Reflections on the age-old wisdom within the fool’s humor

Dr Deon van Zyl

“If the fool would persist in his folly
he would become wise” – William Blake

A wise and teaching clown image appeared to me once during an Active Imagination and Authentic Movement session. During the session I was working on the contrasting images of an old hobo and the new man, Adam. The old hobo came through as derelict and aimless, while Adam was unsullied and new, but also aimless. I discovered that although they seemed to be worlds apart, they actually were very similar, and even the same in one very important aspect: they both lived with little future orientation, in the moment of now. As symbolic images, a slight but huge difference between them is that the hobo is an aimless wanderer living from day to day, while Adam is an aimless wonderer in the beautiful paradise of the present. Their similarity however is the awareness of, and focus on, the now.

After these opposite but similar figures appeared during the Authentic Movement session, two other images came that also seemed worlds apart, yet were closely linked in similarity: the “Eternal Sower”, the provider, the giver of life and sustenance, and the “Eternal Beggar”, the taker, the one who only wants for himself. It was only a very slight physical motion in the elbow and shoulder that separated the sower from the beggar. Other than that there was giving in taking, and taking in giving, a complementary and inextricable link between the two.

The simultaneous similarity and difference between the “wanderer” and the “wonderer”, between the “sower” and the “beggar”, was so absurd and difficult to grasp, that I started to laugh. I hadn’t laughed like that in years. A spontaneous but deeply felt silliness overcame me, and my body responded by doing outrageously funny things, that induced further fits of laughter, wave after wave. I became a performing clown. Every new movement was so idiosyncratic and perfect that it stimulated more joyful laughter and fun.

The more I laughed through the clown, the more I seemed to combine and transcend the strange opposites of Adam/Hobo and Sower/Beggar. Through the clown it all made sense. I looked at it from above, and the ascended position united the extremes. At that moment I was a united extreme myself: ascended yet earthly, a new man and an old drunkard, a provider and a beggar. The clown had mediated the opposites. Humor and laughter united the extremes. The clown brought unity, wholeness and even transcendence. During this session, the fool image was indeed what Jung would refer to as a “new third” that manifested from the opposites, a Transcendent Function.


And so, the above-mentioned experience was my personal introduction to the clown archetype or the sacred fool. The biggest revelation at the nucleus of this experience was how the clown image embraced the extremes, and contained the contrasts. Deep clowning, I believe, always evokes awareness of the contrast and unity of opposite aspects of our selves. Clowning allows us to embrace contradictory sides and be “elevated” to a “higher” viewpoint. The clown in us is the embodiment of paradoxes and polarities.

If we look closer into any clown act, we will discover multiple polarities that he/she plays with. The clown is a master of contrast, a genius at playing with extremes and uniting opposites. Where there is order, the clown creates disorder. Where there is something enormous to be accomplished, the clown minimizes it. Where there is something small to do, the clown expends gigantic efforts in the process. Above all, an inflated ego will definitely be brought down to earth, and the deflated or inferior will somehow be elevated! Doing all of this in a loving and funny way, the clown brings the extremes together.

As the audience, we experience these extremes in ourselves. We might even briefly re-live similar incidents from our own lives. Actually, on close inspection, the polar themes that clowns often play with are also very serious issues in life (e.g. order-disorder, arrogance-inferiority, trying-surrendering, freedom-bondage, lifeless-animated, conformity-rebellion, mastery-failure). But then the clown makes us laugh, and through our release and acceptance during laughter, we neutralize the hurt and change the negativity. The clown helps us to embrace seemingly irreconcilable differences in ourselves and others. Ultimately we end up with a more extended understanding of ourselves and others. Laughter brings perspective and restores balance. By integrating the opposites in and through him/herself, the clown assists us to transcend polarity. The clown is a magician, a transformer of the inner world, an elevator of the human spirit. But who is this person that can integrate opposites in and through himself, and who does it for the sake of others? Doesn’t that take a tremendous amount of wisdom and compassion?


Look closely and you will see it takes sure-footedness, centered awareness and great care, to be able to stumble properly. The clumsy clod is in actual fact a master practitioner. You have to be extremely well co-coordinated in order to blunder correctly. You have to have precision timing in order to play with the brink of disaster. The fool is indeed no simpleton, as Cervantes once suggested (in Watts 1963: 31). You have to be very accomplished and clever to play stupid.

