The Myth of Circus Origins
On the way back from work one day last November I noticed that a circus tent had been erected in a large parking lot near my home. It caught my attention because I couldn’t remember the last time that I had seen or heard of a circus tent in Attica yet alone in the suburbs of Athens. It started me wondering about the history of the circus generally. I wanted to find out how old it was and what specifically defines the circus.
Most of the literature repeats again and again that the ‘modern circus’ originates in 1768 with Philip Astley’s trick horse riding circus in London (Hippisley Coxe 1956, Saxon 1975), but digging a bit deeper, this is clearly untrue. The only aspect of circus that Astley originated was a standardized ring size as the main performance space. Neither the name ‘circus’ itself’ nor the circus of antiquity or the contemporary circus limit themselves to this ‘ring’. The true history of the circus is a much more complex proposition.
All sources however agree that one unambiguous meaning of the word circus is an “entertainment or spectacle usually consisting of trained animal acts and exhibitions of human skill and daring.” (Encyclopedia Britannica) Circus in this sense has been around for at least 4000 years! The images below show circus arts dating from around 2686 BC in Egypt and 2000 BC in China.
The whole story of the circus turns out to be quite complex, everyone thinks they know what a circus is but they don’t agree on what it is that really defines it. Peoples opinions have also been influenced by books and movies about the circus. On closer inspection it turns out that although most people describe the same characteristics of a circus namely, acrobatics, juggling, flying trapeze and trained animal performances, all taking place in a ring inside a tent. What varies is where and when these various traditions belong in the long history of the circus. Not one, but rather a combination of characteristics, are what define the circus.
Today if someone stops and thinks about those combinations he/she will notice that they are clearly present from antiquity through to the most advanced high tech performances, such as Cirque du Soleil in 2014.
The evidence as to what is and what is not “circus” is not just a matter of the literature. I realized while watching the performance of the small traveling Circo Italiano di Roma in my neighborhood that I had, right before my eyes, echoes of all that history. Each characteristic of that small circus, and each act performed said something about how circus has developed over the millennia. The Circo di Roma was a traveling circus, performed in a tent and with a ring as the performance area. The acts included a middle eastern fire eating belly dancer, Chinese type jugglers, acrobats and aerial performances. Clowns echoed the traditions of medieval jesters.
The word ‘circus’ first appears in English in the 14th Century where it is derived from the Roman. The Roman word (possibly mistranslated as – kirkos) was derived from the Ancient ( and modern) Greek krikos – meaning ring. Another origin explanation for the word is that it comes from Greek mythology as the name of the Goddess of magic -Circe, who was the daughter of Helios the sun god. Circe ( Gr pronounced-Kirki) is best known in Greek mythology as the goddess who turned Odysseus crew into pigs so as to keep him with her. Many of the early Roman ‘circus’ performances were dedicated to the sun God Helios. The name connects the origins of circus with both Roman times and as far back as Homer. (Isidore of Seville in Wright A. 2008)
If one looks at where circus performances took place historically then you would see that circuses have performed in a great variety of venues.
In ancient China the town or village citizens would practice acrobatics, juggling or balancing acts during the winter and summer seasons as a form of pastime and in the fall would hold competitions in a field to see who was the most impressive.
In ancient Egypt everybody danced, though the upper classes did not perform in public. The common folk and professional groups performed in the streets, mansion courtyards or palace halls. Dance (the ancient versions of the belly dance) were amongst the skilled entertainments. Sometimes acrobats and jugglers would accompany the dancers at events.
The Minoans were well known for their bull leaping performances and at the neighboring island of Santorini the locals were known for their trained dolphins which took children for rides on their backs and performed tricks. (Mayor A. 1986, Willemsen D. 2014)
In Ancient Greece acrobats and jugglers performed in town squares, courtyards or at palace halls.
In Rome and Byzantium acrobats, jugglers and tight rope walkers performed in hippodromes and arenas.
For about 500 years of circus’s 4000 documented years of existence, circuses usually also involved trained animals in the performances.
In Medieval Europe acrobats, jugglers and trained animals acts travelled from town to town or village in carts and sometimes would even perform on their carts.
In England in the early 18th century traveling menageries (wagons containing wild, exotica animals) appeared, and in the mid to late 18th century Philip Asltey introduced the circular ring in his purpose built theater building for shows of horsemanship.
In the mid 19th century in the United States the well known big canvas tent was introduced for the traveling circus of acrobats, jugglers and menageries.
In the 21st century trained animal performances have been banned in most parts of the world and the circus is returning to where it started of with acrobats, jugglers and people performing feats of strength and tremendous skill. To the human specteclar, today very sophisticated technology is sometimes used to heighten the drama of performaces.
Circus today might still be a traveling show, but now it is not only held in rings or tents but more often then not on a theater stage or in the streets.
Having now looked quite a lot deeper into the whole sweep of circus history, it is time to put an end to this very wide spread myth that the modern or any other form of circus originated in 1768 in London. Performance content has always been at the heart of the meaning of circus and not the spaces in which the acts are performed. The true origins of the circus lie in antiquity and it is time to put all other origin stories to rest.