Joker of the Tarot Cards

The Fool While the fool figure (of the tarot) and the joker figure (originating from playing cards) are not to be conflated, much of the discourse on both overlaps. Many tarot decks do name the more traditionally labelled Fool, the Joker. And in most instances the card is designated with the number zero.

I became curious to explore the meaning of this card and its assignment of the numerical position of nought. Nought represents that which is beyond the sphere of the intelligible, the infinite outside the finite, the absolute enclosing the relative. The sign also bears a connection to alchemists, whose sign is alum, nought, a perfect circle.

Correspondingly, this first card of the major arcana (the 22 archetypal trump cards of the tarot), references potentiality, innocence, curiousity, risk-taking, stepping into the unknown—in alchemical terms, the turning of nothing into something. The joker is said to not belong to him or herself, s/he is a being possessed.

Dakini Joker

In an Indian deck, the joker does not carry any reference to immaturity and folly (as implied in other decks) but is, rather, the enlightened player of the game, representing movement in both directions. Positive and negative are combined into non-duality. Echoing a Brechtian component of Boal's joker system, the joker in this Tantric system reminds us to not get caught up in destiny, or fixity, or roles. Humor is called for in all situations as a way of maintaining perspective. Marked with the number 0, the joker is conceived as the center of transformation around which all other positions (or, in tarot language, archetypal stations) move in the play of life; the remaining cards represent the doorways of transformation moving conceptually around the joker.

There is a longstanding connection between madman/lunatic and the fool/joker card in tarot decks. In older times, when freedom of speech was yet to come, lunatics were always entitled to express themselves freely, to say things that others could not, and sometimes their crazy insights were true. Their insanity acted, in part, as a sort as a shield or privilege. On the one hand, the fool or madman was unabashedly mocked and scorned; on the other hand, he was a vehicle for many profound ironies. In Shakespeare, for example, it is the Fool who speaks the most profound truth. In a reversal reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia, the Fool becomes both wiser and holier than the Pope! In the tarot deck, the fool/joker card represents this irreconcilable duality; it holds a space—a kind of empty space—within the panoply of potential roles, obligations, social proprieties in which nothing sticks, nothing remains, identity will not cohere but rather speaks 'crazy sense' from that extraordinary vantage point of nought—inchoate and everbecoming.


External References [links open in new window]

Fool and Joker cards
Andy's Playing Cards

Sources of the Symbolism in the Waite/Smith Fool Card
Tarot Passages

Pictoral Key to the Tarot - The Fool
by Arthur Edward Waite, 1910

History of the Fool card
Tarot Hermit

Tarot card games
Card Games Web Site