The clown can move through the extremes of experience. He has extensiveness of scope, latitude and leeway. The clown makes a statement about freedom by getting stuck, and similarly about getting stuck by being free. He elevates others by putting himself down. He takes our fears, clumsiness, rebellion, feelings of stupidity and insignificance, upon himself, and then he makes us laugh, and thereby helps us to embrace and accept, to move in and out of different worlds. Children look at a clown and say, “Look how stupid and clumsy he is, even I can do that”. The child is endowed with power because the clown gives his own power away. The clown is not only skillful, but has wisdom and compassion too. The clown is an inter-relational being. In the process of being engaged with himself and playing with his own experiences, he always remembers the audience. The circus ring is not a barrier, just a porous boundary. Clowns are like the cells of the body: sacrificing their own identity and dying for the sake of new life and rejuvenation. No wonder that various mythologies link the clown, fool, trickster, court jester and joker to the Savior Sage. The fumbling idiot can in actual fact be an elevated mystic.

Many cultures all over the world have the clown as a central part of their traditions, and often sacred traditions. The sacredness of the clown comes through in his/her play with polarities, in the spacious embrace of contrast and opposites, and in the shape-shifting loss of a fixed (especially overly serious, pious and inflated) persona. All this makes room for flow, transformation, novelty, play and creativity, a richer and expanded “Self”.


There are literally hundreds of clown, fool or trickster figures throughout all cultures in the world. Jung has written extensively about the trickster archetype. Hermes from Greek mythology or Mercurius from Roman mythology is a prime example. Hermes/Mercury consists of all conceivable opposites, a wily trickster and a god of revelation, with the powers of above and below. He is a duplex and duality, many-sided and changeable, the one and the many, the paradox par excellence (CW 13: para’s 267, 280, 284, 289. CW 14: para’s 117, 121). Some tricksters often use shock, deceit, accidents, mischief and negative tactics to achieve their goals of bringing awareness of all sides, dialectical embrace and liberation from fixedness. In this article I’d like to focus on just a few tricksters who mainly use humour, laughter and play as their media, but with the same aims of insight, embrace of opposites and discovery of the expanded Self. These figures can more accurately be described as clowns or sacred fools, but the dividing line between a clown and a trickster is porous, and should never be seen as definitive. Clowns/Fools use trickster qualities or energy, but their areas of play is mainly where there is extreme piousness, seriousness, hierarchy, inflatedness and a “holier-than-thou” attitude. The clown breaks these patterns through humour, laughter, play and deliberately toying with the opposite. We all remember the uncontrollable giggling we and our friends had during the long, boring and extremely serious sermon. This was the clown archetype at play, attempting to bring balance in a very one-sided situation.

The Heyoka, a sacred clown figure in the Sioux Native American tradition, is sometimes called a Contrary. He is a clear example of the clown who plays with opposites and loosens fixed patterns. As Lame Deer (1979 p 48) says, “A clown in our language is called a Heyoka. He is upside-down, backward-forward, yes-and-no man, a contrarywise”. By doing everything in reverse, like pitching a tepee with the smoke flaps facing the wrong way, the doorway to the west instead of the east, or entering by lifting the lodge cover of the back and crawling underneath instead of going through the doorway (Brown 1979 p 57), the Heyoka shows us that we must not live life in a rigid way. To get closer to the essence of life we need to break set patterns, find new and different ways, and explore the exact opposite of what we are used to. We need to loosen the structures where there is rigid hierarchy, and systematize when things are too untied. By shifting patterns that become too persistent, we loosen formations and make room for a larger flow, a constant renewal, a reflection of “impermanence” as a Buddhist would say, which is life at its essence.

