In the earliest Tarot decks, the Fool is usually depicted as a beggar or a vagabond. In the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, the Fool wears ragged clothes and stockings without shoes, and carries a stick on his back. He has what appear to be feathers in his hair. His unruly beard and feathers may relate to the tradition of the woodwose or wild man. Another early Italian image that relates to the tradition is the first (and lowest) of the series of the so called "Tarocchi of Mantegna". This series of prints containing images of social roles, allegorical figures, and classical deities begins with "Misero", a depiction of a beggar leaning on a staff. A similar image is contained in the German Hofämterspiel; there the fool (German: Narr) is depicted as a barefoot man in robes, apparently with bells on his hood, playing a bagpipe.
The Tarot of Marseilles and related decks similarly depict a bearded person wearing what may be a jester's hat; he always carries a bundle of his belongings on a stick slung over his back. He appears to be getting chased away by an animal, either a dog or a cat. The animal has torn his pants.
In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck and other esoteric decks made for cartomancy, the Fool is shown as a young man, standing on the brink of a precipice. In the Rider-Waite deck, he is also portrayed as having with him a small dog. The Fool holds a rose in one hand and in the other a small bundle of possessions.
In French suited tarot decks that do not use the traditional emblematic images of Italian suited decks for the suit of trumps, the Fool is typically made up as a jester or bard, reminiscent of the joker in a deck of playing cards.
In the various tarot card games such as French Tarot, Tarocchini and Tarock, the Fool has a unique role. In these games, the Fool is sometimes called "the Excuse". The tarot games are typically trick taking games; playing the Fool card excuses the player from either following suit or playing a trump card on that trick. Winning a trick containing the Fool card often yields a scoring bonus.
In occult tarot, the Fool is usually considered part of the "major arcana". This is not true in the tarot game itself; the Fool's role in the game is independent of both the suit cards and the trump cards, and the card does not belong to either category. As such, most tarot decks originally made for game playing do not assign a number to the Fool indicating its rank in the suit of trumps; it has none. Waite gives the Fool the number 0, but in his book discusses the Fool between Judgment, no. 20, and The World, no. 21.
However, in some more modern tarot card games, specifically Austrian Tarock games, the Fool is instead played as the 22 of Trump, making it the highest trump in such games.
The Fool is the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind him represents the divine nature of the Fool's wisdom and exuberance. On his back are all the possessions he might need. In his hand there is a flower, showing his appreciation of beauty. He is frequently accompanied by a dog, sometimes seen as his animal desires, sometimes as the call of the "real world", nipping at his heels and distracting him. He is seemingly unconcerned that he is standing on a precipice, apparently about to step off.
The number 0 is a perfect significator for the Fool, as it can become anything when he reaches his destination. Zero plus anything equals the same thing. Zero times anything equals zero. Zero is nothing, a lack of hard substance, and as such it may reflect a non-issue or lack of cohesiveness for the subject at hand.
In many esoteric systems of interpretation, the Fool is usually interpreted as the protagonist of a story, and the Major Arcana is the path the Fool takes through the great mysteries of life and the main human archetypes. This path is known traditionally in Tarot as the Fool´s Journey, and is frequently used to introduce the meaning of Major Arcana cards to beginners.
In his Manual of Cartomancy, Grand Orient has a curious suggestion of the office of Mystic Fool, as a part of his process in higher divination; but it might call for more than ordinary gifts to put it into operation. We shall see how the card fares according to the common arts of fortune-telling, and it will be an example to those who can discern the fact, otherwise so evident, that the Trumps Major had no place originally in the arts of psychic gambling, when cards are used as the counters and pretexts. However, we know very little of the circumstances under which this art arose.
The conventional explanations say that The Fool signifies the flesh, the sensitive life, and by a peculiar satire its subsidiary name was at one time The Alchemist, as depicting folly at the most insensate stage. When The Fool appears in a spread, he would be a signal to strip down to the irreducible core, and interrogate whether the Querant's self-vision is obscured. It may also be a warning that significant change is coming.
Another interpretation of the card is that of taking action where the circumstances are unknown, confronting one's fears, taking risks, and so on.
Some literary comparisons can be made. In universal literature, The Fool would be considered the youngest son or daughter who accomplishes great feats despite the apparently better position of older siblings. Examples include Cinderella, Psyche, Cordelia (from King Lear), all the third sons of kings in fairy tales who succeed when their older brothers do not, the Grail Knight who may be destined to locate the Holy Cup where greater and wiser men have tried and failed, the one teetering at the edge of Nietzsche's abyss, at the cusp of dreadful knowledge that will pull him or her out of the cave, or even Hamlet before he decides to embrace his destiny.
A dog appears on most versions of the card. Some versions of the dog depict him biting at The Fool. The dog symbolizes the natural world, one path to knowledge and a valuable ally; he can be seen as providing The Fool with a "reality check," a link to the everyday world.
Although it cannot be seen in all modern cards, The Fool is often shown walking off a cliff. This raises the question "Is The Fool making a mistake, or is The Fool making a leap of faith?"