Tight Rope Walkers

What's the term for someone who walks on a tightrope?

And the answer: funambulist.        

Photo credit: Con Colleano (Life time: 1973), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. 

The word funambulist comes from the Latin words funis, meaning rope, and ambulare, meaning to walk. In ancient Rome, tightrope walking was a popular spectacle at public gatherings. Today funambulists can still be seen at circuses around the world.  

Putting the "fun" back in funambulists is easier said than done – oftentimes, a rope tied between two structures quite high off the ground isn't exactly a walk in the park. Yet, funambulists have been performing for crowds for millennia. In ancient Greece and Rome, tightrope walkers were revered, but their work wasn't considered to be a sport fit for the Olympic games. Instead, it was a popular source of entertainment.

Interestingly, in 5th century France, tightrope walking was banned anywhere near churches. And, since that's where most of the fairs were held, the high-octane activity was put on pause. However, it was not to last. Tightrope walking was picked back up as an entertaining aspect of multiple royal coronations, including that of Queen Isabeau in Paris and Edward VI in Westminster.  

One of the most famous funambulists of the 1700s was named Madame Saqui. Her performances often contained great fanfare such as fireworks – which was fitting, as she performed for world leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte. To celebrate the birth of Napoleon's heir, she walked between the towers of the Notre-Dame cathedral.

Today, tightrope walking is still well-enjoyed in circuses and by Guinness World Record challengers alike. Each traipse across the tight line seems to introduce new, daring challenges to the practice. Watch a funambulist in action below.


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