Nasreddin Hodja, Turkey’s best-known comic sage from the thirteenth century, was frequently seen riding backwards on his donkey. He once explained this to his students: “I realize that to you boys I may seem to be riding this donkey the wrong way around, but in fact it is certainly the right way. You see, I could not possibly lead you to the mosque for our class and keep an eye on you at the same time without riding this way. And to follow behind you would be undignified for a teacher. Surely you can understand, then, that this is the right way for me to ride this donkey.” (quoted in Leeming 1979 p 84)

About 350 stories and anecdotes have been attributed to Nasreddin. They are filled with witty contrasts, pattern breaks, teaching lessons and wisdom. One of my favorites is “The Cauldron that Died”:

Nasreddin Hodja, having need for a large cooking container, borrowed his neighbor’s copper cauldron, and then returned it in a timely manner.
“What is this?” asked his neighbor upon examining the returned cauldron. “There is a small pot inside my cauldron.”
“Oh”, responded the Hodja. “While it was in my care your cauldron gave birth to a little one. Because you are the owner of the mother cauldron, it is only right that you should keep the baby. And in any event, it would not be right to separate the child from its mother at such a young age”.
The neighbor did not argue. Whatever had caused the Hodja to come up with this explanation, the neighbor had a new little pot, and it had cost him nothing.
Some time later the Hodja asked to borrow the cauldron again.
“Why not?” thought the neighbor to himself. “Perhaps there will be another pot inside when he returns it”.
But this time the Hodja did not return the cauldron. After many days had passed, the neighbor went to the Hodja and asked for the return of the borrowed cauldron.
“My dear friend”, replied the Hodja. “I have bad news. Your cauldron has died, and is now in her grave”.
“What are you saying!” shouted the neighbor. “A cauldron does not live, and it cannot die. Return it to me at once!”
“One moment!” answered the Hodja. “This is the same cauldron that but a short time ago gave birth to a child, a child that is still in your possession. If a cauldron can give birth to a child, then it also can die”.
And the neighbor never saw his cauldron again.

This is vintage Nasreddin Hodja, toying with the opposites of large and small, life and death, but with an eye of wisdom on the all too common human dilemma of integrity versus trickery.

The sacred clown does not want anything to be too permanent, especially our persona or mask-wearing identities. The paradox is often that the clown has a pronounced mask, and a very definite outer appearance, but this sets him/her free to be anything, to be flexible and free to play with any mode of being between extreme poles. The Fool in the Tarot pack is not numbered, or of zero value, while the other cards are numbered from 1 to 21. The fool doesn’t mind emptiness and the momentary state of being a zero, a nothing or a nobody. In the age-old art of the Bata Clown in the “Commedia dell'Arte” tradition, the unprepared or impromptu performance is highly valued. As you walk onto the stage unrehearsed and unprepared, you just stay with that feeling of anxiety and emptiness, and something WILL come. The state of emptiness, sometimes accompanied by anxiety is the pre-requisite for something brand new, fresh and creative to develop. The stipulation though is to reside with the emptiness and the anxiety of nothingness (being a zero), and not to try and fill it up prematurely. Jung says it beautifully: “If you will contemplate your lack of fantasy, of inspiration and inner aliveness, which you feel as sheer stagnation and a barren wilderness, and impregnate it with the interest born of alarm at your inner death, then something can take shape in you. For your emptiness conceals just as great a fulness if only you will allow it to penetrate into you” (CW 14: para 190). Creation and form emanate from emptiness, and it is the fool with zero value that understands this truth. The Joker in a standard pack of cards can take on the identity of any of the other cards. With this zero identity or no-self, it can disguise and shape-shift into anything. By doing this the Fool-Joker mirrors the Creator, who is without form, but can take on any form or shape. He is without a fixed persona and can be many selves. But don’t be fooled, because although the clown seems to be against rigid containment, we shouldn’t make too much of this, as he/she will promptly show you just how contained he/she can be! The sacred clown is both contained and boundless, and neither of either, indeed a wanderer of note.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition we find the well-known figure of Pu-tai (Hotei, d. A.D. 916), the pot-bellied “Laughing Buddha”. Pu-tai is a friendly, opulent-looking figure with a laughing and joyful demeanor. Pu-tai shuns hierarchy and established patterns. “(He)…refuses to enter a monastery on any basis suggestive of permanence, and instead wanders freely without attachment even to the securities of cloistered walls and the forms of monkish discipline.” (Hyers 1987 p 50). If ever there was an “aimless wanderer” AND an “aimless wonderer”, Pu-tai is one. But so were many sages from other cultures:

A Hindu verse says (in Watts 1963 p 202):

“Sometimes naked, sometimes mad,
Now as a scholar, now as a fool,
Thus they appear on earth –
The free men!”

