jester or Buffoon, while taken for an entertainer, is often the trusted truth-teller and the only one brave enough or stupid enough to utter the truth in front of the King. His lack of status, standing or ego attachment gives him a uniquely wise voice.
In the Tarot, the Fool begins the journey chronicled by the 21 Major Arcana cards. Innocent and carefree, he knows without knowing that the journey will be long and dangerous. Who of us would begin the spiritual path if we knew the trials and dangers ahead? The Fool reminds us to: enjoy the trip rather than fixate on the destination; travel light, with a light heart; take time to smell the roses; follow our bliss rather than worry about what others think of us. In the act of falling, for he is surely about to do just that, the Fool reminds us to let go! As the butt of the April First prank, he reminds us to laugh at ourselves, not take ourselves too seriously. In the end, the Fool transforms into the Hero and yet he has enjoyed his travels rather than struggled and fought.
Of course he has his shadow side: ignorance, unawareness, blindness to what is. He can be aimless, spacey, idealistic and an airhead. But in our stressed-out, overachieving culture, is that such a bad thing? In his light side, the Fool is the ultimate symbol of the enlightened one or Buddha within. He has let go of his ego. He fears nothing, not even his own death. And he has had a good time doing it.
On April Fool’s Day, let’s celebrate the Fool, the true hero of the day!