The Ancient Origins of the Jester

history of jester

Keying Up – The Court Jester (1879) by William Merritt Chase

How far back in history can we find the presence of the jester? This is a somewhat difficult (if not impossible) question to answer. While we have accounts of jesters, or similar figures (e.g. clowns), from many cultures in the world, extending far back in time, there is uncertainty as to when jesters first emerged. Perhaps they are a defining characteristic of the human species; thus the role of the jester, or jester-like behaviour, could have originated tens of thousands of years ago, or possibly even millions of years ago when humour may have first evolved.

Early jesters were popular in ancient Egypt and entertained Egyptian pharaohs. The first accounts of the jester that historians report goes back to the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. Pharaohs ruled in the Fifth Dynasty from the early 25th century BC until the mid-24th century BC – a period of about 150 years. Pharaohs employed Pygmies – people who lived south of Egypt and who were short in stature – as the first jesters in history. They were asked to be dancers and entertainers. 

During Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty (c. 2323-2150 BC) an official wrote to the Pharaoh Neferkere to let him know he’d found a dancing dwarf. The Pharaoh’s response is the first instance known to us of a monarch delighting in a jester: “Come northward to the court immediately; thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee … to rejoice and gladden the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkere, who lives forever.”

The profession of aluzinnu provides the possibility that the jester may have been a recognisable role in ancient Mesopotamia (see this paper from Maddalena Rumor on the subject). It seems the term first occurred in the 20th century BC, with other words appearing next to it being related to laughter and humour, e.g. musihhu (“clown” – “he who brings to laugh”). Letters from the first half of the second millennium BC concern the attire of the aluzinnu and describe his relationship with the palace. There is mention of 60 elaborate hats/turbans and 35 pairs of boots or gaiters, reminiscent of the clothes and shoes worn by European court jesters. It appears the aluzinnu was provided with “eccentric clothes and accessories” by the palace administration. 

In Mari (located in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Syria), the aluzinni seems to have worked under the supervision of the nar-gal or chief musician, and in the company of the huppu (acrobat). This resonates with the widespread association of music with jesters, including those in China (as we will see below). There is also a text in which the aluzinnu’s role is apparently as an “intellectual entertainer who enters into a playful dialogue with the scholars of the Assyrian court and their literary products”. This may resemble the skits and stories we have from China, India, and the Middle East, where the jester mocks the self-importance and even hypocrisy of the religious or literary class.

Beatrice K. Otto offers a fascinating history of the jester in her book Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World (2001). For example, she quotes Sima Xiangru (ca. 179-117 BC), who in Rhapsody on the Shanglin Park writes:

Then come jesters, musicians and trained dwarfs,

And singing girls from the land of Ti-ti,

To delight the ear and eye

And bring mirth to the mind.

As we can see, these ancient entertainers display the kind of behaviour and role typical of the jester, which I explicated in an essay on DMT trickster/jester entities: these figures are meant to lift the spirits of the people. You Meng, also commonly known as Performer Meng or Jester Meng, was a court musician and entertainer in the service of King Zhuang of Chu (reigned 613-591 BC). Otto points out that in ancient China, you (singled out as a jester character) meant somebody who would use humour to mock and joke. One description of this jester is as follows: “The you was also allowed a certain privilege, that is, his ‘words were without offence’ . . . but the you could not offer his remonstrances in earnest, he had to make use of jokes, songs and dance.”

Ritual clowns, similar to jesters in many ways, are commonly depicted in Classic Maya art. Rather than appearing in large sculptures, they are usually depicted on small portable objects, such as figurines or vases. They tend to be grotesquely ugly characters, often with animal attributes. Related to this, I have suggested that the European court jester is therianthropic; the protrusions of the jester cap represent animal features: horns or ears. As I argue, the jester displays its essential characteristics and function through this human-animal hybrid form, much like the tricksters of folklore and mythology found in diverse cultures. Interestingly, Classic Maya clowns would frequently impersonate particular animals, such as spider monkeys, which are widely identified with humour in ancient and contemporary Mesoamerica. Typically, ritual Maya clowns did not simply don animal headdresses but wore a mask and suit – in effect, becoming the beast. 

In Classic Maya art, ritual clowns often appear dancing with fans and rattles, suggesting they were performers. Their other defining characteristics include drunkenness and wanton sexuality. Still earlier ritual clowns appear in the ceramic art of Colima, dating to the Protoclassic period (100 BC to 300 AD). These West Mexican sculptures portray rotund ithyphallic characters, animal-masked dancers, and other probable clowns.

