Vol. 10 No. 1



Poznań 2003

Table of Contents

Robert R. Sands, Sport Ethnography, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois, 2002.
Lorraine Barbarash, Multicultural Games, Human Kintetics, Champaign, Illinois, 1997.

Chairman of the Publishing Board: ŁUCJA PILACZYŃSKA-SZCZEŚNIAK

Editor in Charge of Translations: TOMASZ SKIRECKI

Front cover: A ball player, relief in the collection of the National Archeological Museum in Athens; photograph by courtesy of the International Olympic Academy.

Back cover: Keretizein, a kind of ancient hockey; relief in the collection of the National Archeological Museum in Athens; photograph by courtesy of the International Olympic Academy.

Indexed in: SPORTDiscus, Ulrich’s International Periodical Directory

Editorial Board Address: University School of Physical Education Królowej Jadwigi 27/39 61-871 Poznań, POLAND tel: 835 54 35; 835 50 68 Fax: 833 00 87

Computer page layout: EWA RAJCHOWICZ

Printed in Poland

© Copyright by Akademia Wychowania Fizycznego w Poznaniu

ISBN 83–88923–23–4

ISSN 0867–1079

No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission from the Publisher, except for the quotation of brief passages in criticism or any form of scientific commentary.

Dział Wydawnictw AWF Poznań. Zam. 11/03

Editorial Board

Diethelm Blecking, privat-Dozent, Freiburg, Germany

Stefan Bosiacki, University School of Physical Education, Poznań, Poland

Lechosław B. Dworak, University School of Physical Education, Poznań, Poland

Janusz Feczko, Academy of Physical Education, Katowice, Poland

Anthony C. Hackney, University of North Carolina, USA

Masahiro Kaneko, Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences, Japan

Krzysztof Klukowski, Air Force Institute of Aviation, Warsaw, Poland

Stanisław Liszewski, University of Łódź, Poland

Krystyna Nazar, Institute-Medical Research Centre, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland

Wiesław Osiński, University School of Physical Education, Poznań, Poland

Andrzej Pawłucki, Jędrzej Śniadecki University School of Physical Education, Gdańsk, Poland

Łucja Pilaczyńska-Szcześniak, University School of Physical Education, Poznań, Poland

Wiesław Siwiński, University School of Physical Education, Poznań, Poland

Włodzimierz Starosta, University School of Physical Education, Poznań, Poland

Atko Viru, University of Tartu, Estonia


Traditional and indigenous sports are important part of human heritage, regardless of their geographical location or social situation. The understanding of this problem and its importance is, however, widely diversified in different societies and nations. For example, in some Western European countries, especially in Britain, but also to some degree in Spain, Switzerland, Italy, France, as well as in some Asian countries such as Japan, traditional games have never decisively lost their social significance. The games are well or comparatively well preserved there in individual regions, in which their cultural heritage has been taken care of, although the current development of modern sports diminished any wider social appeal of local plays and games. In countries such as Poland, Hungary, India, Chile and many others the development of modern sports has ruined traditional games to a substantial degree, however strong cultural traditions of those nations allowed them to preserve their own sports heritage in some isolated communities or institutions. In a large, if not prevailing number of modern countries, however, a fascination with Western-type sports was responsible for complete or nearly complete extinction of indigenous sports. Some African and Asian countries provide the worst examples of processes which deprive local communities of their sense of cultural identity and links with their past. In numerous countries, ethnic conflicts greatly contribute to the processes of deprivation as games of a particular tribe are frequently considered expressions of regional cultural differences treated as identification of a hostile clan. Generally, under many social and political circumstances differences of local games do not contribute to the integration of ethnically diversified societies. In this situation authorities of greater regional or political units, especially ethnically diversified states, not only ignore playing traditions of their people, but also openly introduce Western-type sports. The latter are usually ethnically neutral and thus helpful in the process of integration at different levels. While indigenous games support differences and conflicts between tribes representing different ethnic heritage, Western-type football or basketball introduce a sense of unity, e.g., when a national team wins over another nation’s team, especially if it wins over a national representation of their former colonial rulers.

Generally, we can observe a restoration of traditional sports in most European, American and in some Asian and African countries. Among the pioneering initiatives in this field we observe a series of attempts to practically revive vanishing indigenous games, organised in different countries especially in the 1980s and 1990s, which are listed in Guy Jaouen’s introduction to the second part of this volume of “Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism”. It is an introduction to a separate set of papers delivered at a recent annual meeting named Recontres Internationales de Nantes. Jeux Traditionels (October 3-5, 2002). In the late 1990s such annual meetings were initiated in Brittany under the auspices of the Confédération des Comités des Sports et Jeux Traditionnels de Bretagne, and by a group of Breton enthusiasts of indigenous sports supported later by their counterparts from other countries, such as William Baxter of Scotland, initiator and President of the Federation of Celtic Wrestling; Eric de Vroede, Curator of the Sportsmueseum Vlaanderen in Leuven and “hoofredacteur” of the unique museum journal “Sportimonium”; Sean Eagan a Canadian academician of Irish origins, especially fond of his Celtic roots; Henning Eichberg, a German Professor lecturing for years in Denmark; Jørn Møller who created a unique recreational park consisting of venues for traditional sports and games from several dozen European countries, in Gerlev, Denmark; and many other outstanding scholars. This team, supported by such individuals as Jean-Jaques Barreau, Pere Lavega, Fañch Peru and others, produced a series of publications, such as Les jeux populaires. Eclipse et renaissance (1998) or Les jeux traditionnels en Europe (1999). These meetings and publications prepared fertile ground for the establishment of the European Traditional Sports and Games Association (ETSGA) in April 2001 at Lesneven, in Brittany. It was ETSGA which sponsored just mentioned Recontres Internationales de Nantes. Jeux Traditionels.

As far as the papers delivered at Recontres Internationales de Nantes. Jeux Traditionels2002 are concerned, apart from the aforementioned H. Eichberg and S. Eagan, valuable papers for this volume of SPCT have been provided by Pierre Parlebas, Professor of the University of Sorbonne, Paris; and Grant Jarvie, Professor at Stirling University, Scotland. My participation in Nantes’ Recontres and consequantly the opportunity of collecting and including these papers to SPCT has been made possible thank to a grant obtained for research project 6P05D 0621 conducted under the auspices of the Polish Committe of Scientific Research (Komitet Badań Naukowych, KBN). Nantes’ papers are supplemented by some other distinguished works, among which the paper on Mongolian plays and games deserve special attention. It was written by Iwona Kabzińska, Professor at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. The paper constitutes another view of her extensive research done in Mongolia, published earlier in her unique book in English Games of Mongolian Shepherds (published in Poland in 1991). Such distinguished works by scholars from Eastern Europe are frequently underestimated or even ignored by Western scholars. We hope that this SPCT volume which includes papers by Canadian, French, German, Polish and Scottish, will greatly contribute to better mutual appreciation on academic ground.

It is not the first volume of “Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism” where papers on ethnology and sociology of indigenous sports and games have been published. A careful reader can easily find similar articles in earlier volumes of our journal, written by such authorities on the subject as the aforementioned H. Eichberg, a number of Greek professors (Nikos Yalouris and Iannis Mouratidis), or Professor Carlos López von Vriessen of Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso who provided us with two his papers on ethnological research in Chile (on the games of Mapuche Indians and Rapa-Nui, i.e. Easter Island). However, this special volume of ethnological papers has an ambition to initiate a more regular scientific approach towards traditional sports perceived as a significant part of human cultural heritage. Perhaps in the future we will return to such specialised formulas, not only associated with ethnology of sport but also taking into account other fields of sport, physical education, leisure or tourism. Also, from this SPCT volume on our journal will be no longer published as a yearly but as a half-yearly.

Wojciech Lipoński



Table of Contents




Since the late 1980s, many festivals, gatherings, and symposiums have been organised on the topic of traditional games. They have been proof that the games of tradition, which are usually locally or regionally rooted, foster a new awareness. Below is a small tour of Europe including some of the major events mentioned above:

  • 1985, “Eurolympiade” of Frysland, the Netherlands;

  • 1985, Seminary in Cardiff to establish an international federation of the Celtic wrestling;

  • 1988, Seminary in Vila Real, Portugal;

  • 1990, Gathering and symposium in Berrien-Carhaix, in Brittany (France);

  • 1990, Seminary and gathering in Louvain, Belgium;

  • 1992, Festival of traditional popular games in Abadszalok, Hungary;

  • 1996, Symposium in Puerto Del Rosario, Canary Islands.

Those events were recommended by UNESCO for the purpose of protection and development of games, dances and traditional sports in the setting of physical education and sport as a means for preserving the world cultural heritage. European recommendations and a ministerial circular have accompanied this activity in favour of these practices.

Those meetings also showed gradually the wish to create a European organism that would be representative, firstly of the sport movement on behalf of the traditional sports and games federations, and then of a more academic movement of researchers and motivated teachers' groups for an educational use of the traditional sports and games. That wish was implemented in April 2001 with the creation of the European Traditional Sports and Games Association (ETSGA), at a large European event at Lesneven, in Brittany.

However, the acknowledgement has been made that the practice of traditional sports and games next to the established sports fails to possess sufficient means in general, to maintain their vitality and to assure their diffusion. These means, they are, of course, material means but they also include valorisations in the social and symbolic functions. The games have indeed been often belittled as secondary activities in the advent of the world sports. Their conservation can only be achieved by their public visibility, the valorisation of their practice, and in particular the institutional, associative or spontaneous education system of the human being at the time of group free activity. This observation made us move toward organisation of a great international meeting on traditional games. Thus were born the Nantes Meetings 2002 entitled “The Traditional Games Inheritance, Transmission and Diffusion – Histories and Prospects”.

These Meetings of the 3rd, 4th and 5th of October, 2002, containing a symposium in the Nantes City Centre and animations in two “boule nantaise” halls, attracted about 180 participants including delegates of sports federations, academics, teachers, educationalists, “ludothécaires” and educators. Thirty-three federations and nineteen universities were represented, and a total of ninety-six organisations from seven countries. They approached, in the first place, the educational dimension in the wider sense, that is, of the youngsters and adults with the purpose to familiarise children and adults by commencing participation at school, but also in associative environment, and then to continue in adult life to experiment with the inheritance of the past, as well as to reinvest in the present. This basic experience of learning and its functions concerns something more than the scholastic institution alone. Games can be passed on from generation to generation in schools, associations, playing areas, museums and public places. Local festivals and such events also encourage this development.

Traditional games encourage exchanges between districts, townships, and regions and they maintain a sense of cultural identity by providing marks of roots and reference. Such games, in spite of their extreme diversity – ninepins, bowls, balls, wrestling, rings or quoits, jousts, etc. – produce bodily expertise and a terminology which is a shared culture. We need to preserve such assets of technical and human qualities through training. The preservation of identities is not looking backward but, on the contrary, it is an understanding and acceptance of differences and development of social links and access to modernity. We are, in favour of the concept of local, interregional or international exchanges, and not of standardisation and hierarchical results. When meetings are organised with players from different regions, they take place in different games making an exchange of culture through the human encounter. Competition is then a pretext to the human encounter, but it is not the finality. It is, as an intended result, a game in conviviality, contrary to the result being an intended goal.

The second part of our discussion focused on the meaning people attribute today to their fun or playful games. The educational dimension of sports practice cannot be promoted today without social values and symbolic functions. Games are also inherited living arts, which enhance collective well-being. The knowledge of traditional games is from this point of view a rich resource for the present and for the future.

Traditional games of skill or athletics are organised locally, controlled by the actors themselves who can modify rules through negotiation. The traditional sports and games are therefore a sort of philosophy to live and decide together about a way to put forward the “Us” – the group. We play, and by this we decide on our way of life. It is therefore a way to become an actor of our own existence, and not a mere spectator on the margin of another one. It is also a method of learning democracy through transversal but not vertical exchanges. The game is not only the Rule, the game is not just a game. It is part of a certain whole, it is part of a culture.

What can we learn from the traditional games and sports in the challenges of our contemporary society? It is a question of society's problem and stake. What does the sporting type of entertainment represent in our society? In particular, what influences does the “agonist” practices (conflicting) of sport exert on our everyday behaviour, on our home environment of a citizen voter? The model known as “sporty”, in a society where free time gains ever greater importance, leaves its mark on the society from which it descends. There, all becomes competitive, not only in the merchant space but also in the social relations at work, school, arts, health, etc. We are confronted therefore with the “merchandised” sport. Professor Pierre Parlebas of Sorbonne, one of key-note speakers at the last Nantes Meeting said, “The triumphs of sport is not due to particular educational richness or a high complexity as we often pretend, but to an internal logic whose modalities are remarkably adapted to the media requirements of our time.”

The purpose of the Nantes Meetings was also to sum up different experiences on practices, programs of promotion, initiatives of co-ordination at national and international levels, between teachers, researchers, educators, federations leaders, and players. Sociological experiences about the use of traditional games as factors of efficient socialisation, free from the comparison system of results, were put forward to demonstrate that the traditional games are as rich as the sports for motor education, and that the elitist Sport concept, or the Game concept are not social theories without consequence to our societies.

The goal of the Nantes Meetings was to arise an impulse for cultural movement in favour of the traditional games and sports, in schools, universities, associations and museums; and to encourage cultural exchanges at the national and international levels, diversity, and the right to be different. The traditional games are tools of life sense of responsibility. They are tools of education and transmission of our society values to the youth. They are tools of preservation of heritage and local traditions. They are also tools of economic development. But first of all our traditional games are tools for the future.

Guy Jaouen

President of the European Traditional Sports and Games Association (ETSGA)



Université de la Sorbonne – Paris

Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales

Key words: Children Games; Cultural Universalism; Ethnomotricity (Ethnomotricité); Origins of Games; Spread of Games; Traditional Games.


The paper discusses two central themes; the cultural importance of traditional play-making and games, then their under-appreciation among scholars.

Selected examples of the universality of human games are provided, tracing their roles throughout history and beyond cultural borders. In this context, light is shed on their common identity, character, social and religious roles; emphasising the fact that “games are identical throughout the planet”.

The paper also lays bare the resultant paucity of a broad research base, such as the lack of scientific wording necessary for the study of games. In addition, the author argues the research identification of such games is crucial and then investigates the origin of some selected for analysis.

Finally, the paper examines the relationships of games to each other, which may be considered as helpful in five major aspects of reconstructing their process: heritage, transmission, popularisation, evolution and social significance.

Two centuries ago, in 1807, in Dictionnaire des jeux de l’enfance et de la jeunesse chez tous les peuples (The Dictionary of Childhood and Youth Games of All Peoples) by the famous author, Jean Adry, affirmed in the preface: “the games of children and especially of people, are the same in Paris, in London, in Petersburg, in Cairo, in Constantinople, in Ispahan and in Peking” [1].

This is an exceptional statement: games are identical throughout the planet. Our author adds: “what is more astonishing, these games are absolutely the same as those that amused the children in the streets of Cusco in the time of the Incas, in Baghdad, in Caliphis’s time, in Rome, in Memphis, in Athens and in Persépolis.”

To the identity of games in space, one adds their identity in time. One is therefore in the presence of a double identity in that of synchrony and that of diachrony in other words a universal identity.

This idea flows from the pen of many authors. More recently, in 1964, for example, the Conservatory of the Museum of History and Education Madame Rabecq-Maillard, was pleased to announce “the universality of games”.

Echoing the subject of our previous author, Jean Adry, she remarks the fact that in Shanghai as in Paris, children play hide and seek, the little packs and cat and mouse; this should bring people to realize the senselessness of borders while at the same time showing them that there exists in all areas of the world profound tendencies that are common to all humans. What suitable credit should we give to this eventual universality of the games? Is it true that play activities are the same in Chili, in Mali, in China and in Holland? What do anthropologists think of this universal concept?

Marcel Mauss announces, in his 1934 precursory text, that “every society has its own customs” [8]. “Body techniques” he notes, correspond to nonnatural but learned behaviors and “symbolic creations” that create “habits” that are closely linked to the norms and values of that society.

Habits, according to Mauss are established by “a series of individual acts originating not simply in the individual but are also influenced by his education and the society in which he lives and the role he plays within that society” [8]. Walking, marching, digging and playing are not spontaneous but learned motor skills, skills that vary from one society to the next and even from one social class to the next.

Social groups and people in general distinguish themselves as much by their games as they do by their languages: the Scottish Caber tossing, American Baseball, English Cricket, Basque Pelote, African dugout races or the Afghan Buzkashi are practices that are as distinctive as their home or the structure of their genetic heritage. We have been led to perceive an ethnology of motor movement, which one could collectively call an “ethno-motricity” (Fr. ethnomotricité). By “ethnomotricity” we mean the nature and scope of motor movements as they are linked to the culture and social milieu in which they are developed.

The physical game does not appear to be just a frivolous common behavior. It originates in the cultural identity of each community, which brings to life original play scenarios, linked to their lifestyle, their beliefs and their passions.

The origin seems to be understood: games are a mirror of society and the reflections they send out are as diversified and varied as the societies from which they emerge.

If games are a reflection of the society from which they come and some games are very different (from each other), how can these games be similar and at the same time take on a universal character? How can we explain such similarities? Games are often presented as a heritage, which is passed on from numerous generations. Do they remain the same throughout this transition over time? When the same game appears in a far away region, is it due to a particularly penetrating diffusion or, is it a coincidence linked to independent creations?

Games are a complex social phenomena that posses multiple facets; numerous authors worry only about one facet while ignoring the others thus leading them to unba-lanced and sometimes debatable interpretations. The study of playing games led to the writing of many literary or philosophical dissertations and to on the spot field research. Condemned by the church, distrusted by the authorities, sheltered by the poor classes and frequently abandoned to the children for many years, traditional games experienced many insults. Games were also considered not a noble topic of study. University researchers abandoned it. The part attributed to belief, passion and the ideology of games were considered very important. Few authors studied games in vivo, in action or in their original characteristics. There was a risk of presenting only an alchemy of the games while at the same time avoiding a rigorous study of the real “chemistry of play”.

Today, we are somewhat resourceless. We must recognize that the domain of traditional games is lacking in the area of research. We even have difficulty with the basic wording we use in the study of games: it is of little help to say that the terms play, traditional games and sport have multiple roots. This causes, based on evidence, a cascade of confusion in all our discussions. As for the mythology used in the games, this seems to be still in limbo. However, in the last few years, new researchers have taken up the torch and have resolutely studied the nature and the role of traditional games in their culture. One can think that this promising current is going to renovate the understanding of physical and play activities.

It is important to clarify this exciting field and to bring to light some important direction for reflexion and research. Rather than rush to examples that try to prove beyond doubt such or such a concept, it would appear more fundamental to follow the main trend of the general problems related to the origin of the games, their links and their spread. We are going to address, one after the other, five points that will attempt to profile major themes and at the same time suggest some answers.

In the first place, we will address a theme, that seems crucial: the i d e n t i f i - c a t i o n of the games which seems to be at the heart of the problem and then we will bring out the origin of each game. Thirdly we will examine the relationships of the games to each other, which will provide the reconstructed heritage of the games, their transmission and their spread; then we will address the evolution of the games and the significance they take on. These different themes are often linked to one another and also influence each other. However, for clarity reasons we will present them separately.


The first obstacle that the researcher in play encounters is: to be able to recognize every play situation and to name it. To give it a name means that one is able to identify and to characterize the game. Sometimes this is fake; it is an illusion. The assignment of a name to a game, is one way to discard and to avoid identifying the true precise character of the game while hiding behind false information provided by the name of the game. This is what typically happens, when an author lists the 216 games mentioned by Rabelais in the 22nd chapter of Gargantua [14]. This list, apparently consistent, contains many mysteries and while courageously attempting to clarify them in his 1904 article, Michel Psichari finally recognized numerous errors and misunderstandings [12]. Can we be satisfied that what we observe in game surveys is a game of nine pins, a bowling game, a game of quoits or a game of marbles? Does not each one of these names remind us of a varied multitude of activities that are totally different?

The same name can cover many different games and different names can mean the same game. Thus, the game of Quinet, which is a game played with long sticks used to propel a shorter stick as far away as possible, poses an infinite number of names, some of which have been called, by Arnold Van Gennep: la Guise, la Bille, la Beuille, la Bertole, la Tené, le Quéné, le Billebocq, le Billebocquet, le Court-baton, la Bisquinette and la Basculoote, among many others, according to the region of origin [17]. As was accurately observed by Van Gennep, relating to the games, the same variations, derivations and innovations exist for languages [17]. From region to region, from city to city and from village to village, the same phenomenon undergoes different changes based on the adoptions proposed by the local people. The influential variables in play and in languages are similar. The multiplicity of names, for the same game, can lead to serious confusion. Conversely, when we speak about Indian chess in the first millennium, medieval chess or modern chess, are we not putting together, under the same name, play situations that are extremely different? Has this game not evolved in such as to become an other game?

An important problem, of a different nature, exists for those who wish to analyze and describe a playful situation. We have underlined the fact that a game is a product of a society, that follows a set of rules approved by a community. Accordingly, it is a function of cultural expectations and attitudes; it benefits from historic and economic conditions that are favorable to its emergence and its development. It is also tempting to valorize the cultural elements and to reduce the origin of the game to the characteristics and context that welcomed and cherished it. In the same stream of thought, some authors emphasize the lifestyle of the players, their style of play, their manner in interpreting the play situation, their adherence and their practice strategy. All these facts are important and we intend to use them in our study. However, in our view, they can be taken into account only as a secondary source of information, in their links to the actual characteristics of the games itself.

The game has an intrinsic reality. It cannot be mixed up with the aspirations and mental structures of the participants, nor with the material context.

In the precise case of traditional games, one is determined to proceed to the disco-very of their “internal logic”, that is to say to bring to light the configurations generated by their motor movements. A complete body movement is specific to physical play. This takes shape in motor movements, which are manifested, in observable motor behaviors in the field of play.

In the first place, these motor behaviors can be distinguished by the kind of relationship they stimulate between the actor and the environment: the relationship they have with space, other objects, time and other actors. In this kind of analysis, the acting individual is concerned with actions, because it is a relationship, that is to say an interaction which is brought about by the motor behavior of the player. It also involves his attitudes, his expectations, his affection and what he stands for.

However, a game cannot be adequately identified based on a collection of characteristics. It is an interaction system put in display, based on a collection of rules from the “motor-play” contract which defines the game. It is a body of rules that puts into play the rules of the body. And this series of rules stimulates a final organization of the motor actions from which the internal coherence can be represented, by revealing configurations of motor play functioning. These configurations are operational models that represent the basic structures for the playing of the game [10]. Among these models, called the “universals” of traditional games, one will recognize, for example, the network of motor communications, the structure of scoring interactions, the system of scores, the network of sociomotor roles or the system of gesticular motions (“gestèmes”). For every traditional game, one proposes to establish universal principles that constitute the true “identification card”. This nucleus and these constellations of motor movement traits are based on the play system properties itself and not on external biological, psychological, sociological, or historic facts. Let us also mention the “internal logic”, as opposed to “external logic” elements which characterize the context (the stakes, the public, particularities of the players and the groups). These internal logic traits are “distinctive” traits that correctly define, the motor movement by which the varied configurations allow us to make a sustained and objective comparison of traditional games. If necessary one can refine the analysis and one can enrich it with complimentary precisions while deepening the basic properties, thus obtained.

It is well understood, in the identification of every game completed, that it will be fundamental to connect the “motor-play” structures, thus revealed, with the characteristics of the players and their social heritage. The historian, the sociologist and the educator will all have an important role to play. Without such an identification, based on the precise ludomotor traits, the studies on heritage, transmission and play affiliation would run the risk of too much emphasis on the external phenomenon of the actual game and thus they would run the risk of being built on quick sand. How do you evaluate heritage and diffusion when one does not know what is inherited and what is passed on?

The failure to take into account the internal logic could lead to regrettable confusion while putting faith in partial resemblances; for example Charles Beart assimilates the game of “la Coquille” (“Shell”) with the game of “Barres” (The Barr) [2]. The first game is merely a simple juxtaposition of individuals dueling and the second one is a complex team duel with sophisticated interactions. Other authors consider the Saute-mouton (Leapfrog) to be identical to “Cheval fondu” – “Melted Horse” (the Hunch Cunddie Hunch): the confusion here is caused by body postures that are almost the same and movements that are apparently similar. However, these two games are different: The first one is a game of agility where it is everyone for himself and the second one is a team duel stimulating collective brutality.

To establish a distinction between games that resemble each other, it is imperative to compare their “carte d’identité prexique” (their identification card) in which each one tells the respective configuration of its pertinent motor traits. In a recent publication [11], while studying the present transcultural games in several distant cultures, we thoroughly addressed the list of internal logic traits of the game “the bear and his guard”. In this same goal, we identified the stable traits of this game, the variable but acceptable traits and finally the challenge traits, which are incompatible with the play situation. We were then able to affirm how different it was from the five other games that Jacques-Olivier Grandjouan became absorbed in: “la Chèvre” (“the Goat”), “la Marmite” (“the Pot”), “le jeu du Mouton” (“the Sheep Game”), “la Guignolle” (fem. meaning for the Puppet) and “le Catelot”. Inversely we were able to show their fundamental similarities with the games of “le Clou” (the Nail), ”le Pivot” (“the Pivot”), “la Poire” (“the Pear”) or the “Diable enchainé” (“the Chained Devil”), games that were collected twenty centuries apart and in different countries and usually judged to be not similar. We considered them to be variations of the same game.

This identification of the stable and permanent traits and the inconsistent but compatible traits allow us to talk about variants of the same game. Thus, in the painting dated 1560 and entitled “Children’s games” by Peter Bruegel, the game “Diable enchainé”, today called “Ours et son gardien” (“the Bear and his Guard”), the bear is sitting on a chair; in the games of “Pivot” or “la Poire” he is standing up and in the present version, he is squatting on the ground. Here, one is talking about a simple modality that does not interfere with the internal logic of the game even though one is talking about variations of the same game. On the other hand, if one replaces the “player-bear” with a peg as in the game of “la Chèvre” (“the Goat”) or by a stone as in the game of “Guignolle” the rational play structure of the game is disrupted and thus we fall into an other game.

The identification of games sometimes creates theory problems. In the Bruegel picture, just mentioned, a researcher called Meyere recognize 91 games, while Marie Cegarra retains only sixty of the eighty six games described by Jean-Pierre Vanden Branden. From our point of view, we isolated seventy seven games. These are considerable differences thus weakening the interpretation of the games. In the same picture, for example, in the game of the Top, we have, in our view, identified not one game but two games: the Clog, a psychomotor game played with the help of a whip and a spinning top which is a sociomotor game in which each player spins their top at the opponents top in order to push it out of a circle. On the other hand, in the Bruegelian swimming sequence where de Meyere identifies four different games, we identify only one: a strange quasi swim team game. The identification procedure is clear: the arbitrator of the differentiation and identification of each game is its internal logic and the configuration of its distinctive and practical traits.


