Were they a cult, or like court jesters, athletes playing around, a cradle for Vaudeville or what?
It is not possible to determine beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt whether the juggling depicted has ritual religious significance, or is primarily athletic.
What is this Beni Hassan thing anyway? I've browsed through the references to Ancient Egyptian jugglers in many articles on juggling history. For many moons I've craved a deeper understanding of the ancient Egyptian juggler so often cited in brief histories of juggling. No doubt you've also asked, "Were they a cult, or like court jesters, or athletes just playing around or a cradle for Vaudeville or what?"
With good fortune the Brooklyn Museum has one of the most highly acclaimed Egyptology departments in the country, and Dr. Bianchi, associate curator, accommodatingly helped me clarify the matter. The results were astounding.
First, Beni Hassan is a geographic location which includes 150 tombs. The tomb we seek is the 15th. It is of the middle kingdom period of about 1994-1781 B.C. The prince entombed there is unknown.
Each tomb is divided into registers, and the references to juggling are on the third. The context seems significant. The third register starts with weavers, then girl acrobats, then jugglers, all dressed as dancers (characterized by the braided hair with a ball attached.)
The first juggler seems to be doing a two ball multiplex (closer examination reveals the hands empty), the second apparently a three ball cascade, and the third what seems to be an exaggerated Mills Mess without the third ball.
The following four women are suggested to be playing "Pick-a-Back Ball." Two girls on their partners' backs throw balls to each other, and the loser must take a partner on their backs. The six women after that are configured two in the center, in the same position as the "Pick-a-Backers," while the others clap to keep time. This goes into the fourth register, which is farmers and farm animals.
Note the inscriptions above the human figures. Those are similar to balloon dialogues over comic strips. Unfortunately, ours fell off. This is where it gets complicated, and, on the bright side, more interesting. It is not possible to determine beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt whether the juggling depicted has ritual religious significance, or is primarily athletic. The subject is left largely to conjecture.
Ball play was quite popular. Young people are represented mostly in the early and middle kingdom period, adults in the later. Balls were usually leather stuffed with shredded reeds, three to nine centimeters in diameter. Others were made of wood, clay fayence or plaited palm leaves. Often such balls have been found in the graves of children. Pictures of ball players are extremely rare
According to Dr. Bianchi, "In tomb 15, the prince is looking on to things he enjoyed in life that he wishes to take to the next world. The fact that jugglers are represented in a tomb suggests religious significance. There is an analogy between balls and circular mirrors, as round things were used to represent solar objects, birth and death."
Ms. Diane Guzman, Brooklyn Museum librarian, said even the most mundane events in ancient Egypt were performed ritually -- another point in favor of the spiritualists.
Six anthropologists have written extensively on the subject of ball play in ancient Egypt. Their interpretations which the case for both spiritual and athletic interpretation of the juggling on the tomb wall. C.E. Devries, R.W. Henderson and S. Mender favor the ritual interpretation. They draw an analogy to Osiris and Isis, and believe the round objects may represent seeds juggled as Order over Chaos, guaranteeing fertile soil and good crop harvests (represented in the fourth register). Weaving could represent order from the crops. The second register finishes with sculpture, possibly relating to a fertility deity.
Aigner and E. Mehl argue that since jugglers weren't represented on a very large scale, and since it was represented as practiced by youth in the early and middle periods, and since there is no legible writing above the figures, it was more possibly just a gymnastic exercise popular in the same sense as playing jacks today. The sixth anthropologist is Wolfgang Decker. He has written two books on the subject, one of which cities the possibility of both views.
As Chronicler of Juggling Superlatives I would like to enlist the help of each and every juggler in a new project. Since juggling is evidently a "timeless" human endeavor, I am curious to know just how jugglers classify their activity, do you consider it sport, art, religion, ritual or what? The results of this survey may help us attain a more accurate understanding of the ancient Egyptian juggler. I have arranged with Dr. Bianchi for the result of such a massive extrapolation to be included as a ethnographic parallel of juggling to compare with other historical knowledge of the activity.
In addition, perhaps it would be prudent to take measures to safeguard against future misinterpretation of 20th century jugglers. I am compiling information for a time capsule to be sealed in the 1990s. Please send me information stating who and where you are, how and why you juggle, and in what ways you use the art to improve yourself and your environment.