Ship of Fools
It's a great day for fun and trickery (at least up to midday) but did you know the festival of the April Fool (April 1st) is celebrated throughout most of Europe and the former colonial outposts of European rule. It is an ancient festival, deriving from pre-historic times, which has been traditionally dedicated to Venus. The Fool is also the pivotal point in the Tarot pack, as the journey through the major arcana can be construed as the journey from folly to wisdom. And back again, as Bilbo Baggins might have said...
The calends of April (April 1) in ancient Rome was sacred to Venus—as was the entire month—and this day was called the Veneralia (the Kalendae, or calends, was the first day of the month in the Roman Calendar). Public games, ludi, would be held in her honour. Apollonius Sophistes tells us that some ancient authors actually derived the month's name from Aphrodite (perhaps via a conjectured Etruscan form, Aprodita); others derive it from aperire (to open), since it is the time when, according to Cincius and Varro, “fruits and flowers and animals and seas and lands open.”
The Veneralia, on the first day of Venus’s month, honours Venus Verticordia (Changer of Hearts) and her companion Fortuna Virilis (Bold Fortune). In ancient times all the women, married and unmarried, went to the men's baths, as today they might go to swimming pools. Upon arriving they offered incense to Fortuna Virilis and prayed that the men would not see any blemishes the women might have had. They made a libation and drank the potion Venus drank on Her wedding night: pounded poppy with milk and honey. An ancient commentary (probably by Verrius) says they go to the baths to view the men's virile members. The women, crowned with myrtle wreaths, bathe and pray that Venus will bring them concord and a modest life. Ovid says, “beauty and fortune and good fame are in Her keeping.”
In addition, the women would remove the jewellery and other ornaments from the statues of Venus and Fortuna so that they could be washed, after which they were redecorated and adorned with roses (Venus’s flower).
This day was also known as All Fools Day to the ancient Romans, and they would spend the entire day celebrating, laughing, playing tricks, doing things backwards, wearing women's clothes, dancing in the streets, and generally carrying on like fools and pranksters. It is one of the few Roman holidays that has preserved some of its original character, under the modern name April Fools' Day.
The Lord of Misrule
The Fool stands in contrast to the King as the lowest and highest in hierarchical powers. The fool, jester or clown occupies the humblest place in the court and symbolizes the forces of chaos and licence, while the king represents those of law and order.
The fool often took the place of the king, as a scapegoat, in ritual sacrifice and later became ruler as the Lord of Misrule at Saturnalia-type festivals and at the calends and all festivals associated with intercalary periods of chaos. He was carried over into Christianity in the Festival of Fools or the Feast of Asses—as the Prince or Pope of Fools, the Cardinal of Numbskulls, the Abbot of Unreason, or the Boy Bishop. In convents, an elected nun could be dressed as a man and called the Little Abbess. These revelries caricatured stories in the Bible such as Baalam's Ass and the Flight into Egypt; there were processions in the streets with asses, or men dressed as asses, and asses were taken into the churches.
Why the ass? Nowadays an ass is considered stupid and stubborn, but in earlier times, the ass was sacred to the goddess, so there was both an element of mockery and also a reverence mixed in with the somewhat scandalous enjoyment.
Mockery and reverence? Well, Jesus Christ did make his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on an ass. There were coarse representations of Christian events and responses in the mock services were made by braying. In those days, the lower clergy usually came from the peasantry or petty bourgeoisie and were thus more in touch with popular pagan beliefs and rites from the Roman, Celtic and Teutonic festivals than with the ordinances of a superimposed Christianity.
Chaos Before Rebirth
The festival gave the people a time of reversal of the normal, chaos before rebirth, buffoonery and licence, and therefore of fertility. The "elected" Boy Bishop would conduct mock services and give a sermon, while sub-deacons took over the celebrations with riotous and even crude conduct! According to The Lore and Legend of the English Church, "this mock election, with all the attendant ceremonial, was condemned by a council at Nice in 1274, and again at a synod at Carnot in 1526."
These customs were suppressed by Henry VIII at the Reformation in England but revived in Mary Tudor's reign, to be revoked again under Cromwell; in France they lingered on until the eighteenth century. Henry's original edict abolishing them said they were "rather the unlawful superstition of gentilitie [paganism] than the pure and sincere religion of Christe". Notwithstanding, most traditional festivals had, and some still have, a fool or clown, often a 'natural' kept for the occasions; at other times it could be some citizen who dressed up as such and blackened his face.
Possessed by Divine Power
In earlier times the possessed and lunatics were regarded with reverence, as being possessed by a divine power and having the gift of prophecy. In most places the fool was given considerable licence and could mock and caricature the secret scandals and failings of local people, or would mock and mimick the performers of festival plays and dances.
In 1564 France reformed the calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to January 1. Those who failed to keep up, clinging to the old calendar system and celebrating the New Year between March 25th and April 1st, had jokes played on them: pranksters would stick paper fish to their backs. The victim was called Poisson d’Avril
, or April Fish – still the French term for April Fools. They also trace the custom back to the abundance of fish in French streams during early April, when the young fish have just hatched. These young fish were easy to fool with a hook and lure. They called them Poissons d’Avril
or April Fish. Soon it became customary to fool people on April 1, celebrating the abundance of foolish fish. French people also give each other chocolate fish on April 1...
With the licence of such occasions he was also taken as the putative father of any bastards born "in forty weeks time... for if anything happens in forty weeks time the blame will be laid on the Clown". The clown was garishly painted and disguised; this made him impersonal, so he could break conventions and taboos in the freedom of the return to primordial chaos, which is also the return to the paradisal state of childish innocence before laws were imposed.
The Ship of Fools
The Fool often symbolizes the evils of winter, the time of cold and want that is killed by the coming of spring. This happens in Mummers' plays; sword, horn and Morris dances; in which the Fool is killed then revived to represent the resurrection of nature. The resurrected Fool then greets the bride and dances with her to recommence the fertility cycle.
He can also play the part of Beelzebub in such dramatizations. The fool's bladder or whip, with which he "whiffles", takes the place of the fertility-whipping of the Lupercalia (see Valentine's Day) and other such ancient festivals with flagellation rites. The death of the Fool probably originated in human sacrifice, to propitiate the forces of nature. The Ship of Fools at camivals was originally the Ship of Nerthus, the Teutonic Earth Mother, at her spring festival.
The Journey of The Fool
In the symbolic journey of the Tarot, the Fool represents the soul experiencing the pathway of self-realisation (or not, as the case may be...). The Fool, the most worthless, yet the most valuable of cards, undergoes a kind of initiation as he traverses the influences of each of the Major Arcana, from the Magus (Arcanum I) to the World (Arcanum 21). Like the journey of Hercules through the signs of the zodiac (the Twelve Labours symbolise the Twelve Signs), this is an illustration of the journey of the soul through the pathways of incarnation, discovering the secrets that lead to self-realisation, personal development and ultimately perfect understanding.
So our light-hearted day of tricks and gags has quite a serious history. It is remarkable how this spring festivity has survived through the ages, even into the current era of artificial, electronic distancing from the cycles of nature. Some fools really do need to be sacrificed, but at least they can then be resurrected, if we follow the old ways...
Here Endeth the Lesson