The quest for the origin of games is a painful request. From which distant ancestry did our actual play heritage originate? In this perspective, Marc De Smedt and his collaborators declare without hesitation: “La Soule is the origin of all our ball games.” We doubt this statement; it seems to be too simple an answer.

For many historians, it is fundamental to discover an ancestry which is prestigious and if possible, at the beginning of the lineage. Thus, wrote Jean Michel Mehl “we seek at any price the origin of this or that game and in so doing we try hard to find some Greco-roman or German ancestry” [9]. We already agree that Charles Beart subscribed to this approach when he stated that the game of “Barres” (“the Bar”) originated in the game of “la Coquille” (“the Shell”) an imitation of Ostrakynda which is a set of formalities practiced in the city of Athens [2]. This hypothesis seems somewhat audacious in that the likeness of the playful structures put forward by the author are obviously invention. Hélène Tremaud recalls with some skepticism that “authors have no fear in asserting that the game of skittles was known in ancient Egypt 5000 years before our era” [16].

The underlying hypotheses of these assertions supposes that today’s games have crossed centuries and have changed very little while retaining the characteristics that give them their identity. They could be the outcome of a lineage of “original-games”. This ancestry would have generated by filiation, step by step, a chain of games closely related one to the other.

For the game of chess, many historians believe that it originated from the game of “Chaturanga”, a table game in which four players confront each other with the help of a dice. The geographic and logical journey of this cognitive game has been somewhat long and rocky as it passed from a chance game to a game of reason. In such a lineage, the ancestor seems to be well distanced from its decedants.

In some cases, this birth may be expressed with certainty, such as for Basketball that was invented by James Naismith in 1891 at Springfield, Massachusetts or in the case of Volleyball, which was due to the creativity of William Morgan who invented la Minonette, the fore-runner of Volleyball, in 1895, also in Massachusetts. On the other hand Rugby is a typical myth with regards to its origin: the improper but famous move of William Ellis who during a game of soccer, in 1823, caught the ball with his hands, according to the legend, and carried it behind his opponents line thus inventing the game of Rugby.

This search, highly symbolic, in many cases, seems to be of secondary interest. Except for the established cases, the origin of games is rooted in a somewhat obscure and confused past. This research, pertaining to the first apparitions, frequently depends on so called similarities in vocabulary, in putting together content that is doubtful and in relationships that are uncertain. It is up to historians, helped by archaeologists and linguists to find out the answers pertaining to the origin of games. One can imagine that a close examination of the sources will be necessary. This first apparition of each game is the most spectacular part of the search that goes from one end to the other on the reflections on play: the lineage of the games.


Avalanches of games, in all societies, are part of their heritage. Each generation passes on to its children a list of playful activities which will be accepted by them and will often be adjusted to the new contexts. This is what is exactly meant by the word “traditional”: the game is the outcome of past uses and customs which were part of the practices and identity of the community. This intrusion of tradition is found at the intersection of a desire to preserve practices, anchored in ancestral customs, and a wish to modernize them to the level of the present time.

It is not always the case that tradition puts forward a process of play lineage which is written with continuity, for contemporary situations. Games are perceived as part of a hand down from more ancient original practices. One conceives the passing-on of games as a chain transmission with some breaks in the chain, thus pushing the researchers to look for the missing link. It is abundantly stated, that the philosophy on the study of games is based on an underlying biological concept which seems very close to the Darwinian concept, that is related to the evolution of the species. This leads Jean Chateau to state that this study is precise in that it permits one to establish a “geneology of the games” [4]. The words frequently used to describe games are: ancestor, heritage, geneology, lineage, relationship, family and descendance evoke this concept of ludomotor lineage. In this perspective, one can consider a phylogenic conception of games which places them in a huge network of lineages.

One would have however, to provide proof that would attest to the fact that one is in the presence of descendants or ascendants. This hypothesis is interesting but it seems to frequently lean on appearances and illusions. As we noted previously, it is not enough to have likenesses in the names, in the objects used, in the postures or the gestures, in order for the relationship to be valid.

Certain cases underline the difficulty to subscribe to this lineage hypothesis. Take for example the well known game of “Tablier” (“Platform” or “Footbridge”) played in France under the name of “Petits cheveaux” (Little horses). It was also found among the Aztecs under the name of “Patolli” and likewise in India under the name “Parcheesi”. This astonishing coincidence brought Christian Duverger to ask himself the question: “The enormous problem that then arises, he wrote, is to know if the ‘Parcheelsi’ and the ‘Patolli’ were ‘invented’ separately, one in ancient times, the other in modern times, or is there an historic link between them?” [5]. The meaning of descendance (progeny) must be clearly defined. In a plausible way, one can also conceive that similar games, with the same internal logic, may have been independently invented in different cultures. One can also make the same case for sports (games), knowing that the biological and physiological constraints are almost identical for all humans; the probabilities that action and interaction rules may have been adopted by different societies in a natural environment with natural objects, cannot be neglected.

Such an analysis imposes three distinct types of relationships that structure the game systems:

  • A lineage relationship: based on a process of procreation of games based on continuous chains that are eventually transformed (by simple modifications or by more abrupt mutations). In this case we must precisely identify each game and we must do an historic study on each, that is validated with the maximum of documentary and valid evidence.

  • A proximity relationship: which puts in evidence the similarities, the closeness or the remoteness of the games to each other. In this case, one would not stick with the lineage hypothesis: the proximity relationship, based on the situations studied, could be interpreted, or not, as a “kinship link”. The closeness in relationship of the games would be established by the analysis of their internal logic and their pertinent traits. Such a study could provide a comparative state of the places, an objective panorama of the games based on their indisputable motor movement content. One could also locate games that are closely related, or on the contrary far apart in geographical space and varied cultures. This “interplay” distance would certainly offer controllable elements leading to interesting interpretations (while at the same time making no reference to lineage).

  • An antecedent relationship: this is based on simple dating of the first recognized appearance of games. We believe that there is a problem in that one may confuse the three relationships. The antecedent and proximity relationships may suggest a lineage relationship but they do not necessarily justify it.


Today, written works play an important role in the passing on of games and sports, whereas for centuries oral and sign language were the predominant tools of transmission. The adoption of games was done by imitation and by cultural immersion during everyday life, feast and leisure time.

How is it then, that games found in locations far apart, in time and space, are identical? There are many answers, to this question and they are always linked to migration: the games were carried in the baggage of merchants, shepherds, colonizers and pilgrims. When people migrate they always take with them their utensils, their values and their games: they bring about a geographic spread which establishes “ludocultural areas” where certain games dominate and sometimes brings about some astonishing ludic crossbreedings. A game that passes from one group to another group, always experiences modifications that are linked to its new milieu.

According to the diffusionnist’s ideas, it is the nomadic movement that is the basis of the increase in the spread of games on this planet; as for the universalists ideas it is the profound communal tendencies found in all human species, that brings about this great uniformity of games for all societies.

From a research angle, it would be interesting to set up an atlas of games pertaining to the maximum number of regions but also to identify the spread of each game in different countries. Some researchers, such as Van Gennep and authors from other countries have started this type of work. We have begun this type of research with our team CEMEA at the Sorbonne (there is more than a dozen participants on the deck). It is a colossal job that will take a lot of time to accomplish.

In rapidly presenting a field example, we will recall the fundamental role played by the spread of play at the level of everyday life. One author, L. Lavigne described with much skill, in the 1920’s, the games of his childhood which he played in the village of Meuse [7]. Describing the game of “la Trouille” (the Sow), which is a variation of the game of the “Gouret” he describes the spread of this game among the young sheperds (who were called the “Pâtureux”): “when we could allow our cows to go anywhere, he wrote… we approached the sheperds of Chattancourt or those of Marre, or those of Regneville and we taught them our game. The next day going in an other direction, they showed the game “la Trouille” (Sow) to the children of an other village; it was like this that the game spread throughout the Valley” [7]. “It was thus”, states Lavigne, “thanks to this wonderful propagation, in two weeks, the game of ‘La Trouille’ was known throughout all of Argonne” [7]. This testimony, rich in local color, is a recalling of the everyday life facts which are at the root of the spreading of games and the transmission of socialized play, a fact that academia rarely takes into account.


Games are passed on; games are transformed; games are renewed. Can one attribute a significance to this evolution? Are these changes oriented in a precise direction? Finally what is the destiny of games?

One of the frequent answers consists of putting the games into a hierarchy. Just like biology has achieved a ladder of beings, going from fish to mammals in an order of increasing complexity; some authors envisage a kind of hierarchy of games. Even though he surrounds himself with precautions, Jean Chateau does not make much progress in this direction, he states: “one finds series of games, which are part of elementary moves but lead to higher activities of adults, such as art, sport and work” [4]. Hopscotch, he states, prepares one for the game of chess. Likewise, he proposes a gradual series consisting of “walking, running, chasing, the game of the flea, the sparrow, the hawk and the game of the wolf”. This author considers an evolution through successive steps: “one passes from one game to a superior game, by adding a new factor or a new rule.” The image of the genealogical tree with play species strongly imposes itself here. Let us note that the repeated use of the term “superior” indicates a value judgment which underlines, in the eyes of the author, the sense of evolution. Without a doubt, Jean Chateau wished to indicate the successive steps of games adapted to the development of the child, rather than the description of the global history of the games? A general orientation is drawn: many authors such as Stanley Hall, have affirmed that in the domain of games, individual development (ontogenesis) reproduces the evolution of the species (phylogenesis).

While examining the lineage concept, we have observed that the presence of the phylogenic classification of games was implicitly at the foundation of many concept. It is true that it is tempting to apply to the Diaspora of games Charles Darvin’s theory of evolution. Just like the animal species, play species are also gradually changed. They compete, they fight for survival and a selection is made between them. The games that survive are those games that have the most adaptable variables to the changing conditions of their environment. Competition between games would appear to bring about an innovative selection associated with the survival of the fittest. This selection would be cultural rather than natural. Inevitably in this perspective, emerges the idea of progress: the evolution would thus provoke, by cultural selection, the domination of the richer and more complex games, in one word the domination of games deemed “superior”. In an implicit and more real fashion, this concept underlies many didactic currents. It is typical of certain sport partisans who affirm that sports represent social practices, with refe-rence to their superior qualities, and that traditional games are just minor games of inferior quality, that are nothing more than a mere contribution to the preparation for sports. The evolution of games would then register itself in a direction bringing the traditional games, considered as elementary, towards the institutionalized games, that is to say sports being considered as the real outcome of excellence. We here find the same type of prejudice in which the evolution of societies would lead man from the savage or wild state of primitive societies to the civilized and superior state of our western societies.

It is without a doubt that sports represent a remarkable social and economic success. They benefit from a widespread attraction from both the young and the adult populations. As well, the motor skill situations emanating from these games are often positively engaged in, for educational purposes. However, sports use only a restricted part of their potential ludomotor resources. They praise performance and adjusted competition rather than seeking the imperative spectacle. The triumphs of sport is not due to an educational richness or a high complexity, as we often pretend but to an internal logic whose modalities are remarkably adapted to the media requirements of our time.

To consider the evolution of games to the image of the Darwin theory appears a stimulating hypothesis, but it is too metaphoric and is not very compatible with the real content of the games. The analysis of the evolution remains still to be done; it is indispensable that this analysis focuses on the original content of the motor movement, which takes shape in the configurations of the internal logic.

The traditional games find themselves today at a delicate crossroads. They run the risk of appearing nostalgic, conservative and out of date practices. “These games are fossils” proclaims ethnologist Juliette Grangé [6]. There is a strong temptation to react by transforming traditional games into institutional games. Transforming traditional games into what is now known as sports will inevitably lead to practices that value competition and domination. By so doing, sport will not gain much and traditional games will loose their identity. The educational aspects of traditional games, as a consequence, will be greatly restricted. The “sportification” of traditional games is somewhat of a Faustian happening. While accepting to melt into the vast domain of sport in order to get more social visibility, traditional games will have to align themselves with the homogenizing constraints of the sport world: by so doing they will abandon their soul for a hypothetic profit. The pecu-liarities of regional play will be abolished in the universalism of globalized sport. Without a doubt there are other ways of examining the question. It is up to the young generation to find them and to exploit them. The destiny of traditional games, from now on, is in part in their hands.


[1] Adry J.,  Dictionnaire des jeux de l’enfance et de la jeunesse chez tous les peuples, Paris, 1807.

[2] Beart Ch., “Histoire des jeux”, (in:)  Jeux et sports, in Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, sous la direction de Roger Caillois, Gallimard, 1967, pp. 181-286.

[3] Cegarra M., Le peuple d’enfants d’après “Jeux d’enfants” de BRUEGEL, (in:) Sociétés et cultures enfantines, textes réunis par Djamila Saadi-Mokrane, Actes du Colloque CERSATES et SEF Collection (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherchers sur les Savoirs, les Arts, les Techniques, les Économies, les Sociétés), UL3, 1997.

[4]Chateau J., Le jeu de l’enfant, ed. J. Vrin, Paris 1967.

[5] Duverger Ch., L’esprit du jeu chez les Aztèques, Paris – La Haye – New York, Mouton Editeur, Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, EHESS, 1978.

[6] Grangé J., “Histoire du jouet et d’une industrie” dans Jeux et jouets, textes réunis par Robert Jaulin, Ed. Aubier Montaigne, Paris 1973, pp. 224-276.

[7] Lavigne L., “Les jeux d’autrefois – La trouille” dans Le pays lorrain, 1927.

[8] Mauss M., “Les techniques du corps” dans Sociologie et anthropologie, Ed. PUF (Pressses Universitaires de France), Paris 1966, pp. 363-386.

[9] Mehl J. M., Jeux, sports et divertissements au Moyen Age et à la Renaissance: rapport introductif , Ed. du CTHS (Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifíques), Paris 1993.

[10] Parlebas P., “Jeux, sports et sociétés”, Lexique de praxéologie motrice INSEP (L’Institut National du Sport et de l’Education Physique) Publication, Paris, 1999.

[11] Parlebas P., “Les jeux transculturels” dans Vers l’éducation nouvelle, dossier “Jeux et sports”, no 494, I, Avril 2000.

[12] Psichari M., “Les jeux de Gargantua” dans “Revue des études rabelaisiennes”, tome VI (1908); tome VII (1909).

[13] Rabecq-Maillard M. M., Préface au Dictionnaire des jeux, Tchou Editeur, Paris 1964.

[14] Rabelais F., Gargantua, chapitre 22: “Les jeux de Gargantua” dans Œuvres complètes, Ed. Gallimard, Paris 1967.

[15] Smedt M. de, Varenne J.M., Bianu Z., L’esprit des jeux, Ed. Seghers, Paris 1980.

[16] Tremaud H., “Les jeux de quilles dans Jeux et sports”, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, sous la direction de Roger Caillois, Ed. Gallimard, Paris 1967, pp. 867-885.

[17] Van Gennep A., Le folklore de la Flandre et du Hainaut français, tome II, Brionne, Ed. Gérard Montfort, 1935.



University of Stirling, Stirling, Scotland

Sports Studies Department

Key words: Highland Games; Global Sport; Social Capital; Anti-Globalisation; Ancient Sporting Traditions.


The article draws upon the history and contemporary relevance of the Scottish Highland Games in order to explain the relevance of ancient sporting traditions within to-days world. The article is divided around four themes: 1) A discussion of global sport and the place of sport within anti-globalisation movements; 2) A history of the Scottish Highland Games; 3) The contemporary social, cultural and economic significance of Highland Games and ancient sporting traditions, and finally; 4) A critique of global sport which involves a defence of the value of ancient sporting traditions in developing social capital. The article concludes by suggesting that the local, traditional and at times international is the natural defence against both global and or American cultural and economic forces of the day.


Firstly can I say many, many sincere thanks to the FALSAB (Federation des Amis des Luttes et Sports Athletiques de Bretagne) and the Breton Cultural Institute for asking me to contribute to and learn from the workshops that make up this colloquium. When I look at the names and contributors to present and past meetings it is a privilege to be here to. Can I sincerely thank you for and on behalf of the University of Stirling and the British Society of Sports History for inviting me to your gathering.

Having read many of the past papers and contributions over the years I note that the defence of traditional games and sports has been made so eloquently by others that it is difficult to add to what others have said [1, 2, 3; 12, 13]. Renson has warned us that “we should not speak of Danish, Flemish, Hawaiian, Nigerian or Scottish games but rather of traditional games practised in Denmark, Flanders, Hawaii, Nigeria or Scotland” [13, 51]. Salter has addressed the utilitarian functions of traditional leisure time activities in developing societies in terms of ritual, commerce, politics, social control, and education [14, 65] while Palm calls for the revival of traditional games as basis for a genuine resource to promote sport for all [12, 77]. I am mindful and indeed sympathetic of Eichberg’s ideas on body culture and popular culture as facets of association and living democracy [3]. The aforementioned list is far from exhaustive, but all of the authors included above have revealed in some way the vitality and importance of traditional games and sports and their utility within various communities. They have done so from a particular stance or a particular knowledge base of one or more cultures while at the same time being careful to acknowledge that the utility of their approaches should not be reified or taken as any form of universalism to solve a set of common problems such as the marginalisation or lack of mainstream funding support for traditional games and sport.

No matter where we come from and despite our many differences colloquiums such as this clearly prove that internationality and indeed social capital can be sustained and developed through an interest and involvement in traditional games and sports. Fairly innocent questions about traditional games and sports can soon lead you to fairly heated debates about culture, history, the impossible search for authenticity and the values associated with sporting practices. In Highland Games: The Making of the Myth [9]and Sport in the Making of Celtic Cultures [8] I rightly or wrongly argued that Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games and the many forms of sport within the Celtic cultures of Europe, could not be properly understood without a rigorous and systematic attempt to ask how the development of these activities were influenced by the historical and social conditions of the day. If Highland Games: The Making of the Myth had been written to-day it would have been a far better book had the author been much more critical about America’s growing obsession with its Scottish connections which are so clearly on display during the North American Highland Games season or the extent to which different traditions of Highland Games have taken on different meanings as they have travelled the globe and become much more international.

Whatever stories we tell about the changing nature of traditional games and sports in different parts of the world the defence of the traditional needs to be sensitive to the bigger diagnostic pictures necessary to orientate social support and political focus for the diversity of traditional games and sport throughout Europe. This in itself will be an uneven story because European social relations are themselves uneven. The story I want to share with you to-day is not just a comment in defence of Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games and ancient sports such as shinty but more a critique of those arguments that uncritically accept the notion or the trend of global sport as the way things are or the way things ought to be. It is an argument that rejects the free market notion of globalisation in favour of the idea of internationality while at the same time highlighting that the residual social aspects of many traditional Scottish games and sports hold an important middle ground. A third space between the free market provision associated with highly commercialised sports and state sponsored sports supported by local authority or government lottery funded sport which, at least in Scotland, tends to marginalize traditional sports and games. The significance of these issues I hope to illustrate very superficially in the time allowed. Nonetheless the questions at the heart of this paper are relatively straightforward; (I) is modern sport truly global? (II) what contribution can traditional Scottish games and sports make in terms of economic, cultural and social capital and (III), how can we defend traditional games and sports against the power of global sport in the 21st century? In order to achieve this I have divided this paper into the following three sections (A) a critique of global sport; (B) an account of Scottish Highland Gatherings and ancient Scottish sports and (C) a defence of the social in traditional games and sports.


It is impossible to describe modern life accurately without acknowledging the impact of games and sport worldwide. For example the claims associated with what has uncritically become termed global sport have been imprinted across newspaper headlines throughout the summer of 2002 and illustratively epitomised by the 2002 FIFA sponsored World Cup. FIFA is an organisation that likes to think of itself as governing the global game of football. Much of the research on globalisation and sport has tended focus upon the spread of sport across the globe in economic, cultural and political terms. A particular strand of this process has been to argue that the nation-state and the national are no longer as important as the global or the European or indeed broader configurations such the Celtic. There are two competing concepts of globalisation. One encompasses a community of human citizens and worked for, for instance by environmentalists who talk in terms of thinking global and acting local. The other is of an unregulated free market where capital is king or queen and the poor are left to struggle with the consequences of de-regulation, privatisation, and the international plundering of international corporations. Proponents of globalisation typically argue that we live in an age in which a new kind of international world has emerged, one that is characteristic of global competition for markets, consumers and culture. A facet of the free-market driven form of globalisation has been that markets have decided if we will have pensions in our old age; if people suffering from ill-health in Africa will be treated and what forms of games and sports will be supported or even whether certain regions will have football clubs or not.

Critics of globalisation insist that the process and development of global sport has neither been created completely nor produced a world that may be defined by rampant free markets or passive nation states. While globalisation may exist as a process it has not been achieved as an end point. The movement for global change is often referred to as anti-globalisation or anti-capitalist movement.There are two competing concepts of anti- globalisation one termed radical and one termed moderate. The radical wing view globalisation as a process largely designed to ensure that wealthy elites become more wealthy at the expense of poorer countries. The moderate wing although more difficult to define tend to share the view that globalisation has the potential to be good or bad. It has the potential to provide for a sharing of cultures paid for out of the economic growth provided by free trade but that because the institutions and rules that govern the world are currently controlled by wealthy elites then inequality, instability and injustice are inevitable. In a sporting context a corollary of this might be to argue that traditional cultural rights and traditions need to be at least equally recognised as socially and culturally, if not economically, as important as market supported forms of commercialised sport. Other solutions might involve the return of economic power and possibly political and cultural power to small localities.

Some have argued that it is important to distinguish between internationalisation and globalisation. McGovern’s study of the migration of footballers into the English League between 1946 and 1995 prefers to use the terms Celtic and International rather than globalisation when talking of the labour migration of footballers into and within Britain [11, 28]. As such it is concluded that the migration of professional footballers is clearly becoming more international in nature and that this is a trend that is developing along regional rather than global lines. Thus it is suggested that as far as one sport that claims to be global is concerned the notion that globalisation has been achieved is fundamentally flawed. It might be suggested that in terms of the spread of traditional games and sport is concerned that terms such as international, local and or Celtic, for example, might be more appropriate than the all consuming notion of globalisation.


It might have been tempting to talk of Scottish football in international terms maybe 30 or so years ago but the nation now ranked 60th in the football world failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. It could certainly be talked of in free-market terms as an illustrative case study of the problems brought about be the free-market international trade of footballers and the effect it has had on youth football in Scotland. Yet just as important too many local Scottish communities has been the traditional Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games season. The Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games incorporate feats of strength and agility that continue to be practised throughout Scotland but their formal organisation and annual occurrence seems to have taken off after about 1820. The identities encouraged by traditional games and sports in Scotland are usually multi-faceted and like other traditional sporting pastimes they can help to forge not only a sense of self but also a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of inclusion or exclusion, a sense of geography and history. They can contribute to a mythical or real sense of community that can often last a lifetime. Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games come in different forms and sizes and collectively there defence as a forum for traditional games and sport lies not in their potential as a form of free-market or global entity but rather their historical, cultural and international importance. But even these are secondary to their social importance as a form of social capital.

Consider the following facets of Highland Games and ancient sports and the contribution that they make to modern local, national and international communities:

(I) Highland Gathering and Games as Tartanry, Tourism and Economic Capital

As recently as September 2002 I was reminded yet again of the influence of the traditional games and sports to the 21st century Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In reading a particular Highland Cities bid to become recognised as a European Capital of Culture it was clear that there was a due recognition given to the power of the traditional in developing, and sustaining economic capital in contemporary society. This particular report went on to claim that there is a high correspondence between the attractions of the area and the rationale for being recognised as a European Capital of Culture. Themes that included the natural environment, cultural history and facilities, traditional and contemporary arts, the Gaelic language, traditional and distinctive events such as the Celtic folk festivals, ancient sports such as shinty and traditional Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games.

The Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games have not only been a traditional facet of Scotland’s sporting history but there are many different facets, images or even traditions of this set of essentially athletic activities. The following are but a few. They have evoked and presented to the rest of the world a particular image of Scotland. An image that is closely associated with the traditional organised Highland Gatherings such as those founded at St Fillans (1819), Lonach (1823), Ballater (1866), Aboyne (1867), Argyllshire (1871) and Cowal (1871). An image that is closely associated with kilted athletes and dancers, the skirl of the pipes, in some cases royal patronage, the distinct sub-culture of the heavies’ traditional strength events and the sense of bonhomie. In many ways this remains the dominant or most popular tourist image of the Scottish Highland Games - that is to say an image which is recognised by the tourist and one that is prioritised over other perhaps less formal local images of the Scottish Highland Games which equally have the right to be termed traditional.

(II) Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games as Royalty, Class and Status

There is of course the distinctly Royal image associated with the Braemar Royal Highland Gathering and Games. Queen Victoria’s attachment to Balmoral, Braemar and Royal Deeside is often quoted as the most single important factor that contributed to the development of the Scottish Highland Games. They still owe much to the royal patronage bestowed by the current Royal Family who attend Braemar while on their traditional summer holiday in the Highlands of Scotland. The stamp of royal approval first provided for by Queen Victoria attending the Braemar Gathering in 1848 contributed to a sense of respectability and royal approval but at the expense of some of the traditional content. As the traditional role of the monarchy declined during the 19th century royal games became increasingly important. Events such as the Braemar Royal Highland Society Gathering contributed to a growing nucleus of activities which helped to define an emerging British, Scottish and Highland sporting calendar which to-day includes the Derby (Epsom), Ascot racing week (Gold Cup) and various shooting seasons. In this sense the traditional Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games at Braemar continue to be about sociability, status, and social class.

(III) Highland Gathering and Games as Community, Social Memory and Mutual Obligation

The Ceres Highland Games in a part of Scotland called Fife are still thriving almost 700 years after the King of Scots granted the village a charter to hold a market and fair in recognition for the part played by local farmers, labourers, craftsmen and many others who joined the ranks of “the small folk” who allegedly fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Upon enquiring about what makes these games important one local who had been coming to the Ceres Highland Games for more than 40 years asserted “you see people you never see any other time of the year and it’s good to catch up. It’s funny how you only see someone once a year at the games and you just pick up where you left off with them – that’s what makes the games special”. In this sense it is crucial to recognise the extent to which Highland Gatherings and Games foster a sense of community and social memory.