In the Japanese Sóto Zen tradition there is the so-called “Great Fool”, Ryókwan (1757-1831). Evidently in one game of hide-and-seek with children he hid himself so well under a haystack that he was not discovered until the next morning by a farmer! (Hyers 1987 p 51). Hide and seek is one of the classic children’s games that play with the dialectic between presence and absence. However, in the end we always find each other, so presence prevails. It can only take a wise fool to let the game end with absence, the opposite of the usual, just for a change! Ryókwan was also the one when his house was robbed, rejoiced, “They left the best thing, the moon at he window” (quoted by Travers 1979 p 39). This sacred fool didn’t fear emptiness, and could fill up loss with the fullness of the precious unrecognized gift to all of us, the moon. It was said that he also devoted special attention to lice, not only giving them a place of honor in his poetry, but sheltering them in his robe ((Hyers 1987 p 51). The sacred fool elevates the lowest and lowers the highest. By doing this they show us once again that the essence of life is not high nor low, not large or small, but both sides, and once again…neither of either.

It is in this area that the clowns play, and where wisdom and true wholeness are found. As Jung (CW 12: para 24) said, “Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness…” The clown brings wholeness through the full experience of opposites, and the ways to accomplish this, is to play with both sides, to fully engage each extreme, and to break overly fixed patterns.


We smile or laugh at the unexpected and at contrasting opposites. The unexpected is the pattern-break, the surprising punch line, and contrasting opposites are the built-in extremes that are inextricably part of any clown act, funny pun or joke:

This afternoon there will be meetings in the north and south ends of the church. Children will be baptized on both ends.

Thursday at 8 p.m. there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All those wishing to become Little Mothers will please meet the Minister in his study.

The opposites here are the sacred and the profane: Baptism and children’s butts, religious morality and indecent procreation. The lofty is brought down to earth at the same time as the earthy is elevated to a higher status level. Contrasting opposites are united in one picture, and we smile or laugh at the moment of being aware of, and embracing both poles. Anything we find humourous will contain exactly this same principle. Arthur Koessler once said that a joke creates ambiguity which is difficult to hold, and is then released through laughter. Where opposites come together in one it creates a contradictory feeling that is tricky to hang on to. There is a momentary embrace of both extremes, but it is hard to contain it even for a second, so we release the dubiousness through smiling/laughing. For a moment before we smile or laugh, we unexpectedly become aware of contrast. The opposing poles seemingly don’t belong together, but they are portrayed in one picture, inseparable and interacting. It creates an ambiguity in us where we cannot hold the contrast together in one, have to release it, and that’s when we smile or laugh. The release is laughter, the prompt is contrasting poles that cannot be contained as one, but do co-exist. Humour is the mediator between opposing sides. With awareness of both extremes there is a moment of embrace, then almost an ascension “outside” the contrast, a bigger perspective or understanding. When we see the two sides from a different perspective, they still cannot be reconciled, but they do exist together, and this makes us smile or laugh.

The terrain of the clown is above, in-between or all-around contradictions and incongruence, in the field of paradox, on the borderline between different worlds. Contrast and the unexpected is at the core of the clown game, there where the exalted and the trivial meet, where opposites are portrayed in one image. But it does take an awareness of both sides, an “elevated” view that is not enmeshed with either side only. Whether this view comes from “above”, “underneath”, “in-between” or “all around” the opposites, it is a third position (what Jung called a “transcendent function”), that is fully conscious of both sides and simultaneously releasing the hold on either.

