6 Crazy Ancient Games

Let’s face it, if a lot of those people who lived way back when – the Vikings, the Romans, the Mongols, for instance — were to somehow time machine their way to modern times, we’d all be toast.  These guys basically had one gear – fast and violent.  They worked hard, fought hard and played hard, as evidenced by these six bad-ass ancient games.

1. Pankration


According to historians, Pankration first appeared in the ancient Greek Olympic Games in 648 BC.  This competition featured two naked men wrestling and boxing each other, grabbing and smashing body parts in a vat of wiggling Jello.  Whoops.  Sorry, there was no Jello.  For a minute there, we got confused with something we saw at the local pub the other night.

Back to Pankration.  Basically, there were very few rules.  Choking, boxing, wrestling holds and take-downs, and kicking were all acceptable and encouraged moves.   Only head butting, biting and eye gouging were not allowed — unless you were in Sparta, where everything was allowed (damn those Spartans, always trying to one-up everyone else.)

A Pankration competition ended when someone was either knocked out or indicated that they could no longer go on.  A dead guy named Arrhichion once won a battle because as he was being choked by his opponent, he managed to break the other fighter’s ankle.  The man with the broken ankle passed out from the pain and Arrhichion was declared the winner.  Unfortunately, for Arrhichion, he was already dead.

2. Viking Wrestling

You know how today’s World Wrestling Federation wrestlers get body slammed by their opponents, flung into corner posts and then you see them the following week on television, none the worse for the wear?  Yeah, didn’t happen back in the days of the Viking.

The Vikings didn’t have a nice soft mat to wrestle on.  But they did have the fanghella, a stone that sat in the middle of the wrestling field.  The fanghella would rise from the ground to a narrowed top, just perfect for flinging your opponent on in order to either break his back or split him open from the front.   Of course, if necessary, it was also perfectly permissible to jump on your opponent to get the most destruction possible from the fanghella.

3. Ulama

Losing sucks.  It makes you feel bad and sometimes it even makes you want to drown your sorrows in an alcoholic beverage or two.   But let’s face it, today’s losing athletes have it much easier than an ulama player who could literally lose his head for failing to win a game.

Ulama is the oldest known sport in America.  It was played in a number of areas of Central America and Mexico by the Olmec, Aztec and Maya civilizations.  The object of ulama was to pass a heavy 9-pound solid rubber ball down a specially designed court and past an opponent.  The ball was not supposed to   hit the ground or a player’s hands.  Most passes were made with a player’s hips, which were often severely bruised by the end of a game.

The winners of ulama were usually celebrated as heroes.  The losers — well, it’s not a good idea to be weak in a bloodthirsty society that still practiced human sacrifices or tore beating hearts from chests.  Yeah, players who lost were usually decapitated.  Some historians have even speculated that the head was then used in the next game – hey, wait, didn’t that kid in the “Jerry McGuire” movie say a human head weighs eight pounds – and didn’t we say a ulama ball weighs nine pounds… hmmm, maybe, there is something to that train of thought after all.

4. Boat Jousting

Why beat the living daylights out of each other on safe, dry land when you can do it perched on boats floating on crocodile-infested waters?  Images of boat jousting, which is also known as fisherman or water jousting, have been found on Egyptian bas-reliefs dating back to 2780 to 2380 BC.

Although boat jousting competitions are still held today as a fun sport in some countries, it appears from the Egyptian images that the ancient form of fisherman jousting was definitely a much more violent and bloody sport.   In addition to the poles the Egyptians would use to try to beat and knock their opponents from their boats with, participants also apparently attacked one another with gaffes with pointed ends.

Any bloody participant unfortunate enough to fall or be knocked from a boat was in extreme danger of becoming crocodile chum or drowning.   Or both.

5. Buzkhasi

Behead a calf or a goat and then disembowel it.  Next, cut the legs off at the knees, then soak the carcass for about 24 hours to make sure it gets nice and tough.  If you want, you can pack the carcass with sand to give it added heft.  Okay, now you’re ready to play Buzkashi.

So what is Buzkashi?  It’s a bit like polo except without the mallets and with a beheaded goat for a ball.  Okay, so it’s really not like polo at all, except that both sports involve horses and keeping the “ball” away from the other team.   Historians trace Buzkashi back to the 12th Century, where it may have started as a defensive move against Genghis Khan and the Mongols, who were experts at sweeping into Central Asian villages and then leaning out of their saddles to steal goats and other small livestock as they galloped by.  Villagers would then have to ride after the Mongols and try to grab their animals back.

Buzkashi was not a game for the meek or the weak.  During a Buzkashi match in ancient times, it was perfectly legal to whip your horse, your opponent’s horse and even your opponent.  Knives were occasionally used, and it wasn’t unusual for both horses and men to break bones or to even lose their lives during this rough and tumble game.

Originally, the game was played over great distances, with “goal posts” set miles apart.  There was also no time limit, so the game was sometimes played for days.

A somewhat tamer version of Buzkashi is still played today, especially in Afghanistan, where it is their national game.

6. Venationes

No one – and we mean no one – enjoyed the wholesale destruction of man and beast like the Romans.  For many years, the Romans spilled untold gallons of blood and guts in order to entertain themselves.

A venatio (plural is venationes) was a contest between wild animals or between beast and man.  Thousands of wild beasts were captured and transported from Africa and Asia just for these elaborate contests.  The numbers were often staggering.  For the inauguration ceremony of the Colosseum, for instance, more than 9,000 animals were slaughtered during the event.

Although, these gory contests were usually set up so that an armed man or men would slaughter the beasts, some games involved an unarmed man, typically a criminal, against a ferocious beast such as a bear or a wolf.  Other contests pitted animals of different species against one another — maybe a lion versus a tiger or a bull against a bear.

Venationes, which were held from the 2nd century BC until about the 5th century, were typically the warm-up act for the equally gory gladiator fights.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.