The art of clowning has existed for thousands of years. A pygmy clown performed as a jester in the court of Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty about 2500 B.C. Court jesters have performed in China since 1818 B.C. Throughout history most cultures have had clowns.
When Cortez conquered the Aztec Nation in 1520 A.D. he discovered Montezuma’s court included jesters similar to those in Europe. Aztec fools, dwarf clowns, and hunchbacked buffoons were among the treasures Cortez took back to Pope Clement VII. Most Native American tribes had some type of clown character. These clowns played an important role in the social and religious life of the tribe, and in some cases were believed to be able to cure certain diseases.
Clowns who performed as court jesters were given great freedom of speech. Often they were the only one to speak out against the ruler’s ideas, and through their humor were able to affect policy. In about 300 BC Chinese emperor Shih Huang-Ti oversaw the building of the Great Wall of China. Thousands of laborers were killed during its construction. He planned to have the wall painted which would have resulted in thousands more dying. His jester, Yu Sze, was the only one who dared criticize his plan. Yu Sze jokingly convinced him to abandon his plan. Yu Sze is remembered today as a Chinese national hero.
One of the most famous of the European court jesters was Nasir Ed Din. One day the king glimpsed himself and a mirror, and saddened at how old he looked, started crying. The other members of the court decided they better cry as well. When the king stopped crying, everyone else stopped crying as well, except Nasir Ed Din. When the king asked Nasir why he was still crying, he replied, “Sire, you looked at yourself in the mirror but for a moment and you cried. I have to look at you all the time.”
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