O. Idiota - Idiotes - Idiot (22, 0)

Initiorum Princeps - Chief of Initiations

In mundo privato (In a private world)
Dionysos, Bacchus, Dianus and Diana.
Greek Letter = Alpha:
Arche = beginning, first cause, origin.


A dancing figure - it could be a young man or woman - with a multicolored (predominantly green), floral cloak draped around his hips and over his left arm. He wears a fawn skin over his right shoulder, hiding his chest. In unkemp, light brown locks, which fall to his shoulders, there are seven feathers (white, black, purple, blue, red, silver and gold), which look vaguely like horns, and he wears an ivy wreath around his temples. The Idiot is barefoot, and drags vines tangled around one leg. In his right hand he holds a staff wrapped in ivy and topped with a pine cone, and in his left a bunch of grapes. The Idiot stares into the distance, oblivious to his surroundings, and appears to be whistling. A small panther stands against the Idiot's leg, but we cannot tell whether it is biting him or marking him as its own. A serpent emerges from the ground in front of the Idiot, and a fig tree laden with figs is in the background.


Behold! the Holy Idiot, lost within A private world. He'll have the chance to win New freedom from confining rules. Rejoice The madness! For it brings another choice. Now let the Saturnalia begin!


When the time comes, as it always does, when the old rules, conceptual structures, prejudices and beliefs are not longer adequate to the challenges at hand, then a Divine Maniac is needed. He or she lives in a private world, and so is not bound by the shared conventions, preconceptions or norms of the society. The Gods - or Chance - select the Idiot who will become the savior who will transform society. He is elevated to King for a short time (for only so much madness can be tolerated), and must undergo many transformations before, with luck, he rejuvenates the world.

On a personal level, there are times in all of our lives when customary thought patterns have outlived there usefulness. Then it is time for Divine Madness (mania). There are no rules for this, for it is the rules that are bankrupt. The only escape is inspired frenzy and the blind leap into the abyss. We may hope for the best, but there are no guarantees.

The Idiot represents the irrepressible Vital Spirit, overflowing its banks, roaring across the landscape, and carving new pathways where it will.


In ancient Greek an idiotes (Latin idiota) - the origin of our word "idiot" - is an individual, a person concerned only with his own private affairs, a commoner with no interest in public affairs, who is assumed to be ignorant, unskilled and vulgar (OLD & LSJ, s.v.). In old Tarot decks and in old descriptions of them the Fool is called, for example, il Matto (the Madman), il Folle (the Fool), or le Fou (the Fool). The Idiot represents the ordinary person, living in a private world, whether through ignorance, insanity, or rugged individualism. The Idiot is the Everyman before he is, by chance, given an opportunity to be Saturnalicius Princeps, Carnival King - king for a week. (Carnival and Saturnalia both last one week, Dec. 17-23.)

By electing a Carnival King we take a conscious, intentional step into the irrational. The Fool or Jester represents an intentional source of chaotic, irrational, random action, which is intended to break whatever rules or conventions normally hold. He allows us to escape our self-imposed bounds. Because he is bound by no rules, he is truly the Arche (Beginning), the Uncaused Cause. (Nichols 24, 30-1)

Such a break from the conventional is neccessary for psychological health. We must honor "the bad," in order to make "the good" possible (Johnson 84). Johnson (18) explains, "If we do not invest [the Dionysian element] with our humanity it will return to us in a dehumanized form, still charged with the same archetypal energy, but manifesting itself in a much more primitive way." Or, as Horace said (Epist. x.24), "You can drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she will be constantly running back." So also in the stories of Lycurgus and Pentheus we see the madness caused by driving Dionysos away or by denying his divinity.

In our image, as in many tarots, the Idiot moves to the left, unconscious side, for he is abandoning his ego-self and entering the archetypal realm. Nichols (41) observes, "the Tarot Fool is the self as an unconscious prefiguration of the ego" - a prefiguration that will emerge and materialize in the succeeding trumps. (Nichols 36)

The Idiot is whistling because he represents the spirit of vitality. As is well known, "fool" derives from the Latin word follis, which means a fool or windbag, but originally a bellows (AHD). The Fool is thus, primarily, a source of air, of breath (spiritus), of the unfettered vital spirit, for "the wind bloweth where it listeth."

