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The Witch, the Seer, the Fool

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Every now and then, I go on a hunt for knowledge about a certain Someone: a name, an icon, a place, ancient practices and worshipers. In the past, I’ve always ended up where I began: uncertain. I feel deliberately called to these hunts, spurred by a mysterious yearning that wells up in me. In my frustration, I don’t understand the point of the search if nothing is gained. After I get some distance from it, I acknowledge that I have learned some things, just not what I set out for. Maybe the subject of my search finds that the best way to guide me is by elusion: beckoning me, then feinting so that I set off on the path I’m supposed to take. I seem to always be the Fool-witch: my knowledge dwarfed by the unknown, perpetually setting out to try, to gain or fail (or a little of both), in my journey of becoming.

The ancient Romans had a term, fenta, that was an epithet for their goddess Fauna. It means both “seeress” and “fool.” Of course it does. No one seeks knowledge they already possess. The first step in seership, whether we realize it or not, is humility: acknowledging that one doesn’t know. The next step is faith that knowledge will be the reward for one’s efforts. The third step is a blind tumble into the unknown with our physical and psychological tools in our fists. It’s why the Fool in tarot is often seen at the edge of a precipice, one foot lifted, eyes gazing not at the drop but at something else — the thing desired, or the method leading into the madness. The desire to pursue knowledge — to invest time and energy and take risks for that knowledge — is the spirit of the Fool.

It reminds me of the old folktale “The Fool Who Set Out to Learn What Fear Was.” The hero is described as a simpleton; he is, in fact, so simple that he doesn’t even know enough to be afraid! So he sets out to gain this mysterious knowledge — fear — that he’s heard so much about. He comes to a haunted castle, where various malignant spirits appear and try to destroy him, and the hero fails again and again to be afraid But he accomplishes many other things, and in the end he (somewhat) finds what he’s looking for.

When the movie Ouija came out, one of my (typically wonderful and kind) cousins said, “This is why I’d never be stupid enough to mess around with a Ouija board.” I smiled and thought to myself, Well, I guess I am. It’s my audacious foolishness — my abiding trust that I’ll come out all right, maybe even better than before — that has led to the insight and abilities that make me a witch. We have to take risks to learn anything, to grow, and we must test ourselves to find out what we’re capable of.

Humans value knowledge, of all kinds, which is not a bad thing. Knowledge enables us to survive and flourish. Knowing means security. We are biologically conditioned to be afraid of (or at least very uncomfortable with) the unknown, uncertainty, the unfamiliar. Those things make us feel insecure, as if we’re brushing death itself just by coming to the edges where light meets shadow. But the unknown, the shadows of our wisdom, are nutritive places that feed us in their own way.

Knowledge and ignorance are like other polar concepts — life and death, order and chaos — in that they are not really opposed, not at their essence. They are symbiotic; each feeds the other. Our perception of our own ignorance spurs our pursuit of knowledge, and the more knowledge we acquire, the more we become aware of all that we don’t know (at least, we should). Together, these two states constitute a never-ending cycle for those of us concerned with them: we seekers, wanderers, and seers, each of us a Fool who is so simple that we willingly depart from the safety of what we already know so that we can know more.

We own our ignorance so that we can conquer it, only to be faced with it again in another form. So we go on and on.

For what it’s worth, I think I’ve finally figured out who that Someone is, though I won’t share it just yet. Some things are better kept secret, at least for a while.

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