The History of Juggling 

The History of Juggling 

Juggling, as an art, has been in existence in different cultures throughout history. Well, the beginning of this amazing art is not certain, but there are depictions found in ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. Medieval and modern societies have not been left behind in cultivating a rich history of juggling. 

With juggling being an interesting activity for thousands of people, there are 4000 years worth of preserved information.

Read through this article and get an in-depth understanding of juggling’s history. 

A Brief History of Juggling  

Most of the juggling information is stored in fragments. Putting these fragments together to get an accurate account has become a challenging task. 

Although juggling was a popular form of entertainment, jugglers were not socially accepted. For this reason, they were considered outcasts. Many references to juggling have been made, but they were not documented until recently.

Juggling was an acceptable diversion during the Roman empire until the decline of the empire when the practice fell into disgrace. There is no reference to the practice until the middle ages.

From the fourth to the tenth century, there were few and scornful references to juggling. Paradoxically, during that period, jugglers appeared in several religious paintings and as illustrations in the bible.

During this period, juggling was practiced by performers together with magic tricks and other skills. The inclusion of other acts for entertainment was because jugglers have a low social ranking. The low social standing prevented juggling from passing as a recreation. 

Juggling started regaining its respect with the end of the middle ages. Pierre Gringoire (1475- 1538) was referred to as the “king of jugglers”, and the title was not derogatory.

The Emperor of Hindustan in 1528 described a group of jugglers working with wooden rings.

In the same year, Christoph Weiditz made a pen and ink drawing after coming across jugglers, amongst Indians in Mexico. One of the drawings shows an antipodist. Indians in America practiced various forms of juggling. Some Indian cultures used juggling as part of religious ceremonies.

In Europe, Juggling was also regaining its respectful place. The town council of Nuremberg engaged a full-time master In 1680 who not only showcased his skills but also trained the town youths on juggling and walking on a tightrope. By the 19th century, juggling started developing in the form we know it today. 

For a better understanding, you must understand the history of juggling in the following cultures:

Ancient Egypt 

The history of juggling in ancient Egypt as evidenced by wall paintings during the Eleventh Egypt Dynasty. This painting was made on Tomb 15’s wall in the Beni Hasan cemetery complex owned by Baqet III. Baqet III was the provincial governor of present-day Minya, previously referred to as Menat Khufu. 

Female dancers and acrobats are seen in this painting impressively juggling up to three balls. One of the girls is painted juggling with her arms crossed. 

A different painting is drawn of four girls playing a juggling game. One pair of the girls carry the other. The girls being carried make throwing and catching balls look easy. This painting becomes a magnificent piece of documentary art. 

Arthur Watson explains the rules of the throw and catches juggling game. In 1907, Arthur wrote for The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist. He suggested that the player who dropped the ball while actively playing had to switch with the one carrying them. This competitive engagement made the game more interesting, growing its fame. 

People over the years have tried to explain the meaning of these Beni Hasan paintings. One of these people is Dr. Robert Biachi, a Brooklyn Museum associate curator.

Dr. Robrt suggests that these paintings are an analogy between balls and circular mirrors. He explains further that the round things used in the paintings represent birth and death. The round balls also represent solar objects. 


Ancient China

Ancient China adds more content to the history of juggling. This content is about jugglers in China’s Ming Dynasty in the Eastern Han Dynasty Zhengzhou Henan province. Chinese literature shows that toss juggling was taken as a form of well-structured art in ancient China. 

Let us have a closer look at individual jugglers from ancient China. 

Xiong Yiliao ( Chinese pinyin )

One of the prominent jugglers who amazed the masses in ancient China was Xióng Yiliáo. He was a Chu warrior in King Zhuang’s army. King Zhuang of Chu ruled between 613 and 591 BC, which was a crucial Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. 

The form of juggling practiced by Xióng Yiliáo, according to ancient Chinese annals, was nòngwán. This breathtaking art involved throwing several objects up and down the trick was catching these objects midair without dropping even a single one. 

Xióng Yiliáo showed his prowess in juggling during a battle between Chu and Song states in 603 BC. He stepped out between the armies and began throwing and catching nine balls. This impressive performance led to the Chu army winning the battle after softening the hearts of Song warriors. 

Xu Wugui backs this incidence up by writing in Chapter 24 of the Zhuangzi that, “Yiliao of Shinan juggled balls, and the conflict between the two states was ended.” 

 Lanzi ( Chinese pinyin )

Another juggler who builds on ancient China’s juggling history is Lanzi. Lanzi lived during Duke Yuan of Song’s reign which was between 531 and 517 BC. He juggled in the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. 

Chapter 8 of the Liezi, an ancient collection of Daoist sayings, talks about Lanzi’s performance. This passage says that the form of juggling practiced by Lanzi was Jian. 

The art involved juggling a straight, double-edged sword used in Spring and Autumn. 

Lanzi being a general term referring to itinerant entertainers in pre-Qin and Han times saw Jian rise to fame and prominence. 

Roman Empire 

Rome has archaeological depictions that continue to build on the history of juggling. Archaeological depictions of juggling in the historical Roman Empire include a monument. The monument in the Museum of Roman Civilization has a distinct inscription to Septumia Spica.

Two relief carvings of a man are made showing him tossing juggling five balls as he manipulates the other two using his feet.  

There is a similar relief carving that signals the beginning of a circus game. The carving is in the Maffei’s Museum Veronense. This monumental carving shows a boy tossing juggling five balls with ease.

