A Brief History of Juggling

A great deal of information about juggling has been preserved in the past 4000 years. Unfortunately, most of it has been in bits and fragments and it is often too difficult to piece them together to get an accurate account. Throughout much of history, jugglers were considered outcasts. Although it was a popular form of entertainment, the performers themselves were often not socially accepted. As a result, many references to juggling were made but until recently few were made in detail. Rather than densely listing dates and names, this chapter will give a rough outline of the history of juggling and a few of the more interesting examples.

The oldest known depiction of juggling was found in the Beni-Hassan tombs from the middle-kingdom of the ancient Egyptian civilization. These women jugglers were found amongst acrobats and dancers in one of the crypt's wall paintings. The drawing itself was made about 2000 years before the birth of Christ. After the Beni-Hassan tombs there is a gap of about 1500 years before evidence of juggling reappears in the art of the Greeks. It is difficult to believe that it did not exist in some form during this time. It is much more likely that if any depictions have survived they are simply obscure and unknown to those with a particular interest in juggling. However, between the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. many jugglers began appearing in Greek art, usually as pottery decoration. Juggling was considered a form of recreation by the Greeks and many of its practitioners were women.

From the fourth century A. D. to the present we have a fairly solid line of information. Figurines, pottery, wall-reliefs, and references from ancient writings, including sixteen of Martial's poems, all show that juggling was widespread. The Romans were fond of manipulations with weapons and shields. One Roman, Tagatus Ursus (53-117 A. D.), claimed on his own grave inscription to have been the first to juggle with glass balls.

Juggling was an acceptable diversion until the decline of the Roman Empire, after which it fell into disgrace. There it remained until the end of the Middle Ages. The references to juggling were few and scornful from the fourth to the tenth century Paradoxically, during the same time jugglers appeared in numerous religious paintings and as illustrations in bibles. At this time juggling was usually presented with magic tricks and other skills. The low social standing of these performers prevented it from continuing as a form of recreation. Although they appeared frequently in Christian art, these wandering 'Gleemen' were often accused of having questionable morals or even of witchcraft, the latter of which they were probably innocent.

With the end of the Middle Ages juggling slowly began regaining its respectability. Pierre Gringoire (1475-1538) was known as the 'King of Jugglers' and this title does not seem to have been derogatory. In 1528 the emperor of Hindustan described in his diary a group of jugglers working with wooden rings and in the same year Christoph Weiditz came across jugglers amongst the Indians of Mexico. He made some pen and ink drawings, one of which shows an antipodist. Antipodism was often found in Aztec art and various forms of juggling were practiced amongst many Indians throughout the Americas. It seems that some Indian cultures used it as part of their religious ceremonies, the actual juggling being performed only by the shaman.

Back in Europe, the Town Council of Nuremburg engaged a full time 'Ball-Master' in the 1680, who not only demonstrated his own abilities but also taught the town youths to juggle and to walk the tightrope. Indeed, juggling and rope-walking were often performed together at that time as they are in many circuses today. In the mid-1700's, 'L'incomparable Dupuis' juggled apples while walking a rope, finishing his routine by catching them on three forks - one in each hand and one in his mouth.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, juggling began to develop into the form we know today, as circus and variety became the most popular forms of entertainment. Most of what we know about the performers has been handed down to us in the form of show-bills, many of which obviously exaggerated the feats of the artistes.

Around 1820 the brothers Mooty and Medua Samme appeared for the first time in Europe. These two East Indians worked with Chinese devil-sticks and performed oriental ball manipulation. They were so successful that 'Far East' acts soon became the. fashion of the day. There was a great deal of confusion between American and Asian Indians. Many Europeans added to this confusion by billing themselves as being from India, Japan, or China. One such performer, the German Carl Rappo, billed himself as an Indian and performed oriental manipulations as well as feats of strength with iron balls. One of the genuine Oriental performers was the Burmese Moung-Toon who worked only with his feet and received 'outstanding reviews throughout Europe. The first true Japanese troupe came to the West in 1870 and included the juggler Awata Katsnoshin who performed traditional Japanese ball and stick play from which modern ball manipulation evolved.

By the beginning of this century most jugglers were working in circuses or variety theatres which gave them more freedom to specialize since they no longer needed to perform one-man shows. When variety died and circuses became rarer due to the growth of cinema and the invention of the television, jugglers still managed to find a stage or a street-corner to work on. Since the 1950's juggling has again become a popular form of recreation and perhaps it will remain popular for a while. One thing is certain, juggling remains as hypnotic today as it was forty centuries ago.

From "Juggling, the Art and its Artists", by Karl-Heinz Ziethen and Andrew Allen, Berlin 1985. ISBN 3-9801140-1-5. This is a wonderful selection of juggling photographs from Ziethen's collection, with linking text by Allen. It is available from Juggling Capitol and other vendors.

A Brief History of Juggling / Juggling Information Service / jis@juggling.org
© 1996 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.