- February 11, 2022
We’re so fascinated by sports culture today, that it’s hard to imagine life without it. What we often forget is how crazy and brutal ancient sports used to be. While most modern games only date back around a century, these ancient counterparts had their origins deeply rooted in culture and fierce competition, often with deadly results. From the Mayan civilization with their game of Pitz to a violent tug of war from the ancient Vikings, these games were taken very seriously. Here are twelve terrifying old sports you’ll be glad never made it to the modern world.
Pitz: The Maya
Have you ever heard of Pitz? This brutal game dates back to 2500 B.C. While Spanish conquistadors tried to erase every vestige of Mayan culture, the Popul Vuh (aka Mayan Bible) helped historians to understand the Mayan people’s history.
While there were several variations, the game was somewhat similar to racquetball except there were several hoops in the arena used for goals. While this might sound like a fun game, it was taken very seriously. The Pitz court was the center point of an entire Mayan town, serving as a place to settle disputes with their enemies. Mayans purposely built the court at the base of the temple, representing the underworld. The court’s walls were carved with figures of gods and demons, and the ball had a ring hung on the side of the court that it needed to pass through. There’s so much symbolism if you take a second to look.
The ball represents the pathway of the stars and planets. Only the best warriors were allowed to participate in the brutal game. Before the game, the teams would pray to Hunahpu, a Mayan god who was sacrificed before a sporting match. The Mayan Kings often used the courts to stage reenactments of cultural myths. Human sacrifice was also a large part of Pitz. Scary, we know. Captured kings from enemy tribes and losing teams were often beheaded after the game. However, many historians think the game was rigged from the start. Pitz could have been an elaborate ritual with a predetermined outcome. Pitz is still played in Central and North America today but as a cultural activity. A court was recently discovered in Mexico City underneath an old 1950s hotel. If you want to see the modern game played, look up Ulama. ADVERTISEMENT
Harpastum: The Romans
Think of Harpastum as an aggressive form of rugby.
Seriously, what’s with ancient peoples and brutal sporting games? Harpastum was an old Roman sport played with a small, hard ball. The name comes from two early Greek variations of the competition. The game’s goals varied, and each version included two opposing teams. The purpose of the game was to keep the ball on your side of the field – at any cost. Harpastum was known for being violent, so players knew exactly what they were signing up for when they entered the field. It wasn’t uncommon to have men limping off the ground with broken limbs. In fact, players were allowed to literally fight each other and use wrestling holds to incapacitate members of the other team. This scary sport came from the Greeks’ episkyros but with a much higher level of violence. Due to its hands-on nature, it was also very similar to Greek boxing (pygmachia). But the Romans decided to take it up a notch. They strapped metal studs onto their glove wraps, delivering a lethal blow to any opponent who came too close. Have you noticed a trend in the ancient world? It seems that each society tries to one-up the other on levels of violence. ADVERTISEMENT
Cretan Bull Leaping: The Minoans
Have you ever heard of Cretan bull-leaping? Yes, this crazy sport is exactly what it sounds like.
Talk about grabbing a bull by the horns! This dangerous sport gives the Bull Run in Spain a run for its money (all pun intended). Everywhere you look in the Minoan world you’ll see carvings of bulls. Horns are adorning Minoan shrines and images engraved at the sites of sacrifices and rituals. In museums all over the world, you’ll find Minoan artwork from 5,000 years ago depicting men dancing around and jumping over charging bulls. While some scholars debate whether the Minoans did this activity, there’s plenty of evidence to show that they did. This leads us to hypothesize that modern bull-fighting and bull-leaping sports may have their origins in Minoan culture. ADVERTISEMENT
This activity is one of the terrifying sports in the ancient world. When a vaulter would enter the arena, they would literally grab the bull by its horns and use momentum to flip upward. Then, they would land on the ground behind the beast. Unlike Roman gladiators that fought to entertain the elite, participation in this sport was only reserved for young, upper-class Minoan males. Huge events were held in the central courtyards of Crete’s palaces, particularly in the 150,000 square foot Knossos palace arena. While tamer versions of bull-leaping sports still exist, we don’t fully understand what wiped out the Minoan civilization. It’s definitely one of history’s most exciting mysteries!
