Online Review: Book

Egyptian Games and Sports

Peter A. Piccione


By Joyce Tyldesley (Shire Egyptology 29). Princes Risborough, England, Shire Publications 2007. Pp. 64, figs. 56. £6.99. ISBN 978-0-7478-0661-5 (paper).

This study of Egyptian games and sports is an admirable addition to the Shire Egyptology series, which, since 1984, has presented basic and informative studies on fundamental aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization, including material culture, archaeology, daily life, religion and society, and art and architecture, as well as historical exposition. The monographs in the series, intended primarily for a popular audience, are presented in a highly readable style without footnotes, although they do include useful and informative bibliographies. Most are written by experts in the particular subject, and they include the essential issues and data, often with insightful interpretations—making them useful even in some measure to professional scholars. Tyldesley is a well-regarded Egyptologist whose other published works include mostly popular studies on the status of women, crime and punishment, and famous personages (often queens), as well as erudite publications on the art and archaeology of Middle Egypt and the Nile Delta.

In this particular study, she turns to the topic of games and sporting activities in ancient Egypt and does a commendable job in identifying those that are the most prevalent in Egyptian iconography and texts. As this is a concise publication, one should not expect the scope of Decker's Sport and Games of Ancient Egypt (New Haven 1992), and certainly nothing of his monumental Bildatlas zum Sport im alten Ägypten (Leiden and New York 1994). This volume includes an introductory chapter followed by seven individual chapters on different genres of sports and game activity. Chapter 2 pertains to board games, including senet ("20-squares") mehen, men, and the "game of 58-holes" (also called "hounds and jackals"). Chapter 3 presents non–board games, including certain athletic activities, bat-and-ball, marbles, alleged tipcat (called "cat" or "cat and dog" in the United States), and various children's body games (e.g., spinning, stick tossing), as well as toys, dolls, and movable novelties. Chapter 4 describes a small selection of athletic games: running (royal and nonroyal), jumping, and pole climbing. Chapter 5 concerns the overarching topics of hunting, shooting, and fishing, including big game hunts, archery and chariotry, horsemanship, bullfighting, bull-leaping, and fishing and fowling. Chapter 6 surveys a range of martial arts—wrestling, stick fighting (fencing), and boxing—while chapter 7 discusses water sports, swimming, rowing, boat racing, and fisherman's jousting. In chapter 8, the author considers acrobatics and dance, including informal secular dance (professional and nonprofessional), acrobatic dance, ritual dance, dance by dwarves, and dance related to childbirth.

In all the chapters, the author's descriptions and discourses are rather basic, often without much elaboration, although they are still acceptable and informative. One exception occurs in chapter 7 regarding the so-called fishermen's jousting (52). Here, she devotes a single paragraph of only seven lines without mentioning the important underlying religious and mortuary significance of this sportive ritual. She would have been well served by consulting Bolshakov ("The Scene of the Boatmen Jousting in Old Kingdom Tomb Representations," Bulletin de la Société d'Égyptologie de Genève 17 [1993] 29–39) on this ritual and including it in her bibliography.

In the introduction she writes, "As the ancient Egyptians had no direct equivalents to our modern words 'game' and 'sport,' it is not possible to state with any degree of certainty which activities they themselves would have expected to find included in this book" (8). In many ways, her statement repeats an assertion first made by Touny and Wenig (Der Sport im alten Ägypten [Leipzig 1969]). Admittedly, one might argue about what properly constitutes a "direct equivalent." However, as a specialist in Egyptian games and sports, especially within their ritualized settings, this reviewer would contest both her assertions.

