The Fool: Orpheus Returning from the Shades
The Myth: Orpheus & Eurydice
In the Fool card, Orpheus emerges from the Underworld, unsuccessful and gripped by the madness of grief. He had bravely, or stupidly, marched into Hades to try to bring his wife, Eurydice, back from death.
Honored by Apollo, taught music by the Muses themselves, Orpheus used his lyre to maneuver his way to his goal. He charmed Charon, the ferryman who carries souls across the river Styx into the land of the dead. His melodies pacified Cerberus, the vicious, many-headed, hellhound gatekeeper.
Finally, by warming the cold heart of Hades and easing Persephone’s sadness, his music persuaded the ruling gods of hell to release his beloved. (See Temperance, Eight of Wands, and Nine of Wands for Persephone’s journey in the Tarot of Delphi.)
At Persephone’s urging, Hades freed the shade of Eurydice. She could return with her husband to the world of the living under one condition—Orpheus must not look back at Eurydice until they are both safely in the world above.
Eurydice’s quiet presence flowed behind Orpheus. He played his lyre, so she could follow the sound. Diminished, insubstantial, she was barely there. Orpheus couldn’t feel a trace of her.
When at last Orpheus reached the portal to the upper world. Before stepping out, he looked back to confirm Eurydice was with him. On the threshold of sunlight and life, Orpheus saw Eurydice, and she faded away, back to Hades.
The Fool: Dying to Live
Orpheus’s descent to the Underworld is the Fool’s journey. Who would be foolish enough to defy death? But then, don’t we defy death daily? Isn’t the act of living and loving, knowing we will lose both, the greatest act of defiance? Isn’t life itself the Fool’s Journey?
This is the Fool Orpheus’s lesson: We cannot escape death, and that is why we must live.
Orpheus’s tragic journey is a myth found throughout the world. A hero or heroine descends to the land of the dead to retrieve something lost—a lover, a necklace, a relative. The journey itself is instructive, and often the heroine is victorious. The heroine, after all, as a female, is the living symbol of birth and rebirth.
Orpheus, however, teaches another lesson.
Before we can learn this lesson, Orpheus reminds us that we must submit to death, that it is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we believe in reincarnation or life after death, something is lost in a passing. For those of us living with our feet on the earth, death is a real end. Losing anything—a loved one, a dream, a job, a relationship—is wounding in a way that the promise of an endless cycle of life cannot completely mend.
Once we understand this, once we really, fully accept it, Orpheus reveals his secret: Live with mystical intensity!
The Fool: Living Intensely
Orpheus’s training in mystical living did not begin with his expedition to Hades. Born to a Thracian king and the Muse of Poetry, Calliope, Orpheus learned the high arts from the Muses. So beautiful was Orpheus’s musical talent that Apollo, God of the Arts, gifted him with a lyre.
Orpheus played so divinely that wild animals gathered to listen, predator and prey lying together. Rivers changed course to flow closer, so they may hear him better. Trees and rocks danced to his songs.
Music is mystical. Music is the forbearer of mathematics and science, and their connection to mysticism is something that needs to be reclaimed in today’s world.
So, make your music! Dance to your rhythm! Hear the beat of your drum!
Your “music” may be some other medium. Perhaps it’s being an excellent painter, parent, activist, or the best accountant you can be. Maybe your rhythm is to be organized and reliable, or maybe it’s to be disorganized and chaotically creative. Play your music, real music that makes the gods weep and laugh, gasp and sigh. For, the gods truly live through us.
Orpheus was an artist, not a warrior. Nevertheless, as a young man, he was chosen to be an Argonaut. This company of esteemed Greek heroes assisted Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece (see Medea, The Magician). Jason showed uncommon wisdom in valuing Orpheus’s artistic skills as highly as his other companions’ martial abilities.
Orpheus’s music and humanity soothed frayed nerves, replacing arguments with resolution, exhaustion with renewed strength, and fear with bravery. In fact, the Argonauts would have died without Orpheus.
As Argo, the Argonaut’s ship, sailed past the sirens, their song stirred the rugged men. They began to rise, their minds clouded with the luring, intoxicating song. One man jumped into the sea, and other made ready to follow, desperately seeking the sirens’ fatal embrace.
Orpheus took up his lyre. He sang more sweetly and loudly than the sirens, breaking the spell and protecting the rest of the crew from the sirens’ deathly call.
When Orpheus returned from his adventure with the Argonauts, he married Eurydice, lost her, journeyed to the Underworld, and lost her again. Only through this great sorrow does our heroic Fool move from talented to sacred.
The Fool: Continuing
In the Fool card of the Tarot of Delphi, Orpheus is trapped in a moment of agony. His journey does not end here, however. A new quest of immense importance is about to begin.
After his tragic quest to bring back Eurydice, Orpheus devotes himself to the priesthood. Here, stories differ. Some say he abandons Dionysus for Apollo. Others say he continues to worship Dionysus. Regardless, only after the (second) loss of Eurydice does Orpheus become a true spiritual teacher.
He has lived and lost. He has earned depth and wisdom. Now, he is qualified to be the progenitor of the Orphic Mysteries.
These Mysteries, one of several, secretive Mystery Traditions from Ancient Greece, are attributed to Orpheus. This part of Orpheus’s story continues in the One Torn Asunder, the renamed Hanged Man in the Tarot of Delphi.
Idealism. Vulnerability. Wisdom and absurdity. Bravery and folly. Mania and caution. Futility and reward. Paradox.
Reversed: Sacred Fools, One and All
The humanity of Orpheus’s story is the hope and the tragedy. Despite his talent, divine gifts, and heroic status—a man who has it all—Orpheus is fallible. He errs. He makes a mistake he knows he should not make. He looks back.
Regret. Envy. Distrust. Dishonesty. We know better, but we engage these emotions and behaviors anyway. Orpheus reassures us that we are all fools. We are fools because we are human. The nature of our humanity is to make good choices and bad choices, to be wise and foolish, shrewd and gullible, confident and full of doubt.
This makes us Sacred Fools. When we accept our humanity, when we accept that we will err, we ironically accept our perfection. When we live with full hearts, we will certainly make mistakes. Only by accepting that risk can we live our lives beautifully and exquisitely.
Like Orpheus, our stories continue. The Fool does not abandon her path because of setbacks, pain, and disappointment. And sometimes, just sometimes, we gain more than we lost, rewards so great that our previous selves—before the trials—could not even have dreamed them.
In the earliest Tarot decks, the Fool was unnumbered. Because there is no Roman numeral for zero, the Tarot of Delphi also uses an unnumbered Fool.