Fisherman’s Joust: The Egyptians
Picture a bunch of men hopping into boats and paddling down the crocodile-infested Nile River just to brutally shove each other into the water. This is the Nile Fisherman’s Joust. ADVERTISEMENT
While it might sound weird to us, Egyptian Fisherman’s Jousting was a trendy sport in ancient Egypt. How do we know about it? Much of our knowledge of it comes from archaeologists and historians studying ancient tomb reliefs. Each vessel held a few men who each carried a long jousting pole. While most of the men were the crew to maneuver the boat, a few would stand up on the bow of the ship, poised to strike. The goal of the game is to knock your opponents off their boats by whatever means necessary. Here’s the thing. The carvings on the murals don’t tell us whether this game was for sport or if it was hostile. While the men aren’t depicted in a war or battle, the other depictions (e.g., their postures and expressions) seem aggressive. This leads us to believe that they were battling over fishing territory. ADVERTISEMENT
So how do you play the game? Don’t try this at home. Various numbers of men were given defensive and offensive positions depending on their skill and strength. Since the sport is aquatic, being a strong swimmer would be a desirable skill. But we don’t actually know if the players knew how to swim. *shudders* If you fell off, swimming all the way back to the shore would be a treacherous feat. Crocodiles, piranha, anacondas, and hippos are lurking under the murky waters.
Chariot Races: The Greeks and Romans
Leave it up to ancient Greece and Rome to come up with another deadly sporting game.
Chariot races first started in ancient Greece as a representation of the seasonal games in Homer. The Romans liked it, so they picked it up too. It became one of the most famous spectacles in ancient Rome. Chariot racing arenas were large and circular. Think of it as an old version of Nascar but with horses. The world’s largest stadium was the Circus Maximus located in Rome, literally meaning “Biggest Circus.” This massive structure stood well over four stories tall and could seat over 200,000 eager fans. It’s greatest sporting structure ever made in human history. In fact, the chariot games were so immensely popular that an entire city would seem deserted whenever they would take place. Each team would have 12 chariots racing in teams. Then, there would be four teams called factions divided into color groups of white, red, green, and blue. Each chariot had four horses. ADVERTISEMENT
One horse seems difficult enough to control as it is. Imagine racing a chariot with four of them running at full speed. The chariots would start at the arena gates and race for seven laps to complete the race. There were virtually no rules. You could use your horsewhip to lash opponents and even pull them out of their chariot if you wanted to. While we think of chariot races as requiring skill and precision, they were much more of a violent bloodbath. Fans would go to the track to support their team color and bet on individual teams and drivers.
Naumachia: The Romans
Here’s yet another crazy ancient Roman sport. Think of it as a real-life version of Battleship.
The game involved staging epic naval battles to destroy the other’s fleet and kill their crew. More often than not, the team was composed of a group of prisoners. The competitions did not take place on the open sea, as you would expect. Instead, the matches were made in giant, man-made basins that sometimes included sea creatures. According to ancient historians, the first recorded game of Naumachia took place in 46 BC to celebrate the military accomplishments of Julius Caesar. However, the largest-recorded Naumachia event was in 52 AD at Fucine Lake. The game used over 100 ships and 19,000 men.
Nguni Stick Fighting: The Zulu
This is one of the few sports on this list that is practiced in some form today. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. ADVERTISEMENT
The Zulu, a Bantu ethnic group of South Africa, would fight each other with long sticks. In the match, two men would fight, one on the offensive and the other, defensive. While it was rare for an athlete to die in this match, participants would often walk away with marks on their bodies or scars of honor. Other included groups who practiced this sport are the Swazi, Ndebele, Bomvana, Mpondo, Thembu, and Xhosa. While the origins vary by historical interpretation, most scholars believe that Nguni stick fighting began in the mid to late 17th century. At the time, the primary purpose of the sport was self-defense for war. Over time, it adapted and became a sport among many towns and villages. The participants use the same fencing style as Olympic fencers. Nguni is primarily practiced by herders and features either a weapon-shield or traditional weapon form. The Zulu have a unique practice. At the age of 16, a young boy would go into the forest with his father and cut down his own stick. Over the years, he would accumulate many different types of Nguni fighting weapons. ADVERTISEMENT
While there are specific features and rules of the sport, they vary by village tradition and culture. The speeds tend to be very fast-paced, and children are trained to watch the combat from a very young age. Headshots are strictly prohibited, and there are referees to supervise the fight. How do you win? The answer is simple – precision and speed. The victor wins by forcing his opponent to quit and wearing him out. Rapid, heavy, and well-placed blows do the trick. It requires much precision and skill. Nguni stick fighting is frequent today at women’s coming out ceremonies and even at weddings. Warriors from both the bride’s and the groom’s family will get together to establish who are the best fighters in the group.
Pelota Purepecha: The Mesoamericans
Think field hockey – but on fire. This Mesoamerican sport was no joke.