The healthy and consciously integrating ego plays a huge role in the dynamics of humour and in the clowning process. Jung describes this type of ego functioning beautifully: “The ego keeps its integrity only if it does not identify with one of the opposites, and if it understands how to hold the balance between them” (CW 8 para 425). In the same paragraph he implicates that one-sided identification arrests spiritual development. Through the clown archetype the ego-Self axis is in a dynamic dialectic. The ego expands to embrace the opposites, and starts mirroring the Self, which contains pairs of opposites. Ulanov (1997 p 137) captures this process well: “The construction of the Self and of the ego’s conversation with it is not identified with either pole of the opposites but includes both. The opposites may still conflict, but the ego takes up its position outside this opposition, being preoccupied with its relation to the Self”. This dynamic interplay between ego and Self is fully operative during humour and the clowning process. The essence of humour and clowning is a broader understanding, seeing from a different view, and sometimes doing so with a numinous eye and with deep wisdom. Jung often quoted Schopenhauer, who said that “A sense of humor is the only divine quality of man” (quoted by Luke 1987 p 6). Humour and divine wisdom are occasionally twin cousins, and this is why the clown can be “sacred”, a trivial performer and a wise teacher, a blundering fool and a lofty sage.


In a one-sided society, we often need clowning to bring balance. In late Medieval French culture for example, we find the so-called “Feast of Fools”, where roles were reversed with lower clergy clowning as bishops, and traditional symbols were inverted like elevating the Ass to the main role, and as the central focus, instead of the flesh and blood of the Savior. During this feast opposites were also portrayed through human and animal masks. The priests from the theological Faculty of Paris told the authorities that this was necessary because, “foolishness, which is our second nature and seems to be inherent in man, might freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air” (Gilhus 1977 p 80). Whether you let in some air or blew off some steam, fooling around was a necessary extravagance, a tension release that brought some proportion back. Religious and cultural systems are sometimes forms of one-sided attachment, a collective “patterned persona” or inflexible identity. The Feast of Fools through the carnival clowns said, “Let’s break the fixedness. Let’s go to the exact opposite of the prevailing mold. Let’s balance things out and bring some correction to this one-sidedness”. Fools are counter-positions to imbalance. If the prevailing order is one of hierarchy, “holier-than-thou” and seriousness, they would bring disorder, baseness and jollity. Over the last few centuries our Western culture has leaned towards the former pattern, so the fools mostly demonstrated the latter. I’m sure in a culture where disorder, baseness and jollity prevail, the sacred clown would be a picture of control and seriousness. On the other hand, the clown can also mirror the exact prevailing pattern (e.g. by being a picture of rule-bound piety and solemnity), but would do so in an exaggerated form, in order to shock us into awareness and to break the mold down through the release of laughter. This would hopefully create a rebound of the opposite.

Till Eulenspiegel, the eccentric German fourteenth century jester and folk-hero, wanted to wake us up to multi-sidedness and the art of shape-shifting. Non-adherence to a limited or fixed identity pattern opens one up to a fuller bandwidth of experience. He played a wide variety of contrasting roles, from an actor, thief, liar, prankster and devil on the one hand, to a saint, philanthropist and philosopher on the other. From his birth to his death, his life was characterized by contrast, opposites and eccentricity. One of my favourite tales of Till is where he attempted to teach a donkey to read the Psalms for the professors of the university. These abilities to elevate the lowly, to deflate the vain and pretentious, to shape-shift into any identity (i.e. not to have an overly fixed persona), all contain the age-old wisdom of the fool.

At times it isn’t human figures, but animals that play the role of the clown, like in the Native American myth lore of Coyote. Coyote often shows the opposite of what is generally accepted (like giving in to base instinctual behavior), thereby helping to define the boundaries of morality and acceptability, but he also does not cling onto a fixed identity. Through various Native American traditions Coyote is omnipresent and can be many things: a messenger, a handsome young man, an animal, a hero, a mean or noble trickster, and even analogous to the Creator. He is the archetypal shape-shifter who can appear in any form, and can even cut his body into tiny pieces to get through a knothole, and then put himself together again. The Hartebeest figure in San Bushman tales has exactly the same capabilities. Coyote, like Hartebeest, is diversity in unity, and unity in diversity, a shape-shifter who shows us the inner workings of life itself.