Attending traditional games and sports can bring back visions of warmly remembered places and times, friends and families and connections that have forged not just specific sporting communities but on a broader scale local and national communities. The experiences of memory in shaping people’s lives has been widely explored in terms of how people make sense of various places or communities and in particular national communities. A sense of shared history and experience is important. Memories and stories of traditional games and sports, such as specific Highland Gatherings and Games or shinty matches, provide for generational stories, memories of childhood, memories of place, memories of past games which may be innocent in one sense but in another sense they provide threads of continuity in lives otherwise lived in separate chapters, in different jobs, know living in different villages and towns. Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games provide collective moments of identification between people that should not be underestimated. Traditional games and sports cannot create community but it can make a contribution. This notion of creating community could be developed a little bit further.

It has been suggested that just as important as the glamorous commercial Tourist Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games of the contemporary period are many of the less formal, local, Highland Games (in both the Highlands and the Lowlands). Writing in 1923 in Hebridean Memories, Seaton Gordon wrote “that the greatest event in the lives of the Uist and Barra crofterstakes place in July, when the annual Highland Gathering is held”. Although the great feature of Uist Gathering is the piping, the attraction to the component events of the different Highland Games were often secondary to the social function of meeting friends and in this sense the actual contests were more of a spectacle than the raison d’etre for the games themselves. The atmosphere of these less formal events such as those at Glenelg, Skye and Uist are as equally traditional as Braemar and Lonach and yet they are a world apart from the more formal, rationalised, commercial Highland Games circuit of the late 21st Century. What is being emphasised here is the opportunity afforded by the local and the traditional to sustain a network of social groups and relationships that fosters co-operative working and community well being. It involves communities and other social groups exercising a certain degree of trust through taking on mutual obligations in the staging of traditional games and sports.

(IV) Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games as International Culture

There is the international and/or North American image that is presented through magazines such as “Celtic World”, which continues to report and carry stories of the Scottish Highland Games to all corners of the Celtic World and beyond. It is in many senses an image that contributes to an international or Celtic image of the Scottish Highland Games. Visit the Scottish Highland Games 2002 Web pages and you will be promptly transported to Scottish Highland Games in Waipu New Zealand (1871); The Auckland Highland Games and Gathering (1980); Turakina Highland Games (1856); Highland Games Sychrov-near Prague (2001); The Tri-Annual Highland Gathering Leeuwarden (1998); The Hengelo Scottish Games – Netherlands (2002) and the Highland Games Association of Western Australia to name but a few. The language and appeal of these activities now extend around the world. The Web pages of the Highland Games Association of Western Australia receive daily hits from many corners of the globe in a way that would have been unthinkable ten, twenty or thirty years ago. All of these developments are testament to the place of traditional and non-traditional Highland Games as an international although not global form of culture.

The same might be said of the ancient game of shinty or it’s Irish derivative hurling. The Web pages of the Camanachd Association and the Gaelic Athletic Association receive daily hits from many corners of the globe. Entries on the Camanachd Association web page from Vancouver, Florida, Ontario, Oklahoma City, Cyprus, Brisbane, Windang, Virgina, Dubai, are testament to the place of shinty in the lives of the Émigré. A visit to the Gaelic Athletic Association Web page will take you not only a tour of the North American GAA administered territories but also to GAA Clubs such as the Pittsburgh Celtics Gaelic Football Club, the Washington DC Gaels, the Paris Gaels GAA Club, the Taiwan GAA site, and the Japan GAA site. This is a web site that has had over 99,000 visitors since March 1998. All of these developments are testament to the place of Gaelic games in the lives of the world wide Irish Diaspora.

(V) Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games as North American Scottish Culture

A particular facet of this internationalisation has been the development of the Scottish Highland Games and the role that it plays in North American émigré culture. One cannot divorce the development of Highland Games overseas from the diverse conditions that gave rise to emigration in the first place. Numerous Scottish societies emerged in order to facilitate the preservation, albeit in a particular form, of Scottish customs – including what the 1903 register of Scottish Societies called national athletic games. Highland Games were incorporated into the agenda of Scottish societies such as those formed in Philadelphia (1749), Savannah Georgia (1750), New York City (1756), Halifax Nova Scotia (1768), St John New Brunswick (1798), Albany (1803), Buffalo (1843), New York (1847), Detroit (1849), and San Francisco (1866). By the time the Kingussie Record of 1903 had reported on the efforts of the New York Highlanders Shinty Club, traditional sporting customs had become part of the social and cultural fabric of many émigré communities. It is not necessary to provide example after example to illustrate the point that by the time the North American Caledonian Association was formed towards the end of the nineteenth Century Scottish Highland Games and other ancient sporting traditions had become focal points of émigré re-unions.

The Highland roots in these communities would seem to be enormously important but what exactly is it that is being celebrated at the Glengarry Highland Games and other similar festivals such as those in Glasgow Kentucky? A lost past, a romantic history, a dislocated Scottish Diaspora, an authentic Highland Games free from the encroachment of Anglicisation, an ancient sporting tradition which has flourished in an authentic Gaelic culture? I think not. Certainly the Glengarry Highland Games and the pipers, the dancers, the hammer throwers and the heavy events give the occasion of a distinct sense of being associated in some way with some part of some Scottish/Highland culture which in itself is as different as it is similar and in any case almost impossible to define. Or does it owe nothing to Scotland at all – a celebration of a diffe-rent sense of community whose substance has nothing to do with an émigré culture and whose customs and traditions have exorcised an early culling of nostalgic pride. Is it a Glengarry sense of identity that is as different in the 21st century as it was in the nineteenth century? A celebration which owes as much to the myriad of experiences which make Glengarry County and the Glengarry Highland Games what they are to-day – s o -m e t h i n g t h a t i s n o t S c o t t i s h or H i g h l a n d at all but draws upon being a celebration of being a North American Scottish Highlander or Scot [7]. The distinction between the two contexts is absolutely crucial.

(VI) Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games and Ancient Sports as Educational and Cultural Capital

Traditional games and sports may also be viewed as forms of educational and cultural capital. So widely understood is the language and vocabulary of traditional games and sports that many commentators employ its imagery to cut through complexity. Whisky advertisers extol the virtues of their product regularly by using the ancient game of shinty. “Commitment, skill and endurance - qualities we appreciate” has been the symbolism or branding that has for so long cemented the relationship between shinty and Glenmorangie, one of Scotland’s famous brands of whisky. The shinty yearbook would regularly testify that such qualities are epitomised by “the sport of the Gael, shinty, just as they are embodied in Scotland’s favourite malt whisky, Glenmorangie” (Shinty Yearbook 1995-96, 70).

Furthermore both shinty and the Irish game of hurling have helped to fire the artistic imagination as artists use the sports to depict aspects of the human condition. Playwrights, painters, poets, photographers such as Sorley Maclean, Neil Gunn, Gordon Gillespie, Flann O’Brien, and Art O’ Maolfabhal, have used Celtic sports to explore the scope of human interaction and freedom. Anyone who has read the magnificent collection of primary sources accounted for in Not an Orchid is left in no doubt about the historical and cultural importance of shinty and hurling within past and present Celtic communities [10].

The same might be said of Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games when one considers the place of these activities within Scottish literary culture and writings. For example during the 1930s and 1940s the writer, novelist and Scottish Nationalist Neil Gunn (1891-1973) continually probed the relationship between symbolism, tradition, nationalism and culture [4]. The importance of sport within a changing way of life did not escape the attention of Gunn who not only questioned the notion of the Highlands as a sporting playground for the rich, in particular the nouveau riche from the South, but also the commercialisation of Scottish Highland Games and the spectacle of the professional athlete travelling from village to village collecting any money that local labour and patronage could gather [5]. Commenting upon one particular incident, Gunn recalls an occasion when the dancers were called together and the prize piper, who had carried off all the money that day, appeared not in the traditional Highland dress but in a blue suit and bowler hat. The judge, obviously astonished, called the piper over and asked him to explain what the rig-out meant. Not recognising the importance of the blue ribbon tradition of the best piper having the honour of playing for the dancers at the last event, the piper explained that he had wanted to catch an early train and therefore he had jettisoned his borrowed kilt so that he could beat it at the earliest moment [5, 413].

At one level, the humorous dismissal of the incident may seem insignificant and yet at another level, the writer’s point is intrinsically a serious one since what Gunn was in fact commenting upon was the decline of a Highland way of life in the 1930s and the in-roads being made by a more urban, commercialised and a times anglicised culture which took little cognisance of Celtic tradition, local people and customs. What seems clear about Gunn’s writings on tradition, including sporting traditions, and nationalism is the view that they were both inextricably linked and that the life and death of one was the life and death of the other [5].

The writings and contributions must be viewed in the specific context of time and place and I have used this example here to merely illustrate that Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games, like shinty as forms of traditional games and sports have contributed to Scottish literary culture and hence may be viewed in terms of educational and cultural capital. The emphasis here again on the cultural and social significance of traditional games and sports should not be underestimated in that social groups and individuals learn more when they can draw upon the cultural resources of people around them. They learn from each other directly but they also learn to trust that the social arrangements are in place to ensure that learning, through a multitude of mediums including traditional games and sports, will benefit them both culturally and socially. The contribution that traditional Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games and ancient traditional sports such as shinty have made to other cultural forms such art, poetry, and literature indicates they have at times been used an educational medium for saying something about the human condition and the social arrangements that exist in any given society at any given point in time.


Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games so despised because of their association with Gaelic culture in the 18th century have now become a much-valued part of one cities bid to become a European Capital of Culture in the early part of the 21st century. It is always exciting and sometimes a little confusing to live through a revival of any kind, when something long forgotten rises from oblivion and gains a fresh and potent currency in the present or when something like traditional games and sports marginalised from mainstream funding in the United Kingdom suddenly becomes important in terms of its cultural capital. Perhaps more importantly it serves as an example, and their are many others that could be drawn upon from all parts of Europe, that parts of the old world are still present in the new or that the classical, ancient and traditional is never dead but merely residual and in the same sense residual sporting cultures while they might never be dominant in this increasingly commercialised global and international sporting world are ever present and have much to say not just about the contemporary sporting worlds but also the way we live, who we are and where we want to go.

It seems that in the alleged era of global sport some or all of the following arguments are just as important in the early part of the 21st century. That traditional games and sports can: (a) through their associational nature help in the production and re-production of social capital; (b) contribute to a sense of civic pride, local pride and boosterism; (c) play a vital role in the regeneration and sustaining of communities; (d) in some cases make a contribution to the physical infrastructure of communities, provide a social focus for community and consequently influence people’s perceptions of locality and even nationhood and culture; (e) illustrate that the social values often associated with traditional games and sports are even more important to-day given the alleged decline in civil society and social capital; (f) provide for a strong sense of collective identification but can also be divisive; (vii) (cannot) sustain vibrant living communities but they can make a contribution; and finally; (g) contribute to international sporting markets and patterns of consumption while at the same time crucially influence local sporting identity and taste. In essence the local, traditional and at times international is the natural defence against the global or the American or the dominant cultural and economic forces of the day.

Finally in conclusion I should like to finish by highlighting three points. Firstly, I have rightly or wrongly attempted to suggest that traditional games and sports in many ways may serve to provide alternative to the readily accepted notion of global sport or more importantly the values associated withy global sport. Many traditional Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games in Scotland have their roots in the 19th century notion of a friendly society which served as a form of social welfare for local communities and individuals in time of need or hardship. These values are at times worth thinking about in an alleged global world which fosters ideological notion of a free-market driven form of global sport the consequences seem to be civic disengagement, liberal individualism and lack of trust not just in forms governance but life itself. It has been suggested that the notion of global sport and indeed globalisation is in some senses flawed and the notion of internationality might be a more reality congruent term. However with specific reference to traditional games and sport as form of middle ground or third space between global free-market driven sport and state sponsored sport, at least in Scotland where funding for traditional sports is marginal, it would seem that one of the strongest defences would be to that such activities help to sustain forms of social and cultural capital that is more than just educational. It refers to the network of social groups and relationships that fosters co-operative working and community well being. It involves communities and other social groups exercising a certain degree of trust through taking on mutual obligations. Traditional Highland Gatherings and Games have done this for centuries.

Secondly, community survival often requires a collective sense of identification and public spirit which in turn often requires the survival of other kinds of organisations and associations that help to regularly renew and cement social and cultural relationships. If traditional games and sports in other parts of Europe are anything like the Scottish Highland Gatherings and Games and other ancient sports in Scotland then they have been part of the social glue that have held communities to-gether. When the economic viability of life in certain local regions or community “a”, “b” or “c” is threatened perhaps it is unrealistic to expect sport to make more than a symbolic significance. Clearly there are limits to what traditional games and sports can do in contributing to community renewal, survival and sustainability. Nonetheless the role of traditional games and sports in cementing new and old relationships should not be underestimated either.

Finally, in an ever changing individualised and more home based world in which the traditional practices and forms of employment which often held communities together are increasingly under threat then the role of traditional games and sport in to-days communities becomes increasingly important. The different European groups of people who attend colloquiums and seminar such as this is in part testament to the fact that traditional games and sport is not only culture but an instrument of social and cultural inclusion that can bring peoples and cultures to-gether when the correct conditions are given. They are testament, like the enduring residual social facet of Highland Games, to the role that traditional games and sport can play in the production of social and cultural capital within and across modern International Communities.


[1] Barreau J., Jaouen J., Les Jeux Traditionales en Europe, FALSAB, Morlaix, 1999.

[2] Barreau J., Jaouen J., Les Jeux Populaires: Eclipse ET Renaissance, FALSAB, Morlaix 1998.

[3] Eichberg H., A Revolution of Body Culture (in:) Barreau J. and Jaouen J., Les Jeux Populaires: Eclipse ET Renaissance, FALSAB, and Morlaix, 1998, pp. 191-213.

[4] Gunn D., Neil Gunn’s Country, Chambers, Edinburgh, 1991.

[5] Gunn N., Gunn N., Highland Games, “Scots Magazine”, 1931, xv (6), pp. 412-416.

[6] Hague E., Mercer J., Geographical memory and urban identity in Scotland, “Geography”, 1998, 83 (2), pp. 105-116.

[7] Jarvie G., Sport, the émigré and the dance called America, “Journal of Sport History”, 2000, vol. 31, 1, pp. 28-42.

[8] Jarvie G., ed., Sport in the Making of Celtic Cultures, Leicester University Press, London 1999.

[9] Jarvie G., Highland Games: The Making of the Myth, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh 1991.

[10] MacLennan H.D., MacLennan H.D., Not an Orchid, Kessock Communications, Inverness 1995.

[11] McGovern P., Globalization or internationalization? Footballers in the English League, “Sociology”, vol. 36, 1, pp. 23-42.

[12] Palm Ch., Traditional sport in industrial countries, “Journal of Comparative Physical Education and Sport”, 1997), XIX (2), pp. 72-78.

[13] Renson R., The reinvention of tradition in sports and games, “Journal of Comparative Physical Education and Sport”, 1997, XIX (2), pp. 46-54.

[14] Salter M., Traditional leisure time activities in developing societies, “Journal of Comparative Physical Education and Sport”,1997, XIX (2), pp. 65-71.

[15] Seaton-Gordon H., Hebridean Memories, New Wilson Glasgow Publishing, 1923.



University of Ottawa, School of Human Kinetics

Key words: Games; Inuit; Cree; Education; Culture.


Throughout history games have had a place of honor in most cultures. Inuit and Cree Indian games of Canada have played an important role in the physical, mental, educational and cultural development of their people. Both groups have distinctive games, which are closely linked to their survival in the Artic and in the Bush. In this article, the educational aspects of the games are closely examined in the light of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Gardner’s multiple intelligence. The author concludes that these games, like other games, play an important role in the biomotor, psychosocial, educational and moral development of children.


A game is not just a game. It is part of a whole. It is part of a culture. It has history, a goal, a people, a purpose, a structure, a philosophy and a strategy. It has characteristics and rules; it has ritual, rhythm, dimensions, morals and it is linked to a specific environment. It has educational dimensions; it can be studied from a scientific or from an artistic point of view.

Games are an important part of life. References to games are a common occurrence in the origin myths of various tribes [5]. Games help to refine skills, build cha-racter, express ourselves and to improve our performance. Games help us to make friends and to have fun. Fun in playing games is the main attraction to games for children and adults. Games are about teamwork, co-operation, managing a challenge, setting and achieving goals. Games are also about fair play and about winning in everyday life. Games are also about a healthy mind and a healthy body [20]. Through teaching, coaching and participating in games children can learn many lifestyle skills such as fair play, a positive attitude to life and living, teamwork, co-operation, healthy competition and respect for others. Games also promote active living, a healthy lifestyle and wellness. Fir fer (fair play) was the basis of the Celtic code of honour in sport and is also the basis of our legal system [10].

Throughout history games have had a place of honour in most cultures. The old Tailteann Games had three goals: one, to honour the dead, two, to promote laws and three, to entertain the people [1]. The Greeks and the Celts believed that physical activity and learning went hand-in-hand. The Highland Games of Scotland consist of dancing, music and athletic events. In many games children simulate, in a drama form, the adult lifestyle and behaviours they see about them. In the game of Cnapan (Knappan), the Welsh players would strive to the death for glory and fame which they esteemed dearer than any worldly wealth [19]. Games are pastimes for the young and for the old alike, for males as well as for females, for the fit as well as for the more sedentary folk, for those with disabilities as well as the able bodied.

Games are a fundamental part of animal [17] and human education [12, 25]. Representative games play an important role in the education of youth [26]. Games help man to cope with the stresses of everyday life. The attributes of games can be psychosocial, sensory, communication, intellectual or biomechanical. With the dramatic increase in premature death due to lifestyle disease, in particular overweight and obesity, games and active living, can play a positive role in reducing premature deaths [9].


The Inuit of Nunavut live in 28 small isolated settlements. The 23,136 Inuit are direct descendants of the Thule who first inhabited the Eastern Arctic about 1,000 years ago. Though a very small group of people, they are well known for the uniqueness of their traditional lifestyle and culture and their ability to survive and thrive in the very harsh cold climate of Canada’s North. Over the past 40 years modern technology has dramatically changed the Inuit lifestyle. The traditional dog teams have been replaced by snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, cars and trucks. The harpoon has been replaced by the rifle. The igloo has been replaced by houses with electricity, running water and television.

The Inuit have found it a serious challenge to adapt to modern life, while at the same time to protect their traditional social and cultural roots. The rapid change from a fishing and hunting lifestyle to a wage earning world has created a devastating blow to the physical, mental, educational and cultural health of the Inuit. In many cases they lead an impoverished and tragic life [4]. Inuit and Cree lifestyle changed forever with the advent of self-determination agreements signed in 1971 (Alaska Inuit Native Claims Settlements); in 1975 (Cree James Bay Agreement) and in 1979 (Home Rule for Greenland Inuit).

Despite the isolation and vast distances between communities the people of Nunavut are very much a distinct society. They have their own approach to life and living – The Inuit Way – [21]; their own musical instrument (the drum); their own style of singing (throat singing); their own sea transport (the kayak); their own special house (the igloo); their own style of clothing and their own specific games. The long cold Arctic winter, the prolonged period of darkness, the simple practical approach to life of the Inuit give the games a specific character. Due to confined space in the igloo most games were restricted to one or two players. The lung searing cold of winter hampered the development of activities of a running nature. Some team activities do exist and are played during their short summer. The Inuit games play an important role in ensuring survival. They helped people improve strength, endurance and pain resistance [16].

In Inuit society traditional games played an important role in educating their children. Games helped to develop life skills for hunting and fishing. The pedagogical concept of “pilimmaksarniq” (learning by doing) was a fundamental approach to learning in Inuit society [2]. Through this pedagogical approach the Inuit parents passed on culture, skill and knowledge to their children. The games developed the young children physically and socially. It also prepared them psychologically for the harsh life in the frigid Arctic. One of the most appealing characteristics of the Inuit is their tremendous sense of fun. In order to survive in the cold Arctic the Inuit learned to paddle, to shoot arrows and harpoons and to increase their endurance and strength. They developed their co-ordination, dexterity, craft-making and how to read their physical environment.

Certain Inuit games tested the athlete’s aerobic endurance such as running races; some games developed muscular strength such as the arm pull, finger pull, head pull, stick pull, the muskox fight and the head push. Other games developed strength, speed, and power: high kicks, knee jump, long jumps and gymnastics. Pain resistance (a psychological trait) was developed in activities such as: knuckle hops, mouth and ear pull, ear lift, and Inuit boxing. Ice-flow jumping is also a risky game played by the Inuit. The bow and arrow skills and the harpoon throw were important for daily life. “Skills in hunting, perseverance in the chase and continuous endurance were qualities that helped (the Inuit) to overcome the dangerous environment” [3]. The Inuit learned to hunt, to fish and to make tools. They learned to build igloos and to make clothes. All this learning took place in the home or on the land under the watchful eye of the parents who were the models and teachers of the children. Most of the learning was achieved through games and play. Toonik Time is a traditional festival that takes place every Spring in the Arctic. During this festival many traditional games and survival skills are demonstrated. Inuit games are divided into three groups; survival, education and gatherings or celebration games. Some team games are played in the summer, such as the blanket toss; wolfman (tag game); soccer, sand ball and Inuit baseball.

In March 2002, the circumpolar games were co-hosted by the Canadian and Greenland Inuit. They consist of a mixture of Dene, Inuit and modern games. The Inuit have also developed a school curriculum entitled Inuuqatigiit (The Inuit Way). This curriculum is sensitive to the Inuit culture and traditions. In it one finds how the Inuit see the world; how the Inuit gain knowledge, wisdom and traditional values; how the Inuit relate to each other and to other people and how they relate to the environment. Traditional games and recreation have an important role to play in this native curriculum. Traditional games are being integrated into the school system. Modern games and traditional games have equal importance in many of the schools. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the Arctic, the traditional religion of the Inuit was Shamanism [27]. That too is undergoing a revival among the Inuit.


The Cree Indians live in a totally different physical environment to that of the Inuit. The Cree live in the subarctic forests of the James Bay area of Northern Quebec, Canada. The Cree lived in teepees, in the Bush, from September to May, until 1972. Survival in the Bush needs somewhat different skills from those needed in the Arctic. The Cree lived primarily from hunting, fishing and trapping. The Cree games are closely linked to their lifestyle. The Cree games are also divided into survival, educational and celebration games. The Cree learned early in life that survival in the Bush was skill related. One of the oldest ceremonies of the Cree is called the “Walking Out Ceremony”. It symbolizes the first day of a Cree child’s life as a male hunter or as a woman. The two year old children are given toy tools, slings, wooden guns, a bow and arrow (for the boys) and an axe (for the girls). The children are expected to play with these toys and when they demonstrate that they are skilled in the use of these tools they are treated as adults. The parents act as models and the children imitate what they see. The Cree have two major ceremonial type gatherings called: Winter Carnival and Summer Games. The Cree games can be divided into ten main categories: combat games, transport games, hunting and fishing skills, manual and imagination games, chasing games, games using poles, ball and stick games, ball games, strength games and chance games [11]. There are other pastimes and games that do not fit into these categories. According to Father Allain, (who worked with the Cree for 40 years), chance is a concept that is embedded in the Cree psyche. Unlike the farmer, the Cree did not sow, cultivate, reap or store food. They did not feed their animals or hatch their eggs. The Cree went out in the land and obtained their food by chance. If they were unlucky finding food, they went hungry or starved to death [7].

The Cree games take place at three different locations: in school, at the Bush camps and at festivals. In primary school, from Kindergarden to grade 3 the curriculum is totally about Cree Culture. They play some Cree game in this program. In secondary school part of the program is about Cree Culture. During this part of the program the students go into the Bush where they experience the Cree way of living. In the school system there is also an alternative school in which students learn the skills for survival and trapping in the Bush. The Cree associate tradition with the Bush. The Bush is sacred to them. The youth council runs a canoe race called the canoe brigade. It is a six week canoe trip in the rivers. There is also a 60 km snow-shoe race as well as a marathon snow-shoe walk from Great Whale to Waswanippi. This marathon walk takes 10 weeks to finish. Their weight lifting competitions consist of canoe portages. Every year at the end of April or early May the entire population of the settlements go into the Bush to hunt Canadian geese. This activity is called the “Goose Break”. All the schools are closed during this activity.

Like the Inuit the Cree love to participate in games but they have no compulsion to win. At the winter Carnival the Cree play such activities as: ice chiselling, obstacle races on foot, snow-shoe races, log sawing, wood chopping, animal skinning and dance contests to name but a few. At the summer games the activities are: pole climbing, archery, heavy portage, canoe races, fishing contests, arm wrestling and the fox-draw.

Few documents exist describing the Cree games. Even though the Cree school system is run on the Euro-Canadian model, the Cree are making a big effort to introduce Cree Culture, including the Cree traditional games into the school curriculum. Being cross-legs on two cultures (Cree and Euro-Canadian) has forced the Cree into a hybrid culture.

According to Diamond a Cree Indian lady whom I interviewed for my unpublished field work [11] embroidery, knitting, toy-making, drum-making and doll-making were other activities engaged in by the Cree, in the past. The drum and the violin were their two musical instruments. The Cree also danced. The old dances were known as the duck dance, the otter dance and the rabbit dance. These dances no longer exist and are replaced by Celtic dances such as the jig, the reel, the hornpipe and square dancing.

In order to get a better picture and understanding of the educational aspects of traditional games, I have examined two fundamental aspects of education: motivation for learning and the theory of multiple intelligence. Maslow’s motivational theory [23] and Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence [14] could be seen as important building blocks in the analysis of the educational aspects of traditional games. This article is too short to permit me to give an in-depth analysis of these theories. However, we shall clearly indicate to the reader, in a practical fashion, how the games fit into both theories.


Education philosophies and education processes are legion. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I will confine myself to these two approaches (Maslow & Gardner) in an attempt to clarify the educational components of traditional games. Two separate ideas are involved: one, the motivational process and two, the transmission process by which information and skills are passed on from one generation to the next.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the biopsychosocial and philosophical needs of humans are elaborated starting with the basic survival needs of food and shelter at the bottom of the pyramid and ending with more abstract or philosophical needs at the top of the pyramid (see fig. 1). Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory breaks away from the traditional school system theory of abstract learning, i.e., the 3 R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic). Gardner’s theory is holistic (see fig. 2). It provides an excellent tool for the educational analysis of traditional games. He defines intelligence as “the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting” [15]. In addition to biology, Gardner notes that culture also plays a large role in the development of intelligence [14].