The ritual buffoons of Mesoamerica have frequently been compared to the Pueblo clowns of the contemporary American southwest. The absurd nature of the latter helps to provide insights into social perceptions since they “reveal what the Pueblos find serious or absurd, baffling or wrong, fearful or comical about life and about other people,” says Alfonso Ortiz, a Native American cultural anthropologist. Maya ritual clowns served a similar function, often satirising established authority and social norms. The Mesoamericanist and Mayanist Karl Taube notes that:

through inversion and antisocial behavior, these characters sharply define what is correct and what is not. Like the contrast of light and shadow, the clowns provide definition and depth to important social values and behavior. Together with the monumental portrayals of rulers, they serve as a foil for understanding Classic Maya conceptions of rulership and authority. Simply put, whereas the monuments illustrate how a public figure should behave, the clowns demonstrate how one should not. This contrast is only in the sense of the ideal, not the real. Like the early Colonial Baldzam [clowns or buffoons] and the characters of contemporary Tzotzil festivals, the ancient clowns may have called attention to actual vices found with positions of authority.

The baldzam mentioned above are early Colonial Yucatec clowns, described by Diego López de Cogolludo – a Spanish Franciscan historian of colonial Yucatán – as “clever in their mottoes and jokes, that they say to their mayors and judged”. The jokes of the baldzam were often burlesque. As social commentators, they exposed scandals and misdeeds through their dramas and jesting. Similar to the Feast of Fools in Europe, in which we find role reversal, in times of transition (or during the liminal period) in the calendar of the postclassic Yucatec Maya society, forms of symbolic inversion are common, chaos and flux pervade, and there is a negation of social differentiation. In this festive period of antistructure or ritual rebellion, established authority is often repudiated or even mocked. 

This 5-day Uayeb period, in which the Yucatec New Year Festival takes place, helped to (at least, temporarily) create an experience of solidarity within the community. Ceremonial performers would convene in the central square and included musicians, comedians, dancers, contortionists, and jumpers. The comedians, or ah paal dzamoob, were probably like the baldzam described by Cogolludo. However, to the ancient Maya, the clowns were sacred; they “seem to come from and embody the chaotic time, or timelessness, of creation,” says Taube. For instance, the Quichean Patzca clowns emerged out of the Underworld just before the first dawning while, similarly, the characters of Tzotzil Carnival are frequently identified with the primordial period before the sun. The presence of these sacred clowns may have thus had a powerful rejuvenating effect on the ancient Maya people.

We can also find antecedents of the European court jester in the jesters and comic actors of ancient Rome. In ancient Rome, balatros (or balatrones) were professional jesters or baffoons who were paid for their jests, and the tables of the wealthy were open to them for the sake of the amusement they offered. There are differing theories as to the etymology of the term balatro (or balatrone). For example, in Horace’s The Satires, we find the character Servilius Balatro, who was a buffoon. Others have objected to this account, with some suggesting balatro may be connected with balare, “to bleat like a sheep” (hence to speak in a silly manner), or with blatero, a busy-body.

Several Latin terms used in medieval references to jesters – as well as numerous church condemnations of them (the comics are often seen as a threat to authority) – include scurrae, mimi, or histriones, and these originally referred either to amusing hangers-on or the comic actors and entertainers of ancient Rome. Just as there is no clear distinction between the terms ‘actor’ and ‘jester’ in Chinese, so the Latin terms could merge the two. If there was no professional jester available in ancient Rome, the comic actors would fulfil his functions, sometimes even bearing a striking physical resemblance to what we could consider a medieval and Renaissance archetypal jester. These entertainers were periodically ousted for their outspokenness, so many of them would take to the road and seek out new audiences and greater freedom. Otto writes, “Successive waves of such wandering comics may well have laid the foundations for medieval and Renaissance jesterdom, possibly contributing to the rising tide of folly worship that swept across the Continent from the late Middle Ages.”

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the title minstrel (“little servant”) was the name given to a wide range of entertainers, including singers, musicians, jugglers, tumblers, magicians, and jesters. In the 12th century, the title of follus or “fool” began to be mentioned in documents. A fool named Roland le Pettour was given 30 acres of land by King Henry II when he retired, on condition that he return to the royal court every year on Christmas day to “leap, whistle and fart”. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.

