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   Artwork by Gary Parks Copyright 2008

Pharaoh at the Bat: Sports and Games in Ancient Egypt

   Artwork copyright Gary Parks 2008, all rights reserved

Dr. Peter Piccione is currently a member of the faculty of the College of Charleston and the University of Charleston, South Carolina, graduate school.

Dr. Piccione opened his lecture by quoting both baseball great, Yogi Berra, and ancient Egyptian, Amenemopet, as a lead into a discussion of “ludology” – the study of games and game playing, and noted that these days the term applies most particularly to computer and on-line games. Where ludology studies games, sporting games cross over into the study of human body movement as well.

The ancient Egyptians used sports and sporting activities to derive religious significance.

Throughout his presentation, Dr. Piccione drew parallels and comparisons between the role baseball plays in American society and the role sports and games played in ancient Egyptian society. His first example was Mickey Mantle, born in 1931 and an icon of American baseball within his own lifetime, and Thutmose III, born in 1479BC, and considered to be one of the greatest generals and kings ever to rule in ancient Egypt.

Thutmose III was an empire builder who came to the throne in 1458BC and ruled until 1425BC. He was a dazzling military leader, campaigning throughout the Levant and into the Upper Euphrates valley, as well as south into Kush. Additionally, he was an excellent athlete, the first of the athletic kings of the 18th dynasty.

The Egyptians didn’t distinguish between athletic activity and religious ritual. Instead they combined recreational sports and religious activity without diminishing either. Athletic events – boxing, wrestling, ball games, mythical battles, fencing, etc. - were a major part of all religions festivals. Dr. Piccione noted that the Romans didn’t invent arena sports; the ancient Egyptians were conducting sporting events in the courtyards of temples long before it ever occurred to the Romans, and these events were open for the general public to join it if they wished. Spectators at such events experienced strong emotions and communal joy, which could be readily turned to a religious purpose.

In the wall decorations in the shrine of Hathor at Deir el-Bahari, we see some distinct thematic parallels between the cosmology of Egyptian sports and modern American baseball. An Egyptian bat-and-ball game depicted there and involving the king, has similarities to baseball – a ball, hit with a bat to priests who are catchers, etc. In America, an annual spring rite, associated with a sporting event is the opening day of the baseball season – with a relationship to renewal and rebirth, thus associating it to the cosmic idea of revivification. Spring is the optimum season for baseball – spring into summer and ending in the fall, a time of the year which is also associated with growth and harvest. The baseball season is fully assimilated to the cycle of nature, so it isn’t surprising that there would be an association to the cosmological order.

Dr. Piccione discussed the manner in which Americans mythologize baseball. He quoted Herbert Hoover, who stated, “Next to religion, baseball has furnished a greater impact on American life than any other institution,” and "the rigid voluntary rules of right and wrong, as applied in American sports, are second only to religion in strengthening the morals of the American people." Similarly, Tommy Lasorda recently said, “follow the rules of the game and you’ll be following the rules of life.”

Understanding how people play says things about how people see the world. In America baseball is associated with patriotism. During World War I, the national anthem began to be sung at the beginning of each game. In 1942, during World War II, President Roosevelt, after considering a proposal to cancel the baseball season, issued a “green light” letter to the Commissioner of Baseball asking him to keep baseball going as a morale booster and entertainment for the troops and the folks at home. Baseball made people in America feel special (we had it, the Germans didn’t). The Japanese, however, did have baseball, as they fully embraced the game, and used it in exactly the same way we did in America. The mythology of baseball encompasses our national identity and baseball is the common thread in the American experience.

Now to the Egyptian bat-and-ball game, identified as skr-hm3t, or "Batting the Ball," was performed by the king as part of festivals. The earliest mention occurs in the Pyramid Texts, spell # 254, to protect the dead king, where he is commanded to “strike the ball in the meadow of the Apis”, which was a part of the process of crossing into the afterlife. Batting in the presence of the Apis bull suggests that he may also have done this same batting in life as part of a spiritual or fertility rite.

In the New Kingdom the king performed a batting rite at the feet of various goddesses. In a Hathor ritual depiction, Thutmose III stands before the goddess holding a ball in his right hand and a stick-ball like bat in his left. The inscription states that the king bats the ball for Hathor and that it is caught for him by her hm-ntr priests. During the Feast of the Valley, which celebrates the marriage of Hathor and Amun-Re, batting is associated with spiritual vitality and regeneration.