In examining the educational aspects of the Cree and Inuit games in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one must see their traditional games as part of a whole, i.e. a culture. The survival skills of hunting, fishing and trapping have been learned and perfected through the playing of games that simulate the said skills. The basic physiological needs of both Cree and Inuit are taken care of through fishing and hunting skills. Their safety needs are also a function of their ability to feed, shelter and protect themselves from wild animals and other dangerous environmental hazards.

Fig. 1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Both groups fulfill their psychological needs of “belongingness” through their families, festivals and team games. Self-esteem is an essential psychological need in us all. The Cree and Inuit self-esteem was a function of their survival skills which they developed and perfected early in life through games, fishing and hunting.

The fifth component in Maslow’s hierarchy is knowledge and understanding. The Cree and Inuit learned by doing. For the Inuit it was Pilimmaksarniq (learn by experience) and for the Cree it was the Family Model (trial and error). The knowledge was passed on in a three step procedure: observation, experimentation and practice. The knowledge was passed on in a play like fashion. Games had an important role therein.

The aesthetic aspects of the Cree and Inuit life was expressed through sculpture, dance, drum, violin playing, throat singing, music, games and embroidery.

Fig. 2. Howard gardner’s multiple intelligence (Gardner 1983)

Self-actualization for both Cree and Inuit had to do with many variables but in particular to adherence to their traditional lifestyle; harmony with others, the animals, the spirits and the cosmos. As for game competition; they loved to participate. Winning was not important. Participation in a game or competition was for them a source of great pride.

Finally, transcendence for both groups consisted of being in harmony with the great spirits. Shamanism was their religion and the shaman was their spiritual leader [27].

In examining Gardner’s multiple intelligence model we see therein eight diffe-rent types of intelligence [14]. Emphasis on today’s early school learning is mostly on cognitive learning (reading, writing and mathematics). However, we do know that a great deal of an individual’s learning takes place prior to going to school. Many of the child’s language skills, gross and fine motor skills, music and rhythm skills, coordination, dexterity and communication skills are well developed during the first five or six years of life. In Gardner’s linguistic intelligence, games, play and storytelling were the tools used by the Cree and Inuit to teach their children, words, names, ideas and communication skills (up to the 1960's few Cree or Inuit had any formal schooling). The logical concepts of patterns, relationships, strategies etc. were learned from every day experiences of hunting, fishing, building shelter and playing games.

Body-kinetics intelligence was developed in both groups by such activities as wrestling, string games, tarp crawling, spear throwing, high kicks, juggling etc. In all these activities manipulation and sensation played an important role.

Visual Spatial Intelligence was developed by participating in games and activities such as quiet games, pretend games, bag of bones game, tarp crawling, checkers, bow and arrows and ice fishing.

Music intelligence was developed by exploring the drum, dance, throat singing, violin and rhythmic games.

Interpersonal intelligence has to do with communication skills. It is only recently that the Inuit and the Cree developed a written language. For most of their history they communicated their knowledge and their emotions verbally or by using body language. Much of their interpersonal intelligence was developed using story telling, laughing contests, chanting games, throat singing, dance, music and their traditional games.

Intrapersonal intelligence has to do with getting to know oneself. Success in work and play helps to build a positive self-image which in turn gives the individual a realistic self-worth. Today’s youth, with epidemics of obesity, anorexia, teenage suicide and drug abuse, need positive experiences in music, dance, games and in sport in general. Finally, naturalist intelligence has to do with the ability to recognize and to survive in one’s own environment. Despite the fact that 80% of the Canadian population live in towns and cities, the Cree and the Inuit prefer to live in the frozen tundra or in the Bush. The street smarts of the cities are of little help in the High Arctic or in the Bush. The traditional lifestyle and the traditional games help the Cree and Inuit to thrive in their Northern environment.


Success in promoting the educational aspects of traditional games among the Inuit and Cree is a function of many variables:

  1. Suitable infrastructures in the community, such as fields, arenas, stadiums and gymnasiums.

  2. An active organization that prepares coaches, teachers, referees and establishes rules, policies and philosophies.

  3. Visibility of the games in the media.

  4. Financial support from different levels of government.

  5. Integration of traditional games with modern games into the school curriculum. This is perhaps the key step in promoting the traditional games.

  6. Integration of traditional games with modern games into community festivals.

  7. Emphasis of the amateur spirit of the games. One plays for fun, for fitness and for health.

  8. Provision of different levels of competition; provide access to all levels of ability.

  9. Having a research component in the organization that researches the benefits of traditional games for youth.

  10. Promotion of different values and a different vision of the future than those of the “rat race” society of today.

  11. Availability of instructional manuals, videos and a school curriculum for teachers and coaches.


Games in general play an important role in the biomotor, psychosocial and moral development of children. They also provide the young an opportunity to learn many skills, survival skills, aesthetic skills, communication skills, psychological skills, health and recreational skills. In his recent book the Dalai-Lama stated that humans and animals are motivated by two forces: the desire to avoid pain and the desire to seek happiness [6]. Traditional games play a role in both situations.

Inuit games are alive and flourishing in the territory of Nunavut. Each community fosters the games through its schools and community recreation centres. The games are integrated into the school curriculum alongside modern games. There are macro and micro organizations throughout the territory that oversee the development and organization of the Inuit games. Written documents and videos describing the games do exist. The government of Nunavut financially supports the games. These games are played on an international level. The Inuit games are visible in the media. They have an amateur status. The games are played for fun, fitness and health. The Inuit love to participate but they have no compulsion to win. The Cree games do not enjoy the same visibility and success as do the Inuit games. This may be due to many variables. The social chemistry of the Cree is not the same as that of the Inuit. The Cree personality is less assertive in many ways. The Euro-Canadian school system has not been completely sensitized to the Cree needs. A partial Cree Culture curriculum does exist but has only moderate emphasis on Cree games. The hybrid school system does not facilitate the integration of Cree games into the schools. The Cree do not have national or international competitions. Little research is being carried out specifically on the educational aspects of Cree games. The survival type games thrive at a local level, primarily in the Bush Camps and at festivals. The celebration type games also thrive at a local level in particular at the winter carnival and summer games. By examining the educational aspects of the tradition games using existing educational and health models, one will provide credible evidence, to the school boards, on the positive educational and health benefits of traditional games. Games, in particular children’s games reflect the general values of the surrounding society [29; 24]. Traditional games will help prepare children for the roles they will play as adult citizens in society. Much more remains to be done in this area of research.


[1] Aonach Tailteann 1924. Revival of Ancient Tailteann Games, Dublin, 2nd -18th August 1924.

[2] Arnakak J., Promethelosis, (Unpunblished document), Arctic College, Iqaluit 2001.

[3] Bailicki A., The Netsillk Eskimo, Natural History Press, Garden City, N.Y. 1970.

[4] Boychuk R., Arctic Maritimers, “Canadian Geographic”, 1999.

[5] Culin S., Games of the North American Indians, Dover Publications Inc., New York 1975.

[6] Dalai-Lama, Conseils du Coeur, Presse de la Renaissance, Paris 1997.

[7] Egan S., Cree chance games, (Unpublished field study), University of Ottawa. Canada 1981.

[8] Egan S., How the Crees lived in the past (Unpublished field study), University of Ottawa. Canada 1987.

[9] Egan S., The health benefits of physical activity, “The International Bulletin of Physical Education and Sport”, 1997, vol. 67, no 2, pp. 5-15.

[10] Egan S., The Celts and their Games and Their Pastimes, Mellen Press, New York 2002.

[11] Egan S., Cree Games (Unpublished field study), University of Ottawa, Canada 2002.

[12] Ellis M.J., Why People Play, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1973.

[13] Feit H., Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience, Morrison & Wilson, McClelland & Stewart 1986.

[14] Gardner H., Frames of Mind, Basic Books, Inc., New York 1983,

[15] Gardner H., Hatch T., Multiple intelligences go to school: Educational Implications of the theory of multiple intelligences, “Educational Researcher”, 1989, 18(8), pp. 4-9.

[16] Heine M., Arctic Sports: A Training Manual, Sport North Federation. Yellowknife, Canada, 2002.

[17] Huizinga J., Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Beacon Press, Boston 1950.

[18] Inuuqatigiit, The Inuit Way, Nunavut, Department of Education, Canada, 1995-96.

[19] John B., The Ancient Game of Cnapan, Greencraft Books, Trefelin, Cilgwyn, Newport, Pembrokeshire Dyfed 1985.

[20] Lankford S., Neal L., The 1998 Arctic Winter Games. A study of the Benefits of Participation, Arctic Winter Games International Committee, Yellowknife, Canada, 1998.

[21] Lauren D., Vincent M., Nunavut, “Canadian Geographic”, 1999, pp. 39-46.

[22] Loy J. W., Kenyon G. S., Sport, Culture and Society, Collier-Macmillan Ltd., London 1969.

[23] Maslow A., Lowery R., Toward a Psychology of Being, Wiley and Sons, New York, 1998.

[24] Miller W., Thomas M., Blackfoot Games, “Child Development”, 1972, vol. 43, pp. 1104-1110.

[25] Piaget J., Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, Norton, New York – London 1962.

[26] Roberts J., Games and Culture, “American Anthropologist”, 1959, 61, pp. 597-605.

[27] Saladin d’Anglure B., Cosmology and Shamanism, Nunavut Arctic College, Iqaluit 2001.

[28] Sapona A.V., Mitchell E. D., Theory of Play and Recreation, Ronald Press, New York 1948.

[29] Weisfeld C., Games of the Hopi tribe in the U.S.A., “Ethos”, 1984. vol. 12, pp. 64-84.

[30] Zuk W., Eskimo Games, Department of Indian Affairs, Canada, Ottawa, 1967.



Research Institute for Sport, Culture and Civil Society

Gerlev, Denmark

Key words: Philosophy of Sport; Play and Games; Tug-of-war.


Pull and tug is often regarded as an elementary form of sport, along with running, jum-ping and throwing. However, this “element” has rarely been analysed in depth. We approach it by starting with pulling practices in Inuit Eskimo culture.

In the beginning of modern sport, tug-of-war was regarded as a “natural” part of the Olympic program, but soon it was excluded from Olympic sport. This had deeper reasons, which questioned the mainstream assumption that a linear historical evolution led from popular play to modern sport. The exclusion of pull and tug from Olympic sport casts light on the gist of modern sport as a practice of reifying human movement and producing results.

This calls our attention to some deeper contradictions in modern movement culture. Sport and games can be described in the categories of objectivity – what is “It” in the game? – or in terms of subjectivity: Where am “I” in movement? The binary construction between “It” and “I” is, however, insufficient. A third and often over-looked relation is the “You” of encounter, the relationality. Popular play and game tell us that the human being is not alone in the world.


The context of the Inuit game – the cultural approach.

Pedagogy of “the unserious” – actual experiences.

Evolution and disappearance – historical approaches.

The way of contradiction – a philosophical attempt.

It – the objective dimension of movement.

  • Achievement.

  • Rule.

  • Instrument, facility, function.

  • Objectivation, reification and the impossible game.

I – The subjective dimension of movement.

  • Personal and situational experience.

  • From Eigen-Sinn to epistemological solipsism.

  • Equality, inequality, and the third.

You – The relational dimension of movement.

  • Encounter, the human being as With and Also.

  • Identity, non-identity, alterity.

  • Festivity and environment, death and laughter.

Ex-centric theory of the body – and squint-eyed research.

Two human beings stand shoulder by shoulder (see: Fot. 1). They put their arms around the partner’s neck, mutually, symmetrically, like good friends. Opening their lips, they grab with their forefinger into the other’s mouth. On a signal, they start pulling. The mouths and cheeks are distorted, the eyes are rolling, the sight gets grotesque features. The competitors keep tugging. Intensifying their draught, they turn their heads outward, trying both to relieve the pain and resist effectively at the same time. Finally, one of them gives up, at first slowly following the pull by turning his head, and then overtly surrendering by turning the rest of his body. He is overcome.


We start our intellectual inquiry by the question whether the Inuit game of mouth pull is a sport or could become a sport in modern understanding. Other similar Inuit games and activities, e.g. Eskimo boxing, or pull-and-tug competitions in other non-Western cultures, have typically been categorized by sport anthropologists as “sports”. Similarly, sport historians have presented old European popular pastimes like Fingerhakeln – finger pull, as early forms of “sport”. In fact, at first glance, mouth pull might appear as a bodily action, which is competitive and oriented towards performance. With these elements, mouth tug fulfils the criteria of sport as they have been proposed by erudite sociological analyses which define sport by bodily action, competition, and performance.

On the other hand one might express doubts: is tug-the-mouth really sport? There is no Olympic discipline of mouth pull, nor will most likely there ever be one. Our doubts reinforce when we have a closer look at the cultural context of the game.

Mouth pull has been practiced in the traditional world of the Inuit, the Arctic Eskimo. During the long and dark winter season when the sun remains below the horizon for weeks or months, people draw closer in their communal long houses where every family disposes over a sort of cell with sleeping banks and an oil lamp. The communal life determines daily life. In the dance houses called kashim, the drums are booming and rumbling for permanent festivity. The drum dance, ingmerneq or qilaatersorneq, makes people high and provokes their laughter. The shamans, called the angákoq, practice their ecstatic healing displays, putting their settlement fellows into states of changed consciousness. In this atmosphere of social warmth and intensity it happens that people challenge each other, especially the strong men. Besides fist fights and competitions of lifting and balancing, a lot of pull-and-tug games are practiced – stick tug (arsâraq or quertemilik), stick match, pulling rope (norqutit) or smooth seal skin (asârniúneq), arm pull, finger, wrist or hand pull, neck pull, ear or foot pull, elbow pull: (pakásungmingneq), and wrist press (mûmigtut). For competitive pleasure, people may tug or turn each other's nose, ear, or even testicles [41, 34; Joelsen in: 31, 37].

In the summer time, the traditional Inuit society change its social character fundamentally. It dissolves into nucleus families forming smaller groups of hunters and gatherers. They meet, however, again at summer festivals, aasivik, where drums, dance and competitions play the central role once again.

One of these summer events was portrayed by the famous Greenlandic painter Aron of Kangeq (1822-1869), showing one of the most eccentric pull exercises – the arse pull (see: Fot. 2). In an open-air scene, one sees a group of ten Inuit assembled around two men competing with their trousers down. Jens Kreutzmann (1828-1899), a collector of popular stories and traditions, described in detail how people used a short rope with two pieces of wood fastened at the ends. They put these pieces into their backsides in order to tug the rope by their back muscles [53, 152-154].

Sport or not sport? The particular case of pull-and-tug and the problem of its definition allows for some more comprehensive questions: What is sport? What is play in human life? What is a human being in movement? From a concrete play, the way leads to fundamental philosophical questions of human movement and human existence.


These philosophical reflections are stimulated by actual experiences with play and game in pedagogical practice. For some years, the International Sports Playground in Gerlev has worked practically and pedagogically against this challenge. The basis for this research has been the fundamental consideration about the place of play and game in the pedagogical world of sport. Game and play are generally regarded as important aspects of sports, though they tend to be neglected in practice in favour of disciplinary training. In sport, play and games are considered educational entertainment for children and are used as warm-up, i.e. as marginal in relation to the central process of achievement. On the ideological level, reference to play and game is often made in Olympic rhetoric. However, play is much more than that, also in relation to sport. It is experimentation, role game and challenge of one’s own identity, revolt, team building, flirtation, contest and competitive engagement, processing of fear and anxiety, background for a good laugh... If play were to be taken seriously, a new approach would be required – play and games as experimentarium.

The International Sports Playground, which opened in spring 1999, covers an area of three hectares and offers fine views over the Great Belt. The playground is composed of different sites. There is the “natural site” with a lake, a brook, shrubbery and a swamp. The “urban site” features an asphalt rink for skating and street games, and is to include a climbing tower in the near future. Pavilions around the “market place” form the “village site” with equipment for numerous Danish, Swedish, Breton, Flemish and other games. Visitors may test their skills at about fifty or hundred games within the playground area [45].

Among these games, which are also described in some handbooks [1, 46], a certain group can be categorized as pull-and-tug games:

  • Trækkekamp – Pull competition. Two competitors try pulling and other bodily actions, foot against foot and arm against arm, to throw each other off balance.

  • Trække stok or Svingel – Pull the stick. Two opponents, sitting feet to feet, seize a short stick and try to pull each other out of the sitting position.

  • Trække okse – Pull the ox. The same is done by two competitors, who lie backwards on the backs of two assistants who crawl away from each other, pulling the contenders along.

  • Trække sømandshandske – Pull the sailor’s glove. Two opponents, sitting feet to feet, try to pull each other out of their positions. This time the players' fingers are used as a hook, hand in hand.

  • Stikke Palles øje ud – Cut out Palle’s eye. Two competitors seize a long stick, which is placed between their legs. Standing back to back, they try to pull the opponent towards a certain place, which is usually a plug in the ground. “Palle’s eye” can also be a burning candle, which is to be extinguished with a player's own end of the stick.

  • Grænsekamp – Pull across the border. Two teams challenge each other over a marked line on the ground, trying to pull individual players from the opposing team to one’s own side. Players may form chains to hold one another in their own team.

  • Tovtrækning – Tug-and-pull. This is a well-known team competition, attempted to be transformed into a modern sport.

  • Trække kat – Pull the cat. Two competitors tie the rope around their bodies, and take positions on the opposite sides of a brook. Then, standing back to back, they try to pull each other into the water.

  • Snøre vibe – Tie up the pewit. Two competitors tie their feet to each other's with a rope. The aim is to pull the opponent so that he loses the balance and falls to the ground.

  • Firtræk – Four men’s pull. Four persons hold a circle-formed rope and try to pull their opponents into their respective directions, so that they can reach a designated plug on the ground. This includes the tactical element, i.e. cooperation to hinder the others in succeeding so.

  • Troldehoved or Balders Bål – Head of the Troll or Fire of Balder. Players stand in a circle, hand in hand, around a circle-formed rope inside. They try to pull one another into the “inner fire”; a player who steps over the rope is “out”. The players must hold firmly by their hands all the time.

Pull games constitute, thus, a considerable group along with other main groups of run-and-catch games, ball games, skittle games, competitions of force or agility, single combat games, and table games. In relation to modern sports, they balance between the possibility of becoming or unbecoming “sportized”. Many of the games' arrangements have grotesque elements, not unlike the Inuit arse tug, and make the spectators and the competitors laugh.

In this “experimentarium” of play and games, a number of practical and educational experiences have been collected, with reference to ridiculousness, “unseriousness”, gender, violence, etc. The transfer of experiences from action research and participant observation to structured results in theory, is, however, a difficult pro-cess, which will take some time. Today it seems as if the telling of history and comparative culture studies would continue to dominate our knowledge in this field.


Among many societies all over the world, there have been many tug-and-pull games which may look similar to mouth pull, though in a less eccentric way. We know these pull competitions especially from ancient Scandinavia and Celtic cultures as well as from the Pacific, Melanesian and Polynesian societies, and from Africa. They can be interesting subjects of historical and comparative studies.

The richness of forms reaches from simple actions of finger, arm, neck or stick pull to more complex variations, like the Danish “Pull the calf from the cow” (Rykke kalven fra koen) or “Pull the ox”. The games may use more complex arrangements of ropes and balance, e.g. “Tie up the pewit”; a rope and a water pool, e.g. “Pull the cat”; or stick and candle, e.g. “Cut out Palle’s eye”. The so-called hide games, Old Norse skinnleikr, were different variations of pulling hide or skin, which might have resembled ball games, but also developed towards belt pull (Old Norse beltadráttr) and rope pull (reipdráttr). Nordic variation of the latter was “Ring pull” – At toga honk, where two men, usually in a sitting position, pulled a rope, which was formed as a ring. Similarly to “Four men’s pull” this could also become a group game where each player tries to reach a certain object, while the others hinder his attempts with their tricky rhythmic pulls, trying at the same time to reach their own respective objects.

However, the parallels and links between all these popular cultures of pull and tug should not be overemphasized. A medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote about the Danish King Erik Ejegod, who liked tug-of-war and practiced it so busily that he was able, while sitting, to pull four men towards himself with one rope in each hand. This must have been amusing. Another competitor, Erik Målspage, used to pull the rope against Lord Vestmar in the contest for their life. When Erik finally won after a hard fight – “resisting with full power both with hands and feet”, as Saxo described it – he neither dismissed the loser with noble “sporty” generosity, nor did the competition break up into laughter in the Inuit way. Erik put his foot on the back of his opponent breaking his backbone and, to be quite sure of his victory, broke his neck, too, with accompaniment of insulting words (56, 125-126).

Whether we believe these stories or not, no matter how representative they may have been, they are evidence of a warrior culture, placing brutal pull and tug in the context of competing and killing. This was markedly different from the social atmosphere of the Inuit winter house, from Bavarian folklore and the modern sport of tug-of-war. The pull is not homogenous.

The way of tug-of-war to modern sport led through the Scottish Highland Games. When these games were resumed in 1819, after a period of English suppression, they included piping, dancing, foot race and stone lifting. Already in 1822, however, it was reported that “the most remarkable feature was the tearing of three cows limb from limb after they had been felled” [48, 33]. Whether the game of tug was an artificial Romantic invention or was really rooted in earlier practices, remains an open question. In any case it was in the 1840s, that tug-of-war appeared in programs of various Scottish Highland Games and soon became a characteristic feature, alongside with tossing the caber, of their athletic profile. In the Scottish Highland Games held in Paris in 1889, the combination of tug-of-war, caber tossing, Highland dancing and tartan fashion became almost an “ethno-pop show”, organized side by side with the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

During the early take-off of modern sport, that Scottish game met with popular traditions in English villages and towns. At a market place of London, rope pull was annually held on Shrove Tuesday. Up to two thousand people were said to participate in the tug event and held a festivity afterwards when the rope was sold. The custom dated back to the time of King Henry VI and was connected with the fight between a red party and a white party, the former fighting for the king and the latter for the Duke of York [21, 155].

In a parallel way, in the late 18th century philanthropic educationalists had discovered (rediscovered) popular games of tug. They included pull and tug – often in an abstract and systematic way – in their handbooks of exercises, gymnastics and games, together with health-related and moralistic recommendations. In spite of this “pedagogization”, pull games were often omitted in the gymnastic literature of the 19th century, until tug-of-war reappeared as a sport by the end of the century.

As a competitive sport, tug-of-war entered the practice of the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) around 1880, and in the early twentieth century was established as an Olympic sport as well. However, it was soon excluded from the Olympic canon, being regarded by serious athletes “as something of a joke” [2, 1058]. Since 1958 the Tug of War International Federation (TWIF) has been busy, working on a regular system of championship with weight classes and detailed rules of competition. In 2004, tug-of-war might be expected to return to the Olympic program, however for the time being this seems rather unreal.

History commits not only to evolution but also to disappearance. The exclusion of tug-of-war from the Olympic sport is analytically no less interesting than the reverse, i.e. the modern integration of the game into sport. Historically, the competition of rope pull had its place somewhere between the eccentricity of mouth pull (or even arse pull) and the rationality of modern sport. There is something “unserious” in tug-of-war, too, and this opens for the question, what the “seriousness" of sports consists of.


Pull-and-tug has often been regarded as an elementary form of sport – along with running, jumping, and throwing. One of the popular myths is that these “elementary activities” developed in an evolutionary and unavoidable way into modern sports.

Pull-and-tug shows that something might be wrong in this story. Educational practice shows that the definition and delimitation of the so-called “element” are not simply so easy. The historical experience is not only about evolution, but also about disappearance, discontinuity, and change. Philosophy has the critical task to reveal the inner contradictions of the sportive myth and find alternative tales.

With pull-and-tug as a material out of human practice, we can approach deeper contradictions in human movement, which play and games express. If we choose for the starting point the epistemological contradiction between objectivity and subjectivity, some existential dimensions of human movement culture become visible. With a little help of Martin Buber [6] we can ask, what the objective “It” and what the subjective “I” in mouth-pull, and more generally in play and games, is. Another question is also how meaningful the contradiction between “It” and “I”, and between objectivity and subjectivity is. There is a possibility that this may, however, lead us to some limitations of this binary construction. Do these limitations urge us to think about the third, relational “Thou” of play and game? And where is the place for identity in human movement?


Human movement can be seen as something which produces something. In modern sports, these are results and records. Go-for-it sports but also modern gymnastics and physical education are in a special way built up around this “It”. By this reification, sport has differentiated from older games and play. Tug-of-war serves an illustration of this process.


When modern sport had taken its definitive modern shape by the end of the nineteenth century, its founders often regarded it as nothing but a “natural” prolongation of older popular practices of game and competition. As these games had traditionally included rope pull, tug-of-war would be regarded as sport, too, or even as a sport of an especially long historical reputation. Its place in the new world of sports was, however, far from being clear. Tug was sometimes treated as part of gymnastics, but was also perceived in combination with combat or f i g h t i n g s p o r t, as the latter were practiced by the military and police. In other cases, tug-of-war was regarded as a heavy athleticc event (German Kraftsport or Schwerathletik), but also categorized as part of track-and-field (German Leichtathletik, Danish fri idræt). From this multi-dimensionality – which can also be found in many games and forms of play – a controversial question arises: What type of achievement tug-of-war was producing?

Tug-of-war was an evident candidate for the Olympic program. From 1900 until 1920, the rope was pulled at the Olympic Games. In Paris in 1900, a mixed Danish-Swedish team won the first Olympic gold medal. After 1920, however, tug-of-war disappeared as an Olympic discipline and has never returned until today, in spite of many efforts of the Tug of War International Federation.

This discontinuity shows that – in contrast to naive sport ideology – competitions of pull and tug do not as such represent the modern principle of achievement. Concentrated efforts to transform and reorganize the game of pulling were needed to adjust it to the configuration of sportive production of achievement. In sportive tug, the point is no longer an immediate comparison of brute, “primitive” strength here and now, but a systematic development of purpose-oriented skill and technique. In spite of this “sportizing” transformation, tug-of-war has remained at a distance from the sport of record. How to measure achievement in tug-of-war? The “record” of the longest tug event in history, noted by the Amateur Athletic Association and measured in 1938, was 8 minutes and 18.2 seconds. This was no record of achievement, but a typical record of curiousity. In tug-of-war, performance and fascination are to be found at another place than the modern type of quantified record.

In this aspect, the early difficulties in categorization of tug-of-war as a sport become illustrative. Whether tug ranges alongside ballgames and other gymnastic games as Turnspiel; alongside running, jumping and throwing, as a track-and-field event; alongside weight lifting and tossing the caber as an athletic event; or alongside wrestling as a sport of combat; the goal of achievement is different each time. Tug and pull is characterized by a conspicuous “impurity” in relation to the rationality of modern achievement. It is not so easy to answer the question, what “It” is which this “sport” shall produce.

