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Artwork by Gary Parks Copyright 2008
Pharaoh at the Bat: Sports and Games in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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