The history of juggling in the Roman Empire is not only in carvings. Some Roman writers have documented juggling by mentioning accomplished jugglers. One of these writers is Marcus Manilius, who writes about jugglers in an astrological calendar. 

Marcus writes that a juggler’s “quick hands supplied a constant stream of balls to his feet with which he played and ball after ball poured over the limbs of his body.”

There is also a second-century AD epitaph that honors a juggler named Ursus. Unlike toss jugglers “pilarii”, Ursus was a “pile crepus”. That means he was performing body bounces and catches using a single ball.

In the inscription, Ursus is described as the first Roman citizen to play with a glass ball. The crowds approve him in the baths of Trajan, Titus, Agrippa, and the baths of Nero.

Another archaeologist, Murray McClellan, described a millefiori glass ball that was on display in the Penn Museum. The glass ball may be the one used in a juggling game known as trigon, which is probably the same game described in the Ursus inscription.

People did not comprehensively understand the rules of the trigon game. However, the game seemed to involve three players who were in each corner of a triangle. The three players would throw multiple balls back and forth as fast as possible. They would catch the balls with one hand, and toss them back with the other.

The history of juggling continues to grow with more people writing about juggling. A Roman officer, Sidonius Apollinaris, added his insight to the pool of juggling recorded information. In his letters, the officer wrote that he loved juggling three or four balls to his satisfaction and entertaining his companions.

Poets also came to play with the involvement of Martial who was a prominent Roman poet. He describes a juggler known as Agathinus, who performed a shield manipulation routine. In his description, Martial describes Agathinus as a master juggler with overwhelming skills. 

With his swift limbs, Agathinus would hurl the shield up in the air and then catch it on his foot, head, back, and on his fingertips. He did this skillfully although the stage was slippery with perfume and the wind blowing hard.

Martial writes,” It seems as though he is trying to avoid the shield, which is seeking his body of its own accord. To keep the shield in constant motion is child’s play for Agathinus; to drop it would take practice.”

Another individual who documented content about juggling is Tractate Sukkah of the Talmud. Sukkah writes about Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (10BC to 70 AD) who was another skillful juggler. He could take eight fireballs and toss them in the air and catch one and throw one, and they wouldn’t touch each other.

The early church also plays a role in documenting the history of juggling. Chrysostom, a father in the early church, mentions ancient knife juggling. It was 450 AD when this father witnessed jugglers “tossing up knives in rapid succession into the air and catching them by the handle.”

Medieval Europe 

We now cross over to the Middle Ages, where juggling was one of the forms of entertainment. Jugglers practiced and perfected their art before performing in front of an audience. The representations of middle age juggling are in illuminated manuscripts which you can easily find in the British Museum. 

In one of the manuscripts, Cotton MS. Tib. C. vi. Folio 30v, from a book in the eleventh century on the life of Christ, an attendant of King David, is seen juggling three knives with his left hand and three balls with his right hand.

Additionally, William the Conqueror’s minstrel Taillefer is also recorded performing a simple juggling trick using his sword. Sword throwing and catching continued to become famous during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Taillefer is seen throwing his sword and catching it. He then kills an English soldier using the same sword.

To add to this juggling documentation, The Boke of Saint Albans, which was published in England in 1486, mentions a “Neverthriving of Jugglers” as included in the list of collective nouns.

Epic sagas and legends from medieval folklore also mention juggling. Cuchulainn, an Irish hero, is described as “keeping nine apples, his shield, and his sword in the air, that none of them fell to the ground.”

A different intriguing art of juggling is seen in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. People see a juggler by the name of Tulchinne juggling nine swords, nine silver shields, and nine apples. These art performances forge a way to the next juggling generation.  

Modern Juggling   

The juggling culture has evolved significantly since the 1980s. The culture revolves around local clubs and organizations, shows, magazines, special events, and internet forums. You also find juggling competitions, juggling conventions, and video sharing websites that promote art.

Celebrities are highly praised and admired in the modern world. When such celebrities show interest and exceptional skills in juggling, the art gets better visibility. These celebrity jugglers are entertaining performers, convention organizers, have an exciting personality, and they enjoy a strong online presence.

Today, several cities in the world have juggling clubs where people show their prowess to the world. You also get an opportunity to learn from other jugglers, thereby improving your skills. 

Colleges and universities also promote juggling and circus skills. These learning institutions have come up with juggling communities where talented people come together to build each other. The jugglers then push each other to the next level of their performance. 

The art has a date set aside to help boost the visibility and recognition of juggling. The day is referred to as The World Juggling Day and is usually on the Saturday nearest to June 17th. 

People have become more aware of the importance of safety in juggling. Consequently, extreme props, such as machetes and chainsaws, have been dropped. Jugglers still find their unique way of maintaining the thrill of juggling without these dangerous objects. 

Flaming torches that can be put out using fire extinguishers are becoming jugglers’ preferred props. This has, in turn, improved their safety in the field with fans relishing in the amusement of the acts.

Beginners are now using balls and clubs to keep their audiences entertained. Rings also come into play since they impact little or no pain to the jugglers and have little weight for ease in juggling. 

Juggling is an art that has amused people over the years. Jugglers from all over the world have been using their skills to pave the way for future performers. These jugglers have brought their unique talents to this awesome field, raising the level of imagination and creativity. 

Today, juggling has regained its respectful position, and it is a popular form of entertainment globally.