The Folly Tarot

by Colin A. Low

Introduction

The Folly Tarot was created during 2016-2017 and forms the basis for my book Playing the Fool, published by Digital Brilliance in June 2017. I had given some thought to creating a Tarot for decades. I wanted to create a Tarot without the esoteric and metaphysical overlays that have been added since the late eighteenth century. I preferred to establish it in the culture of the Italian Renaissance, the period when Tarot originated.

When people think of the Renaissance they tend to think first of outstanding art. However, the wellspring of the art of Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo was patronage, and behind the patronage was wealth. One can see this wealth in the buildings of Florence and Venice. One can experience the wealth in the vast palaces and gardens built by cardinals of the Church. It was a time of easy money for the select few.

The Church had grown obscenely wealthy. The climate of opulence, corruption and scandal within the Church led to the Protestant Reformation and centuries of total war. Merchants grew wealthy as princes and saw no reason to give allegiance or taxes to distant powers. It was a time when the feudal aristocracy of the Middle Ages confronted the hired mercenaries (condottieri) of the merchant princes of oligarchic city states.
 
Books had become a commodity, and private individuals could read and study and write their own books. There was a deep fascination with the knowledge and mysteries of the ancient world, and the Hermetic philosophers of the age began to challenge the Church. It was a slow and sometimes deadly progress that gave birth to "natural philosophy" and so to scientific understanding and the modern world.

It was a time of extraordinary energy and change, and I have tried to include some of this in my tale of the Fool.

Some words of explanation on the Trump cards. I retained the High Priestess and the Hierophant rather than Papesse and Pope. I desired to write freely and I had no wish to give offence. The Chariot was renamed The Triumph because of my belief that it depicts the Triumph of Fame (after Petrarch). The Last Judgement became The Angel, an early name for the card, and one less associated with Christian eschatology.

The World became Necessity, according to the Renaissance view that the causal powers of the Cosmos are structured according to the seven planets, the fixed stars in the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the four elemental powers of the Chaiot that support the divine throne. The great Sophia of this fallen world dances naked behind the veil of Substance. The card thus becomes a higher analogue of the Wheel of Fortune, which represents both luck (Fortuna) and individual destiny.

The Folly Tarot currently comprises a full set of 22 Trump cards along with 16 Court cards (not shown here). They have not (yet) been issued as a separate pack. You can find all 40 of these cards illustrated as B&W pseudo-woodcuts in Playing the Fool, and you can follow the Fool's somewhat comic adventures as she encounters them.

All illustrations, pictures and text are copyright Colin Low 2017. Please do not use this work without written permission.

Colin A. Low July 2017

The Fool

The Fool

A women dressed for travel has paused on her way and turns to face our gaze. She wears the traditional cap of a Jester or Fool. It would seem that she is a travelling entertainer. A large farm dog barks and snarls at her. She is a stranger in these parts. She is ever the stranger.

She has no place in the world, and yet she signals to us that all is well.


The Magician

The Magician

 

A man dressed somewhat in the manner of a scrivener stands before a rough table cluttered with the paraphernalia of the Hermetic arts. In his right hand he holds the caduceus of the divine Hermes, while his left hand points down. Perhaps he is illustrating an Hermetic axiom? Or indicating that human beings exist at the juncture of the celestial and material? Or perhaps he is just striking a pose? He does that -- he understands the importance of looking mysterious.

His beliefs would see him burned at the stake were he to declare them in public. He believes that the phenomenal world is the outward sign of a hidden realm, and this hidden realm is rationally comprehensible. He seeks to understand it through the study of ancient wisdom and experiment.
He is learned, opinionated, and quarrelsome. He despises priests. He declares that priests (and the Hierophant in particular) are parasites and fools. He thinks that most people are fools.

Paradoxically, he does not think the Fool is a fool.

