There are two schools of thought regarding the origin of the playing card Joker. Some scholars believe that the playing cards were derived from the Tarot, and that the Joker was the only trump to have survived the transition. In the Tarot he is known as The Fool, and he carries the numerical value of zero. He symbolizes the Alpha and Omega, or beginning and end of the cycle of life and death.
Most playing card scholars believe that the playing cards evolved separately from, and may predate, the Tarot. Hence, the more generally accepted belief is that the Joker is a modern invention.
The first documented use of the Joker in the Unites States was during the second half of the 19th century as part of a playing card game called Euchre. The game was originally brought to the U.S. by German or Dutch settlers, and the name “Euchre” was derived from the old German “Juker,” meaning “Jack.” The game rules were modified in the 1860s with the addition of an extra trump called “The Best Bower.” It is believed that the Best Bower card may have been referred to as the “Juker card” which eventually evolved into our modern day ”Joker.”
Perhaps due to the Joker’s early association with the Tarot Fool, or perhaps based on the archetypal symbolism of the Jester/Joker/Fool, the interpretation of the Joker bears close resemblance to that of the Tarot Fool.
Like The Fool, the Joker can denote folly, eccentricity, and poorly considered actions. He can represent originality, or the beginning of an adventure or quest. He is an independent spirit, complete within himself. He is guided by the forces of nature, and the wisdom of The Universe.
Most cartomancy methods do not utilize the Joker. In the systems that do include the Joker, he is interpreted in various ways.
- The Joker can be used as a significator card to represent the seeker (person requesting the reading). Wherever the Joker falls in the reading, special emphasis is placed on the surrounding cards which would indicate what is closest to the seeker’s heart, or most important in the seeker’s life.
- The Joker can represent surprises and unexpected events outside of the seeker’s control.
- The Joker can represent foolish behavior or immaturity.
- The Joker can indicate secrets, hidden agendas, or that not everything is as it appears to be in the area where it falls.
- There are actually two Jokers in the deck of playing cards, and some systems utilize both. One can be used to represent life, and the other to represent death. Or one can be used to represent where the seeker’s energy is focused, and the other to represent the seeker’s emotions. The two Jokers can also be used to represent any duality or polarity such as sun & moon, Yin & Yang, active & receptive, positive & negative, good & evil, ego & id, zero & infinity, light & dark, etc.
My grandmother did not read with the Joker, so I have never included the Joker in my readings either. The decision to utilize one or both Jokers is a matter of tradition or personal preference. Most playing card readers choose to use 52 cards only. I find that many Tarot readers who are used to working with the Fool often like to include the Joker in their playing card readings.
Some cartomancers believe the Joker should be used since he’s a natural part of the modern playing card deck. Others argue that he was not an original member of the pack, and cartomancy predates the Joker’s invention. Perhaps the Joker is not popular in modern cartomancy because he’s discarded in most of the popular modern card games.