||The Joker is considered the most outstanding subject of the standard deck,
cherished by collectors more than any other card.
Indeed, its variety of different patterns partially accounts for such a common interest,
but this is surely not enough: there is more in a Joker than fancy shapes and colours.
||The origin of this subject sinks deep into the history of western playing cards: in fact,
the concept of a "wild card" which can beat the high values of the deck was born with the
tarot. No Joker (or equivalent card) belonged to the earlier Arabic tradition, nor to
other archaic playing card systems known, such as Chinese Domino cards or Persian/Indian Ganjifa.
|The ancestor of the modern Joker is the classic tarot's Fool.
Despite their close relationship, the latter card shows one main difference: belonging
to a set of 22 trumps, the Fool does not stand as an individual subject.
Nevertheless, in tarot games the Fool takes cards of high rank in the same way
modern Jokers do.
Graphically, the best proof of a relation between the two subjects is provided by the Fool's
direct "descendants" in regional tarot patterns: the Excuse in the French Tarot,
the Sküs in the German Tarock, the Skíz in the
Hungarian Tarokk, etc. are certainly more similar to Jokers than to the rest of the
||All of these cards do not have a rank or a value of their own: Jokers do not belong to
any suit, while the Fool, although taking part to a specific group of subjects (the trumps),
is the only one of them which has no number, at least in most patterns and editions; only
for the Piedmontese tarot this card carries number 0, while in the 17th century Belgian
pattern it features number 22.
Therefore, with very few exceptions, Joker and Fool
cards alone are worth nothing, their paradox power emerging only in the case of a
challenge with another card.
||The choice of the Fool as a winning subject might appear strange, almost contradictory.
In the past, as well as in recent times, foolishness has never been looked at as
a virtue, and the rags worn by most tarot Fools confirm the low social status of this
Furthermore, according to the cultural models of the Renaissance, the age during
which the tarot was enjoyed in most European countries, this choice does not seem to match the
neo-Platonic model of man as the center of the universe, being the only living creature endowed
|Renaissance, though, was not a hyper-rational age. Freed from the oppressive
embrace of the mediaeval church, man's progress was no longer guided by the light of pires
on which hereticals were burned, but was finally free to roam, and inspiration also came
from cultures which up to then had been barely considered, or even proscribed. Among the
latter, for instance, was the Jewish tradition; in particular, the interest of several
Renaissance scholars was caught by its mystical-hesoteric doctrine, the Kabbalah.
||Also the original Italian name of the card, il Matto,
should be discussed: "Fool" is a slightly too liberal interpretation of this expression, for
which a closer translation would probably be "the Lunatic" or "the Madman".
In older times, when freedom of speech was yet to come, lunatics have always been entitled
to express themselves freely, to say things which others could not, simply because their
crazy words would not be given credit, although sometimes they were true: their
insanity almost acted as a sort of intellectual shield or privilege.
Also the ritual state of self-induced trance practised by tribal shamans and bush-doctors is a
typical example of this archetypal concept, once very common in the primitive world.
However, evident traces of this model can still be found in western hesoterism: for instance,
could a medium ever claim to be in contact with misterious entities without falling in a trance?
||In most archaic cultures, an altered state of consciousness, or even sleep,
was believed to act as a psychic bridge between man and God. In the Bible, for instance,
several personages foresee future events or are given instructions by holy
messengers in their dreams. In the same way, psychic alteration was often
seen as a form of link with evil entities: the numberless cases of "possession" dealt with
by exorcists in the past, today would certainly receive a more rational
||Especially in the past, altered states of mind could easily have social and cultural
implications which today would appear absurd.|
For instance, in ancient Rome public assemblies were suspended in case one of the
participants was stricken by an epileptic crisis, as this sudden and unknown manifestation
was feared almost as a warning sign from heaven.
Therefore, it is likely that not the Fool's human condition did the unknown author of
the tarot game keep in mind by raising this subject to such a high rank, but his
allegedly privileged metaphysical status, for the same tarot game was probably created as a
symbolic representation of man's progress towards spiritual elevation (see the
Tarot gallery for a discussion of this topic).
|The modern Joker, instead, has an American origin, though descending again from
Europe, in particular from Alsatia.
Officially, the Joker card was first used in the Unites States, during the second half of the
19th century, for playing the game of Euchre. This game was brought into the
American continent by German or Dutch settlers; in fact, the same word "Euchre" is the
English spelling of the old German Juker, meaning "jack, knave", which later
became the name of the deck's new subject, i.e. the Joker.
||In this game, the most valuable cards are two Jacks (the one belonging to the trump
suit, and the other one of the same colour), known in play respectively as Right Bower
and Left Bower, a corruption of the German Bauer, "peasant" or "chess pawn",
a name also used for the knave in older card games. Some versions of Euchre use
a third Bower, called the Best Bower : the Joker was actually born to represent
the latter card, although some players still prefer to use another standard subject of the
deck, such as the 2 of Spades.
||During the second half of the 19th century, this extra card was given its present name
"Joker", and by the 1880s it began to appear in Bridge decks as a standard, sometimes with a
further extra blank card which could replace any of the subjects, in case of damage or loss.
Only during the first half of the 20th century the Joker cards became two (usually one red
and one black, to match the Bowers' colour, but sometimes one with colours and one in
black & white). Some decks now have three, or even more.
||The Joker has always been pictured as a jester, or as a harlequin, with the exception of
few decks in which a fantasy subject is used (such as a local traditional feature, the
manufacturer's logo, etc.), a trend which has become more frequent in recent years.
In choosing this character, the old Bower (or Bauer)
was probably blended with the tarot's Fool. And a jester is indeed an ideal
complementary personage for the crowded court of playing cards, made of four kings,
four queens and four knaves or jacks.
Besides some exterior similarities (both the Fool and the Joker wear patched clothes,
feature funny faces and show informal attitudes), a more important element relates these
|If mental insanity granted lunatics freedom of speech, and was even believed to bridge
the gap between common mortals and heaven, in most Renaissance households the jester, often
a hunchback or a dwarf, though being the least member of the court as for social rank, was
also the only subject officially entitled to play with the king (or prince, or duke), to
tease him, to tell him things which others could have barely been able to without enduring
serious consequences. The same glamorous clothes worn by the jester made him clearly
identifiable among all other members of the court: a personage who, at the same time, was
ridiculous though outstanding, deformed though witty.
||Therefore, what both subjects share is a sharp contrast between their mortal and
intellectual condition: the same imperfect human nature due to which primitive
societies alienated the Fool and the Joker, paradoxically raised them to a level of
metaphysical authority unreached by others, whose metaphor in games is the winning power
credited to the two cards in their respective decks.