In modern times, funerals are a very serious black-tie affair where people come to mourn over their deceased loved ones. But for the ancient Sumerians and Greeks, some funerals were turned into athletic competitions played in honor of the recently deceased. However, people die every day. These competitions were only played for some of the most important leaders in society. They would also be played in honor of dead soldiers, civic heroes, and politicians.
Players in the funeral games believed that if they succeeded in these sports, they might win the favor of the spirit of the person who died. These games were similar to The Olympics, which were originally played in honor of Zeus. The winners would take away a crown wreath made out of olive branches. They would also get something made of metal that was useful, like a pot or kettle. Eventually, this transitioned into the modern-day equivalent of earning a gold, silver, or bronze medal.
Anyone who has ever seen the movie Gladiator from the year 2000 already knows about the ancient sport of the Gladiator Games. Prisoners were forced to become fighters called gladiators, who had to fight one another to death. Men would train in a gladiator camp, and became skilled in combat. Popular fighters could become celebrities, and crowds of fans would show up to cheer them on, just like modern-day professional athletes. After achieving a certain level of success, a gladiator may eventually earn a ticket to freedom.
Contrary to what you may have learned in history class, there were actually female gladiators, too. Rather than being prisoners who were forced to fight, some women decided to join because they wanted to be part of the glory of being famous. They were often there as a token female, and were not always fighting to the death. However, some female slaves were used as bait during other colosseum games, where they were killed by wild animals.
When most people think about sports in Hawaii, they think about surfing. However, ancient Hawaiians also used their mountains for fun, too. Papa Holua means “slide into the pit”. This was a game where they used a wooden sled to slide or surf down the side of a volcano.
Obviously, you can’t slide down a volcano with active molten lava. But it’s still very dangerous, which is why the game was eventually banned. Today, there has been a modern resurgence of people constructing sleds to slide down a volcano once again. This looks a lot like sledding down a snowy hill, except that there is molten lava nearby.
Pretty much everyone has heard of boxing, since it’s still a popular sport today. Its origins are traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, from the Sumerians. There are relief paintings dating from the third or second millennium BCE. In these ancient paintings, we see two men bare-fisted, bending their arms and standing in a stance ready to fight.
The Minoans seem to be the first civilization to use boxing gloves to protect the fighter’s hands. During the 23rd Olympics in 688 BCE, boxing was played, and the fighters had hand protection. Over the years, it has continued to evolve into what we see today, with very little having changed since ancient times.
This next competition is so over-the-top, it’s hard to fathom it exists today. In order to play Naumachia, the Roman Colosseum was filled up with water. Then, live-sized warships sailed through the colosseum to recreate famous naval battles from Roman history. However, instead of other historic reenactments, these ships actually did attack one another and sink. People died, even though this was a pretend battle. By the end of the fight, the ships that survived were painted red, and reused later.
The first recorded Naumachia game was given by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. Instead of holding the battle in the colosseum, he ordered people to dig out a man-made lake. There were 2,000 prisoners playing the part of soldiers and 4,000 men rowing in the boats. Emperor Claudius threw another Naumachia after the completion of Fucine Lake. These were considered to be far more bloody than gladiator battles. Thousands of men were dying for the sake of entertainment, rather than just two men going against one another in combat.
This next game is as terrible as it sounds. For years, foxes were considered to be vermin, sort of like a rat or mouse. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, fox tossing became a popular and dangerous blood sport at extravagant parties. The game would be set up in a large courtyard, with dozens of people playing at once. Two people made up one team. They would grab hold of two ends of a catapult, which was usually a long piece of fabric. A live fox was placed on the fabric, and then the couple tossed the fox through the air. The object of the game was to toss the fox as high as you possibly could.
Records show that the highest a fox was ever tossed was 24 feet. There were other versions of the game where other animals like cats, wolves, and boars were tossed instead of foxes. But foxes were the most common, since they were so readily available in European forests. Images illustrated at that time show us that this was a scene of utter chaos, not to mention heartless animal cruelty. Thankfully, this is one of those games that doesn’t seem to have carried over into modern times.
Most people in the modern world are already familiar with jousting tournaments. This is probably because reenactments still happen today in Medieval Times, and it’s something we’ve seen prominently in Hollywood films. If you don’t already know, knights were both given a long wooden lance with a blunted tip, and were divided by a barrier before charging at one another on horseback. The object is simply to knock the opponent off of their horse, without actually killing the other knight. However, even though this was supposed to be a game, it was sometimes fatal.
From the 13th to 16th Centuries, European knights competed in tournaments. This was the knight’s chance to impress the ladies of the crowd. If a woman favored a knight, he was often given a scarf or a veil. These were often held on special occasions like festivals. Jousting was such a popular sport, that whenever it was announced, people would travel from far away to see the tournaments.