Probably there are other features of tug-of-war, which have hindered the integration of the game into the Olympic canon. From popular culture, the tug “sport” has inherited the grunting and grimacing of the actors – and the laughter. It is almost grotesque that the victors, in the moment of their triumph, will probably fall on their arse. Strong men or women, snorting and groaning, and tumbling backwards on the grass – this fits very well a popular culture of play and carnival, linking actors and spectators by a social convulsion of laughter. It does not fit the culture of achievement as it was developed by the industrial bourgeoisie; and it fitted still less to Olympism and its strategy to assimilate sport into aristocratic norms, and to develop a new type of “serious” elitist style. The doubts concerning the seriousness of tug sport may have been enforced by the Olympic event in Paris 1900. After the official Olympic tug, a “friendly” tug was arranged for the American team, which had not been allowed to participate. The event broke up when American spectators rushed forward to join the game [57, 667]. Tug was, indeed, “something of a joke”.

It would be even harder to imagine mouth pull as an Olympic sport. A consequent application of technique and rational skill on mouth pull would lead to mutual mutilation or self-mutilation. An “International Mouth Pull Federation” would sound strange. The “unserious” features of popular laughter and grotesque “carnivalism” stand in the way of consequent “sportification”. And though the tugging – or tearing-off nose, ear or mouth may appear as “extreme”, it does not even fall under what has become the actual fashion of “extreme sport” either.

It is just by their non-sportive configurations that mouth pull and tug-of-war constitute illustrations of what the configuration of sport is. Sport is not a bodily movement and a competition as such, but follows a specific pattern of p r o d u c t i o n – producing results, quantifying the outcome and following the upward line of growth and maximization [28]. Sportive activity produces an objective “It”. Sport displays in ritual forms the productivity of industrial capitalist society. Last but not least, results can be money.


Achievement is, however, not the only form of reification, which characterizes modern sport. Another form of “It” is the rule. “Make it like this”, is the message of the “sport for rules”, developed characteristically in modern gymnastics. Here, this is not of primary importance to produce a result, but to complete a given movement “in the right way” – sport appearing as a disciplination of rule correctness. Training is a correction and regulation of movements. Ideally, the trainer or instructor, standing face to face to the exercising athletes, takes a position with panoptic overview, and applies the rules by commanding, inspecting, and reviewing the gymnasts' movements.

Historically, while the sport of results took form in English and Scottish sports, and became the international mainstream in the twentieth century, the sport of rules found its early manifestations in the early nineteenth century in Nordic gymnastics, German gymnastics (Turnen), and Slavonic gymnastics (Sokol). These were forerunners of modern sports, in some periods also models of opposition against competitive sport and were – all in all – an important under-stream of modern body culture. While sport of achievement reified results, the gymnastic sport of rules reified movements by analytically dissecting them into defined pieces. These elements were trained in certain choreographic patterns, forms and processes, which were codified as gymnastic “systems”. Some of these systems referred more to aesthetic, others more to physiological and anatomical rules.

Sport for rules, however, developed not only in contrast to the sport of results. There were assimilation processes too. The discipline of rules entered as training into achievement sport and became a secondary measure to prepare the production of the final top achievement. From this supporting position, the training of rules could make itself more or less independent, creating an autonomous sport of health and an educational sport. In sports pedagogy, for instance, the idea was conceived that the rule was central for the understanding of sport. Sport was in its educational essence a formation and training of rules. In this perspective, keeping the rule appears as the core of sporting sociality, the great “It” of learning through sport.

From the aspect of rules for bodily training, also Inuit games have drawn the attention of educationalists. Supporting the politics of identity of the Inuit societies, which was increasingly gaining cultural and political self-determination during the 1970s and 1980s, several Inuit games were set to rules, including mouth pull:

Equipment: None. – Stance and Start: Both competitors stand side by side on set line. Inside feet are meeting. Each competitor grabs mouth of opponent with inside hand by going around the neck and grabbing outside corner of opponent's mouth with middle finger. – Movement: On a signal, competitors try to pull opponent to their side of the line. Strongest mouth wins. – Judging and Scoring: Wash hands before competition. Best out of three tries [37].

There is a grotesque sound about these rules. If really strictly applied, they would imply mutilation. The competitive pattern does not fit. The rule of hygienic behavior adds a special note of “something wrong”.

The failure of rules for mouth pull illustrates that this tug does not require rules at all. The technique will best be transmitted mimetically, from face to face and from movement to movement. View and feeling are enough. There is hardly anything like “correctness” or “incorrect implementation” in the game. And a systematic training of mouth pull has no meaning, either for educational means or for production of a top result.

In this respect, the gymnastic training of rules was not at all an alternative or resistance to modern sports of achievement, as the ideologists of gymnastics but also advocates of sport have claimed sometimes. Sport of rules was the back-side of the sport of production, both of them being united by reification as the hegemonic over-all tendency.


Achievement and rule are important, but they are not the only elements in the creation of “It” – practice in modern body culture. Equipment and facilities made innovation visible, too. New invented instruments were and are a starting point to create new sports – from “machine gymnastics” in the nineteenth century through roller skating, –cycling and motor sport, to surfing, mountain biking, hang gliding, inline skating, snow board, and bungee jumping. And we cannot really think of modern sport without a “sportscape” of highly specialized fields and halls for mono-cultures of fenced-off activities. In this respect as well, “sportization” went around pull and tug.

On a more abstract level, i.e. a superstructure above the “It” of sectorial spaces, we find the “function”. The “function” of sport and games was invented in order to understand movement culture and to channel it towards certain societal goals. Sports science ascribes to sport certain physiological functions of health, educational functions of personal development, psychological functions like stress reduction, social functions of integration and reduction of violence as well as political functions of state conservation. Concerning dance, the “pattern maintenance”, “socialization”, “tension management”, “adoption to societal goals” and “integration” have been recognized as central, useful functions. Architectural functionalism has created the classic “functions” of residence, work, trade, leisure and traffic in order to justify strategies of urban parcellation.

Functionalism reached a new level in the system theory of Luhmann-type. The system theory exalts sector divisions of administrative practice to some higher type of theoretical, “functional” logic, taking the banal parcellation as an expression of economical, juridical, educational, political, religious, scientific and other functions, which are said to be based on binary codes of global significance. In this model, sport derives from medical and educational functions, which are determined by the codes of ill/healthy and educated/uneducated respectively; but since the take-off of modernity, sport has developed towards its own autonomous functionality, following the sportive code of win-or-lose.

As accidental and artificial as all these series of assumed functions may look, the different approaches display the common strategy of reification, linked to a program of socio-political stabilization. “Function” is derived from mathematical terminology and from there it receives its “scientific” and “objective” undertones. Function is imagined as a quasi-thing or factor – an “It” of higher quality. The meaning of “function” oscillates somewhere between the essence (Germ. Wesen), intention, purpose, aim, value, instrumental meaning, cause, reason and driving force (Germ. Triebkraft). As it is typical for a myth, the ambiguity of the notion is hidden away, and the misty term appears as a convincing expression of the objective truth. What the Wesen or essence of a thing really is, may be mystery, but its “function” seems to us clear. Function is, as Norbert Elias put it, a hidden notion of causality (Germ. ein versteckter Ursachenbegriff).

The reified “It” of the “function” is furthermore characterized by a conservative undertone. Implicite, the notion postulates some ideal, hegemonic societal goals as “functional” and rejects oppositional values as “dysfunctional”. The existing relations of power are, by naming them “function”, withdrawn from conflict, naturalized and justified, while subversive dimensions are systematically neglected. “Function” is not what is installed by power, what can be disputed and changed on the base of alternative needs – function is function. It is true, the discourse of a “revolutionary function” is not quite unknown and has been tried now and then, though it proceeds as reifying as the conservative model. It seems not accidental at all that the functionalist reification predominantly goes hand in hand with stabilizing attitudes towards the existing power structures.

We are, thus, warned to use the term of “function” for the analysis of play and game. Which “function” does mouth pull have? Does pull and tug contribute to health, personal development, stress reduction, social integration and pattern maintenance or tension management? Also, the utilitarian functions of “training for work”, “preparation for chase” or “exercise for war”, which the older ethnology-anthropology assumed for the so-called “primitive games”, are difficult to apply to mouth pull – as to many other games, e.g. ball games. That is why the earlier functionalism had by the notion of “fertility cult” opened the door towards highly speculative imaginations. And indeed, the finger in the sleek, moist, and warm mouth may lead to psychoanalytical interpretations...

Functionalism is not only an academic but political luxury. Western strategies of “sport development aid” for the Third World use functionalist assumptions against the native sports of the non-Western countries. While Western sport is said to serve the development of personality, social and political integration (nation building), identification, health, equality of chances and satisfaction of basic needs, native games like finger pull are “folkloristic marginal activities” without any “functional” value [9].

The “function” may, indeed, help to exclude unwanted activity from practice and reflection. It does not help to understand movement culture.


The results of movement, rule, instrument, place and function give the impression of objectivity. The practice of movement becomes an “It”. What flows, becomes a quasi-object. Mouth pull is illustrative, because it shows how limited this perspective is. In this respect, mouth pull is not only harmless, but also subversive. Or more generally: the practice of popular games is a living critique of modern myths – a practical alternative philosophy.

This critical conclusion does not mean, that objectivation is an evil in itself. The relation between “I” and “It” is neither specifically modern nor illegitimate as such. The objective elements of movement like the glory of victory (which is not identical with modern achievement), the mimetic and repetitive transfer of bodily technique (which is not the same as the modern rule of sport), the agreement over a place of meeting and play (which is not a modern facility) and the myth of what is good and bad (which is not yet the modern “function”) are much more deeply rooted in human cultural existence. The relation of the subjective “I” to the objective world, to “It”, is basic for human beings. This existential objectivation acquired, however, a new expansive dynamic when the configuration of modern achievement production appeared with its quantification of results, its systems of rules, its production of things and its standardization of the sportive space.

It was in the context of the ware-producing society, of industrial productivism and capitalist economy, that the practical reification of life became a problem of new dimensions. Furthermore, the epistemological reification in terms of “function”, “system”, “evolution” etc. became a mythical superstructure, dominating the discourse of modernity. “Die Zwingherrschaft des wuchernden Es” was established, “the dictatorship of the proliferating It”, as Martin Buber called it [6]. The golem takes over – the robot servant makes himself Master over the Human Being. Others called this Entfremdung – alienation.

Play and game deliver living pictures of these processes, which otherwise have been described in highly abstract terms. These pictures may be illustrative as well as critical. One of the critical pictures is “the impossible game”. Many games are impossible to carry through, if one really follows the rule. If the rule of competition for mouth pull were implemented strictly – “the stronger mouth wins” – it would lead to mutilation. The games of run-and-catch, i.e. a large part of children's every-day play, are impossible in another way. If all participants are acting according to the rule, running away as quickly as possible, the slowest runner will very soon stay behind in tears and the game will end abruptly. The game, however, lives from continuation and flow. If the process of play goes on, this can only happen against the rule, against the production of the “fair” result of speed. Instead, the quicker runner will approach the slow one, teasing her, provoking him: “Du kan ikke fange mig” – “you can’t catch me”. It is in the interest of the quicker runner to be caught. The game lives from the chance, which the stronger runner gives to the weaker one. It is in the interest of all that no loser is produced.

The rule is not the game. The flow of the game is in contradiction to the achievement. The game is what starts beyond the rule and beyond the striving for the result – beyond the “It”.


Beyond the “It” of objectivation we find the subjectivity of the player – the “I” In movement, “I” experiences something, I experience the other, I experience myself. Movement has a dimension, which withdraws from objectivation, from the It-relation.


In pull, I experience strength as my strength, e.g. “I can”. Force is felt as a physical power, but also as a radiating energy, i.e. as my inner force. Mouth pull has a component of I-proof. I prove my resistance and my perseverance. Do I stand it, do “I” endure it? In movement, the “I” enters a relation to itself, to its self. In game, I enter into contact with my feelings.

The subjectivity of “I” – proof has been cultivated in different cultures in different ways. The Inuit practiced a lot of exercises where – like in mouth pull – the point was not so much to win over the other but to endure. The difference between Inuit fist fighting and Western boxing is illustrative. In Inuit fighting, the opponent is not knocked down with a hard kick, but is slapped with the slack hand. This technique cannot produce a knock-out, but each fighter is challenged to endure: “You don’t get me down – I stand it.” Inuit society cultivated traditionally the strong man, nipítôrtoq, whom nobody could force down. “Beat me!” – he challenges all around. People are invited to box him, to tear his nose, to tousle his hair – he remains stolid and laughs.

In our Western world, however, we experience similar situations when the father challenges his small son: “Hit me!” The boy knocks his father in the belly, the father laughs, and both take pleasure. From Bud Spencer we know the entertaining film version. The configuration of sport is different from this. What the sportive fight cultivates as tension, is in those games a demonstration of relaxation and strength, which shows by laughter.

Another component of self-experience in mouth pull concerns intimacy. The other is breaking through the limits of my body, as it happens in different forms of wrestling, too. And what is more – the other grabs at my mouth. I may be touched by feelings of shame or disgust. Where is my integrity, where is my surface? My bodily “I” is challenged to the limit.

In this bodily clash, painarises. The grip of the other aches me. I suffer and I resist.

In the play between pain and resistance, however, I feel pleasure, too. There is flow and energy. I finish the action by laughing.

The subjective experience of mouth pull is an experience of a situation. The event is here and now. I pull, I am pulled, pain and pleasure are meeting in the totality of the moment. The “I” has a situational presence similar to what happens in dream and love. The situation, whose totality can never be caught in all its dimensions, constitutes an epistemological contrast to the structures and processes, which can be objectified [40].


In the tension between “It” and “I”, modern epistemology has unfolded its main contradiction. The modern science of science consists typically of two main parts: analytical methods promise “objective” knowledge, the truth of “It”, while hermeneutical and phenomenological methods comprise the subjectivity of “I”.

Like modern reification, the modern subjectivation follows specific historical and societal dynamics as well. The modern state produces the individual as a subject of panoptical and disciplining strategies. The market produces the individual as a consumer who is going his or her way and chooses from among offers. Individually, everybody is “the smith of one’s own fortune”: “I shop, therefore I am”. Identity appears as self, and self as identity, producing the illusion of sameness: “I am I. I am myself”.

In the superstructure of mainstream discourses and interpretations, the epistemological solipsism treats the human being, as if he or she were alone in the world. The individual is the primary base, and sociality is just something added, something secondary. Sociologists say “individual and society” as if society were not in the body of the individual, but somewhere outside. (It is this separation, which Norbert Elias built his whole figurational sociology up against, but with very limited success.) The discourse of “individualization” translates it into the historical process of modernization and postulates that we are on the way to become our own “gesamtkunstwerk I” [5].

The modern “I” referring only to itself, appears – as Martin Buber [6] expressed it – as a ghost behind the modern “It”. Where the golem produces results, and nothing but results, the Ego flutters as a bodiless phantom of soul and mind, shadow-like through the factory.

The specific monumentalization of subjectivity and individuality in the process of modernity should – again – not block the view from the fact, that the “I” is a basic relation of the human being. Like the “I”–“It” relation, the “I–Self” is existential. The person has a monological potential, the “I” has Eigen-Sinn – a meaning on its own. (In German, Eigensinn denotes at the same time one's own, proper and singular import of a being and a capricious, obstinate attitude.)

It is a widespread stereotype that the pre-modern human being had no “I”. This assumption follows the colonial myth that “the others” have “not yet” reached our level of development of subjectivity. However, where people pull the mouth or tug the finger, the person and the person’s relation to oneself is active; the eigensinnige human being is playing the game. Whether modern or pre-modern, whether Inuit or Danish, I experience strength and disgust, pain and pleasure; it is me who laughs and it is me who is in the centre of “the moment”.

The “I” of personal experience is human and universal. The modern subjectivity, in contrast, is historical. The pseudo-sovereignty of the individual is as historically specific as the individuality of choice in a supermarket.


Attention to subjectivity in game helps to a deeper understanding of human movement. It turns our attention to the difference between two sets of rules, which contradict each other in the aspect of equality. Pull delivers pictures of this contrast.

One model shows two equal parties pulling against each other in order to produce a fair outcome – to produce “It”. Rules aim at creating and guaranteeing the balance, which makes the result fair. Though this pattern may look “natural” from the Western point of view, equality does not deliver the only model of pull.

In another model, we see one person challenging others. All pull against one. There is a fundamental imbalance, and this is not a mistake or cheating, it is the meaning of the game. The unequal game shows the force of “myself”.

However, the two models do not tell the whole story. Their contradiction is illustrative, but incomplete. This is shown by games of the Brobrobrille type. As one of the most well-known and most-practiced children's games in Denmark, Brobrobrille combines song and catch-and-pull game. Two children form a bridge with their arms, while other children walk or dance in a row under the bridge and around the two, singing: “Bro bro brille, klokken ringer elleve...” (“Bridge, bridge, bridge, the bell is ringing eleven”). One by one, the children are caught by the two bridge players and choose one of them, forming – by “secret” and accidental decision – two teams. These teams finally tug against each other. Embracing each other in a long row, the two rows pull their foremen – the “sun” and the “moon” respectively, from each other. The game ends when one team tugs the other over a marked line [54, 220-230].

Like in other types of joint pulling games, it is difficult to describe this activity in terms of the “I”–“It” or “I–Self” relations only. Neither is the result of the pull – “It” – of central importance, the two teams being composed unequally and by accidental choice. Nor does the individual experience and the proof of the “I” play any remarkable role, as it is the case in the endurance competition of the “strong men”. A third relation appears: togetherness, body-to-body contact, and the interaction between “I” and “You”.


In a game we do not only produce “It”, nor do we only experience the subjectivity of “I”, but we meet each other. Game is an encounter: “Who are you – who am I?” In pull, we meet the other in different relations: I meet the opponent on the other side of the rope, I meet the other on my own side whom I embrace like in Brobrobrille. We meet the spectators and – what is frequently overlooked – we meet the environment as alterity. This meeting should not be understood in idyllic terms only. Encounter can also be dis-encounter; Begegnung can be Vergegnung, as Buber puts it.


Pull – like other types of fight and combat – make us come across nearness: You are near me. With your finger in my mouth, you break through my limits of intimacy. This proximity contrasts with the principle of distancing the other, which characterizes the politics of space in modern sport.

Your nearness may become sensible in my pain. Pain cannot be measured, that is why it is so problematic for the medical system, which is programmed towards “It” and tries to overcome pain by drugs, doping, or psychological tricks. On the other hand, pain is not only an individual feeling either; it is not only pure subjectivity of the monological “I”. Pain comes into being by a collision between me and the world, in a clash with the “otherness”. In this respect, pain is close to Buber’s Vergegnung. You cannot prove your pain for me, but I can meet your pain in fellow feeling. Mouth pull, fight and combat, give evidence about this dialogical relation as well.

We experience encounter and relation by rhythm. My movement is a rhythmical answer to your movement, and vice versa. By the to-and-fro of pull, the two opponents find a joint time. In this respect, tug-of-war – like wrestling of the backhold type – is a sort of dance. The rhythm fills the space between you and me.

The “You” – relation shows not only in the opposition in a fight, but also in the combination of forces, in togetherness by body contact. In Swedish games like To pull the ox and To tame the mare, the players lie on the back of their team-mates who crawl away from each other. In the Breton game of Ar vazh-a-benn, each puller is held in the air by three or five comrades, who help in tugging. This type of pull fight results in a common outcome, which is amusing and sensual at the same time. “You” and “We” are linked together. I pull “with” the Others and the result is “also” mine – the human being appears as “With” and “Also”, Mitmensch and Auch-Mensch.

In another way, encounter occurs in the show, in the meeting of the players and their audience. Mouth pull or any other tug and fight is a display, drama, expression, or performance. The active player enters into dialogue with an audience as an actor. The game creates a scene, a situation of seeing and being seen. There is a reciprocal effect between one's own grotesque body movement and the laughter of the others.

Tug-of-war is said to be “famous for its vociferous participants and supporters” [32]. In the show, there is interaction by collective cry and shout. The noise expresses passion going high both on the field, in ranks, and in between.


In the action of pull and fight, identity is expressed. Tug displays a relation between “We” and “You”. The game is a bodily practice of nostrification: Who am I, who are you, who are we?

This was expressed in the description of a Danish tug-of-war event in 1938. “There were gigantic achievements. The blacksmiths quickly defeated the bakers, and the tailors could not stand long time against the coal-heavers who weighed at least twice as much. But there arose a gigantic competition between the dairy workers and the brewery men – and much to the distress of the agitators for abstinence, the beer won. The final was between the brewers and the coalmen, and here the brewery workers had ‘to bite the dust’. ‘This is not at all surprising’, said the captain of the coal-heavers. “You only carry the beer, but it is us who drink it.”

The contest, described by these words in the Danish daily “Social Demokraten” [25], was the highlight of Fagenes Fest, the workers' “festival of professions” in Copenhagen in 1938. As “We” and “You”, the professional groups challenged each other, displaying an overstressing picture, a sort of caricature of identity.

In Fagenes Fest play and movement constituted a theatre of identity. By bodily practice, people were saying “You” and “We” to each other – displaying themselves as bakers and coal-heavers, as men, women and children (socialist scouts), as workers, as Danish workers and as Danish nationals. During the Second World War when Nazi Germany held Denmark occupied, Fagenes Fest developed towards a demonstration of national togetherness and attracted the largest spectatorship in its history. Sport in this respect is not only an instrument of national (state) identity policies, but also a bodily way of expression, discovery and display of complex You/We-relations.

The nostrification expressed in the Danish tug was especially complex by displaying non-identity at the same time. The “brewers” of the tug were not only “themselves”, but at the same time ironically “non-selves”. They played a certain role. In role game, movement is a sort of mask, just as one can play the king, the witch or the fool in a carnival. Role is imitation of the other, whether a proud (re-) presentation, a caricatural mimesis, an impudent travesty – or a grimace of “the quite other”. The grimace of mouth pull is not only a part of myself, but also an expression of “otherness”. “I am another”, this is what the distorted face tells about my own alterity. The Inuit culture is especially rich with elements of grimacing, grotesque, frightening and ridiculing; it is both expressive and therapeutic. On this basis, modern Inuit theatre – like Tukak in Denmark – has developed a dramatic world of its own character [35].


An important position between identity and non-identity is occupied by the play of gender, the eroticdimension of a game. The encounter in “You-game” offers a broad spectrum of erotic display. Games of flirt like Brobrobrille give a chance to touch and to be touched. Tug and wrestling can display gender roles in caricatural, even transvestitic forms. The erotic is a greatly overlooked but effectively exploited aspect of sports [24].

The great meeting in human life is festivity, the festive celebration of saying “You” to each other. Festivity puts rhythm into social time by lifting certain situations out of the flow of normality. On the other hand, it is by repetition that festivity creates ritual “holiness”. By ritual meeting again and again, the “I” assures itself of the other as “You”. In festivity, we get high in the “here-and-now together”. In this respect, game and festivity are in family, holding the complex balance between both the unique situation and the ritual repetition. And festivity is the social frame for play and game, from mouth pull in the Inuit winter festivity to tug-of-war in Danish workers' Fagenes Fest.

The larger part of what modern sports historians have reconstructed as “sports history” is at closer look nothing but a history of festivity. It is true, that the modern disciplinarity of sports has made festivity tendentiously disappear; but through the back door the festivity reappears as a surrogate, a show – the media event of the Olympics.

In game, togetherness is expressed also in a more extensive, trans-human way: the human being is related to the environment. Whether we tug the rope over a suburb lawn; whether we pull the finger in a smoky pub or as folklore for a tourist audience; whether the Arctic people pull each other in the over-heated winter house with their naked bodies close to each other, in a smell of carbon dioxide, sweat and train oil, under the deafening noise of the large skin drums – by movement, the human being meets the other, which is larger than the individual. Whether we build climbing architecture for children's game, form thread figures with the hand, roll the marble on the sandy ground or push the swing high up into the air; whether we run on the cinder-path or swim in the lagoon; whether we search the “untouched” nature or challenge the landscape – by movement, the human being says “You” to environment. Game is a sort of living deep ecology.

The terms of meeting and ecology may be misunderstood as idyllic, but this is not the whole story. In games like “To pull the cow to graze” (Danish Græsse ko), two opponents tug each other with a rope tied around their necks. In some variations of the game, a pole or a fire is placed between them. You pull my head against the pole, I pull you into the flame – this is what the tug tells, if realized in this full consequence about violence and death. In some variants of Scandinavian wrestling, one could break the opponent's back – if it came so far. Whether it really comes so far, this is a theme of the game.

Movement and game is also dangerous. Children may make themselves or others unconscious, creating situations of fainting fit. And mature people try climbing dangerous rock faces or house facades, having drunk themselves from senses. Game is also playing with risk.

It is just “the impossible game”, which demonstrates human mortality. By the impossible game, people play their finality. The human being is not only at home in the game, but also homeless – and a “You”, nevertheless.

How to react to homelessness, pain, and the proximity of death? People laugh. Laughter is also a way of saying “You”. Its bodily expression is a convulsive interaction, reciprocity from face to face, from body to body. Laughter is catching; it is infectious between you and me, like possession. Games are part of popular carnivalism [3], contrasting the solemnity of achievement production in “serious” Olympic sport. And on a very basic level, tickling tells the story of a more-than-individual body. I cannot tickle myself, but you can tickle me. For tickling, the “I” needs a “You”.


The dialogical relation to “You” turns our attention to an alternative understanding of “the human”, which has its centre not in the individual human being as individual, but in the intermediary space – the in – between. Where the “I” –perspective centralizes, the “You” – perspective opens for the ex-centric dimension of “the human”. The grimacing mouth pull and other eccentric tugs tell, thus, about the human ex-centricity – a social as well as a bodily story. The human being has no isolated existence. The human is not – not only, not primarily – inside the skin-body, but between other human beings. And this is the case not in an idealistic, bodiless sense, but in a concretely materialistic understanding. In tickling, “You” makes me laugh – and you are necessary, because I cannot tickle myself. By playing hide-and-seek with the baby, titte-bøh in Danish, Guck-guck in German, we are “away” – and feel the tension tickling in the belly, until the “You” reappears. By making noise – tam-tam – we create rhythm as a relation of resonance between you and me and the environment. Movement is a bodily medium showing – like the navel, the breath and the hearing – that the human being is not alone in the world. Human is the inter-body. Humanism is inter – humanism.