 

The High Priestess


The High Priestess


 

A glamorous woman is seated on a throne hewn from pure rock crystal. A large globe of crystal is set on the floor by her feet. Behind her are two pillars of crystal and a veil that conceals a domain ruled by the full moon. On her lap is a scroll.

We must suspect this image as being promotional rather than literal, for such glamour is rarely achieved without artifice. Despite a propensity for glamour, solemnity and mystery she has a good heart, for she tends to women. Her mysteries are those of the Moon: menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, and the bearing and rearing of children. These are profound mysteries at the heart of Life.

 

The Empress

The Empress

 

A young woman sits in the garden of a palace. She wears the fashions of court but prefers the company of flowers and birds and other wild creatures. It is said that she carries an heir to the throne.

This woman is daughter to a great King and Queen and comes from a realm far away. She is a stranger in this place. Born to power, she understands intrigue. She knows that every living thing must struggle for a place in the world, and her heart goes out to all the little creatures. They must struggle too, and who will care for them?

 

The Emperor

The Emperor

 

A powerful man in his fifties sits by the fire in his study. He looks startled, ill at ease, and glares at us for daring to disturb his thoughts. On the table before him are likenesses of Kings and Queens. He ponders allegiances and alliances, marriages, plots and schemes, and the possibility of insurrection. He recalls the reigns and fates of other Emperors.

A raven is preening itself. It brings him secrets. The Emperor understands the fragility of power. Whom can he trust? And yet soldiers still swear allegiance, armies move at his command, his word is still mighty. He has a fine wife, and hopes for an heir.

 

The Hierophant

The Hierophant

 

The Hierophant stands before his throne in the Temple of the Sun and all bow their heads in reverence and obedience. In his hand he holds a key that shows his command of doctrine, and knowledge of all secrets and mysteries. The reverent public throng to hear his sermons. At his word heretics are seized and condemned and burned.

The Magician mutters in private that the Hierophant is a small-minded dullard with excellent family connections and an aptitude for scheming, patronage and political backstabbing. But then the Magician would say that.


The Lovers

The Lovers

 

The First Woman offers an apple to the First Man. She holds a rose in her left hand (according to the convention that rose=eros) and looks amused and confident. The First Man looks nonplussed. In the background a large serpent watches.

We must forget all notion of forbidden fruit and sin — that is but one of many stories.

 

The Triumph

The Triumph

 

A General wears a laurel wreath and stands in a chariot. The General has been granted a Triumph by the Emperor in honour of a recent conquest. He will parade through the streets to the cheers and adulation of the crowd, who will cast roses before his horses. He will be followed by captives and trophies.

His Triumph comes at the expense of others, but that is of no consequence. There are always losers. His name will be remembered, there will be statues raised in noble and martial poses. He knows that power is fragile and love grows cold, but fame endures. 

 

Strength

Strength

 

A woman closes the mouth of the lion. We might conceive that she has overcome this fierce beast by some prodigy of strength ... but there is a tenderness between them. Perhaps the lion was upset and she comforts and calms its temper.

 

The Hermit

The Hermit

 

An elderly man in a rough monastic habit sits at prayer high in the mountains. An hourglass at his feet shows the Triumph of Time and suggests his days will soon be over. He was once a man of consequence, but he is done with power. He is done with love. He is done with fame. He seeks something greater, and searches within himself.

He has many books, and would seem to be deep in study.

The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune

 

The Fool is showing us an elaborate new contrivance in the market square. It resembles a Wheel of Fortune in its circular appearance and turning motions, but seems to emulate (in an incomprehensible miracle of gears, springs and levers) the motions of the Sun, Stars and Planets. One can, at a glance, determine not only fortune, but fate and destiny. And the time of day.

A likeness of the Fool is sitting at the peak of the Wheel. This likeness exhibits her customary optimism concerning the future. At its base another likeness of the Fool is bruised and perplexed and ponders her fall.