The Idiot is barefoot, both to show his humble state (spiritually if not materially), and to show that he is nevertheless grounded in ordinary life. The feathers are a common sign of folly (Moakley 115) and their seven colors represent the seven planets, and hence the seven days of the week (Gold=Sun=Sunday, Silver=Moon=Monday, Red=Mars=Tuesday, Blue=Mercury=Wednesday, Purple=Jupiter=Thursday, Black=Venus=Friday, White=Saturn=Saturday), as described by Herodotus (I.98); one feather is pulled out each day of Saturnalia (as is also done in Lent; Moakley 114). Since he represents Everyman, the Idiot is of indeterminate sex, like Bacchus Diphues (Crowley 65-6). "In psychological terms Dionysos represents perfect psychological harmony" (Johnson 38).

The Idiot as Bacchus or Dionysos came by his "holy foolishness" when he was driven mad by Hera. He is the Maniac, for he possesses Furor Divinus (Divine Madness), the inspired frenzy (mania in Greek). The panther, vines, grapes, figs, serpent, fawn skin, ivy wreath and thyrsus with ivy and pine cone are, of course, all attributes of Dionysos (OCD). A cat and snake appear in the Il Misero (The Beggar) card of the Tarocchi di Mantegna (c. 1470). The faun skin and panther represent the Idiot's animal instincts and drives - his preoccupation with the necessities of life, but also his abundance of vitality. By its action the panther designates the Idiot as the Carnival King. Does it love him? Or will it devour him? Or both? Such is the Idiot's lot. The snake in his path portends the immanent rebirth of the Idiot's soul. The serpent, thyrsus and figs are, of course, sexual symbols, for the Fool represents irrepressible Life. (Also, follis, bag, is a Latin sexual euphemism for the scrotum - a repository for the vital spirit - OLD.) Dionysus' general character, as depicted here, and many of his attributes are shown in a bas-relief from Herculaneum, now in the National Museum at Naples (Larousse 153).

Townley vase (replica)

It is appropriate that 0.Idiot leads the trumps for, according to Cartari (Imagini degli Dei, 1647), Bacchus invented the "triumph" in the form of the wild processions of maenads, panthers and other creatures, which he led (Williams 31). Indeed, Latin triumphus or triumpus comes from Etruscan, which got the word from Greek thriambos, a hymn to Bacchus (Bonfante, p. 17). Our image is based on the famous Townley Vase (2nd cent. BCE), which depicts a Bacchanalian triumph.

What men or gods are these? What maidens loath? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? - Keats, "Ode to a Grecian Urn"

In some Orphic myths (Kerenyi 252-9), Zeus sired Dionysos by coming to his mother Demeter in the form of a serpent. He is the horned divine child of Heaven and Earth (Zeus and Demeter), and is destined to succeed his father, but before he is ready he must be refined, purified and tempered. Thus he was torn by Titans into seven pieces, which were boiled in a cauldron and then roasted on seven spits. When all the parts were eaten save one, Zeus discovered the deed and blasted the Titans with his lightning bolt. Athena took the last part and hid it in a basket which she gave to Zeus; this part is the kradiaios Dionysos, a word which is related to both the heart (kradia) and the phallus made of fig-wood (krade). Thus Dionysos was seared by water and burned by fire (one of many ways he brings together the opposing principles of Fire and Water); after this Nigredo (alchemical Blackening) he was resurrected, and so Dionysos is called the Twice Born. (Similarly in the more familiar story Zeus rescues Dionysos from the womb of Semele when he blasts her with lightning.)