By the 13th century, some talented jesters were beginning to achieve fame. Just as a modern-day stand-up comedian might begin his or her career on the pub and club circuit, so a would-be jester could make it big if he or she was lucky enough to be spotted. In Europe and India, the most eminent jesters were household names, as top-class comedians are today, and stories about their jokes and tricks would circulate freely. A dwarf-jester named Nai Teh (Mr Little) was employed at the court of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851-68). He trained in athletic and gymnastic tricks and was presented to the king as a comedian and a buffoon. The recruiting of jesters was informal and meritocratic.

Otto highlights the characteristic traits and diverse backgrounds of the jester:

A description of Rabelais’s Panurge encompasses many of the jester’s characteristics: “Irreverent, libertine, self-indulgent, witty, clever, roguish, he is the fool as court jester, the fool as companion, the fool as goad to the wise and challenge to the virtuous, the fool as critic of the world.” He could be juggler, confidant, scapegoat, prophet, and counselor all in one. If we follow his family tree along its many branches we encounter musicians and actors, acrobats and poets, dwarfs, hunchbacks, tricksters, madmen, and mountebanks.

She adds:

The court jester is a universal phenomenon. He crops up in every court worth its salt in medieval and Renaissance Europe, in China, India, Japan, Russia, America and Africa. A cavalcade of jesters tumble across centuries and continents, and one could circle the globe tracing their footsteps. But to China the laurels. China has undoubtedly the longest, richest, and most thoroughly documented history of court jesters. From Twisty Pole and Baldy Chunyu to Moving Bucket and Newly Polished Mirror, it boasts perhaps more of the brightest stars in the jester firmament than any other country, spanning a far wider segment of time. The jester’s decline began with the rise of the stage actor as the Chinese theater became fully established during the Yuan dynasty. In many respects actors seem to have taken up the jester’s baton not only in entertaining their patrons, but also in offering criticism and advice no less clear for being couched in wit. Perhaps only in ancient Rome did jesters and actors overlap so much.

Shakespeare describes the universality of the jester in Twelfth Night: “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere,” and Desiderius Erasmus notes the curious relationship between jesters and rulers in Praise of Folly (1511): “We have all seen how an appropriate and well-timed joke can sometimes influence even grim tyrants. . . . The most violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though these often made them the butt of open insults.”

Compared with those of China, the abundance of jesters in Europe was relatively short-lived; yet for the time they lasted, they had a strong influence on court life. The jester died out as a court institution in about the 16th or 17th century in China and the early 18th century in Europe. Nonetheless, domestic jesters were still employed in homes less grand than those of kings. In Persia, the autocrat Shah Naseredin (r. 1848-96) had a jester called Karim Shir’ei, whose name means “opium addict” but also implies someone of lazy or sleepy demeanour. Karim Shir’ei would ridicule the whole court, including the shah. Once the shah asked whether there was a shortage of food, and the jester said, “Yes, I see Your Majesty is eating only five times a day.”

We also find examples of the court jester in the ritual clowns of African and Native American tribes whose mocking, corrective, and unbridled topsy-turvy antics were documented by 20th-century anthropologists. These are not strictly ‘court jesters’ since they do not usually serve one master, serving instead the whole tribe or village. Also, their licence to mock is often limited to specific periods, such as festivals or rituals. However, some tribes have had permanently appointed jesters, such as the African Wolof jesters and the Sioux “contrary” or heyoka

The court jester, while at home in diverse cultures, would always have the role of evoking laughter in others. Otto states:

Above all he used humor, whether in the form of wit, puns, riddles, doggerel verse, songs, capering antics, or nonsensical babble, and jesters were usually also musical or poetic or acrobatic, and sometimes all three. Some physical difference from the norm was common whether it was in being a dwarf or hunchback or in having a gawky or gangly physique or a loose-limbed agility—his movements might be clumsy or nimble, but they should be somehow exaggerated or unusual. There is a Ming dynasty description of a jester that captures this, for besides always hitting the mark with his gilded tongue, he would “unleash his body and fling his limbs around, drumming his feet and flapping his tongue; he was steeped in wisdom.”