 

Justice

Justice

 

Justice appears rather fierce. However, she prefers to promote the ideals of Justice than strike blows, and the sword is for effect — it is blunter than it appears.

She asks that we judge ourselves first. She asks that we speak truth to ourselves. She asks that we give equal weight to others when we make our judgements.

The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man

A man hangs from a tree in a place of execution. He has committed no crime in common law, and yet he is dead.

He has been judged and condemned as a traitor. His offence was a lack of pragmatism and servility. He has been hung as an example to those who imagine they can contend with established power.

Poppies grow on the ground. There have been many like him. There will be many more.


Death

Death

Death has come. He rides a pale horse (just as the book claims) and wears a stylish hat (in the manner of the Breton Ankou).

His horse tramples over your best stuff.

Many argue that the Death card does not mean Death. Death has other ideas.


Temperance

Temperance

 

Temperance comes to advise on the goal of moderation. Inspired by the tale of Goldilocks, she teaches that just as 'too hot' will burn your mouth, and 'too cold' is unpalatable, there is in every situation a balance that is 'just right'.

While she teaches moderation in all things, her particular dislike is the drunkard. It is her practice to illustrate this by adding water to strong wine, an ancient practice of the Greeks and Romans.

 "You cannot be both virtuous and drunk," said Temperance to the Fool. "Observe the drunkard, how he stumbles and rambles and gives offence through impulsive speech. He is ill-tempered and offers violence for little cause."
"But I like being drunk!" said the Fool.
"Come, let me add some water. It improves the flavour, and you will thank me tomorrow."
"You are no fun," said the Fool.


The Devil

The Devil

 

A man and woman dance together, unaware of invisible chains. They think themselves free, but we see that the Devil plays with them. When he is done with Lust he will offer them Jealousy. And then Wrath, followed by Despondency and Comfort Eating.

It is an amusing diversion, if you enjoy that sort of thing.

 

The Tower

The Tower

 

A mighty Watchtower guarded by angels stands at the furthest edge of the Cosmos. It is said that there are four such Towers, and that they reach from Earth to Heaven and support the Throne of God. Is it not written (Isaiah 66:1):

"Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?" 

 

The Star

The Star

 

An aetherial winged being pours a strange liquid from silver ewers into a pool. In the background shines a mysterious and occult star.

In the ancient books of Hermes it is written that all living beings descend from the stars, and fall through the spheres, gaining substance and amnesia in their fall. And that each one of us has a star that still shines for us beyond the spheres, and that we can recall our true being.

Here we see the brightest of all the stars. The water is the source of life and the cause of forgetting. "Grow!" she whispers. "Grow and remember."

 

The Moon

The Moon

 

A young woman prepares for the hunt. In the background is a sickle moon.

There are twenty-eight mansions of the Moon, and each of these dwellings has a different aspect. Tonight the Moon is young and athletic and she intends to hunt. She has her bow and her hounds Lux and Tenebris.

"Come," she says, "The path is long, the Hunt is wild, and you must keep up."

 

The Sun

The Sun

 

Here we see the Sun driving his quadriga (or four-horse chariot) across the sky. Each day He arises just before dawn to harness the team. In the evening He works through prayers and petitions and ponders deep questions about divine justice and mercy.

 When He has a little time to himself the Sun likes to make music and sing. He is an accomplished musician. Often the Muses will add their talents. They are a jolly bunch (apart from Tragedy).

 

The Angel

The Angel

 

An angel blows a great fanfare to signal the consummation of an age. The dead rise from their graves. A space of dark and confinement becomes a greater space. It is like being born again.

 

 

In the four corners of this Trump are the occult signs of the four mighty powers that ward the Cosmos. Within their domain is the wheel of the fixed stars. Within that wheel we find the mystic seal of the seven wandering planets. In the centre of the card we can spy a goddess. She has many names.

This is the domain of all that is fixed and determined according to causal law and divine fate. We call it the World.

 

Copyright Colin A. Low 2017