Yes, they used a flaming puck. This is another one of those games that are practiced today. The Mexican government has allowed it as a way for citizens to explore their cultural heritage. According to oral traditions, Pelota Purepecha symbolized the epic battle between the sun and the moon. The players represent the movements of the stars and the universe. Historians date the game back to 1500 B.C., and it’s one of the world’s oldest hockey games still in practice. Since archaeological origins are rare for Pelota Purepecha, it’s hard to know a lot about it. Here’s what we do. According to the old rules of the game, two teams of five or more people would meet in a large field. The objective of the game is to pass the flaming ball until they get it into the opposing team’s goal at the end of the area. ADVERTISEMENT
Players are (obviously) not allowed to touch the ball with their bodies. Instead, they used a large stick (jatsiraku) to move the ball around. Today, the game is held to a time limit. There are a couple of different variations of the sport in which the players set the ball on fire either during the day or during the night. Perhaps the flaming ball served as the game’s original time limit. When the fire was extinguished, the game would end. However, this is only speculation. Jatsiraku sticks were originally carved out of cherry wood. It was common for the sticks to become charred by the end of a match. Ancient renditions of the game used hand-carved sticks as well. The flaming ball was crafted out of hundreds of monarch butterfly cocoons and soaked in pinewood resin. Today, rubber balls are used to play the game. ADVERTISEMENT
Shin Kicking: The Scottish
Yes, you read that right. The ancient people definitely played brutal sports.
Okay, this one did make it to the modern world. But getting kicked in the shins for sport seems pretty terrifying to us, so we needed to add it to the list. The game really is as simple as it sounds. Opponents hold another person by the shoulders and kick each other in the shins. While it’s not as lethal as some of the other extreme ancient sports on our list, it still sounds like a pretty miserable experience. We’re just glad it’s gotten tamer over the years. The old version of the Scottish game had participants wearing steel-toed boots when they kicked each other. *Cringes* There was also a training match in preparation for the game where participants were hit in the shins with a hammer to see if they had enough pain endurance for the actual game. See? It’s definitely hardcore enough to make it on a terrifying ancient sports game list. How does anyone possibly win at this sport? The goal of the game is to get your opponent to fall to the ground. There is even a World Shin-Kicking Championship game today. Don’t ask why. Just take our word for it. ADVERTISEMENT
Extreme Tug of War: The Vikings
If you didn’t already know, the Norse people delighted in games that showed feats of strength. But this was no ordinary game of tug of war.
Also known as “skin pulling,” the Vikings played tug of war to the extreme. While historians aren’t quite sure when this game first originated, there are reports that it first came from the Tang Dynasty. In this case, the game would have begun around the 8th century BC. These competitions were massive. Oftentimes, there would be 1,000 players with 500 on each side of the rope. Drum players would ring in the games. Everyone knows how to play tug of war. So what was different about the Viking’s version? Add in animal skins and one large burning pit of fire, and lots of loot for the winners. That raised the stakes. Skin pulling was played to prepare for upcoming battles. Germanic Viking warriors would stitch together animal skins for the rope and prepare to play against their enemies with each side pulling over a roaring fire. The losing team would fall into the fire pit, leaving all of their belongings and even their families to the other team. Sure, versions of tug of war still exist today. But now it’s a fun sport played with people of all ages – and it’s not violent. We’re happy the old version is gone. ADVERTISEMENT
Knattleikr: The Vikings
Here’s another violent Viking game to add to the list of crazy ancient sports. Needless to say, it’s pretty brutal.
While there isn’t much documentation on the official game, details of it have been passed down orally through Viking folktales. Two teams of ten, large and angry men gathered together on a frozen pond or field. Each member of the team held a large wooden bat used to catch a ball and keep it away from the other team. If you were wondering, yes, this is a great, violent game of Viking broomball. However, the real point of knattleikr was to hit opponents who came within an arm’s length of you (we’re sensing a theme here). Here’s what you probably wouldn’t have guessed. The ball was super heavy and hard to move around. If you got tired of hitting your opponent with your wooden bat, you could hit the heavy ball as hard as you could in his direction. Since there were basically no rules, you could knock someone out with the ball if you wanted to. Ouch! Matches would last for days on end until the entire opposing team was completely wiped out. If this doesn’t sound exhausting, we don’t know what does. ADVERTISEMENT
Papa Holua: The Hawaiians
We have two words for you – lava sledding. In this game, the floor really is lava.
He’e holua was an ancient form of Hawaiian sledding with deep roots in native culture and myths. This dangerous sport involved athletes building twelve-foot long sleds and launching themselves headfirst over steep, mountainous terrain. They’d catch so much speed going downhill, reaching speeds of 50 miles per hour. The goal of the game is to slide as fast and as far as possible. History shows that the origins of He’e holua are tied to Hawaiian royalty and competitions were held exclusively to entertain the elite. However, it was popular among people of all social groups. Betting was a popular part of the sport. People would gather around and place stakes on different competitors before the start of the matches. If flying down a hill 50 miles per hour on a sled doesn’t sound scary enough, here’s the worst part. He’e holua was built on natural lava flows. Participants were all at risk of dying in an active volcano area! While most of the natural courses have disintegrated today, there are still remnants of old paths you can find that run for nearly one mile long. We don’t recommend trying this game out at home. ADVERTISEMENT