By the dialogical movement, we are able to transgress the dualism, which has established itself in the theory of the body, confronting the “body we have” with the “body we are”. This contrast, as it was unfolded in German theory, can be illustrative and prolific, indeed. “To have a body” vs. “to be a body”, was based on a pre-existing dualism in German language between the objective and material Körper and the subjective and spiritual Leib. Körper is the “It”-body, Leib is the “I”-body. The American philosophy of Somatics has copied this by confronting the objective “body” and the subjective “soma”. But this is, again, not the entire story, as the Danish dualism of krop/legeme shows, which is constructed in another, more complex way. It is only via the “You” that the body and movement of the human as a fellow-human (Mensch as Mitmensch) can be described. The inter–body is third.

What we need in order to understand it, is a squint-eyed theory. Squinting means to focus on two points at the same time. We focus on the historical: all is change, all is particular, all is relative here and now. And we focus on the anthropological, existential: all is related to human existence, to existence of human beings in plural, to life as an inter-human and inter-bodily process. When squinting our eyes, we do not produce the wholeness of one consistent picture. There is an overlap – and this will sometimes make us dizzy. But – as the pictures of the Magic Eye, the great craze of the 1990s, showed – squinting makes it possible to look behind the surface of things. We are able to see something third. By a technique of bodily ex-centricity we discover patterns. In this respect, the work of the historian-philosopher has a shamanic dimension.


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[28] Hoberman J., Mortal Engines. The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport. The Free Press, New York 1992.

[29] Howell R., Traditional sports. Oceania, (in:) Encyclopedia of World Sport, D. Levinson, K. Christensen, eds., vol. III, ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara 1996, pp. 1083-1093.

[30] Hvormed skal jeg more mig? Samling af Lege og Beskjeftigelser for Børn og unge Mennesker, som kunne tjene til at uddanne Legemet eller skærpe Forstanden, Pio, Copenhagen 1861 (after the English The Boy’s Own Book.).

[31] Idrætten i Grønland, Festschrift for the 25th anniversary of Grønlands Idræts-Forbund; no place of publication given (Greenland) 1978.

[32] James T., Tug of war (in:) Encyclopedia of British Sport, R. Cox, G. Jarvie, W. Vamplew, eds., ABC-Clio, Oxford 2000, pp. 401-402.

[33] Jarvie G., Highland Games: The Making of the Myth, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1991.

[34] Jensen B., Eskimoisk festlighed, Copenhagen 1965.

[35] Jørgensen O., Tukak’teatret – Eskimoisk trommesang, Tukak, Danemark, 1979.

[36] Kaneda E., Trends in Traditional Women’s Sumo in Japan, “International Journal of the History of Sport”, 1999, 16, 3, pp. 113-119.

[37] Keewatin Inuit Associations, Inuit Games, originally published by the Department of Education, Regional Ressource Center, Government of N.W.T., Rankin Inlet 1989.

[38] Korsgaard O., Kredsgang. Grundtvig som bokser, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1980.

[39] Larsen H., Sport hos eskimoerne (in:) H. Nielsen, ed., For sportens skyld, Copenhagen 1972, pp. 117-127.

[40] Lefebvre H., La somme et le reste, vol.1-2, La Neuf de Paris, Paris 1959.

[41] Mauss M., Beuchat H., Essai sur les variations saisonnières des sociétés Eskimos, “L’année sociologique”, 1904/05, 9, pp. 39-132 (Engl. transl. Seasonal Variations of the Eskimo. A Study in Social Morphology), Henley London 1979.

[42] Meyer A. C., ed., Idrætsbogen, vol.1-2, Chr. Erichsen, Copenhagen 1908.

[43] Møller J., Sports and Old Village Games in Denmark, “Canadian Journal of History of Sport”, 1984, 15, 2, pp. 19-29.

[44] Møller J., Gamle idrætslege i Danmark 1990/91, new ed. vol. 1-4, Idrætshistorisk Værksted, Gerlev 1997.

[45] Møller J., Traditional games – The Danish project, (in:) A. Ramirez, F. U. C. Nunez, J. M. A. Mendoza, coord., Luchas, deportes de combate y juegos tradicionales, Gymnos, Madrid 1997, pp. 771-785.

[46] Møller J., Euroleg. 121 gamle lege og spil fra Idrætshistorisk Værksteds internationale legepark. Gerlev 2000.

[47] Newton C., Toff G. J., Dynamic Sumo, Kodansha International, Tokyo 1994.

[48] Novak H., Schottische “Highland Games”. Traditioneller Volkssport einer ethnischen Minderheit im Wandel der Zeit, “Düsseldorfer sportwissenschaftliche Studien”, 4, Institut für Sportwissenschaft der Universität, Düsseldorf 1989.

[49] Schechner R., The Future of Ritual. Writings on Culture and Performance, Routledge, London-New York 1993.

[50] Sloterdijk P., Sphären, Bd.1-2, Suhrkamp Frankfurt/Main 1998-99.

[51] Stejskal M., Folklig idrott, Helsingfors, doctoral dissertation at the University of Åbo 1954.

[52] Sutton-Smith B., Die Idealisierung des Spiels, (in:) Spiel – Spiele – Spielen,OMMO Grupe, u.a., eds., Hofmann. Schorndorf: 1983, pp. 60-75.

[53] Thisted K., Jens Kreutzmann. Fortællinger og akvareller, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk 1997.

[54] Tvermose T. S., Danmarks Sanglege, Schønberg, Copenhagen 1931.

[55] Ulf Ch., Sport bei den Naturvölkern (in:) I. Weiler, Der Sport bei den Völkern der alten Welt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1981, pp. 14-52.

[56] Wahlqvist B., Vikingarnas vilda lekar, Stockholm 1978; Danish version: Barsk idræt. Sport i vikingetiden, Hamlet 1979.

[57] Wallechinsky D., The Complete Book of the Olympics, Aurum, London 1992.

Some selected websites of Tug-of-War:

British Tug-of-War Association:




Fot. 1. Mouth pull; from Keewatin Inuit Associations, Inuit Games, publ. by the Department of Education, Regional Ressource Center, Government of N.W.T., Rankin Inlet 1989, p. 38

Fot. 2. Arse pull, painting of Aron of Kangeq, 19th century, the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Oslo. From: Kirsten Thisted, Jens Kreutzmann. Fortællinger og akvareller, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk 1997, p. 154

Fot. 3. The dangerous pull of Græsse ko, woodcut from Køge, Denmark, 16th century; after: Jorn Moller, Gamle idrætslege i Danmark 1990/91, new ed. vol. 1-4, Idrætshistorisk Værksted, Gerlev 1997, vol. 4, p. 19

Fot. 4. Anchor woman in a tug-of-war of Danish Fagenes Fest 1960, photograph in the ABA, the Danish Trade Unions’ Archive. From: J. Hansen, Fagenes Fest. Working class culture and sport, (in:) Knut Dietrich & Henning Eichberg, eds., Körpersprache. Über Identität und Konflikt, Afra, Frankfurt/Main, 1993, p. 110





Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology

The Polish Academy of Sciences

Key words: Durbets; Elets; Ethnography; Ethnology; Indigenous Games; Khalkhas; Miangads; Mongolian Culture; Oirat; Uriankhais; Zakhchins.


The paper discusses little known playing culture of the Mongolian people, well known for its love of various form of competitive plays and games. The paper is based on individual research conducted during the ethnographic expedition of the Polish Academy of Sciences. This field reserach was carried out among main ethnic groups of Mongolian inhabitants, such as the Khalkhas living mostly in central Mongolia, and some Oirat groups (Western Mongolians): Elets, Miangads, Durbets, Zakhchins and Uriankhais from Khovd aimag and the capital. The paper contains also unique small dictionary of the rules of Mongolian games, mentioned in the article.


Through the decades the subject of Mongolian games has appealed to few researchers and travellers. In many reports, from the end of the 19th century and the following periods, it is useless to search for references to Mongolian culture, particularly about the human play. The lack of information about games in a considerable majority of papers dedicated to Mongolia can be explained to some extent by the lack of interest of travellers and researchers in this area of human behaviour. Every rule, however, has exceptions, and contrary to a general disdain for play-behaviour and reluctance to des-cribe them, a few papers have been written, which were inconspicuous attempts to synthesize basic information about the games of the Mongols. These papers present great value for contemporary researchers [20, 25, 31, 38].

We can talk about more systematic research on Mongolian games only since the second half of the 20th century. The subject of the research concerned, among other games, the knucklebone games [4] and board games [15, 24]. Moreover, in 1962 a paper by Sukhbaatar comprising extremely interesting descriptions of some children’s games was published [39]. Some authors tried to overcome rigid rules of description to analyze the existing historic-ethnographic materials [e.g. 5, 40] but too many questions still remain unanswered.

Repeated participation in the ethnographic expedition of the Polish Academy of Sciences helped me collect the materials which are the basis of this article and my earlier book [12]. I carried out field research among the Khalkhas (the largest ethnic group of Mongolia) living in Central aimag (the administrative unit), East Gobi aimag and in Ulan Bator as well as among some Oirat groups (Western Mongolians): Elets, Miangads, Durbets, Zakhchins and Uriankhais from Khovd aimag and the capital.

The research questions I asked led, among other things, to show that Mongolian games are present in an annual cycle of Mongolian life, and to explain their functions and significance in the process of communication.

My research has shown, above all, that the most essential is the magical function of games and their connection to fortune-telling. I also pointed to the symbolical meaning of these practices and to their participation in communication. However, I disregarded most considerations connected with applying semiotic analysis.

Looking for the symbolic representation of games and answers to questions of their meaning and functions in a definite context, I did not limit myself to the information directly concerning the play-behaviour, as I wanted to reach what is often forgotten and subconscious. Therefore I moved about the area of beliefs, myths, legends, rites, shepherd’s magic and other (using literature and my own field data), looking for similarity of elements inside and outside games. This type of investigations is not new in ethnology, but it was seldom used with regard to Mongolian games.


For the New Year’s (Mong. Tsagaan Sar) celebrations, the idea of change, newness, multitude and abundance, growth, long life, the good, light (the Sun), happiness and a cheerful beginning is very important. The beginning determines the character of the whole year. Here, a special role is played by the games.

Due to the ethnographic research, it has become possible to reconstruct the image of the feast and to understand the customs accompanying it. Once a year, from one season to the other, when everything was beginning to increase in number and grow, the Tsagaan Sar occurs*.

This crucial moment in the calendar and in farming cycles was not only the feast of the end of winter and the beginning of spring, but also the time of hope for the abundance of food, luxuriant grasses and an increase of flocks. As everything else, this feast has its own origin: For the deities have assigned a task to the Sun, to be close to the Earth once a year. People at that time prepared a feast for the Sun, thanks to which everything develops, grows, changes [...] They thanked it for the warmth it gave people [...] During winter it was dark, there was little light, it was black.

New Year celebrations were accompanied by many activities with magic-symbolical significance. On the day before the feast, shepherds prepared new garments or brought out of hiding clean, old clothing, prepared food and drinks, and cleaned the yurt. People prayed for their dead relatives to secure happiness for them in “the afterworld”. Supper was to be cooked on a “new fire”. A fresh bottle of milk vodka was opened and meat from the supplies prepared in autumn was eaten.

The first day of the New Year was treated as a general birthday. Each member of the family was then given one year of life. Shepherds believed that at the beginning of the year the Lord of the Earth, Lus Sabdag, is still asleep, even though the symptoms of life appear in nature. These are signs that Lus Sabdag is alive, or rather coming back to life. Shepherds practices were to awaken Lus Sabdag, so that he came to the Earth again and that life ensued.

An important element of the Tsagaan Sar celebrations is visiting relatives, neighbours, friends, and offering them best wishes. In the past, it was mandatory to pay a visit to all relatives, regardless of their dwelling-place. Now, it is not always possible. Paying visits to older people had a special significance: When you visit older people during Tsagaan Sar it is not only a sign of respect, but above all, it is a ceremony of taking the years from the old man and adding them to your own to live as long as he does.

A crucial element of the New Year’s visits was the offering of gifts. Symbolical-magical presents were given: khadag (a silk sash) was an expression of good wishes as were bits of white cloth. Nuts, cakes, sweets and coins, symbolized multitude.

The Mongolians also attributed magical functions to New Year’s gatherings. The abundance and health of animals in the coming year depended on the type of dishes and the size of the banquet. Therefore, people prepared the greatest, quantity of dairy products, meat, tea and vodka. In many regions, a typical New Year’s dish was rice with milk and decorated cakes containing a lot of fat and sugar. All the products were to be freshly prepared. Everybody should taste all of the host’s dishes as well as dishes brought by the guests.

New Year’s fortune-telling was also important. A person at a gathering who found a coin, for example, would be happy in the coming year. The old people could tell from the weather, snowfall and the behavior of animals what the new year would be like, or whether the cattle would breed. Some people tried to get the feathers of an owl so there would be no disputes, and drive away evil spirits, which bear quarrels and bring them into homesteads.

Games which appear in the New Year context gave pleasure not only to people. Shepherds believed that all Nature rejoices with them and Lus Sabdag in particular. Through numerous games people expressed their joy due to the coming of a New Year; people played a lot because such a feast happened only once a year. The presence of games in Tsagaan Sar celebrations should not be regarded only as entertainment, joy and pleasure. Games also fulfilled important social functions, and participation in games was regarded as on obligation. It was necessary to play for the year to be good; for the cattle to be numerous, and for evil not to be repeated; in order to destroy evil. The New Years’ games were organized on the 2nd or 3rd day of Tsagaan Sar. Often, games were played on the eve of a feast.

* This and the following quotations in italics which appear in this book, unless otherwise marked, come from my personal interviews with Mongolian shepherds.


Games with astragaluses (Mong. shagai togloom), popular in present-day Mongolia, are regarded by shepherds, along with chess, as the best of all games. The requisite astragaluses come from the legs of sheep. Occasionally, the bones come from cows. Sometimes the astragaluses of deer and mountain rams are used.

Shepherds attribute rich symbolic representation and magical significance to this little bone. It is also important for the interpretation of games, especially when played in the context of New Year’ s celebrations. According to my field data, shagai may be regarded as a symbol of fertility and continuation of life. It also symbolizes the shepherd’s economy and the five kinds of animals raised by the Mongols. Different sides of this bone bear names of farming animals. The left and right parts of each side are described respectively as the male or female of a given animal. “Animals” also appear in the names of some games. As an example I should mention mor’ uralduulakh (fast race horse), unee sakh (cow milking), aduu khumikh (gathering the flocks) and alag melkhii orokh (standing a spotted frog or turtle), etc.

Some people regarded astragalus as a symbol of pastoral happiness (this, on the other hand, is measured, among other things, by the numerical force of herds, especially horses, and a healthy, growing family). Astragaluses painted red and yellow (i.e. in colours described by shepherds as “religious”) and placed on little home altars next to statuettes of deities were also treated as deities.

Symbolic representation of an astragalus and the magical power attributed to it fundamentally determined the significance of games in which this bone was a requisite. During the Tsagaan Sar, for example, parents encourage children to play games with astragaluses or, at the very least, to have fun with them (especially in the case of small girls and boys who do not know the rules of many games) believing that this way many children will be born. Children’s plays with astragaluses during a wedding were to secure offspring for the young couple. Belief in the magic influence of astragaluses is linked in reality in the cases mentioned above by the symbolic association of shagai with fertility and the continuation of life. Shepherds believed that games with astragaluses had essential significance for the fate of their families, and especially for their economy, which was the basis of shepherds’ existence. What would the shepherds be like without herds of sheep and goals, without a horse or horned cattle or (in some regions) a camel?

An example of influencing reality by a magic game is, I think, guu saakh (mare milking) and unee saakh (cow milking). The actions of the participants, who tossed 3-4 astragaluses up and caught them quickly so as not to let them fall, were to bring the increase of herds and abundance of dairy products and wealth. An apparent line, which astragaluses drew in the air was compared by my informants to a stream of milk or a white rope, while bones were compared to udders “milked” by players. In order to make this symbolic milking more credible and magical activities more effective, players assumed poses characteristic for people milking particular kinds of females. Therefore, a player who “milked a cow” placed his left knee on the ground leaving the right one raised, while the player who “milked a mare” did the opposite. The one who “milked sheep” sat on his heels spreading his legs wide and bowing his knees, while the person who “milked female camels” placed his right leg bent at the knee on the knee of his left leg which was stretched out and upon which the weight of his body rested.

On New Year’s Eve in the northern part of a yurt shepherds placed, on a carpet of thick felt or a cushion of sheep skin, a statuette of a frog or a turtle (melkhii, yast melkhii) made of astragaluses. In Mongolian beliefs, a frog or a turtle are the symbols of wealth. They may bring it to a man to increase his goods (let us notice that the figure was placed on a sheep skin or a thick felt to which symbolic and magical connections with fortune and abundance are attributed). The Mongols, who built the figure of melkhii on New Years’ Eve, did this so that the one who placed it prospered and that everything multiplied and in order for the one to be rich. For the Mongols a turtle is a symbol of longevity. Its statuette made of astragaluses was to secure long life for people and eternal existence of Nature. The melkhii placed in a yurt on New Year had magical-protective features. Shepherds believed that it could prevent diseases of cattle and secure peace by destroying evil.

On the second or third day of Tsagaan Sar, the shepherds divided the melkhii. It took place during a game called alag melkhii orokh (to set a spotted frog/turtle).The player who got most astragaluses could expect happiness and wealth. The game is to represent such wealth as our Earth does. Players divide this wealth between themselves. Just as the statuette of melkhii, the game of alag melkhii orokh had the power to calm and destroy evil. It was also to protect children from sickness and secure their longevity. Some shepherds suppose that a genetic link existed between the game and magical protection: Since the time people had the idea to bury melkhii [built of astragaluses] in the ground, they have liked to play alag melkhii orokh.

A function similar to these fulfilled by the game of alag melkhii orokh was attributed by the Mongols to the game of shagai kharvakh (shooting at the astragalus – shagai), which is still played today. This game appears among the Khalkhas under the name of ieson tokhoi (nine elbows). This game was also to prevent ill fortune, destroy evil and diseases. It was also expected to influence the growth of herds. It was, above all, played on New Year. However, the magical functions of the game were also expected when the cattle were sick, especially if there was an epidemic. Then, shepherds played day and night in a yurt or near the cattle cottage, believing that the game would destroy the illness and prevent its spreading. The most effective game was the one in which astragaluses of deer or mountain rams and properly shaped pieces of deer’s horn were used. This game was to secure peace and happiness for three years.

In one of the games with astragaluses a small metal net called a shuur (strainer) appears. The game is called shagai shuurekh (catching astragaluses and metal net). The shepherds compare this net to a fragment of chain mail of an ancient warrior and hero. Some people believed that it was a part of the chain mail, while the best players were certain that they became like those heroes. Shuur was especially praised for its connection with heroism and power.

Besides the name shuur for the metal-plaiting, another term sum (arrow) appeared in Mongolia. According to Eberhard [6, 104], games in which players throw and catch objects called “arrows” belong to the ritual of archery fertility magic. They are also attributed with cosmic symbolism. In Mongolian culture, beliefs and rites connected with the arrow (the same with the metal) are symbolically linked to fertility. As I could see for myself, however, it does not influence the interpretation of the game, in which the main requisite is a piece of a metal net called “an arrow”. Its significance probably depends on the features of magical protection of metal and its mediating functions.

The results of the New Year's games allowed the shepherds to foretell prosperity or the lack of it in the coming year. One popular way of obtaining answers for basic questions concerning the near future has been until recently tossing four astragaluses (dorvon berkh orkhokh). This was done, above all, by old people and men being heads of the families, on the New Year’s morning, which is regarded by shepherds as the best time for fortune telling. If the astragaluses fell in the same way, especially with the side of “horse” or “sheep” facing up, it boded well. The augury of prosperity was also signified by throwing “four different animals” or 3 “horses” and 1 “sheep”; or 3 “sheep” and 1 “horse” (there were some local variants). The number of throws was unrestricted or defined as 7-10; Potanin writes about seven throws [31, 118]. A good augury was when a player obtained a desired pattern of astragaluses in his first throw.

The shepherds throw four astragaluses not only on New Year’s morning but also on other days when they want to know the fate of different family matters, when they want to ask about somebody’s arrival, finding something which is lost or settling officials matters, etc. The best time for fortune telling is the first half of each month.

In the beginning of the 20th century knucklebone games were still probably assigned to spring which begins with the Tsagaan Sar. There were strict injunctions not to play with astragaluses in summer and autumn, and they were enforced by threats of punishment and ill fortune. It was especially dangerous for children to break the prohibitions. People who threw bones also feared to bring out the thunder (whose roars are similar to the rattle of astragaluses hitting a hard surface). They were also afraid of metal-plaitings – the shuur which attracted thunderbolts. Generally, shepherds explained the prohibition of playing astragaluses, apart from the spring season, by their fear of anger of the Ruler of Thunder, the dragon Luu and the consequences of his anger. A connection between the thunder and the dragon is a characteristic belief of Asian people. I do not know, however, any examples from other cultures in which it was significant for defining the time limit for games.


While discussing the knucklebone games I mentioned that the Mongols included chess among their favourite games.

Nowadays Mongolian shops sell manufactured chess-sets. Before the time of mass production, however, each chess figure was the masterpiece of a person who, carving wood, bone or stone, tried to give it realistic and naturalistic features (for more extensive discussion see e.g. N. V. Kocheshkov, 17). In a single set belonging to one player there were the following figures: the ruler (noyon), the figure so-called bers being the equivalent of a queen, which in Mongolia had a shape of dog, lion or tiger; 2 camels, 2 horses and 2 arbs. There was a certain freedom in the case of pawns. They were shaped like children, hunters, soldiers, wrestlers, or even dogs, hens, etc. In order to differentiate particular sets, two different kinds of wood of various colours or light and dark stones were used. Wooden figures and pawns were painted red and yellow or green and red.

Contemporary Mongolian shepherds treat chess as a battlefield, an imitation of war. Real events such as a fight of two brothers for the throne of their father, were a prototype for this game.

Chess, like games with astragaluses, was an obligatory game played during Tsagaan Sar. I was not able, however, to find the answer to the question why this game accompanied the New Year’s celebrations. The following information was an exception: chess is connected with fight, it may be played then [during Tsagaan Sar]. But, was it a reminder of a real fight, or was the fight symbolic?

In a cyclical concept of time the beginning of a year is simultaneously a return to original events. Everything starts again, and the past comes back to life in myths, rites, and perhaps also in games. In Mongolian beliefs, the time of the origin was also the time of battle. Good and evil deities fought for the boundary territories [2, 412]. Heaven and the nether world fought for the privilege of being a god. The creation of man was accompanied by the quarrel of gods over the color of his soul. Even before the Earth and Man were created, there was a conflict between the deities as to whom the fruits of the cosmic tree belonged [32, 218, 223-224]. It is difficult, however, to state the link between these events and chess. The crucial thing is the attempt to maintain the harmony of the basic feature of the game, which is the fight, in the New Year’s context. It is a return to the original events, characterized by symbolical struggle.

In the opinion of contemporary Mongolians, chess is a good and wise game which brings happiness. A positive attitude towards this game is connected, to some extent, with the belief concerning the genesis of chess and the role it played in the lives of various heroes. In one of the tales, for example, there is a certain Arabic king, who gave the inhabitants of his country an order to invent a game which would require thinking. From among the games presented to him, the king chose chess. Then he asked the inventor what he would like as a reward. The man answered that he wanted to receive a piece of land equal to the length of a bee’s flight as he wanted to grow trees, fruits and vegetables. Thanks to the reward, the man became rich. From that time on those who play chess become rich.

Chess does not only bring wealth and honour. Various tales also indicate its role in the fight for life, when it is the defeat of death. An important personage in tales was most often a cruel ruler, whose passion was chess. This ruler always won and beheaded his defeated opponents. However, there was usually a hero (most often a shepherd) who was a better player than the king. Thanks to him, the king stopped killing people and this is the good of the game.

The attitude of the Mongols towards chess is also explained by the following tale, which also shows the connection of the game to the foretelling the future: A long time ago two tribes were at war. One of the commanders played chess every evening as he wanted to know the results of the battle which was to be fought the next day. The results of the game were visible in real struggle and that is why the Mongols liked this game.

In present-day Mongolia, chess is popular among adults, young people, and even children. During feasts, especially Tsagaan Sar, various tournaments are organized to determine the best player. There are also many clubs and chess organizations.

We can also observe a growing popularity of checkers (daam, dew). Some researchers say that this game represents an ancient struggle of 12 eastern rulers with 12 western barbarians for the hand of a beautiful princess who possessed a talisman of luck [15, 15]. Others point to the cosmic symbolism a game related to checkers, called nard [for more see: 28, 51-52].

Contrary to the game of chess, Mongolian checkers stresses very clearly the opposition between two adversaries. It is achieved by the use of suitable names, shapes, size and colours of the stones. For example, in a game called kharailt (jump), “goats” and “lambs” stand opposite one another (this opposition is also represented in Mongolian beliefs). In other games, white pawns fight with the black ones, spotted pawns with plain ones, etc. (e.g. buudal – a stand, and araljaa – a horse’s gait).

The games, which at the beginning of the 20th century still appeared obligatorily in New Year’s context, include buga (deer), also called buga nokhoi (a deer and dogs). Nowadays, this game is known only to the older generation of the Mongols, and in many yurts nobody plays it during Tsagaan Sar.

The shepherds often replaced figures of deer and dogs, beautifully carved and cast in metal, with stones or astragaluses. In the case of stones, those which represented deer were always bigger and lighter than the others. When astragaluses were used, the bone representing “the deer” was placed with the side of “horse” or “sheep” facing upwards. “The dog” was represented by “the goat”.

“The deer” stones were always placed in the upper and lower part of the board and on the sides. Their placement was marked by a triangle or a rhomb, and it was defined by geographical names of mountains, or simply by the word “mountain” (uul). Sometimes the term “head” (tolgoi) was used. “Dogs” were placed in the middle of the board, which was marked by a square or a rectangle and named “the earth” (gazar), “the steppe” (tal) or “a valley”; this last name is given by Potanin, [31, 117]. The “deer” and “dogs” do not take opposite places only on the board. The deer is associated with a mountain, Heaven and pre-ancestors [27]. The dog serves as mediator between life and death. It appears also as a guard of the nether world and a guide to “the other world” [3, 98; 22, 40-58].

