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Biblical Archaeology Review 48:1, Spring 2022

Then and Now: Acrobats

The desire to be entertained has been a constant throughout human history: to forget the world—if only for a moment—and enjoy something truly wonderful. Acrobats are one of the earliest attested forms of professional entertainers.

The earliest evidence for trained acrobats comes from the ancient city of Ebla in Syria, dating to c. 2320 B.C.E.; they are also mentioned several centuries later in the royal archives at Mari, along the Euphrates. Known as huppû, these entertainers performed for the king and the royal court during special events and festivals. There is no documentation for female huppû, so it appears the profession was a male-only occupation. The performances were so admired, the huppû would even travel with the king on foreign visits.

Almost a millennium later, across the Mediterranean on the island of Crete, the Minoans had their own acrobatic tradition. The bull-leaping frescoes from Knossos depict male and female acrobats vaulting over the animal’s back. Whether Minoans did this for religious reasons, entertainment, or both, is still debated. Centuries later, the ancient Greeks took a similar interest in acrobats, and, indeed, the word acrobat is Greek for “to walk on tiptoe,” or “to climb up.” Much like their earlier Syrian counterparts, Greek acrobats were considered entertainers and would often perform at weddings, religious festivals, and funerals.a

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