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Cup-and-Balls-art - 8/8/18


"A brief history of The Cup and Balls, (The oldest trick in the book)" by T.H.L. Eidiard an Gobihainn.


NOTE: See also the files: Cards-a-Dice-art, games-msg, Tarot-Crd-Ruls-art, The-Fool-n-SP-art, jesters-msg, Knucklebones-art, Brothel-Games-art.





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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



A brief history of

The Cup and Balls,

(The oldest trick in the book)


by T.H.L. Eidiard an Gobihainn

C.E., C.W., A.P.F., O.G.R.(x2)O.R.C


A presentation in print and practice for the enjoyment of the select few and general audiences.


It is said that the cup and balls, in its basic format is perhaps the oldest trick in the book. The book though is a misnomer as it has traveled around the globe long before the book itself ever existed.


Unlike many pieces of documentation for arts and sciences I will describe the rich history of this trick, its components, a possible migration route, but in fact not how the trick itself is done. This is keeping with a long tradition of magicians to never reveal how a trick actually works.


One of the first recorded mentioning of the cup and bass is still debated by some historians. Some say that the image from Tomb 15 at Beni Hasan(1)  in Egypt, dated to circa 2500bc. It is argued to depict the first known record of the cup and balls being performed at a banquet for a nobleman. Others say they arte baking bread or some other activity. I present below the image to let the reader judge for them selves.


(Painting by S.W. Clarke,1912- excerpt)


One of the earliest written reference we have to the cups and balls is in a letter from Seneca the Younger to Lucilius sometime around 45 - 60 AD. There is also a reference to its performance in the writings of Alciphron of Athens, around 250 AD."(2)


The Turkish word 'hokkabâz' comes from 'hokka' and 'baz', two Persian words meaning 'cup' or 'pot', and 'one who plays' respectively. There were also artists called 'yuvarlakbaz' (player with rounds), 'yumurtabaz' (player with eggs) and 'mührebaz' (player with seals) who performed similar tricks. Down the centuries ever since the ancient Greeks, such tricks have been so popular that painters like Bosch, Bruegel, Daumier and others have depicted them on canvas and in engravings. (3)



Two hokkabâz performing

But serious representations of the cups and balls in art really began to flourish in the Fifteenth Century. Some of the representations were in "Books of Hours," and others were in "Books of the Planets."
This first image is from a book of the planets -- the planet is Luna -- the moon -- which symbolizes folly. Joseph of Ulm included a cups and balls conjuror in his 1404 drawing, and which is preserved in the Tuebingen University library in Germany. Hundreds of wood­cuts, prints, and paintings show it being performed through the years. Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1460-1516) made the most famous painting. As his magician diverts the audience a thief takes advantage of the moment to lift an aston­ished spectator's purse. Joseph of Ulm included a cups and balls performer in a drawing show­ing the influences of the moon. His 1405 manu­script is in the library of the University of Tuebingen.(4)
This 16th century illustration from Peter Breughel the Elder shows another conjurer performing the cups and balls. Truly, he thought this was folly.


The following woodcut by an unknown artist, from  Wirkungen der Planeten or "the effects of the planets," Notice once more the detail of the conjurer performing the cups and balls. This woodcut is dated about 1470. (5)



The quintessential painting of a performer deceiving his audience with the cups and balls was painted by Hieronymus Bosch. Alas, the original has disappeared; however, many copies are available for us to look at.



We have laid a foundation for the historical performance of the cup and balls, now we can investigate the actual materials used.



It appears that all cups used were of locally available materials, whether that would be wood, ceramic or metal. Much depended on the ability of the conjurer to pay for such extravagances. The cups are one of the central performers of the act.



The balls are a different story than the cups. Mostly cork was used that had been flame blackened then rolled until round. Sometimes cloth balls were used instead in those areas where cork was not readily available. Many times what was used was dictated solely by price and availability.(6)


Ancillary tools:

There are usually one or two ancillary tools that I will mention but not go into great detail describing. Their use seemed to be based not just upon availability but also cultural and personal preferences. Looking at the woodcuts it is easy to note that the magicians of the Middle East preferred to perform at floor level while their European counterparts preferred tables to work from.  The wand or rod again is an extra piece of equipment that may or may not be used in the act. Much of it depends not on the culture, but the preferences of the performer.


Much of the components of this trick are simple, easy to find, and inexpensive. The most difficult part of this trick is in the performance. Once you have seen the cup and balls preformed, you are never quite the same.




(1)In Middle Egypt about 25 km south of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Minya" title="Al Minya">al Minya, on the east bank of the Nile


(2) Wayne Kawamoto- Cups and Balls - Not in the Pyramids?



(3) Prof. Dr. Metin And "Cups and balls" Skylife, November 2006


(4) Dr. C. Matthew McMahon -A Short History of Card Conjuring and Magic up to the 19th Century (Originally published in another form in the book, "Panorama of Magic" by Milbourne Christopher (New York, Dover Publications: 1962))


(5) Mr.Bill Palmer, M.I.M.C. , The Cup and Ball Museum, Austin, Texas


(6) Volkmann, Kurt (tr. J. B. Mussey), Conjurers of the Sixteenth Century, The Sphinx, vol.52(1953), citing Histoire macaronique de Merlin Coccaie, Paris, 1859 being french translationof Merlini Coccaji Maccaronices Libri XVII (1517) by Teofilio Folengo (1491-1544) which, in translated form, reads, in part : "Boccal took from his pouch some rags sewn together, dirtier than a cook's apron. He took his gibeciere, which hung from his belt on the right side. Having set up trestles, he laid a table-top across, posted himself behind it like a banker preparing to count money, and adroitly pulled up the sleeves of his jerkin and shirt, like a washerwoman washing laundry by the water and showing off her plump arms to the sailors. From his gibeciere he took three or five copper goblets and I know not how many little balls, somewhat bigger than pil's). He began his tricks. His swift hand was a marvel, moving so skillfully over and under these little balls that three looked like fifty. Now he would put one cup over the other, now he would pull them apart, turning them bottom upward, and on top he would put sometimes three, sometimes five of the little balls, and suddenly only one would be visible."); see also Cups & Balls in 15th and 16th century Art by the same author and translator.



Copyright 2018 by Bryian Winner. <eidiard at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>


Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org