9 wild facts about the history of juggling

The word “juggler” usually conjures images of the circus, performers on street corners, or that one weird guy named Desmond Sunfire at the party last week. But – did you know that juggling has an ancient past?

Here are just some of the weird facts about juggling that not even Desmond would know.

1. The first casualty at the Battle of Hastings? A juggler.

The story goes that Taillefer, William the Conqueror’s court juggler, broke from the army’s ranks, raced to the middle of the battlefield, and manipulated his sword while taunting the Britons. He chucked his sword at the English enemies, wounding one of them, and promptly received an arrow through his head.

2. Stalin’s body-double got his start as a juggler.

When Felix Dadaev was a teenager, he attended school for circus and ballet. When he hit puberty, his genes defied him – his nose grew larger and his brow-line furrowed. His classmates started making fun of him, calling him “Mr. Stalin” due to his growing resemblance to the dictator. The government found out about this man and he was quickly cast as body-double for Josef Stalin – replacing the Soviet leader at dangerous or tedious events where he wouldn’t be asked to speak.

3. The first evidence of juggling is over 4,000 years old.

Juggling women can be found playing in murals at the 15th and 17th tombs at Beni Hasan in Egypt. Little is known about the Egyptian juggling tradition, but the drawings imply that they were pretty good – throwing and catching a number of balls in the air, sometimes with their hands crossed.

Sounds like a good show! Too bad these woman are long-since dead.

4. Jugglers have a Patron Saint.

Since the 12th century, jugglers have prayed to St Julian the Hospitaller for support and success. Julian built a hospital after accidentally murdering both his mother and father (a mistake that could be largely blamed on a pagan curse), and now presides over the spiritual well-being of carnival workers, jugglers, clowns, repentant murderers, and fiddle-players.

5. Roman jugglers as slaves in China.

The silk road opened up a huge market from China to the Roman Empire. The Chinese emperor seems to have enjoyed the entertainment in Rome, and frequently had jugglers imported to serve him.

6. Ivan the Terrible loved orgies. And jugglers.

Juggling | HeadStuff.org
A man fond of juggling and orgies.

At his Sloboda, Ivan the Terrible almost always had jugglers perform while getting it on at his wild sex parties. These performers, known as Skomorokhi, would frequently be joined on stage by a teetering Ivan who danced and sang and wore funny hats.

7. There are juggling rabbis in the Talmud. And they were pretty good.

According to this religious text, Shmuel could juggle eight glasses of wine without spilling a drop. He performed this feat for King Shapur of Babylon at the Water-Drawing Festival. Rabban Simon ben Gamliel juggled eight torches of gold at similar events.

8. The topless juggling women of Polynesia

When Captain Cook ventured to the island of Tonga in the 1700s, he was astonished to discover groups of women sitting in circles, tossing tui-tui nuts into the air with incredible speed. These women sang songs about their ancestors and competed to see who could keep the most nuts up the longest. This tradition is tied to an ancient legend – a way to appease the goddess of the underworld. If they did not juggle during the daytime, earthquakes would shake the island and demons would pluck out their eyes.

9. Mesoamerican jugglers meet the Pope in the 1500s.

Hernan Cortez brought treasures, slaves, and jugglers home with him when he returned to Spain after conquering Mexico. The jugglers he took back with him specialized in manipulating tree-trunks with their legs while lying on their backs. Their act was so fascinating to the public that these performers were invited to the Vatican for a command performance for the Pope himself.

Thom Wall’s book, Juggling – From Antiquity to the Middle Ages: The Forgotten History of Throwing and Catching can be found here.

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