Jacques Viéville's Tarot (17th century) - Héron, France

'Poker 700' - Masenghini, Italy

information about the deck each card comes from can be obtained by moving the mouse cursor over the pictures

state manufacturer, U.S.S.R. 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.
Piatnik, AustriaWaddingtons, U.K.
AG Müller, Switzerland(unknown), Hong Kong 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 trumps.
J.B.Benois' Besançon Tarot (18th century) - Il Meneghello, Italy1JJ Tarot - AG Müller, Switzerland

Sküs, from Tarock - ASS, GermanyExcuse, from Tarot - Ducale, France 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. Sküs, from Cego Tarock - FX Schmidt, Germany

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.

Minchiate 'Etruria' (18th century) - Il Meneghello, Italy 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 character.
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 with thought.
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. Fuggitivo, from Sicilian Tarot - Modiano, ItalyBegato, from Bologna's Tarot - Dal Negro, Italy
Gumppenberg's Tarocco Soprafino (19th century) - Il Meneghello, Italy 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.
Piedmontese Tarot - Modiano, Italy
Oni card, Akahachi pattern - Nintendo, Japan 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 assessment.
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?
the 'Gui' or 'Devil' card, DongGuan Pai - Guan Huat, Hong Kong
Pierpont Morgan Visconti-Sforza Tarot (15th century) - US Games System, U.S.A. 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.
De La Rue-Waddingtons, U.K.
Sidecar, Argentina 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.
Tactic, FinlandModiano, Italy 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.

Héron, France 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.
De La Rue, U.K.Ken, Turkey

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 two subjects.
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. K.Z.W.P., Poland

Modiano, Italy 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. (unknown), ChinaCarta Mundi, Belgium

back to


Picture Gallery Index
Multi-language Glossary
Index Table
Regional Games
Playing Card Links