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The Circus & Circles (a curious history)

The Circus & Circles (a curious history) 

Juggling originated in the temple as part of sacred and ritual practices.

A sphere, with its sacred geometry, implies the shape of planets, suns, moons & stars.

To the ancient Egyptian mind, a juggler was one who held the cosmos in balance, the world in her hands.

Ancient Egyptians considered juggling a meditative, even magical practice.  The 5,000 year old hieroglyph featured below, the oldest known representation of circus arts (depicting both juggling and partner acrobatics), resides in the Beni Hasan necropolis overlooking the Nile, its position indicating an association with funereal rites.  The rock cut Temple of Pakhet lies just to the south.  Pakhet was a popular Middle Kingdom lion-goddess (she who has great magic), a time of resurgence & hope in Dynastic Egypt culminating with Nefertiti.  We have forgotten this.

Seated Juggler Priestess / Greek Red Figure Alabastron, 480 b.c.e. (The Walters Art Museum where it is displayed gives the title: “Alabastron Depicting A Seated Woman and A Woman Walking to the Right Toward a Chair”)

The next time a juggler appears is 2,500 years later when the image of a seated female juggler becomes a popular motif in 4th & 5th century Greek vase art. The instrument of a priestess, what looks like a drum, the Kalathos, rests in front of her. There are no extant representations of males juggling during this time span. If the first 5,000 years of recorded juggling depicted only males, we would say that males “invented juggling.” Oddly, no such credit is given women in the current scholarship.

In the opening scene of Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes a parade for Athena involving female priestesses performing acrobatics on horseback with torches at sunset (circa 450 b.c.e.).  Ancient Amazons were the first to ride horseback and the only females to do so well into the Greco-Roman era. Men did not ride horses, much less know how to apply horseback riding to war, until the example of the Amazons and then they learned it to compete.  It is reasonable to hypothesize that as Goddess worship is extinguished across the Indo-European landscape during this time (last temple destroyed 520 c.e.), a form of it re-emerges in the circus.   

Concurrently, Xenophon’s Symposium (422 b.c.e.) gives us a tantalizing description of a female juggler performing for the assembled Greek men at the beginning of one of their famous drinking parties.  In addition to manipulating a dozen hoops at once, the juggler of the Symposium executes a series of front and back flips over a “bristling row of upright swords” until the spectators are in terror of an accident.

 

Xenophon reports, however, that “with the utmost coolness and without mishap the girl completed her performance.”  (Italics mine)  The “girl” of Xenophon’s account is more than a juggler, she is also an acrobat of exceptional skill.  The Egyptian jugglers are also depicted simultaneously performing partner acrobatics.

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Who is this mystical acrobat juggler?

 

 

And why does she take refuge in the circus now?

 

 

 

-Jen Taylor / spring 2013

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Egyptian Acrobat Priestesses / Middle Kingdom Hieroglyph 3,000 b.c.e.

 

 

 

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