The History of Juggling: Cascading Our Way Through Time

A woman juggling four balls in a mountainous region
This is what juggling is all about!

After our recent juggling three clubs guide, we decided to look deep into the past to figure out where all this stuff came from.

To juggle isn’t to do something new fangled and radical. Humans have been doing so for thousands of years.

And tracing it all back to the past shows we have more in common with our ancestors than we tend to imagine. Innit.

The Long and Cascading History of Juggling

TL;DR—Juggling has been around for at least 4,000+ years. It likely originated during pre-history, from exactly where we'll probably never know! 

The first recorded signs of juggling date back to ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome.

Quite when the activity started no one knows, but at some point (arguably in pre-history) someone figured out the basic cascade (three ball toss).

And thousands of years later we’re still here, chucking stuff up into the air and catching it.

That’s a pretty radical discovery. Someone was smart enough to work out the concept and had the patience to see it through.

See, not everyone deep in the past was a knuckle-dragging moron! Quite the opposite. And that’s worth celebrating.

Juggling in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian jugglers
Ancient Egyptian jugglers.

On close inspection above you’ll notice there are some ancient Egyptians partaking in toss juggling.

These images were found in an ancient tomb belonging to Baqet III, a governor during the final years of the Eleventh Dynasty of Egypt (circa 2000 BCE).

Female ancient Egyptian jugglers engaging in a game

This is the earliest depiction of juggling available to humanity (barring any remarkable archaeological discoveries in the future). 

This means the artwork is from around 4,000 years ago. Which is, like, quite a long time ago.

Juggling in Ancient China

There are many references to juggling in ancient Chinese literature, too, in the Spring and Autumn period of China (between 771 and 476 BCE).

Juggling was already very popular by then. From our research, we found a gentleman called Xiong Yiliao who lived around 600 BCE.

He indulged in nòngwán, which is about chucking several things at once. Without dropping them, of course.

Apparently, Yiliao could juggle nine balls simultaneously and would use this skill in battle. Legend has it this was enough to freak out the enemy, who would flee in a state of panic.

Other tales from China note Lanzi, who could juggle seven swords at once. There’s a Ming Dynasty woodcut bit of art of this right here.

Lanzi juggling seven swords from the Ming Dynasty

It’s possible Lanzi was actually a general term for entertainers back then. As this display of juggling could earn performers rewards such as gold and silk.

Juggling in Ancient Greece

Archaeological expeditions have discovered many examples of juggling across Greece. It was common all across the country in the deep and distant past.

Research shows performers would set out there stalls and then do their thing at parties.

Artwork lines the likes of Greek Etruscan tomb reliefs, coins, and vases. And there’s a terracotta statue in Thebes shows a man balancing balls on his extremities.

One vase from 430 BCE shows a woman sitting and juggling two balls.

Again, what we can infer from this is there was enough juggling going on in ancient Greece for it to warrant significant cultural space on everyday items.

Juggling in Ancient Rome

The wonders of archaeology, eh? Once again, thanks to digging and cataloguing, there are plenty of examples of juggling during the mighty days of Rome.

Ancient monuments are adorned with men juggling five balls, Roman writers such as Marcus Manilius noted of entertainers, and there’s an epitaph to a legendary juggler called Ursus.

Other Roman scholars and philosophers were mighty impressed by the skill.

This incudes famous rhetorician Quintilian, a poet called Martial, and an army officer called Sionius Apollinaris.

Juggling in Medieval Times

The times moved on, but chucking stuff about remained popular.

As you can imagine, court jesters were masters at entertaining crowds with the likes of juggling. Throughout the medieval period it was a common thing.

Performers were called gleemen (wandering minstrels etc.), although religious clerics would sneer down at these sorts and consider them to have the powers of witchcraft.

Regardless, jugglers would often perform in marketplaces to keep the peasant scumbags entertained.

It’s around this time the word “juggle” came to be. It comes from the Middle English “jogelen”, the definition of which is to perform and entertain.

In French this was “jogler”, to joke or jest. Oui!

The First Circuses Through to the Present Day

As the centuries ticked by, so juggling became more “mainstream” (if you please).

In 1680 Nuremberg, officials hired a ball master to teach locals how to juggle. An indication of the sociable, inclusive nature of the activity.

But other people noted the potential for earnings with all that shizzles. In 1768, the English equestrian and inventor Philip Astley (1742-1816) opened the first modern circus.

He soon hired jugglers to entertain crowds with their amazing skills. By 1793 the first juggling acts turned up in American performances.

It was all a big success. By the late 19th century, Vaudeville performers often included juggling in their sets.

For example, Buster Keaton would add innovative variations of juggling involving slapstick errors or unlikely props.

However, there was a notable dip in popularity for jugglers in the early 20th century when movies and radio shook up the entertainment industry.

