The Roles of Clowns throughout History –
While clowns are the highlight of many parades, circuses and carnivals, the history of clowning goes back much further. From ancient Rome and medieval times to the North American Indians, the history of clowning around can be seen throughout the ages. Today, we recognize clowns as over-the-top figures with bright make-up, crazy clothes and large foot wear; however, they didn’t always have this appearance. Understanding the history of clowns may lead you to a new appreciation of these important figures in history.
The First Clown Sightings
The history of clowns dates back to 2,400 B.C., as the first recording of clowns was found in ancient hieroglyphics in the Fifth dynasty of Egypt. It was thought that clowns served a socio-religious role as the priest often played the clown role as well. Jesters were found in 300 B.C. China under the reign of Emperor Shih Huang-Ti. In 100 AD India, clowns acted as interpreters, translating the Prakrit language to the general population.
Ancient Greece and Rome
The history of clowns in ancient Greece led to the popularization of clowns in shows. The clowns of ancient Greece were often bald headed and wore additional padding in order to appear large and chubby. Performing in plays, they would poke fun at the serious villains of the play and throw peanuts at the audience. Roman clowns also made their appearances in dramas. The Roman mime would wear a pointed hat and act out different scenes within the play, providing clown entertainment for the audience.
Middle Ages/Renaissance Times
Throughout medieval history, fools and jesters can be seen entertaining royal courts and town citizens. Their job was much more than simply collecting laughs. These ancient clowns were used to reinforce religious values as well as display cultural values to their audience. They were a catalyst for a change in social culture. In the 14th Century, the juggler and fool appeared in the tarot cards, depicting a new start and the ability to leave a safe place to discover new opportunities. This gave clowns an almost magical aura.
Native American Clowns
The history of clowns in North America is dramatically different than the history portrayed in Rome. Several North American native tribes used clowns to play a sacred function, often revealing the truth about a given situation in a comical way. Some tribes thought laughter opened up their spirits to the Gods. Clowns were also used to keep order amongst the Indians during social gatherings. Clowns, known as contraries in the Cheyenne tribe, would make tribe members laugh by doing everything contrary to the traditional way, including riding horses backwards and walking on their hands.
Although the circus originated in ancient Egypt and Rome, the first modern circus was introduced in 1768 by Philip Astley in England. The first clown act and was so popular that Astley hired more clowns. It then became an anticipated part of the circus for the next century. Many famous circus clowns made an appearance in circus shows across the country. Circus clowns served no higher purpose other than making the audience laugh and helping people to forget about their stress.
Through the ages, the types of clowns and the roles they have portrayed have changed significantly from culture to culture. Not only are they an important part of North American culture, but the rich history of clowning has a place in cultures around the world.