The history of the swing is a complex and global one. Throughout its existence, it has alternated between play- and ritual-related functions.
The legendary origin of swinging can be traced back to the mythology of Ancient Egypt, in particular the deities Isis and Osiris.
From there, it crossed the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the ancient kingdom of Kalinga on the Indian Sea. It was in Hindustan, northern India, in the 13th century, that King Narasingha Deva I (reigned about 1238–1264) commissioned a portrait of himself swinging.
Much earlier, sometime in the 5th century, in the caves of Ajanta in Maharashtra, western India, the deity Nāga Irandati was painted on a swing.
From the port of Odisha, the swing spread to Southeast Asia, reaching the Nilotic societies in what are now Kenya, South Sudan, northern Tanzania and Uganda.
We also find it in the rituals, legends and vases of Classical Greece, where swinging was a highly ritualised activity that could only be carried out at certain times of the year and in specific circumstances.
According to Hyginius, a 1st-century Hispanic Latin writer, the swing was used in Greece as a magical object to counteract the harmful effects of curses. The ritual was practiced during the spring festivals known as ‘anthesterias’.
The swing had a similar association in China, where it was related to rituals of life and death. The Ku kin i shu t'u, a lost source written between the 3rd and the 5th centuries, explained how swinging was an activity practiced in the northern regions to improve agility.
These northern peoples may have been groups of Iranian origin, who were attacked and subdued by Qí Huán Gōng, Duke Huan of the Qi dynasty (齊桓公), in 664 BCE.
The swing first arrived in China between 722 and 481 BCE, a period Chinese historians refer to as the ‘Springs and Autumns’.
Over the centuries, Chinese sources emphasised the use of the swing during the Cold Food Festival, the Chinese equivalent of All Souls' Day. As the Cold Food Festival merged with the qīng míng (the Spring Festival) from the 6th century onwards, the swing also became associated with this latter celebration.
Around the year 1000, the sources describing the Cold Food Festival mention how the daughters of officials, while sitting or standing, pushed themselves back and forth on swings.
It was during the Tang dynasty, between the 7th and 10th centuries, that swinging became recognised as a pastime particularly enjoyed by women.
Emperor Xuánzōng (685–762) referred to it as the ‘semi-immortal game’. By the end of the Song dynasty (960–1279), the swing was a regular feature of Chinese social and cultural life.
In Europe, the swing survived for centuries in the margins of medieval manuscripts, often associated with the world of acrobatics. It was probably brought to the continent through Central Asia by Indo-Iranian communities.
For a long time, the swing was seen as being something used by the sick. Initially recommended for the treatment of phlegmatic fevers, gout and kidney pains, by the 18th century, it was used in attempts to cure melancholia, monomania, seasickness and sexual impotence (it was often found in brothels).
Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted The Swing at a time when they enjoyed enormous popularity. Many archival sources recording the decoration of palaces and gardens include descriptions of swings.
For example, wallpaper often included them as motifs, as did hand fans, card sets and tea services. In many cases, the designs reproduced famous paintings or Chinese models. The intellectual and commercial ferment of the 18th century meant that wealthy European elites developed a love for swings.
Fragonard's painting is perhaps the best-known example of a fashion that spread throughout the world.
This article was written by Professor Javier Moscoso, Research Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Institute of History of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).