Equally important as the role of the entertainer was the jester’s function as adviser and critic. “This is what distinguishes him from a pure entertainer who would juggle batons, swallow swords, or strum on a lute or a clown who would play the fool simply to amuse people,” writes Otto. For instance, the jesters of many African monarchs would not just make jokes or sing the praises of the ruler. They were not mere flatterers; they also had licence to make sharp criticisms. Otto writes:

We have seen numerous examples of a jester advising or correcting his monarch and the recorded instances are particularly abundant in China. The Chinese records give us an idea of just how effective a jester could be in tempering the ruler’s excesses, for the occasions when his words of warning were either ignored or punished are heavily outnumbered by those when he was heeded and even rewarded.

The foolishness ascribed to jesters often relates to the fact that it is in their nature to speak their minds, irrespective of the consequences, which may entail the loss of liberty, their livelihood, and sometimes even their lives. The jester’s humour served vital functions, not just in terms of alleviating distress and increasing mirth during times of duress but also for its capacity to soothe tensions. They would insert humorous statements during heated discussions, thereby preventing unnecessary confrontations from occurring. As Otto points out:

He could soften the blow of a critical comment [with humour] in a way that prevented a dignified personage from losing face. Humor is the great defuser of tense situations. Among the Murngin tribe of Australia it is the duty of the clown to act outrageously, ludicrously imitating a fight if men begin to quarrel. In making them laugh at him, he distracts their attention from their own fight and dispels their aggression.

Moreover, the jester’s odd appearance and levity are not judgemental; it is not coming from a ‘holier than thou’ place, which an earnest adverse may be guilty of in their corrective remarks. The jester can point out a master’s folly by agreeing with it and taking it to its logical extreme, bringing its stupidity into focus, rather than contradicting the king outright. Jesters were cherished rather than tolerated. Even when they were biting in their attacks, there is usually an undercurrent of good-heartedness and understanding to their words (which I find very reminiscent of British humour; when ‘taking the piss’ out of someone, the harsher the mocking often means the closer the bond). Yet the jester is not just on the side of the ruler. He is also perceived as being on the side of the people.

So far I have presented a short history of the universality and diversity of jesters, with these figures first emerging, as history tells us, in ancient Egypt. But how ancient really are jesters? The first written account of them does not mean they have only existed since that time, of course. But to discuss the origins of the jester, we do need to describe what we mean by a jester exactly. According to Otto, in an interview with the University of Chicago Press:

Despite the visual archetype of the jester that Westerners carry around with them—the chap wearing the cap and bells—his distinguishing characteristics aren’t so much to do with costume. In some places he perhaps occasionally wore some kind of outfit that would mark him out from other entertainers, but by and large it’s his qualities and function that make him different.” 

But what is it that defines a jester? Otto, in the various quotes above, has delineated some of these features, such as his role as entertainer, adviser, and critic specifically to a ruler or person of authority. She adds that “there’s a great deal of overlap between jesters and the acrobats, actors, musicians, storytellers, poets, jugglers and so on who could liven up the life of a big shot.” In addition to just being an entertainer, the jester developed an intimate relationship with those at the top; he enjoyed the freedom to advise, criticise, act as a confidant, and address the king-pin without the formality that other members of his entourage might observe. The tendency to offer opinions or criticisms with wit and humour distinguished jesters from most ministers or advisers. They could also get away with speaking truth to power by not threatening power. Ott further observes:

And of course they could be further distinguished by an array of physical or mental abnormalities—dwarfs and hunchbacks seem to have been prime candidates for the jester’s role in many parts of the world, from the Chinese to the Aztec courts. In terms of mental quirks, while madness—real or feigned—has occasionally enjoyed a certain respect in the Islamic world, as well as in China, Russia, and elsewhere, medieval Europe appears to have made a bigger deal out of it.

It is certainly possible that civilisations prior to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia had jesters, in terms of individuals who possessed the traits and roles detailed above. It is a mystery, though, as to how far back exactly the origin of the jester extends. If we exclude the intimate relationship of the jester to a ruler or person in authority, jesters could be extremely old. Otto highlights some traits of the jester: “tricksterish, mischievous, and irreverent”, and I think this human tendency – to jest – is universal; it’s in all of us. In terms of individuals designated with epitomising and adopting these traits, as a role or function in a society, this figure may have certainly preceded ancient Mesopotamia. Might the jester have emerged when other key roles in human culture emerged, such as the shaman? The earliest evidence, in the form of cave art, suggests that shamans existed 40,000 years ago. Shamans, however, could be older than this, as could jesters. 