In his book Ecstasy the Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson explains the importance of the Dionysian element to psychological health, and points out its scarcity in our culture: "We no longer have the divine ecstasy of Dionysos, we have addictive behavior" (viii). The world of Dionysos is ecstatic because one stands outside (ec-stasy) the ordinary world of conscious responsibility, control and rationality; one flows with life and follows one's inner guide. The Dionysian sees the world as sensual rather than sensuous; that is, by experiencing the living spirit of the world through the senses (as artists and poets do), rather than by limiting the senses to a material world devoid of spirit. "When we touch Dionysus we touch the irrational wisdom of the senses and experience joy" (Johnson 25). (Johnson 12-4)

According to Johnson (38, 43), the Greeks had a ceremony to ensure that the ecstatic principle would be honored: they sacrificed a kid goat (representing Dionysos), cut it into seven parts (like Dionysos) and stewed it in its mother's milk. In this way they "killed" the irrational principle, returned it to its source and rejuvenated it. The stewed meat was eaten in a kind of communion with the God of Ecstasy.

The divine frenzy is a mixed blessing however, for it can result in actual madness as well as ecstasy. In psychological terms, it may produce either ego inflation or genuine enthusiasm (indwelling of the god). In the former case, the Idiot is a windbag, full of hot air; the divine power flows through him, but he doesn't have the capacity to carry it and so he is incinerated like the Titans when struck by Zeus's bolt. The only escape is to puncture the windbag before it explodes (thus, in many tarots, the Fool is stepping off a cliff), to stop the inflation, and to deflate the windbag (follis). To achieve genuine enthusiasm, however, the Divine Fool transcends the polarities, and instead of being gutted by the divine fire when it flows through him, he is warmed and illuminated by it. (Johnson 48-50, 52)

The panther is the enemy of the snake, and so they represent an opposition which must be unified. The panther is especially associated with Dionysos and longs to drink wine. Orpheus, a sacrificed god analogous to Dionysos, wears a panther skin. (Biedermann s.v. panther)

The Idiot's cloak is multicolored to represent the blossoming of spring and by analogy the Idiot's transformation and rebirth. The Phrygian Dionysos sleeps through the winter and is awake only in the summer; there were spring festivals in his honor throughout Ionia (OCD). He is the April Fool.

The snake is an important symbol, which appears in many of the trumps of the Pythagorean Tarot (1, 2, 7, 12, 16, 19, 21). In this trump it offers the Idiot regeneration and resurrection, for the snake was believed to restore its youth by shedding its skin. In a seventeenth-century emblem a serpent says, Exuo ut induor (I am stripped that I may be clothed), which is what the Idiot is preparing to do with his old life. More generally, the snake symbolizes both life and death, since it dwells in the underworld, and the ancient Greeks believed that the soul of the deceased takes the form of a snake (this because the brain and spinal marrow were taken to be the substance of the life force, and the snake is no more than a spinal chord; see Onians 206-8, 233-4). The snake represents the animating spirit in its instinctive, primordial form; it is the Kundalini Serpent freed from its bodily prison. Psychologically, it represents the reptilian powers in the depth of the psyche, which must be awakened to effect the transformation. The serpent represents the all-pervading spirit because it moves without legs, and Philo called it "the most spiritual of animals."

The snake was thought to be androgynous and thus to be self-creating (like 0.Idiot). More generally it represents the union of opposites, the uncontrolled and undifferentiated chaos that preceded the creation of the cosmos. Thus in the Babylonian creation epic, Marduk made the universe from the body of Tiamat, the primorial serpent. Indeed, the snake may bring about the transformation between opposites, as we see in the story of the prophet Tiresias: when he placed his staff between two copulating serpents (represented by the caduceus), he was transformed into a woman, and seven years later, when he did it again, he was transformed back into a man. (The two serpents are Ida and Pingala; see 1.Magician).

The snake is a symbol of wisdom because its lidless eyes are never closed; thus it is sacred to Athena, and she was the surrogate mother of the snake-man Erichthonios, the first king of Athens. The watchful snake guards the threshold between the worlds and the treasure hidden beyond it. Thus in Hindu mythology the Nagas (Serpent People) are temple guardians (see 21.World for more on the Nagas). The snake travels among the worlds: we see it emerge from the underworld, it crawls across the ground and swims in the water; it hangs high in tree limbs. The Serpent guards the Trees of Life and Wisdom, and is the guardian of the Well of Immortality. Paradoxically, the snake's venom is both poisonous and healing, and snakes were believed the purify the sacred springs by leaving their venom in the water. Thus the snake is also associated with healing (cf. Asclepius, Hygieia, Salus, Hippocrates), the Mysteries and savior gods (such as Dionysos). The Bacchantes carry serpents, and a serpent is worshipped as Agathos Daimon, the Good Spirit, a god of vineyards to whom libations of wine are poured.

