A History of Juggling

Andrew Conway, <conway@juggling.org>

from a post to rec.juggling
September 2, 1994

Philosophers for millenia have argued over the definition of "man". [Sorry, but the word "man" here includes woman, too. Philosophers are a sexist bunch.] A featherless biped? No, that includes plucked chickens. A tool using animal? No, that includes chimps and sea otters. I propose that we should consider man to be "the juggling animal" as no other species has managed to invent the three ball cascade. This would of course imply that any person who does not juggle is in some sense sub-human, but most of the readers of rec.juggling have probably noticed this already.

According to Karl-Heinz Zeithen's book "4,000 Years of Juggling" (soon to be reissued by Brian Dube' as "4,008 Years of Juggling"), the first recorded evidence of toss juggling is in Egyptian tomb paintings dating back (surprise!) 4,000 years. They show several Egyptians standing sideways, as Egyptians are wont to do, and tossing balls in the air. One figure has crossed arms and appears to be doing a two ball Mills Mess, though this is clearly impossible as Steve Mills was not born for another 3,970 years.

The Talmud contains a reference to a Rabbi who juggled a large number of balls - unfortunately I neglected to bring a copy on this trip, so I can't locate the reference. In any case, there may have been some divine intervention here, so it is doubtful if his performance would be allowable in an International Jugglers Association numbers championship.

On to the heady days of the Roman Empire. Probably the best source of information about juggling under the Caesars (for those of us with a Helen Mirren fetish) is the movie "Caligula". In this we find that not only were naked fire torch passers common on the streets of ancient Rome, but also that they used Dube' torches. The Byzantine empress Theodora was a stage performer in her youth. She did not juggle, but her act would have fitted right in to a "Best of Club Renegade" show.

The hero Cu-Cuchulain (?sp) of prehistoric Ireland is recorded in "The Tain" as being able to "juggle nine apples with never more than one in his hand". Interesting that even in prehistoric Ireland the numbers juggling competition had a rule against multiplex.

Before progressing to the modern era we should mention "The Juggler of Notre Dame". He was a street performer who fell on hard times, and in desperation entered a monastery as a novice. One day he was alone in the chapel when he noticed that the statue of the Virgin Mary looked sad, so he took out his props and began to juggle for it - at least, that is what he told the Brother Superior who walked in in the middle of a half-pirouette out of triple spin back crosses, though more than likely he had just thought that the high-ceilinged chapel was a great practice space. The Brother Superior was about to banish him from the order for impiety when they both noticed that the Blessed Virgin was smiling. Soon all the other monks were ordered to juggle in chapel every day. After a few weeks none of them could do half-pirouettes out of triple spin back crosses, so they gave it up as a bad job, excommunicated the juggler and took to making best selling albums of gregorian chants instead.

The golden age of Vaudeville took jugglers out of the streets, circuses and jails of Europe and America and placed them in theatres. Under controlled stage conditions a variety of tricks were possible for the first time - precision bicycle wheel rim rolling, numbers plate juggling and complex balance tricks became popular. Rubber balls allowed bounce juggling and ball spinning. There was a fashion for heavyweight balances as well. Balancing a cannon on your face may sound stupid, but it sure beats musical farting, an act that went down very big with our great-grandparents.

The greatest juggler of his day was Enrico Rastelli. He juggled ten balls and was way too cool to make jokes about.

Vaudeville was killed by the movies, and juggling went almost underground until the International Jugglers Association was founded in 1947, when it remained underground for another twenty years. Then a man called Hovey Burgess started teaching everyone he met to juggle, with the determination of a cigarette marketing campaign. His students began to teach others, and a vast wave of juggling knowledge spread across the USA resulting in several dozen jugglers. College students discovered that not only was street performing an easier way to make money than working at McDonalds, but you also get laid more often. A book called "Juggling for the Complete Klutz" was published by a man called "The Editors of the Klutz Press". This sold two million copies and had the unfortunate effect that a lot of complete klutzes learned how to juggle.

Some time in the early 1980s, a similar juggling boom began to roll across Europe. It has now surpassed the American juggling scene, in quantity at least. More recently, the mathematical analysis of juggling has led to the discovery of many new juggling patterns which were too boring for anyone to discover before.

A History of Juggling / Juggling Papers / jis@juggling.org