In the Bushman stories, the little Mantis played a huge role in dealing with the disproportions of life. The elephant of course was the symbol of exaggeration, brute power, instinct and excess, from which the spirit had to free itself if ever it were to become symmetrical and whole (van der Post 1961 p 170). Mantis achieved this by jumping onto the Elephant’s shoulders, one after the other, and killed them by farting in their faces! The Bushman had two reactions to this story. On the one hand they of course roared with laughter, but on the other they were filled with wonder and awe. Mantis the clown has once again played its sacred role, to extract proportion from disproportion as Van der Post puts it, to balance excess, to embrace all sides (e.g. the small and the large, the powerless and the powerful), and to give us a broader and much wider perspective, an “eye of wisdom” so to speak.

The clown is a container of extremes, a keeper of opposites and polarities, and above all a “no-self” that will appear anywhere where one-sided attachment is the prevailing pattern.


It is the archetypal function of the fool to empty himself and lose adherence to an overly fixed or patterned identity. He is prepared to adapt, to change and be flexible, for the sake of a larger cause. Extremes don’t intimidate a sacred clown, as his aim is rectification of imbalance. When our circumstances are very much out of balance, then it takes excessive and opposite measures to correct them. Sometimes shock is what it takes to jolt us out of one-sided denial. One-sidedness breeds unconsciousness. The role of the sacred fool is to pierce deception, to wake us up to a fuller attentiveness. Awareness of all sides is the goal of the sacred fool, and often at any cost, but mostly through humour and laughter. The fool or the clown sacrifices a smaller identity to gain a larger one, a one-sided persona for a more integrated ego, which in turn is in a dynamic dialectic with the Self that contains all opposites. This is one of the central challenges of the individuation process according to Jung, and humour, laughter and clowning have important roles to play in this process.

The clown’s essential message seems to be:

  • Take responsibility to be aware of opposites.
  • Don’t be afraid to embrace either side consciously.
  • Respect the dialectic between seemingly contrasting extremes.
  • Stay with moments of emptiness and its accompanying anxiety. Something creative WILL come from it.
  • Above all, shape-shift and trans-form (go beyond set forms) by releasing overly fixed patterns as you play within and between the full bandwidth of opposites.

And of course, every now and then, in a moment of controlled focus and surrender, the poles will not only appear to alternate, but to fuse. There will be order in chaos, mastery in failure, a beggar in a sower, a sage on a donkey, and we will know the empty fullness that contains all polarities. The word “silly” comes from the Old English word “saelig”, meaning blessed or holy. So allow your fool to show you the way. Give yourself the opportunity to play with and shape-shift identity, to appreciate the clown who appears betwixt, between and around our manifest dualities, and who for brief moments of time, allows us to be empty and full in the sacred circle of this ever-wandering circus called life.

“Let no person deceive himself.
If any among you seemeth to be wise in this world,
let him/her become a fool that he may be wise”
(I Corinthians 3:8-21)


  1. Brown, J. E. (1979) ‘The wisdom of the contrary’, Parabola IV 1.
  2. Deer, Lame. (1979) Parabola IV 1.
  3. Gilhus, I. S. (1977) Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins – Laughter in the History of Religion, London: Routledge.
  4. Hyers, C. (1987) ‘The Smile of Truth’, Parabola XII 4.
  5. Jung, C. G.  Collected Works (1953 – 1973) ed. Sir H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler and W McGuire, 20 vols, London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.
  6. Leeming, D. (1979) ‘The Hodja’, Parabola IV 1.
  7. Luke, H. M. (1979) ‘The laughter at the heart of things’, Parabola XII 4.
  8. Travers, P. L. (1979) ‘The youngest brother’, Parabola IV 1.
  9. Ulanov, A. B. (1997) ‘Transference, the transcendent function, and transcendence’, Journal of Analytical Psychology 42, 119-138.
  10. van der Post, L. (1961) The Heart of a Hunter, Penguin Books.
  11. Watts, A. (1963) Two Hands of God – An exploration of the underlying unity of all things, London: Century.

Deon van Zyl, Ph.D is a former Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Pretoria, where he worked for 13 years. He is past chairperson of the South African Institute for Clinical Psychology. For the last 25 years he’s been in private practice as a clinical psychologist, management consultant, mediator and group facilitator. He is a member of the International Association for Jungian Studies and the International Association for the Study of Dreams. He has delivered numerous papers at conferences in South Africa, the U.S.A. and Japan. He explores the interface between psychology and spiritual practices.