In old times, the Mongols used the term buga to describe the third and the last month of winter, when the snow began to melt on the yurt’s doorstep and when the day became as long „as the jump of a wild deer” [18, 123-124]. As we know, playing buga was shepherd’s duty at the turning point of winter and spring. I think I will not be mistaken if I consider it an element of symbolic communication about events taking place in nature and in the annual cycle.

Contemporary Mongolian shepherds state most often that buga is an image of deer hunting. I would like to notice, however, that the rules of the game do not allow the players to capture “deer”, which would seem natural if the game was an image of real hunting. They need only to block or close them off for some time. In the symbolic meaning, it denotes temporary death, the condition which is essential for resurrection to follow [26, 201, 206]. This transition from death to life occurs during the New Year’s period.

From Tsagaan Sar, the shepherds could play buga all spring. However, the game was prohibited during each summer and autumn. People feared that playing the game during this period could cause an attack of wolves on the flocks and, consequently, losses.

In games we often encounter the rule of blocking the opponent, and excluding his pawns from the open space. An interesting example, which allows us to speak about the meaning of this rule not only for winning, is a group of board games, in which there is a battle for access to water. These games are: gurvan khudag (three wells), neg tugal tuukh (driving a calf), temeen tawag (the paw of a camel), tugal (calf), tugal uslakh (watering a calf) and others. The areas connected with water are most often named khudag (well) or dalai (sea).

Popova quotes a description of the game named unee tugaluulakh (a cow and a calf) [30]. She points out, among other things, to the vocabulary which is used to name the following stages of the game. And thus, if one of the counters happened to be in the hole on the playing-board, it was called unee (cow). Two counters were named bukh unee khoier (a bull and a cow together), three – unee delegnene (a milch cow, whose distended udders are ready to be milked), whereas 4 counters had the name unee tugalsan (a cow with a calf). As Popova rightly remarked, this vocabulary corresponds to the consecutive stages of the development of life: the presence of a female, her contact with a male, pregnancy and gathering of food, as well as the birth of the progeny. And again a question comes up whether the game was only to remind (by imitating) the factual happenings in the Nature, or perhaps it was also symbolic communication about the act of re-creation and the role, which – according to beliefs popular among the Mongols – the cattle were to play in the creation of life.

Birds are the main characters of some board games. Some of these games belong to the type called jireg. My informants pointed out that the name of the game and the jireg shout which the player let out taking his rival’s counter, are associated with jirgekh (to chatter, to chirp). They only stipulated that it was not a cuckoo’s voice. Perhaps, in Mongolia some time ago the game was symbolically connected with death and the search for an escape yielding life.

The hypothesis about the symbolic connection between the games of the jireg type, death and revival, becomes probable if we take into consideration the fact that the games of this kind are included among the New Year’s ones by Mongolian shepherds. It is known as the transition period between death, life, and re-creation. Moreover, the names of some games of the jireg type indicate that the main characters taking part in them are birds. Among them we should mention a swallow (altan kharaatsai), and a nightingale (altan gurgaldai). The adjective altan (gold) which is used when describing birds, is very often used in Mongolian to emphasize the symbolic connection of described objects with the beginning and birth. Beliefs indicate the swallow’s participation in the act of creating the Earth. It is said to have a mediating role between Man and Heaven [23, 19-21; 32, 183, 219].


Some games seem to be especially characteristic for Mongolia. They are khorol (a circle) and olzii (the sign of happiness). These games as well as dominoes, which is called daaluu, are regarded by the shepherds as the so-called ger barikh togloom, i.e. games consisting of “building of yurts”.

The term “yurt” (ger) defines here several “stones” arranged in the way the rules of the game require it (most often one on the other but on the top of it there is a “stone” of the highest value, at the bottom of it – the one of the lowest value).

The Mongols especially sympathize with the khorol. Some of them regard it as the reminder of our history. Others attribute the invention of this game to Genghis Khan, still others to deities. According to the legend about the origin of khorol: Burkhan-bagsh [the king of all gods] wanted the people to remember very well the order of the animals which follow one after the other in a twelve-year cycle, months, days and hours. Therefore he created a game called khorol. The aim of this game is to remind people about the existence of a twelve-years cycle and twelve animals, and that especially the children learned it. Khorol is one of the compulsory New Year’s games. It is then that the change of the year takes place; the animals mark this change by marking the coming year. In the Middle Gobi aimag this game was known as arvan khoier jil (12 years), which also indicates its connection with the calendar and time.

The shepherds believed that Burkhan-bagsh not only created the game but also defined what the years named as particular animals would be like. Generally speaking, consecutive years are determined by the Mongols as hard years and soft years, masculine or feminine, and it is assumed that even years are always hard and masculine, and odd years are soft and feminine. The first group includes the years of the mouse, tiger, dragon, horse, monkey and dog. The second group comprises the years of the bull (cow), hare, viper, sheep (ram), hen and swine. This general division is not equal to the division of years into good and bad ones. Some of my informants stated, for example, that the years of the mouse and the cow as well as the monkey and the hen which followed one another were regarded as the lucky ones, although they were differently treated in the classification made according to the other features. The hard year was not to be meant as unlucky and the soft one did not have to be mild.

A player who put “a stone” with an image of a certain animal described it accordingly, stressing its features and its merits for man. As the text puts it: One year is the year of a mouse which spits precious items out of its belly. One year is the year of a big, horned cow, the owner of which likes it very much. One year is the year of a tiger, which takes care of its comforts and which lives in the woods over the mountains. One year is the year of a hare with long ears, which runs around our planet. One year is the year of a fast motley dragon, which gives rain to people. One year is the year of a brown, motley viper, which crawls in places where there are no people. One year is the year of a horse with round hoofs, the owner of which likes it very much and which is needed by a man. One year is the year of a ram, which fills hilly places with its brood. One year is the year of a monkey which always imitates a man on our planet. One year is the year of a dog, the barking of which announces the visit of guests. One year is the year of a hen which likes its children very much and which announces the dawn. One year is the year of a swine, which destroys evil.

Sympathy which Mongolian shepherds have for khorol is connected with the belief that the game symbolizes what is dear to people. Not only were the animals connected with the calendar cycle dear to the shepherds but also the yurt itself; even the one which was “built” during the game. The shepherds explained the obligation of playing the game during Tsagaan Sar by the necessity of building yurts.

In Mongolian culture the yurt is connected with measurement of time, like the animals whose images are present in khorol. Each of these animals has its own corresponding place in the oval of the yurt, which bears its name. The yurt itself is round like the sun and on the basis of the shadow cast by the poles lit by the sun the shepherds orientated themselves in twenty-four-hours time. They observed, above all, the sun ray which glided through the round opening in the roof of the yurt and through the ends of the poles.

In Mongolia the yurt is also a symbol of the Universe. The symbolical construction of the yurt during the games in the New Year’s period reminds us, I think, of the primary act of Creation. The players participate symbolically in the act of rebirth of the world and return to the primeval times. Some numbers seem to be essential to the significance of the game. There were 60 “stones” in the game. Besides 48 “stones” with the image of animals from the calendar cycle the set included also “stones” with pictures of some precious Buddhist items, mythical birds and animals, lucky charms, etc. They had the biggest value in the game and belonged to the so-called garyn mod (i.e. “the tree of hand”), held in a hand, contrary to the 48 “stones” called gazryn mod (the tree of earth). Garyn mod were not to be placed on the ground for they surmounted the yurt. During the game the players “built 12 yurts” and placed 5 “stones” inside each of them. In the New Year period players were obliged to play 12 games of khorol, and with a greater number of players – even 60 games. I think that the number 60 corresponds to the years of the so-called “big cycle” of the time; 12 are the years of the so-called “small cycle”. Each “big cycle” includes 5 “small cycles”.

The “stone” with the image of khorol had the highest value. It was one of the seven precious things, the symbols of Buddhism-Lamaism, the symbol of the Universe. Highly estimated was also a “stone” with the image of a mythical stone fulfilling all wishes (zendeme, zendmene, zumbe). Moreover, there was also a stone with the picture of fire, called norobo, norbuor, norov (there were regional differences). Therefore, in the set of garyn mod, besides the stones mentioned here, there could be also a picture of an eagle or the mythical Garuda bird. Additionally, there could be also the sign of happiness olzii, a lion or a swastika. Each sign placed among the stones designed as garyn mod has specific symbolism and magical significance. Some of them have also certain parts of a yurt ascribed to them. Khorol corresponds to the cupola and the round opening, the lion hide to the walls. The wings of Garuda represent the linking part between the cupola and the walls. To olzii the door and some ropes are ascribed. The presence of lamaic symbols on the “stones” used in khorol indicated the influence of this religion also upon the sphere of games.

The shepherds believed that the one who often won in khorol and who often encountered a “stone” with the picture of zendeme would be happy. As one of my informants said: khorol is a good game because precious things are present there, the finding of which augurs fortunate future. The shepherds also believed that those who playkhorol make their lives longer by the next 12 years. Moreover, all the animals of the cycle expressed their wish for longevity.

The game of khorol was prohibited in summer and autumn. The shepherds explained this prohibition by the fear of making angry the dragon, the picture or a relief of which appeared on the “stones” used for the game. Another explanation was their fear of thunder. They were especially afraid of children breaking the rule, because it could then affect the animals which come once a year and are linked with the calendar. These animals would regard the game played in a different period than the New Year (and later, spring) as a sign of disrespect.

The game called olzii is based on the similar rules as the game of khorol (my information about olzii comes from the East Gobi aimag). Olzii itself is a sign of happiness for the Mongols. It is also the symbol of longevity. It belongs, among others, to the most popular decorative motives at the same time fulfilling magical functions.

The similarity of olzii and khorol depends, above all, on the “building of yurts” activities and on the principles for the players. Contrary to khorol, the animals connected with the calendar do not appear here. Instead, one can see the images of a swan, a peacock, a duck, a wild goose, a pheasant, a wild camel, a chamois and a mountain ram, a musk-rat, a deer , a tiger, a panther and also a “wild” man. The Mongols treated these animals as the wealth of the Earth. Their presence in the mountains and forests guaranteed good and abundant life. They were believed to help people and they were treated with respect. It is an example of commonly existing beliefs according to which the animals are treated as carriers of vegetative powers.

During my field research I met an example of a negative attitude of the game itself, regardless of the time during which it could be played. It is dominoes (nukhdekh, daaluu, daaluu tawikh). The interesting thing is that the same game classified by the Western Mongols (the Oirats) as “evil” was regarded by the Khalkhas as a “good” game. The Oirats warned young people of the game. A person who played dominoes was to become unhappy and poor. It is not a simple warning of the result of gambling under the influence of which the shepherds remained for ages [31, 120]. According to beliefs, the dominoes was to prevent the cattle from breeding and generally bring misfortune to people, regardless of the fact whether a player was a gambler or played only for fun. The game was strictly prohibited during an epidemic of cattle. The Khalkhas in the east part of Mongolia acted in a different way. They believed that dominoes had magical power and can prevent from ill-health, especially from smallpox. According to my informants, white and red dots of dominoes resemble the smallpox rash. The illness was represented as an old man (Tsetseg ovgon, literally: a flowery old man). When this old man saw the people playing dominoes he thought that it was a sign of scoff and self-assurance; therefore he went away, which prevented future illness.

The attitude towards the game is a condition for its presence in the New Year context. If the game was regarded as evil it was eliminated from this context. If the ratings for the game were good it was played during the Tsagaan Sar celebrations. Some of my informants stressed the fact that it is necessary to play dominoes on the New Year’s Day in order to build yurts.

A crucial role for the evaluation of the dominoes is played by legends. They indicate tragic circumstances in which the game originated. For instance, there is a tale about an old Chinese man who made dominoes out of his son’s bones. The boy was drowned in a sea. In another version he died of starvation or was killed by his own father, who could not stand the sight of an emaciated child losing its strength due to the shortage of food. When the Chinese man held dominoes in his hands he believed that his son would not die. Sometimes in these beliefs a man was replaced by a dog, a faithful friend. Dominoes made of the animal bones were to remind about the animal after its death. The creation of dominoes was also attributed to a Chinese man who after having lost all his property killed his son. Then, he made dominoes out of his son’s bones and started to gamble with the game in order to get rich. I already mentioned that domino dots resembled smallpox signs. Sometimes a hero of the tale about the origin of the game was a father who makes dominoes out of his son’s bones. The son died of smallpox and therefore his father marked dominoes with the sign of the illness. Because the dead boy was twelve years old, the stone with 12 dots has the highest value.

A literal treatment of the legends describing the circumstances of the origin of daaluu exerted influence on the attitude towards the game. The activities of the old Chinese man which were to give a make-believe character to death and which were to preserve life and give it a different shape, were devoid of this level and accepted as a relation about real events. These practices may be regarded as being symbolical-magical, especially when the game is present in the context of the New Year’s celebrations. By the way, it is interesting that there was a different attitude towards dominoes among the Khalkhas and the Oirats.

Dominoes, just as astragaluses, were prohibited in the summer-autumn period. (I registered this information from among the Khalkhas). This prohibition was explained by the fear of thunder.


Marking the turning point

The nature of games changes considerably with the coming of summer. They become more dynamic, the players get out of yurts and move freely in the outdoors. The number of participants of these games increases. While only two to four, sometimes eight people, took part in spring games, now there are a dozen or so of them, their number reaching even up to several hundred people during the so-called eriin gurvan naadam (three games of men). The spring games did not involve a lot of physical effort. One could move a pawn or a little stone, toss dice or several astragaluses while sitting. In summer and autumn games the whole body is involved. One has to go to a different place, run, look for hidden objects, and sometimes to grapple with one's opponents in a fight that is won by the stronger of the two.

At the beginning of summer the shepherds played tsagaan mod (a white tree). Today it is hard to identify for certain the origin of this game. The link between tsagaan mod and curative magic is, however, stressed by the shepherds of our times. The game was held to prevent the spread of diseases, particularly smallpox, as well as to protect the animals from infection before the disease started. Throwing a wooden pole during the initial phase of the game was interpreted as chasing away the evil that caused the disease and chasing the evil spirits away. The further the wooden pole was thrown, the further away they went.

A barked dry wooden stick, 10-15 cm long, was the requisite for this game. The Mongols called it khuvkhai mod, which means “a dead tree, showing no signs of life”.Explaining the magical influence that tsagaan mod had on health of the animals, they pointed out also the inner relation between the wooden stick and the disease. Both were needless. Another idea was that the animals should not be ill like the tree. Moreover, all things found on the steppe, dry and faded like tsagaan mod, were thought to have a special potential in all magic acts.

Frightening the evil spirits away and destroying them was attributed not only to the act of “throwing the tree”, but also to shouting, clapping hands, yelling and laughing, which accompanied the game. This kept the wolves away and prevented them from attacking the herds, one of the shepherds said.

The magic potential of tsagaan mod is not, however, restricted to fighting the evil and its embodiments, such as disease and beasts of prey. According to what the shepherds said, we find elements of magic of fertility and abundance in it. The game was to ensure general wealth, bring torrential rain, increase the milking productivity of mares. The sounds produced during the game stimulated Nature, on which the life of man and his well-being depended. This was clearly shown in the following opinion: You must yell during the game and laugh aloud to wake up Nature. The Earth rejoices when it hears the voices of its children. When the Earth is happy it will endow the man with its wealth. The shepherds spoke about playing for Nature, for the tree, and, but not so often, for fire. Each of these, according to Mongolian beliefs, is connected with fertility, giving life, increasing the shepherd’s stock.

The period during which tsagaan mod can be played is clearly defined. It starts on the first or the second day of summer and ends on the 16th or 17th day of the second (i.e. the middle) month of autumn. This is the time when Lus Sabdag visits the earth. Single pieces of evidence suggest that there was a link between the game and Lus Sabdag. The game was dedicated to him. When the summertime started people asked him to protect them, while in autumn they thanked him for a good summer. Moreover, the game was to mark the transition from spring to summer.

I also found another reason why the game had been played at this particular time. As one of my informants said: People started making milky products then, and tsagaan mod is white as milk. In my opinion, this is another example of the relation between the unity of the game and its context.

The game, played in the two turning moments of summer and autumn, had a very special setting, which emphasized its unusual character and importance. Old men sat on the start – finish line where the wooden pole was thrown and brought back. The oldest of men praised the winners of the competition and rewarded them with milky products. Kluyeva informs that the old men who were watching the game used to say: “This shows that the year will be good” which points to the prophetic function of the game [16, 41].

In literature I have never found the name of a spot from where the wooden pole was thrown, nor the name of the place where it felt. I suppose, the place from where it had been thrown served as the symbolic borderline between “this” and “the other world”, to which the object had been sent. The present-day Mongols frequently call it “the starting line” and “the winning line” and do not associate it with the symbolic borderline. Possibly, there was no name to define the place, perhaps it was not important. Most often it was marked by oral agreement or by a line drawn on the ground. Sometimes a circle was drawn.

Only one of the inhabitants of Ulan Bator told me that the place where the wooden pole fell was called “the nest”. This could have been a local name (my informant was born in the eastern part of Mongolia), the information itself, however, was important. It confirms the character of communication interpreted by the player’s behaviour. The nest symbolizes the place where life arose. I suppose, in the game it was the place where the wooden pole was reborn and revived (of course, in a symbolic meaning).

After the game was over participants engaged in sexual activities. The relation of these behaviours with fertility magic, especially when they are present in a crucial moment in the life of a family, community, cosmos, etc., is generally known. It seems that in the case of tsagaan mod these behaviours constituted a certain logical consequence of the previous behaviours of the game’s participants.

The game called tsagaan temee (a white camel) belongs to the most popular games in Mongolia. In the most widely known version of this game an adult male camel attacks a young camel which is being protected by female camels. In some variants of the game and old man may appear (accompanied, for example, by a sick camel) or an old woman. Then the attacked personages are, for example, a rich man and his people protecting a young white camel. The person who wants to catch a camel describes it first. He compares it to hair: “A white camel is like hair, like foam”. He also focuses on special features of the animal: the hump as big as a man, enormous feet like spades, muscles resembling a tea pot, hair that could fill a pannier. All of that was said by children who imitated driving a camel from a cottage.

It should be noticed, that the people who try to catch the white camel represent the poor and the sick (the camel that is brought by a poor man is sick as well). The people with the baby camel are totally different. Although only their wealth is mentioned, we can assume that they are also healthy (health being the opposite of sickness). They owe their position to the fact that they have the white camel and its hair. The occurrence of hair in the magic of abundance is generally known. In the beliefs of many people of Central Asia camel hair has also a protective function [7, 204-205].

The white camel has a very special place in Mongolian culture. According to Potanin the Mongols believed that it came from Heaven and was a saddle-horse of Burkhan-bagsh [32, 273]. A white camel had a great potential to increase the shepherd’s riches. That is why it carried the bride’s dowry during the weeding ceremonies, and, when prayers ended in the monastery, a figure of a deity. The game tsagaan temee could be a part of the abundance rites because of the character of the camel and its hair.

The period suitable for playing tsagaan temee started on the first or the second day of summer and finished in the middle of autumn. Throwing the tree, i.e. tsagaan mod, always went first, and only then tsagaan temee and other games could have been played. Unfortunately, I was unable to explain the meaning of tsagaan temee in this context. If one could draw an analogy, we may conclude that this game had a role in the process of communication about the changes that took place in nature, the transition from spring to summer, particularly as it was in the case of tsagaan mod.

The idea is also represented by the set of characters that appear in the game. Their opposite features have already been mentioned. The choice of the male and the baby camel is a further testimony. Physical strength represented by the male camel is contrasted with weakness and fragility of the baby camel, although it carries another significant magical function. In Mongolian culture the camel and its hair are also mediators.

“May people and horses be well”

Every year in the middle of July in the capital of Mongolia great games called ikh naadam or eriin gurvan naadam (three games of men) are organized. The strongest wrestlers, the best archers and riders on their swift horses assemble for the occasion. In summer and autumn also local competitions are arranged in the centres of aimags and somons (administrative units, cooperatives).

The contemporary Mongolian shepherds trace the origin of naadam back to wars, fights and quarrels between nomads, about the issue of whose horse was better, stronger and faster. The race was to prove the superiority of one of the horses. The shepherds also point out that “the tree games of men” for a long time contributed to both defense and hunting. They allowed for choosing the best archers, whose skills were later used for military and utilitarian purposes.

It is known that the Mongols organized naadam to worship the souls of their ancestors. Originally naadam was held at the foot of oboo. Primarily oboo meant a hill, mound, tomb – but also a heap of stones and the frontier [41, 301-303]. In common understanding the oboo means the heap of stones set up on the top of a hill, on the pass, at the side of the lake or in the steppe, for religious purposes. It is a peculiar sanctuary, a dwelling-place of the spirits – the lords of the definite territory. If we assume that originally naadam was held at the foot of oboo, as it was still done at the beginning of the 20th century, though for different purposes, then the connection with the ancestors worship become very probable.

Some researchers connect the origin of the oboo with protective magic. These heaps of stones were erected in order to ensure the protection of the spirits for people. The fate of the shepherds and their herds depended on them [14]. Serruys writes that during the summer ceremony of drinking koumiss horse races were organized [37]. My informants also ascertained that in the 19th and 20th centuries horse races were organized, above all, during the oboo worship.

“The three games of men” accompanied religious celebrations as well. Rich Mongolian families organized contests on important occasions such as wedding, arrival of honoured guests, a 70th, 75th or 80th birthday of the male head of the family, etc. Those customs disappeared after the 1921 revolution, when organization of naadam was taken over by the leaders of cooperatives and the authorities of aimags and somons. With time the contest became an element of local festivities during which the results of work were summed up and the best shepherds, milkmaids, zootechnicians and other workers were rewarded.

Participants in the contemporary contests repeat various ritualized gestures and motions preserved by tradition until the present day now and distinguishing eriin gurvan naadam from other disciplines. Most often those activities lack any deeper meaning. The majority of the audience perceives them in that way. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries naadam was still full of symbols and magical gestures.

Demonstration and transmission of power: wrestling

Wrestling is usually treated as a trial of strength. Before the competitors approach each other to try to throw one another to the ground using special holds, infighting, and thrusts of the body, they make a series of stately hand-gestures, fluent jumps, then gradually move the weight of the body from one leg to the other, etc. The winners act in a similar way. It is widely claimed that a competitor performs a “special dance”, imitating a flight of an eagle or a mythical Garuda. According to my own research, this “dance” had a very important communicative significance. Through his movement a competitor showed that he was as strong as Garuda.

Wrestlers used to throw a handful of sand at each other before the beginning of a fight. One of my informants compared this behaviour with bull fighting. The other claimed that the competitors resembled bulls pawing the ground. Mongolian wrestlers also touched the ground with their hands. They did so before and after the fight. In my opinion, it was connected with the faith in the protective power of the Earth and the possibility of obtaining some of this power by man. Mongolian people used to consider the Earth to be a protector of flourishing life and everything that should grow (especially children and herds).

Magical functions were attributed to milk products (tsagaan idee), usually pieces of dried cheese, which were given to the winners. Mongols believe that tsagaan idee gives strength to men. Giving it to a wrestler after the competition was believed to return his lost strength to him. Mongols also believed that tsagaan idee multiplied the property of an endowed competitor and brought him wealth.

The winner put a handful of food to his forehead, ate a little bit, and then threw pieces of cheese towards the spectators, oboo, the mountains and the sky, thus sharing the victory with them. Spectators distributed the bits of food among themselves so that everyone could taste the food offered by the champion. The Mongols believed that giving tsagaan idee to Nature by a wrestler would protect people from diseases and provide an abundance of food.

A wrestler who had won five or six fights was given the title of a falcon (nachin) or a hawk (khartsaga). After winning seven or eight times a competitor received the title of an elephant (zaan); and after winning nine fights, that of a lion (arslan). Winners of successive contests (naadam) on the aimag or the national level, could be granted the titles of a gigantic master (avarga), the whole giant (daian avarga) and the sacred giant (darkhan avarga). Apart from the titles, wrestlers were also given material prizes – usually live-stock, clothing materials, a yurt, articles of consumption, occasionally money. In the past the winner was given as a reward – apart of the warrior’s suit and weapon – a bow and arrows, a shield, a sword, a spear and a chain armour [41, 18].

Nowadays competitors are obliged to wear identical costumes patterned on the old Khalkhas dress. It consists of short breeches and a short jacket exposing part of competitor’s back and belly, a cone-shaped cap and shoes with curled toe-caps. The dresses were in navy-blue and red colours. Derbets competitors fought wearing only loin cloths and appeared half-naked. According to my informants, they could wear only short trousers and no shoes.

My informants gave practical reasons for wrestlers’ nakedness: This is much more comfortable; it renders grabbing and holding the adversary more difficult; the body, especially sweated, is easily wriggled out. However, some shepherds explained that the wrestlers uncovered the body in order to make the dust of the Earth more visible. The problem, however, was not in proving the wrestler’s contact with the earth. It would not have been missed by sharp eyes of spectators and referees. The dust of the Earth has symbolical and magical significance for the Mongols (see the section on horse racing). It was the dust raised by horses’ hoofs in which competitors appeared before the spectators. The “dust of the Earth” was probably associated with the ceremony of transmission and initiation. It could be a sign of such situation.

The clothing colours had a symbolic meaning. In Mongolia, red is the symbol of fire and blood, meaning life and its source. Blue, on the other hand, is the colour of Heaven. In Khovd aimag I collected some interesting information concerning the wrestler’s cap. Besides red ribbons, which were the symbol of fire, a cap had a band of yellow, orange and green ribbons. These colours symbolize the Earth. The cosmic, universal symbolism of the wrestler’s clothing let us see wrestling not only as a sport competition. The wrestler’s participation in the transmission of strength between the Earth and the rest of Nature and people indicates the human endeavour for the symbolic unity of Man and the Universe.

To show the best: horse racing

According to shepherd’s information horse racing was first of all an occasion for demonstration of the swift-footed horses. The more horses took place in these races the more satisfied the shepherds were, and with them, as it was believed, the whole Nature, its Lord, spirits, and oboo. So one of the main purposes of the contest was achieved even better.

The horses are properly selected not just before the race but from their very birth. A skilled eye of the shepherd occupied with the preparation of horses for the race can evaluate the usability of the animal. The following external features are taken into consideration: formation of the body, head, hooves as well as features of the internal organs: heart, lever, kidneys, and proportions of legs to the rest of the body. A fine and long tail, exuberant mane, good teeth and eyesight are also very important. The experts can find out from the most secret signs whether a young colt is suitable for prospective races or not.