Regarding the notion of "game," the verb ḥbʿ (ḥʿb in Old Egyptian), meaning "to play," was regularly nominalized to mean "play, playing"; for example, spell 335 in the Coffin Texts reads, "r dd ỉb.f pr.t m hrw ḥbʿ sn.<t> ḥms.t m sḥ" (in order that his heart might cause a coming forth into the day, playing senet, and sitting in a pavilion) (A. de Buck, Coffin Texts. Vol. 4, Texts of Spells 268–354. OIP 67 [1951] 326e). Similarly, "ỉb. ỉ wn ḥr sšm ḥbʿ.f r. ỉ" (my heart is clever in guiding his play against me) (P. Cairo JdE 58037, col. 2, line 2; E. Pusch, Das Senet-Brettspiel im alten Ägypten. Vol. 1. Münchener Ägyptologischen Studien 38 [1979] 395). Furthermore, ḥbʿ.t was a substantive, specifically meaning "game." In first tale of Setne Khamwas (third century B.C.E.), the senet game board was described in demotic as a "game-box" (ḥ.t n ỉr ḥbʿ.t)—literally, "box for making a game" (1 Khamwas 4, 27–31; W. Erichsen, Demotische Lesestücke. Vol. 1 [Leipzig 1937] 20–1).

For the notion of "sport," DeVries analyzed the lexicography for the word "sport" in his seminal study on Egyptian sports and recreation, "Attitudes of the Ancient Egyptians Toward Physical Recreative Activities" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago [1960] 157–69). He showed how Newberry, Gardiner, Griffith, and Davies had long ago recognized that the word ḥb—literally, "to catch"—conveyed the general notion of sport, especially the wide variety of sports in the marshes. Furthermore, texts are explicit that when nobility engaged in ḥb (sport), they did so as a leisure activity with the expressed purpose of "taking recreation" (sḫmḫ-ỉb) or "amusing oneself" (sḏɜy-ḥr) (DeVries [1960] 166). Indeed, the fen goddess Sekhet was so closely associated with recreational sporting activities of the marshes that scholars have regularly translated her title nb.t ḥb as "Mistress of Sport" (DeVries [1960] 157–66, esp. 157 n. 1). In related fashion, Gardiner (Egyptian Grammar. 3rd rev. ed. [London 1957] 591) recognized the substantive sḫmḫ-ỉb as including the meaning "sport" in the general sense of recreation and diversion. As for the person engaged in the sporting activity in the tomb of Djehuty at el-Bersheh, his title included wʿ wr ḥb (the greatest of sport; literally, "the sole great one of sport"), and elsewhere he was specifically termed s n ḥb (man of sport) (F.L. Griffith and P.E. Newberry, El Bersheh. Pt. 2. ASE 4 [London 1895] 23, 26 [respectively]). About this term, DeVries wrote categorically, "I do not see how the language could more accurately express the idea of the English term, 'a sportsman'" (DeVries [1960] 160).

Therefore, contrary to Tyldesley's assertions, the Egyptians did, indeed, recognize the general terms and overarching concepts of "sport" and "game," and certainly it is possible to identify the activities they themselves would have categorized under those terms and hence would have expected to find included in this book. In any event, the author has chosen well those activities. Of all the sporting and gaming activities she presents, probably only those related to pure dance (ch. 8) are ones the Egyptians would not have recognized as sport and game per se. However, rhythmic acrobatics and gymnastics, when not applied to dance, could have functioned for the Egyptians as a part of play or sport and are rightly included.

Overall, the strength of this work is that for key games and sports, it relies on the latest research findings (with minimal lapses), and it does not merely rehash older, unproductive notions. Until recently, Egyptology seemed to regard the study of games and sports as lacking in relative importance, and the field seemingly expressed the attitude that something as ephemeral as play and recreation could not be as significant as religious beliefs and practices or royal ideology, imperial politics, and the like. For that reason, older studies on games and sports did not have a terrific impact. However, in the last 20–30 years, scholars the likes of DeVries, Decker, Kendall, Pusch, Tait, and Wenig, as well as this writer and others, have demonstrated that understanding how a society plays and competes athletically reveals as much about it as how it prays and makes war. Indeed, the elemental notions that the Egyptians applied to body movement in the context of games, sports, and athletics reflect directly on the larger subject of their conceptions about the human body, its movements and manipulations, and their associated social constructs and meanings, including religious rituals, dance, social initiation, rites of passage, military training, medical therapies, and displays of royal and divine power. Hence, we now appreciate that board games, gaming, and athletics have direct connections to religious practices and celebrations, as well as to the cult of royal ideology. The inclusion of games and sports for adults and children in religious festivals and in political displays says something important about life and society in ancient Egypt, and Tyldesley successfully taps into this idea in her book.

Peter A. Piccione
History Department
College of Charleston
University of Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina 29424


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