At Luxor Temple there are three depictions of batting of the ball. In the birth room is a scene dedicated to the birth of the king as the physical son of Amun. For batting the ball, Hathor awards the king eternal life. In another scene the king performs the rite of batting a ball before Sekhmet and clearly states that he does so “…to make glad the heart of the one who made his beauty”, thus a spiritual connotation is apparent.

In the Ptolemaic period, the batting ritual is associated with the Book of Overthrowing Apophis. Apophis is the serpent who embodies the chaos that existed before Ra. Apophis had the evil eye that could throw horror into the hearts of the gods. Its opposite was the eye of the sun god. Egyptians liked opposites such as these, set in counter-balance to each other. In the Book of Gates and Book of Amduat, Ra descended to the western horizon at the end of each day and sailed through the netherworld during the 12 hours of the night, then reappeared in the east at dawn as the new sun. The voyage was fraught with peril. Apophis lived in the netherworld and attacked Ra every night. With help from the other gods he was repelled so that Ra could be reborn each morning and order would prevail over chaos. Specifically, in the 7th hour of the Amduat, the god Seth slew Apophis. Though he came back to life a few hours later, his power was broken until the next night. The king’s primary reason for existence was to maintain maat – balance and an absence of chaos – thus the king assisted in the defeating of Apophis in the process of batting the ball – which symbolized of the eye of Apophis. By batting the eye of Apophis, evil was destroyed, thus the eye of the sun god was protected and Sekhmet was made happy.

Batting the ball as part of the ritual for overthrowing Apophis is found at the temples of Edfu, Dendera, and Philae, all created within a span of about 300 years. At Philae, Caesar Augustus is shown batting a ball to the goddess Tefnut. At Dendera, Ptolemy XIII stands before Hathor with bat and ball in hand, in the subterranean crypt, a room used for rituals associated with regeneration. Each time, the goddesses take joy from the king’s play. All these goddesses had dual natures, and the rituals associated with the dual-natured goddesses often included propitiation to stay on their good sides. Each was also associated with the eye of Ra. Thus the purpose of the batting ritual was to contain the dark natures of the goddesses, and counter the evil eye of Apophis.

Dr. Piccione postulated that the bat-and-ball ritual may have been based on a real children’s game. King Ptolemy VII was said to enjoy himself "as a boy, a youngster, a child". At Medinet Habu the wall reliefs below the window of appearances depict individuals engaged in the sporting activities of fencing and wrestling, thus it seems clear that such events actually occurred there in the temple courtyard, and the king could observe them from the window.

Balls themselves have been found in tombs. Some are solid, made of clay or wood; others are made with a core of straw, barley chaff, or thread, then covered with cowhide pieces which have been stitched together. The 3-inch leather-covered, stitched balls are very like modern baseballs. They were used in various ways – for playing catch, juggling, and there is even one depiction in a tomb at Beni Hassan of a young woman seated on the shoulders of young men, and playing catch from that position. No clubs or bats such as are depicted in reliefs have survived, although there is one stick from among the objects found in the tomb of Tutankhamun that could possibly have been a skr hm3t ritual stick.

Batting had a cosmological and mythological quality in ancient Egypt. When pharaoh played ball he was defending the land and ensuring the continuance of Egypt.

Americans had idolized their baseball heroes in the same way that Egyptians idolized their kings. The best, such as Babe Ruth, attained near-royal status. Ruth became the embodiment of American achievement, and his status became mythological and of an iconic quality. Modern sporting idols fulfill the same role for Americans as Egypt’s kings did for Egyptians.

Hollywood films such as "Field of Dreams" also impart a mythical quality to baseball, in which the baseball field becomes a cosmological bridge between life and death, much in the manner of the false door in an Egyptian tomb. Thus, we have mythologized baseball in the same way the Egyptians mythologized skr hm3t.

Did the ancient Egyptians invent baseball? Well, they are the earliest people known to play any sort of a bat-and-ball game. More important than the question of who invented baseball is the meaning people attach to ball games historically. Why have ball games straddled the real and the mythical worlds not just in Egypt and America, but in other cultures as well (e.g., the Maya and Aztecs)? Is it that recreation could facilitate re-creation and defeat chaos, thus ensuring the cosmic order?

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