As you may have guessed, juggling doesn’t work very well on the radio.

But it can translate well to film! One of the big stars of the era was Italy’s Enrico Rastelli (1896-1931), who was already a legend before he was 30.

He added real flair and showmanship to his performances, with impressive physical feats and routine complexity.

Rastelli suddenly died of anemia aged only 34, but his funeral in Bergamo was attended by thousands of people.

His influence carries on to this day. And it’s thanks to his, and many other performers’, efforts that juggling has remained a popular pastime in this era of fancy technology.

As we cover further below, there are plenty of contemporary YouTubers who document juggling and how it can be a part of your life.

So, it’s not going anywhere! We may all be living on Mars in the future, but we bet there’ll be some entertainer up there juggling even despite the dodgy gravitational forces.

The Mathematical Soul of Juggling

Juggling is often in use to test mathematics, but maths also helps us to understand juggling. If that makes sense.

Heck, mathematics isn’t our thing. We’re useless at it (unfortunately), thusly we recommend watching university professor Burkard Polster’s brilliantly insightful video above.

On the maths stuff, American mathematician Claude Shannon (1916-2001) once built a juggling robot!

He also developed a juggling theorem. This relates to the time the balls spend in the air: (F+D)H=(V+D)N.

What does that mean? Well, broken down it’s:

  • F: The time a ball spends in the air.
  • D: The time a ball spends in a hand/time a hand is full.
  • V: The time a hand has no ball in it.
  • N: How many balls you’re juggling (the number).
  • H: The number of hands in use (as in, usually two).

Again, we’re not going to pretend we understand any of that. Totally out of our league this stuff, but it’s nice to clarify it all, eh?

Modern Jugglers and All That Jazz

If you’re bloody well good enough, then you can become a professional juggler. Take American performance artist Michael Moschen here.

In 1990 he received a Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. The Genius Grant, for:

“Extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

Moschen has provided TED talks on his creative thought processes to go about achieving a total masterclass like The Triangle.

He’s a genius contact juggler, able to manipulate objects and his environment (plus sounds) to create radical performances.

He’s even been in films such as Labyrinth (1986). Moschen stood behind David Bowie during the below scene to perform a neat trick.

Moschen couldn’t see anything, but managed to do the trick after a few takes.

Many other modern jugglers have taken to YouTube to teach people around the world to take up the activity.

Taylor Glenn (of Taylor Tries) is one such example. A videographer by day, she’s also a part-time juggling educator. Go check out her epic videos! NOW!!

Why Should You Juggle?

If you’re wondering why anyone bothers with all of this, or think it’s just about showing off, then think again!

The meditative and therapeutic nature of juggling is all-important.

There have been numerous scientific studies into the health benefits. Our esteemed editor, Mr. Wapojif, actually did a feature on this for Lifehack back in 2014: Learn How to Juggle and Improve Your Brain’s Power.

If you juggle, you can expect to:

  • Reduce stress levels.
  • Reduce depression.
  • Reduce anxiety.
  • Improve hand-eye coordination.
  • Boost brain development/health.
  • Calm yourself down.
  • Just bloody well enjoy yourself.

Even though it’s good exercise, juggling for a few minutes can take the edge off a stressful day or situation.

It’s just damn good fun. You don’t need to be a Moschen level genius to enjoy it, you just need three balls, the basic cascade, and a few beginner tricks.

So, we highly recommend it from a mental health perspective.

How to Overcome Juggling Hurdles

When you’re first learning to juggle it can be tough. Your brain just doesn’t understand what’s going on.

You need to build your muscle memory out and memorise patterns.

We’re learning some new tricks at the moment (such as the shower) and were reminded of how tricky it can be to master new tricks.

It takes determination, perseverance, skill, and stamina. Intelligence, too! You need to work out how to do seemingly impossible flicks and throws. Your timing is essential.

You will drop the balls a lot. It’s inevitable and part of the process. Accept that and you’ll be on the path to glory.

For when you get it and you, say, master the basic juggling cascade it’s a magnificent feeling of accomplishment.

Final Praise For History’s Jugglers

We’ll finish by returning to the historical point of much of this post.

Juggling all means someone (or a group of people) worked out all of the above at some point. We reckons during pre-history, surely.

And such a realisation reminds us of Cody Cassidy’s Who Ate The First Oyster—some of history’s firsts we’ll never know. Such details are tantalisingly out of reach, yet we can make educated assumptions about where juggling came from.

From the scant ancient records we have it’s clear juggling has been around for millennia.

As such, we must doff our caps (even though we don’t own any) to the remarkable ingenuity of whoever it was thousands of years ago who figured it all out.

All these years on people like us can get enormous gratification from the activity. Mercy buckets to you, another of history’s lost geniuses.

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