Indeed, the highest state of the alchemical process is called Iosis, which refers both to its characteristic color, a reddish violet (Greek ion = the violet, cf. ios = rust), and to the venom (Gk. ios = poison). (See 10.Fortune for more on the alchemical Reddening, also called Rubedo, and 21.World on the violet color.) So also in Latin, venenum (from which we get "venom") means poison, potion, dye or any drug. In many folktales a snake brings the healing herb that restores life. For example, when the child Glaucos died by falling in a vat of honey, Polyidus the seer restored him to life by applying an herb by which he had seen a snake resurrect its mate (Apollodorus III.iii.1). Also, in the story of how Moria resurrected her brother Tylos, she imitates a serpent that uses the Dios Anthos (Flower of Zeus) (Nonnos, XXV,451-551). (See Appendix VII by Frazer in the Loeb edition of Apollodorus for other examples.) The transformation may be instantaneous and unpredictable like the sudden appearance and disappearance of a snake.

(Biedermann s.v. snake; Black & Green s.v. Tiamat; Cirlot s.v. serpent; Cooper s.v. serpent; Mercatante s.v. Agathodaimon)

According to legend, a snake will not bite a naked person (Biedermann s.v. snake), and so the Idiot proceeds unclothed. Since nudity represents the "naked truth" and naive candor, the innocence of the newborn (Biedermann s.v. naked), we may conclude that the Idiot, if he is a Pure Fool, will be protected from the poison, and perhaps may be purified and transformed by it as by a potion.

Ivy, which may be poisonous, is especially sacred to Dionysos and to other sacrficied gods, such as Attis. Dionysos is often found crowned with ivy and trailing ivy fronds; his thyrsus is ivy-twined and ivy sprouts as he passes. He carries an ivy cup, for ivy was thought to be cooling and to counteract the heating effects of wine, thus effecting a reconciliation of opposites. Because the ivy is evergreen, it is associated with immortality, but its clinging nature represents attachment to life's pleasures. Johnson (6) says ivy is the only substance impervious to divine splendor (so Semele's womb was wound with ivy). (Biedermann s.v. ivy; Cirlot s.v. ivy; Cooper s.v. ivy)

However, Dionysos is most closely associated with the grape, which symbolizes his sacrifice and resurrection. Like him, the vines must be cut back; also like him, the grapes are torn from the vines (their womb) and crushed so that their blood runs out. Finally, the result of this reduction to Prima Materia (Prime Matter) is transformed into a more perfect form by an alchemical process, fermentation. Wine is the fluid essence of life and truth (cf. In vino veritas - "in wine there is truth"). (Cirlot s.v. grapes; Cooper s.v. grapes)

Fig trees, which are sacred to Dionysos, represent both vitality and enlightenment. The figleaf is shaped like male genitalia and the fig fruit like female genitalia; to this day in Europe the fica (sign of the fig/vulva), a gesture made by placing the thumb between the first two fingers, is used for protection (as also are phallic gestures). The Bodhi, under which the Buddha found enlightenment, was a fig tree; so also our Idiot will be illuminated beneath fig-laden branches. (Biedermann s.vv. fig; fig, sign of the; Cooper s.v. fig)

The thyrsus (pine-cone tipped staff) is a phallic symbol representing the life force. Its staff is a stalk of the narthex (giant fennel), which Prometheus used to convey the celestial fire to humanity (see 12.Hanged Man). The jester is consistently associated with the phallus as a symbol of fertility and lewdness (lewd jokes were an essential part of several Greek religious festivals, including the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Anthesteria, in both of which Dionysos had an important role, and the Thesmophoria). (Biedermann s.v. thyrus; Cooper s.v. thyrsos; Nichols 28)