There is much crossover between jesters, clowns, and tricksters. Nonetheless, in Fools Are Everywhere, Otto makes the following distinction between jesters and tricksters:

The distinction between jester and trickster lies in the fact that the trickster is a completely free entity, not affiliated with any particular person in authority. In addition – and this may be the most significant difference – he is generally less discerning than the jester in choosing the victims of his pranks and wit. Jesters are often guided in their mockery by a certain kindliness that prevents their treating a friendly old farmer in the same way as an avaricious cardinal or a venal magistrate, and their mockery is often intended to show up a vice of some sort. The trickster, on the other hand, rarely has scruples about cheating anybody for fun or gain. The jester is usually aware of the effect he can have and frequently uses his talents to help others, cause merriment, give advice, or defuse a perilous situation. It is perhaps this more ethical input, together with his close relationship to the king, that distinguishes him from the boundless trickster.

Moreover, tricksters tend to feature as characters or archetypes in stories and myths, whereas jesters and clowns tend to have real-life roles. Despite these differences, we could still say that what ties together jesters, fools, clowns, and tricksters is their prankish, mocking, silly, mischievous, humorous, and merry-making nature. They have a tendency to disrupt norms and social order for comic effect.

There is no way to know with certainty when humour evolved relative to language, although it would appear that sophisticated humour must have succeeded language. The credible range for the origins of language lands between a few hundred thousand years to about 2-4 million years ago. Many researchers tend to date the origins of language to coincide with the first significant increase in human brain size about two million years ago. When tickled, the higher primates (humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) all display laughter-like behaviour. Captive and wild apes, particularly chimpanzees, also display playful teasing behaviour, such as in the form of play and mock chase.

W.F. Fry dates the “rudimentary elements of contemporary humor” to 6.5 million years ago, a figure that represents the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and chimpanzees. However, this misses the last common ancestor of humans and orangutans, which is approximately 14 million years old. This means the rudimentary origins of laughter could be at least 14 million years old. Joseph Polimeni and Jeffrey P. Reiss state:

Nicely captured in Frans De Waal’s (1982) phrase “chimpanzee politics,” primate life is characterized by constant negotiations between empathic and aggressive tendencies. Grooming engenders pleasurable feelings that countervail aggressive tendencies. But with language replacing grooming, what mitigates aggressive tendencies between lesser-related individuals? Humor seems to inject positive feelings while hierarchal competition and other minor social quarrels are being worked out. Humor can’t control pernicious disputes but for the more mundane disagreements, it diminishes the risk of a contentious issue deteriorating to violence.

Language also allowed humour to complexify, which could then serve further useful functions. “Clowns (or other funny people) could represent “humor specialists,” evolved to reduce tense social situations through humorous injections,” write Polimeni and Reiss. Jester-like behaviour, in the form of distinctly human humour – such as mockery, jokes, pranks, dancing, and odd gestures – could have preceded the emergence of language. But the ability to speak is what would’ve really allowed the role and function of the jester to flourish since so much of humour depends on it. The garb associated with jesters, clowns, and fools around the world would also only have appeared when humans began diversifying the clothes they wore, with different garments and paraphernalia distinguishing various roles and functions in society. Nevertheless, ancient humans may have still decided to make themselves appear silly or odd prior to this time with various accoutrements, in order to jest and generate laughter. 

While the origins of the jester remain unknown, the importance of this ancient and perennial figure can be widely appreciated. Jesters are an essential part of any healthy society. In the 21st century, they can help enliven and improve both the business world and the political arena by being permitted to speak the truth and point out stupidity with impunity. Related to this point, I leave you with these remarks from Otto:

I guess we’ll always need jesters or jester types because there’s always going to be a lot that deserves to be mocked or cut down to size—until we either lose our ability to laugh, or the world becomes miraculously devoid of daftness, dullness, and corruption. Looking at the record so far, it’ll take the extinction of the human race for that to happen, so I don’t see jesters going out of business soon, and it’ll be a sad and dangerous day if they do. They have a very strong role to play even in democratic societies, since those are far from perfect. And in totalitarian states my impression is that jesterlike humor is quite hard to suppress because it’s part of the survival mechanism—it just goes underground and acquires a sharper edge.

So all in all, the jester is not just a historical curio, but a dynamic element of human society.

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