Many people are familiar with cockfighting, due to the fact that we see it a lot in Hollywood movies. Just like the name suggests, two roosters are put in a ring and encouraged to fight one another to death. On their own, rooster claws typically wouldn’t kill. However, the men who use the birds for gambling will add metal barbs to their claws, which immediately turns it into a blood sport. In places where cockfighting is allowed, roosters are actually bred to be more and more aggressive with each generation. Some people even go as far as to inject the roosters with steroids to make them stronger and meaner.
Obviously, this blood sport has become illegal in many countries, but it’s still practiced around the world. Sadly, even though cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states, and it’s considered a felony crime in 42. However, it still goes on in many communities. There are many countries where it’s completely legal to do this, and is still practiced to this day.
The Mexican game of Pelota Purepecha has been compared to field hockey, except for one major difference. The puck is on fire. If this sounds intense, it’s because it is! While Pelota Purepecha was common in ancient times, the game is no longer as common, because of how dangerous it is. People still play field hockey without fire, and follow much of the same rules as the original game.
Recently, the Mexican government brought the game back, in an attempt to celebrate the country’s ancient cultural history. Now, the game is something that is often played during special occasions, and has become a popular attraction for tourists to see the gamer playing at night with the puck on fire.
This next one is heartbreaking, since dogs are normally some of the most loving creatures on this planet. Similar to cockfighting, ancient people were known to pit dogs against one another. There is evidence that the pastime has roots in ancient Rome and China. Mostly, this is a means of gambling to see which of the two dogs will end up alive in their fight to the death.
Thankfully, it has been outlawed in most developed countries. However, there are still underground fighting rings that still exist. Dog fighting is usually linked with gambling, drugs, and other illegal activities. It’s not often that the sport happens merely for amusement. There is usually some kind of financial gain for the humans involved.
If this next sport seems ridiculous, that’s because it is. For the past few hundred years in England, men have been playing the game of “shin-kicking”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Two men kick one another repeatedly in the shins until the other gives up. Considering how painful it is to get kicked in the shin even just once, this sounds horrible.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to this game beyond bragging rights for having a higher pain tolerance than your friends. Today, this is still played at festivals and special occasions, and it obviously hasn’t taken off as a professional sport.
This is yet another terrible way that mankind has abused animals for their amusement. From the 12th to 19th Century England, it was common for people to capture bears and pit them against a pack of dogs. The bear was always chained by the leg to a fence post, so it had no chance of getting away. Spectators would pay to watch the dogs rip the poor animal to shreds.
The Puritans were the first to try to stop this bloodsport, but their attempts to ban it were ignored for years. During the time that bear-baiting was going on, brown bears were very common in the UK. Today, brown bears have essentially become extinct in England. By the 20th Century, they were being imported from other countries to be used their fur, meat, and bear grease.
This next sport is exactly what it sounds like. Camel jumping is traced back to the Zaraniq tribe in Yemen. The Zaraniq live in the Tihama-al-Yemen, a desert plain on the Red Sea. They are still there today and practice camel jumping. They are mostly poor and many live in one-room hut homes. To see the daredevils in action, some travel a dirt track to a village southeast of the coastal city of al-Hudaydah.
The object of the game is to see how many camels you can jump over. These athletes must have an incredible amount of strength and acrobatic ability! In recent years, men have decided to bring the ancient sport back, and it is still played to this day. Thankfully, camels are not harmed in the process. In most other countries, there are similar competitions held in track and field, as well as gymnastics.
One of the least violent games on the list was played by Native Americans. The tradition does not seem to be exclusive to one Native tribe but does seem to be limited to the Eastern region of the United States. There are instances of the Cherokee practicing this sport as well as many other Native groups. Chunkey, also known as Tchung-kee was a game where one player would roll a large disc-shaped stone on the ground, while the others threw their spears at it, trying to hit a moving target.
There was a smooth, paved clay playing area almost like a very long driveway to make sure the disc rolled as smoothly as possible. The origins have been traced back to the Cahokia region 600CE, in what is now known as Mississippi, United States. One of the only potentially dangerous parts about this game was that people were known to gamble their life savings over the results.
In Southern Asia, the game of Kabaddi is a form of wrestling. Legend has it that kabaddi originated in Tamil Nadu over 4,000 years ago. Past fans include the Buddha, and the princes who played to display their strength and win their brides. Kabaddi was being played at a competitive level internationally. Kabaddi is a popular team sport, which needs skill and power, and conflates the characteristics of wrestling and rugby.