Dionysos is associated with the tarot suits of Wands (the thyrsus) and Cups (wine), and thus with the two primary alchemical elements Fire and Water. Pollack (I.28) explains that these two principles represent action without thought (wand/fire) and imagination and instinct (cup/water), and that a combination of these opposed elements is the key to transformation. In terms of the elemental analysis presented elsewhere (introduction to the court cards), Fire represents the Hot quality, the power of separation, which corresponds to going one's own way (the way of the individualistic Idiot); Water represents the Wet quality, the power of dissolution, which corresponds to submerging oneself in the group. Both are ways of escaping the conventional: on the one hand, consensus reality, on the other, the ego self. The Bacchanalian cry, "IO!" represents these principles, Fire (I) and Water (O). (See the introduction to the court cards for the elemental quadriliterum "IOVE.")

We can better understand the Idiot through his position in the Hendecad. The numerical value of IDIWTHS (Idiotes, Idiot) is 1332, which reduces to 2-3+3-1 = 1; similarly the numerical value of IAKCOS O QEOS (Iakkhos Ho Theos, The God Iacchos, the mystic name of Bacchus used in the Eleusinian Mysteries) is 1255, which reduces to 5-5+2-1 = 1. Both equations show that the Idiot has the character of the Monad, which, according to the Pythagoreans, is the self-generating principle of everything else, the universal seed, chaotic energy, the confused mass, both male and female, formless, Protean. (TA 1, 3-5, 7; see also the meaning of Alpha, above, and of the Aces in the Minor Arcana) It is also significant, and has been recognized since ancient times, that the name DIONUSOS (Dionysos) can be rearranged to NOUS DIOS (the Mind of Zeus).

As in the Visconti-Sforza tarot, which is perhaps the oldest surviving deck (mid fifteenth century), the Idiot has seven feathers in his hair, for feathers in the hair are generally taken to be a symbol of foolishness and feeble-mindedness: he is an "air head." Indeed, feathers are also symbols of the element Air and of other substances with the character of air, such as the soul (Greek psyche originally meant breath, like Latin spiritus). Because of their lightness and association with birds (which also symbolize the soul), feathers symbolize the heavens and that which ascends to the heavens, including the soul and the truth. So also the feathers on the shaman's magical cloak allow his ascent through the seven heavens (corresponding to the planets), and the feathers on his head imbue him with the mana of the birds. (Biedermann s.v. feather; Cooper s.v. feather; Dummett 100)

Feathers on the Idiot's head also represent the presence of the heavenly spirit. They are associated with the coxcomb seen on the jesters in many tarot Fools, for the cock heralds the dawn of a new awareness. (Nichols 28)

The seven feathers are removed, one a day, from the Idiot's head. When the last (white/Saturn/Saturday) feather is removed at the end of Saturnalia, the Idiot will no longer be the King, and then he will don the white cloak of the beggar (or penetent; Moakley 114) to show he is the Pure Fool (der reine Tor), and assume once again the role of an ordinary Idiot (i.e. all of us). If he is lucky, however, he will have been transformed by the experience, and still hold the World (XXI) within him. Thus, in the Pythagorean Tarot he dons a violet scarf, which represents the Iosis of alchemy and the sanctity and wisdom that the Idiot has earned (see 21.World).

The Idiot is the archetypal Puer Aeternus (Eternal Child), the Pure Fool as a necessary first step in becoming a true Hero (cf. Wagner's Siegfried and Parsifal). Von Franz describes the fate of the Idiot when she says of the Puer Aeternus, "half a devil and half a savior [he] is either destroyed, reformed, or transformed at the end of the story" (Nichols 34). (Nichols 31-2) (See Hillman, PP, for more on the Puer Aeternus.)

I am Dionysos, son of Zeus, come back to Thebes, this land where I was born. My mother was Cadmos daughter, Semele by name, midwived by fire, delivered by lightning's blast. And here I stand, an incognito god, disguised as a man - Euripedes, Bacchae
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Last updated: Thu Nov 28 14:06:03 EST 2002