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9 Insane Sports of the Ancient World

by: Howard Cosmell On  Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The sports that we decry as violent today really aren’t so bad in the context of historical competitions. Sure, a fat drunk Phillies fan threw up on a little girl, but, on the bright side, at least he didn’t ritualistically sacrifice her to the baseball gods. Football might be facing a concussion crisis, but until the sport faces a “people being pulled into a pit of fire to be burned alive” crisis, there really isn’t much comparison between then and now. So let’s examine some ancient sports that will make hockey fights look like shiatsu massage.

9. Mesoamerican Ballgame

The specifics of the ominously-titled “Mesoamerican Ballgame” aren’t well-known, and frankly, don’t matter that much. Two Central or South American teams would try to keep a ball in play in a long alley flanked by walls. Later, hoops would be added to the walls to serve as goals. The ball was moved with the Mayan players’ hips (!), but later their forearms or feet.

The game often served to resolve disputes in lieu of war, so the matches were taken VERY seriously. So seriously, in fact, that human sacrifices were made to the gods before games. Just like in pre-season baseball.

8. Viking Tug-of-War: Skin-pulling

Vikings have never been known for their subtle ways. So learning that they used animal skins to play tug-of-war over a fire pit shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The losing team got burned alive. The winning team got all the losing team’s stuff, including the exclusive rape rights of all the conquered female villagers. Again, just like pre-season baseball.

I don’t know how much I would pay to watch this on ESPN Classic, but rest assured it’s probably in the low five figures. Maybe they will reboot the league. I will watch it in a heartbeat as long as it’s not on Spike.

7. Venatio

This game should have just been called “slaves vs. elephants.” Cause in Venatio, a whole group of Roman slaves would have to hunt a bunch of elephants, many of whom weren’t too eager to be killed. The survival rate here was low, but perhaps not as low as it was for the elephants. Once this game caught on, the North African elephant was hunted to extinction. I think PETA would probably take issue with this game today. And slavery isn’t as popular as it once was.

6. Gladiator Matches

Perhaps the best documented of the ancient bloodsports, Roman gladiator matches served to entertain crowds by pitting two men against each other in a match to the death. Since few sane men would volunteer for these matches where participants had the life expectancy of fruit flies, they would often use captured slaves, promising them freedom should they achieve success in the ring.

5. Pankration

This Greek game’s purpose was to bring your opponent as close to death as possible, without actually killing him. Because it was a bloodsport, the matches involved elements of wrestling, elbows, hand-to-hand combat, and kicking. Because it was Greek, of course both competitors were very naked dudes.

While the goal was clearly to beat to hell out of your opponent to either submission or unconsciousness, going to far and killing your opponent was an automatic forfeiture. Why? Because any fighter killed in the course of Pankration was seen as the ultimate fighter (but not an “Ultimate Fighter”) and thus the winner of the match. So there’s a small upside to getting beaten to death. Nice.

4. Fisherman’s Joust

Two teams were in shoddy boats, cruising down the Nile. Their goal? To beat the hell out of the other boat and its occupants with oars. The losers were the guys that died. Simple and brutal, this sport was a lock to make the list. Of course, should you not get killed by the opposing teams oar-beating, there was always the chance that you could get eaten by an alligator once you fell into the water.

The game was played in front of the Pharaoh, presumably for little more than his entertainment. Nothing has ever made me want to be a Pharaoh so badly in my life. Do I need to go to grad school or something to do that?

3. Naumachia

Oh, this sport is no big deal. They would just take an arena, flood it with water, then toss some boats in there to conduct a small-scale naval battle (complete with sinking ships and drownings) for everyone to watch. I really don’t understand how a sport could be much cooler than this. Again, because it was Roman, there were plenty of slaves available. Which was good, because it was hard to compel free men to play this game.

I’ve been wondering how much collateral damage occurred during these games, as the crowd surrounded all this fanfare. Was there at the very least a “splash zone” in the first five rows like at Sea World?

2. Chariot Races

These aren’t the chariot races that old retirees bet on in the OTB. If you’ve seen Ben-Hur or Gladiator, you know how violent playing the ponies can actually be. Players would get tossed, horses maimed, and even bystanders impaled as these guys hauled ass around the track in their little buggies. Of course, there weren’t exactly regulating bodies here, so contact was not only permitted, but was de rigueur. Better wear a helmet. Better yet, just don’t play.

1. Nguni Stick Fighting

The Zulus’ sport might not have been the most deadly, but it sure does sound annoying and painful. The tribe would essentially just whack each other with soft sapling branches hundreds of times. It sounds like a game I would have played with my dumb friends in high school. They had shields, which diminishes the event a little bit, But the contestants would wear their myriad scars like badges of honor. You know, the honor of getting whacked by branches. This was considered a child’s game, by the way.

Sources: Warthog.co.za, Wikipedia.org, Britannica.com, Atlantamartialarts.com, Cracked.com, Ballgame.org, Associatedcontent.com, Ablemedia.com




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