Here are the rules: It is a wrestling match between two teams. This sounds hard enough as it is, but there is yet another catch. Only one wrestler can enter the other team’s territory at a time, and they are supposed to hold their breath while they attempt to touch a member of the opposing team. This is far more difficult than it sounds, since it’s essentially 7 players against one. The game is still played professionally today in India and Pakistan.
In ancient Greece, people played a game called Basque Pelota, where players would use a racket and a ball in a courtyard. The origin of this sport is tied to the decline of the ancient jeu de paume (jeu de paume au gant), ca. 1700. While the game evolved to the modern jeu de paume (with racquet, called real tennis in England) and eventually to lawn tennis, rural Alpine and Pyrenean communities kept the tradition. But many agree the roots were based in Ancient Greece.
When playing by themselves, they would bounce the ball against a wall, and try to hit it with their racket. Then, there was a team sport version. Players would stand facing one another in a courtyard, and try to hit the ball within lines that were established on the court. Back then, it was called the “fastest sport in the world”, and balls were known to go up to 200 mph. If this game sounds familiar, it’s because this was the precursor to modern-day tennis! Much of the rules have stayed the same since it became tennis, but some people in France still play the ancient version of the game.
Many people are familiar with bullfighting, which is still practiced in Spain, Portugal, Southern France, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. bullfighting in Spain traces its origins to 711 A.D., with the first official bullfight, or “corrida de Toros,” being held in honor of the coronation of King Alfonso VIII. Once part of the Roman Empire, Spain owes its bullfighting tradition in part to gladiator games.
The bullfighter dances around the bull to instigate it to charge. But then, the fighter uses various techniques to subdue or kill the animal. Some people consider this an art form, rather than hunting. This bloodsport can be traced back to ancient Rome, and is still legal in the countries mentioned earlier. It has been banned in many other countries, due to the fact that its cruelty against animals.
This next one might sound familiar, because Muay Thai is a martial art that is still practiced today. It originated in ancient Thailand, and is often called “The Art of the Eight Limbs”. Fighters need to use their feet, hands, elbows, and knees while they fight. Each of your limbs is supposed to mimic a weapon of war. For example, hands are daggers, and forearms are like armor. Even to this day, it’s still considered to be one of the most powerful and intense forms of martial arts.
No one is sure exactly when Muy Thai began, because many of the ancient records were destroyed in Ayudhaya, Siam during the 14th Century when they were attacked by the Burmese army. But we do know that in the 1200s, the Thai army were all trained in hand-to-hand combat in the Muay Thai style.
Buzkashi originated due to the fact that goal stealing was once a common occurrence in Afghanistan. Retrieving your goat back and horseback was difficult, but a huge triumph. Somewhere along the way, people turned this into a sport. For the past 600 years, Buzkashi has been the national sport of Afghanistan. This game is a very fast and intense sport played on horseback. But instead of tossing a ball around, players fight over a dead goat carcass. Players have to grab the goat from one another, and try to throw the body onto a giant hole.
Since the goat can weigh up to 90 pounds, this isn’t an easy task. Many players fall off of their horse even attempting to ride with the goat, let alone tossing it over the goal. This is an incredibly dangerous sport, and can lead to broken limbs or even death. Once the match is finished, the goat is roasted and eaten as a feast by the winning team. One might argue that a goat isn’t worth risking your life, but people in Afghanistan sure do love this game.
Pasola is a competition on the island of Sumba, Indonesia. The opponents ride on horseback and throw wooden spears at one another. Rather than being hostile, this is in celebration of the rice planting season. This game all started from an ancient legend. In the village of Waiwuang, a husband left the village for so long, his wife assumed he must be dead. When her husband finally came back, his wife had already married someone else. Everyone in the village felt sorry for the man, so they threw the Pasola festival to cheer him up.
Now, the festival is still celebrated every year. The game ends once the first blood is drawn. It’s believed that this will appease the ancestors to give them a good growing season. In ancient times it was considered an honor if you died during a pasola match. Today, people are rarely killed or seriously hurt.
With a name like “skin pulling”, it’s hard not to cringe at the sound of it. However, Viking Skin Pulling was nearly identical to our modern game of tug-of-war. But much like other things in ancient culture, they took the idea to the extreme. And adhered to some of the stereotypes that Vikings are known for… such as defiling women.
But instead of rope in a grassy field, the Vikings pulled on animal skins over a fire pit. The winners of the game could take more (if not all) of the spoils of the town they had just attacked. This also included choosing which women they could defile first. The losers often fell into the fire, and died soon after. There is a good chance that today, tug of war was adapted from this tradition to be more safe and accessible to people. Believe it or not, people actually have died and lost limbs from playing tug-of-war, too. So always be careful!
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