Such elements as age, sex and colour decided also about the participation of horses in races. From the research I have carried out it became evident that in some areas of western Mongolia horses younger than five years were not admitted to the race. It was considered that they are not strong enough. Among the Miangads, six-year-old horses would not race. The horses were growing their teeth and this is why they were not strong enough. It was believed that the race would deteriorate the future development of the horse. The Elets, on the other hand, maintained that five-year-old horses should not race. They were also considered weaker than the six-year-old ones. The Khalkhas informed me that seven-year-old horses were not admitted to the races. They explained it by saying that it would turn against them, causing their illness. Others maintained that only horses older than six years could be used in the race. Irrespective of conformity with the reality of the above statement I am of the opinion that it is important, first of all, that some limitations and sanctions for their break existed. And, what is more important, there are evident relations between the age of a horse and the strength attributed to it. And this in great measure is decisive about the participation of a horse in a race.

The shepherds especially esteem the horses of dark colour. The colour of the horse is also connected with its strength. Light colour, like a bone turned white on the steppe under the sun and rain, is associated with weakness (cf. information about tsagaan mod and tsagaan temee). The dark colour signifies the opposite. It does not only indicate strength but also, according to Mongolian beliefs, black horses are ridden by the gods and the race horses should imitate these divine steeds.

Very often during my research I came across information that the mares were not admitted to races. The shepherds explained it this way: As women do not participate in [three] games [of men]; a mare can not race, a woman can not take part in wrestling. Some of them stressed the fact that the very name of the contests indicated that this is a man’s job. Others claimed that women are worse than men, they have not enough strength. So mares are estimated lower than horses and are not held in such esteem as horses; mares represent the power of women and so they do not participate in naadam. However, the Elets living in Khovd aimag emphasized that their neighbours, the Kazakhs, used mares in races. They practiced that because a mare gives birth to a horse.

Not only the features of a horse have decided of the horse’s success in races. It depended greatly on the horse's preparation, and here the knowledge and abilities of the trainers were taken into account. The basic training took part during the month preceding the races. During that period a special diet was imposed on the animal, the daily distance for running was extended, the weight was checked and reduced if necessary.

Also some various magic measures were used to help in the achievement of victory. For this purpose, for example, the picture of the winged horse, pentagram, flower, and the sign of olzii was sewn on the dress of the rider. All these should give the power and swiftness to the horse. At the same time they symbolized the race.

The horses taking part in a race was treated in a special way. The master bound up his horse's tail in half, tied the hair of its mane so that a protruded brush was formed. To carry out this task the pieces of material, threads or red string and also the leather thong were used. The deer skin was especially valued. The shepherds studded the saddle and the harness with metal ornaments (often made of silver). All these measures were of great importance. My informants pointed to their practical qualities. According to them the bound up hair did not disturb the horse while running. The shepherds stressed also the decorative-aesthetic functions of these measures. All those metallic ornaments and materials filled people with joy. And, as it was believed at the same time, the horses and all of Nature rejoiced.

All these measures regarded by some only as useful or aesthetic ones played also a very important role in the process of communication. As my informants said: They informed about the feast and the horse-racing. The addressees of this information were the horses and the spectators alike: people, and Nature, the sky and oboo. The binding up of the mane and the tail had to put the horse into a good mood. The shepherds believed also that this influenced the horse's speed. The horse not only knew that it was a feast but also became eager for a better race.

The present-day Mongols most often do not believe in the power of magical measures and rituals. They simple say: the results of the game depend on the player alone; it ends the way it is played, attaching great importance to the values of a horse and its training.

The sight of running horses is exceptionally exciting to every spectator. The clouds of dust, which the horses kick up were treated by the Mongols as the symbol of life and the announcement of changes. This sight made people and Nature rejoice.

In the eposes of Mongolian people the clouds of dust kicked up by the running horses were considered to be the evidence of the speed and power of the horses. The swirl of dust as well as the hoof-beats had the ability to keep the enemies away. The clouds of dust are also the symbol of horse-riding and the abundance [more on this issue see: 19, 151-154].

The horses of the first five places are called “the koumiss five” (airgiin tav). Their heads are poured with koumiss or milk and a special song is being performed. These drinks are treated as a special gift for the horse. The best riders are also awarded with koumiss and handfuls of dried cheese. The meaning of this award was that of communication. Tsagaan idee were shown to people and horses to emphasize the fact that it was made of mare’s milk. At the same time the best and the most valuable thing man had was shown. As it is known, koumiss (like milk) symbolizes the change in a ceremonial situation. It is also treated as a magical measure which can ensure fecundity and abundance. Presumably koumiss appeared in this role also during horse-racing.

As I have already mentioned, the Mongols treated their best wrestlers as the incarnation of their great heroes. The swift-footed black horses were considered to be the Horses of God. I must add here that these heroes distinguished themselves also in the art of horse-riding. They often took part in races, for example, during wedding ceremonies while suiting for the hand of a beautiful girl. Most often riding abilities and the aid of a wonderful horse enabled them to defeat the evil powers. The bow and supplies with exceptionally feathered arrows were also the weapon in fighting the evil.

Weapons frightening evil away: archery

The Mongols' liking for archery (sur kharvakh) and perfect mastery of that art have attracted the attention of newcomers for a long time [see, e.g. 21, 78; 29, 36-37; 36, 177].

In beliefs and rites of Mongolian tribes, bows and arrows appear as symbols of fertility, life, power and man, what can be seen especially during wedding and funeral ceremonies [43, 257; 33, 219]. A quiver full of arrows is the symbol of wealth and fertility [44, 224 and 229]. This weapon has also a magical and protective character [14, 177]. The sacrifice of it for oboo was to destroy evil spirits [1, 37]. The magical spell of bows and arrows appears at an archery contest organized during oboo takhikh ceremonies. The shepherds believed that accurate shots can overcome all evil, especially the one, which appears in the most painful form of illness attacking people and domesticated animals.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries the so-called sur – little cylinders made of camel leather cut in straps, plaited together and filled with oak bark or leather – were used as targets. The Sur were placed in a row or in a pyramid reaching the shoulder height of a medium-sized man. Hitting a target as small as a sur (about 6-8 cm in height and 8 cm in diameter) was regarded by the Mongols as the proof of excellent accuracy of the archer. The distance to the target was 75-80 meters. A contestant, whose arrow hit the sur used to take it with him to his yurt convinced that it would bring him good luck. In accordance with the rule that one should take everything good with oneself and leave everything bad, a sur which was not hit was buried to, as the shepherds said, prevent the expansion of evil.

Each accurate shot is rewarded with long shout uukhai!!! Men, uttering the cry, stand up and raise hands up to Heaven. Nowadays such a shout and the gesture connected with it mean just the acknowledgement of hitting the mark. Earlier, the Mongols attached magical significance to this shout. The shout was to repeal evil and at the same time call and support the good. The shepherds believed that the evil spirits frightened by the loud shout uukhai!!! would not return till the next naadam, until the entire magical procedure was necessary to resume. The shout uukhai !!! had also a psychological meaning, it would cheer up the marksman, stimulate him to go on fighting and covered his name and the successful arrow with glory. The cheerful shout was heard not only by people but it also reached the oboo, Heaven and all the good spirits to please them and make them rejoice that so many excellent shooters gathered at naadam, and that they displayed great weapon and archery skill. Lus sabdag was also happy. The shepherds believed that the shout uukhai !!! could wake him up, if he happened to be asleep: When Lus sabdag wakes up, it will be rain and abundance but there is nothing, when he is asleep.

The best archers were rewarded by not only with shouts uukhai!!! They received handfuls of dried cheese, farming animals, silk, tea, etc. The archer who hit the target 20 times became the winner. He was granted the title of erchimtei mergen (strong, energetic, marksman), galt mergen (fiery marksman), tod mergen (clear marksman), tsoo mergen (a complete marksman) and so on. The appearance of the adjective mergen (marksman) in each title draws our attention. However, it was not the matter of stressing this feature of archer, which can be seen with the naked eye. The term mergelekh derived from mergen is used in fortune-telling, in which the matter is to foretell something accurately, reveal hidden things, and also to control the future [8, 180]. That was the role of an archer during the contest. He does not only destroy the evil invisible for others and help the good to prevail, but he also has the ability to influence people’s fate, having an effect on Nature, and helping it at the same to put everything in order. Similarly to the strongest wrestlers and the quickest horse the winner of sur kharvakh takes part in the act of re-creation of life conditions fundamental to everyone. The main question is to eliminate the evil, to give way to the good, to make people’s and horses’ life good.


According to my research, the Mongols – as many other nations – believed in the magical power of games. It seems that this belief was still common at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The magical function of games was often indicated by the utterances of shepherds. We may also draw conclusion about it on the basis of the character of requisites and personages, rules, terminology and other elements. Especially if they appear in games and in other contexts as a specific means of influencing reality.

Through the decades Mongolian shepherds felt their dependence exerted by Nature and that is why they could not ignore it. They believed, however, that they could win the friendly attitude of the power of water, wind, fire, burning sunbeams, on which their fate depended. A characteristic form of exerting influence on Nature and containing it were sacrifices. It was a kind of offering. The functions of offering and sacrifices were also fulfilled by games.

Mongolian shepherds attributed certain human features to Nature and to its hosts. Thanks to it these powers became less alien and inaccessible. They also believed that the hosts of Nature, Mother Earth, High Sky, oboo and others, are able to rejoice together with people, and together participate in games.

For a long time man has tried to win the friendly attitude of the powerful forces of Nature. As I have already mentioned, sacrifices played a very important role here, especially when they were treated as an offering. The shepherds believed that for this specific offering they will be given some of ten Nature’s riches in return: rain, luxuriant grass, numerous herds, health for people and animals, etc. A gift of Nature was, of course, more valuable than the things a man could give to it. As my informants said, games were an expression of respect for the Lord of Nature, Lus Sabdag, oboo, for the twelveanimals connected with Mongolian calendar, and other aspects.

The fear of the anger of aforementioned personages was one of the main motifs of the shepherds’ interpretation of game’s prohibitions. They concerned, above all, the time and context of the games.

Describing two fundamental groups of Mongolian games I stressed visible differences: the character of behaviour, the number of participants, the place of the game, etc. However, the character of the requisites should be noted as well. In spring games these are mainly astragaluses, specially marked stones, boards and pawns, and others. In summer-autumn games the requisites are a wooden pole, a bow, and an arrow. Contrary to spring games, the players’ behaviour is not limited here to sparing manipulation of objects. Without any restraints they run, struggle, and ride several dozen kilometers on horseback. This is the period when Man and Nature live to the full. The players demonstrate harmony with Nature, their strength and the perfection of their horses. It is extremely visible during the period of competitions named eriin gurvan naadam.

Mongolian games were connected with crucial moments of the annual cycle. One of the features of these moments is the competition of a certain stage and the beginning (opening) of the following period. Games are also connected with the rule: “closing-opening”. This idea is expressed by the prohibitions concerning games. They fulfilled the role pertaining to the observance of regulations as well as controlling function. They were also expressions of attempts to preserve a certain order and unity between the life of shepherds and Nature. The presence of these prohibitions may be defined as a certain model situation. In practice, according to my research, at least at the beginning of the 20th century, there were cases of breaking the rules and ignoring the sanctions.

Present-day Mongolia undergoes the process of violent changes. They are expressed, among others things, by the change of the attitude of the Mongols to the past, tradition and cultural heritage. Until recently the Mongols’ attitude towards what has gone has been very critical. Nowadays, they more often speak about richness of traditional culture, religious values, the significance of old beliefs, rites, etc. This situation seems to be advantageous for the development of ethnological research. It may be expressed that research on Mongolian culture will also involve games. As I have tried to present it, the world of games is extremely complex, colourful and full of mysteries. The very games do not serve as forms amusement only. Thanks to the functions ascribed to them they fulfill the role of a mediator between man and the hosts and Spirits of Nature. The victory in a game augurs prosperity, wealth, growth of the family, etc. The best players participate in events, the significance of which goes beyond the range of the shepherds’ community (re-creation of the Universe, the transition of power between the Earth and people, etc.).


Information on the rules of Mongolian games, mentioned in the article (based on field research)

Aduu khumikh (to gather up the flocks). The game can be played by an unrestricted number of players. Each player, taking turns, tosses 3 or 5 astragaluses called aduu (flocks). Then the player should catch the bones onto the outer side of the palm (in the game it is called uul – the mountain), toss and catch in the hand (called the tal – steppe). If he drops an astragalus, the player leaves the game. The winner is the player, who has performed the required exercise longest of all and faultlessly.

Alag melkii orokh (to set a spotted frog/ turtle). Before the game a melkhii figure is built of astragaluses. 36 bones make the back (6 x 6), 16 – the paws (4 x 4), 4 – the neck, 1 – the heart, 2 – the kidneys, 2 – the eyes and 2 – the mouth, 3 – the tail, 5 – the head, 1 – the bladder, and 20 – the nails (4 x 5). The astragaluses are arranged with the “sheep” part up or with different sides up. The players throw a cubic die (shoo). If a player throws 1, he takes away from the melkhii the heart or the urinary bladder; 2 – the mouth, eyes or kidneys, 3 – the head or tail, 4 – the neck or one of the paws, 5 – the nails from one paw, 6 – one of the rows making the back. If the player throws such a number which does not allow him to take astragaluses – as there is no equivalent in the melkhii figure – he waits for the next turn or (depending on the standing rules) he receives something in return or gives back the astragaluses of the same value he has taken earlier. When all astragaluses are distributed among the players, the score is counted. The winner is the collector of the largest number of astragaluses.

Buga (a deer). A board game also called buga nokhoi (a deer and dogs). The board is a square or a rectangle divided by internal lines into squares, rhombs and triangles. Additional figures adhere to the sides of the board – triangles or rhombs – which are also divided diagonally inside. Boards for the buga type games vary. The number of pawns depends also on the kind of game. One of players moves the pawns classified as deer (from 2 to 8), the other has the “dogs” at his disposal (from 12 to 80). “Deer” and “dogs” have marked fields on which they can move. Buga uses fields situated at the junction of the line of the central figure and the side figures, while nokhoi occupies the central field. The pawns are set directly on the board; part of them supplementing the rest as the number of “dogs” diminishes. The player’s task is to block the opponent, with the “deer” throwing down the “dogs”, while the latter can only block the “deer” with no possibility to throw them down.

Daaluu (dominoes). There are 4-6 participants in the game. The players use “stones” in which little openings are engraved painted white and red. There are 60 dominos in a set and each bears an appropriate name. One of the popular dominoes consists of “building yurts”, just as khorol. Before the game the players make a circular arrangement of the domino pieces (12 heaps – 5 dominos each), than they divide them among themselves and begin to “build yurts”. At the bottom one has to put a domino with the fewest number of pips, and then add ones with higher values. The player who puts on top the domino with the largest number of pips – takes the “yurt”. The participant who takes most “yurts” becomes the winner.

Daam (a general name for checkers). Two-handed game consisting of blocking and knocking down the opponent’s pawns and taking an adequate place on the board (opposite the starting point). This kind of games includes, for example: araljaa (a horse race), ieson mor’ (nine horses), bair (a seat), toono (a circle, a round opening in the copula of the yurt), bokhiim barildaan (wrestling), kharailt (a jump), buudal (a field, waiting), and others.

Dorvon berkh orkhokh (four difficult throws). The number of players is unlimited. Each player throws 4 astragaluses in turns. The one who throws four identical bones gets the right to start the game. The throw is given awarded 8 points. From that moment on, the number of points for each throw is counted, e.g. – 2 points are given for the player who throws 2 “goats” and 2 “camels” or 2 “sheep” and 2 “horses”; 4 points – for 4 “goats” or 4 “sheep”; 25 points for 3 “sheep” and 1 “horse”; 75 points for 3 “horses” and 1 “sheep”; 13 points for 1 “camel” nad 3 “goats”, 45 points for 3 “camels” and 1 “goat”; 100 points for 4 “horses” or 4 “camels”. The player who scores first the required number of points (e.g. 1000) wins the game.

Eriin gurvan naadam (three games of men). The name includes horse racing, wrestling and archery. There are 512 contestants taking part in wrestling organized during the central ikh naadam. They represent left and right sides. The winners of particular fights succeed to the following bout. Then, two last wrestlers meet and one of them becomes the winner of naadam. Two – to six-years-old and older horses participate in horse races. Two-year-old horses race at the distance of 15 km, three-year-old ones – 20 km, four-year-old horses – 25 km, five-year-old ones – 28 km, six-year-old and older horses at the distance of 35 km, and stallions race at 30 km.

In archery competitions individual contestants as well as teams of 8-12 persons take part. The scores of particular contestants make the resulting score of a team. Each participant gives four bowshots from a distance of 75-80 m to 300 leather top-hats called sur. If a team makes 48 bowshots, at least 33 of them must be accurate. A team which has made 33 bowshots should hit 15 different sur. The number of these bowshots may be increased after the addition of these leather top-hats which could not have been hit before with the use of 33 arrows. The team which hits 15 sur (x 3) receives 45 points. The team may also aim at 5 sur of the opponent, for which 5 additional points can be scored. In individual competitions contestants shoot at 1000 sur arranged in the shape of a pyramid. The distance between an archer and the target is 100 m. Each contestant shoots 20 arrows. The winner is the archer who has made the largest number of accurate shots.

Gurvan khudag (three wells). A board game for two players. The board is a part of square. Each player has 3 pawns. The players’ task is to block the opponent’s moves and to overthrow his pawns.

Guu saakh (mare milking). The number of players is unlimited. Each participant has 5 astragaluses which he quickly tosses up, catches them, and tosses them up again in a way so that no bone falls to the ground. A contestant who drops an astragalus gives two bones to his opponent on the left, who in turn starts tossing up his 5 astragaluses. If a player does not have at least 3 bones – he leaves the game. The winner is the person who stays in the game for the longest time without losing more than 2 astragaluses, and who collects the largest number of bones from his opponents.

Ieson tokhoi (nine elbows) – another name for shagai kharvakh. Agame practiced mainly among the Khalkhas (apart from shagai kharvakh).

Jireg, jirkh (a squirrel).The simplest playing board used in the game is a square divided internally by a few straight lines drawn from the square sides. A more complicated playing board is made by two squares inscribed in each other and internally divided. Boards consisting of three or four inscribed squares or pentagons may also be used. Two persons can play the game. The number of pawns which belong to the players (3-14) depends on the type of game. The principle rule of the game is to hit the opponent’s pawns, block them and shift one’s pawns to the square opposite the one the game starts from.

Khorol (a circle). The set for the game is made of 60 playing pieces made of wood arranged in a square, rectangle, or circle. On 48 of them there are pictures of 12 animals (12 x 4). The successive years of the twelve-year calendar cycle bear the names of the animals. On the remaining ones there are figures of khorol, chindamani (zendemen), khas (a swastika), Khan Gard (the mythical Garuda bird), sometimes instead of it a lion (arslan) appears the sign of good luck olzii and others. There can be 2 or 4, or more seldom 8 participants. Before the game the playing “stones” are arranged circularly in 12 heaps 5 “stones” each with their pictures downwards. Then, they are distributed among the players. The player’s task is to “build yurts”, i.e. to arrange the “stones” from the lowest value to the highest one. The lowest value is the “stone” with the picture of the mouse opening the calendar cycle, then the cow, the tiger, the hare and so on. The highest value is khorol. The player who puts the “stone” of the highest value of the five making “a yurt” crowns it and takes it away. The participant who takes most of the “yurts” wins.

Khurdaan mor’ (a fast race-horse). The requisite in this game is a rectangular board divided by horizontal and vertical lines. The vertical lines separate the fields on which the pawns of each player move. The horizontal lines are called mountain passes (dawaa); the distance between two passes (urt – length or gazar – earth) is made by a field in which the player puts his pawns according to the instructions of the throwing astragaluses. Each of the players has at his disposal 3-4 astragaluses with figures of horses. The players one by one throw 4 bones and depending on how many of them fall with the “horse” side up – they move the “race-horses” on through the equivalent number of fields on the board (from the bottom to the top of it). The winner is the player who brings his “horses” first to the goal.

Mor’ uralduulakh (horse racing). A board game similar to khurdaan mor’. Each of 2-4 participants has one astragalus at his disposal. The astragalus is called mor’ (a horse). The players throw one shagai eachand if it falls with the “horse” side up, they move their pawn one field forward in the direction of the winning post. The winner is the player whose pawn first reaches the winning-post. Mor’ uralduulakh is also the name of one of the “three games of men” – horse racing.

Neg tugal tuukh (driving a calf). A board game. A board is a rectangle with its longer sides linked by a zigzag line. One of players has a white stone or an astragalus with the side of “a cow” facing up (it is the “calf”). The other player has two black stones or astragaluses with the side of “a horse” facing up. “The horses” can only move forward. “A calf” can also move backwards. The task of the players is to block the moves of the opponent. The participants move their pawns on the board from the right to the left. This left side is marked by a white square called us (water). The right side is marked by a black triangle (I do not know its name).

Olzii (a sign of happiness). A game similar to khorol. The players (2-4 or 6) have 48 “stones” with the appearances of animals and birds: a swan, a peacock, a duck, a grey goose, a golden pheasant, a wild camel, a mountain chamois, a drake, a musk-rat, a deer, a tiger, a panther, a mountain ram, and a bear. Additionally, there is a picture of a wild man and a sign of olzii on the “stones”. The game consists of “building the yurts”, similarly to khorol.

Shagai kharvakh (shooting at astragaluses). The task of the participants is to shoot 8-12 astragaluses or 8 square planks placed in nine-elbow distance away from the player. The objects constituting the target should fall behind the line on which they are placed, e.g. one metre away. The players shoot from a plank held in their hands placing an astragalus on it or a rounded piece of horn. Then, they push out the bone or a horn with their middle finger. The winner is the player who shoots out most astragaluses or planks. The game may also be played in teams. The victory is granted to the team which shoots all the requisites of the opponent.

Shagai shuurekh (to catch astragaluses and shuur). The game is also called shagai atgakh (to catch astragaluses with the hand) or shagai tsokhikh (to fight for astra-galuses) and also shagai andraa (to take astragaluses). The players scatter in turn 100-200 bones and then toss a metal wattle (shuur), also called the sum (an arrow), khoo khuiag (the mail, part of an armour), and so on. While catching the wattle that falls, the player strives to grasp with his hand as many astragaluses as possible. The game is divided into three phases. In the first phase the player collects the bones previously scattered in such a way so that distances between them were rather small. In the second phase of the game the bones are thrown so that the distances between them are greater than in the first phase. In the last phase of the game the astragaluses are linked up. Collecting bones arranged in this way is difficult and that is why the players are permitted to leave one or two astragaluses called suul (the tail). While collecting the bones the player cannot jostle the rest of astragaluses or let the ones he caught fall. After the third phase the astragaluses collected by the players are counted, and in case of the team-game all astragaluses collected by the team are counted. Then, the players return to the common pool the number of astragaluses equal to the smallest number gathered by one player and the game is resumed. The player (or the team) who gathers most astragaluses wins.

Shatar (chess). A board game for two players. Nowadays the rules are similar to those existing in Europe and America. In the earlier Mongolian chess different rules were used. For instance, the game was started by a pawn standing by the bers moving by two fields onward (nowadays the game may be started with any pawn), other pawns could move only by one field. The players agreed whether the pawn standing before bers would move along the straight line, diagonally, or in both ways (nowadays there is no such a rule). The figure of the king (noion) could not be left alone on the board. It was accompanied by another figure (telega or bers), which must not be thrown over. When the pawn moved onto the place of the bers, it could only move along a straight line. If the king reached the eighth row it could perform the movements of a horse. Bers, on the other hand, could move only when all other pawns and figures had moved. In Mongolian chess there was no castling. A pawn which reached the eighth row did not become bers immediately. It had to make one move diagonally. A check-mate by a horse was forbidden. The word “check” (Mong. shag), on the other hand, was pronounced only when the move was made by a bers or a telega (arb). A check made by an elephant was signaled by a word dug, a check by a horse – tsur and a check made by a pawn – tsod. A player was to say in advance what move he was going to make and he could not change his word.

Temeen tawag (camel’s paw). A board game for two players. Each of them has two pawns. The aim of the players is to block the rival and to keep him off the square designated as “the well” (khudag). The first player who has reached “the well” wins.

Tsagaan mod (white tree). There are two teams in the game with the same number of boys and girls (the number of players in a team is 9-15 persons). One of the players – chosen by drawing lots or considered to be the strongest – throws a white 10-15cm-long stick into the steppe. The remaining players cannot watch the thrower and must stand with their backs to him. When the stick falls down both teams begin to search for it. The player who finds the tsagaan mod runs with it to the winning post; on the way he can hand the stick over to the persons belonging to the same team. The team which first brings the stick to the winning post scores a point. The team which has scored most points, or which has won several times in a row (for example 6 times) wins the game.

Tsagaan temee (white camel). A movement game. One of participants plays the role of a white camel while the others defend him against the attacks of the player who impersonates a male camel (or a poor man with a sick camel, old woman, thief and others). The defenders of the white camel make a circle, in the middle of which there is the tsagaan temee. When they stand in a row then the white camel stands at the end. The player’s task is not to let the attackers catch the white camel. If the attacking player breaks through the defenses and catches the opponent the players exchange the roles and the game starts again.

Tugal (the calf). A board game, also known as gurvan khudag (three wells).

Tugal uslakh (watering the calf), also known as neg tugal tuukh (drawing the calf).

Unee saakh (milking a cow). The other name of this game is guu sakh (milking a mare). The players use 4 astragaluses which they toss and catch like in the game of guu saakh.


[1] Bawden C. R., Two Mongol texts concerning obo-worship, “Oriens Extremus”,1958, 5/1, pp. 23-41.

[2] Bertagaev T. A., Kosmogonicheskie predstavleniya v mifologii mongol’skikh plemen, “Sovetskaya Etnografiya”,1974, 6, pp. 120-125.

[3] Chanchibaeva L., O sovremennykh religioznykh perezhitkakh u altaitsev, (in:) Etnografiya narodov Altaya i Zapadnoi Sibiri, Novosibirsk, 1978, pp. 90-103.

[4] Chuluu, Shagaigaar toglokh togloom, Ulan Bator, 1959.

[5] Darambazar Kh., Mongol undesnii togloomyn sistemiin khogjloos, “Tuukhiin Sudlal”, Ulan Bator 1979, 14/7.

[6] Eberhard W., Lokalkulturen in alten China, Leiden 1942.

[7] Firshtein L. A., O nekotorykh obychayakh i poveryakh svyazannykh s rozhdeniem i vospitaniem rebenka u uzbekov Juzhnogo Khorezma, (in:) Semya i semeinye obryady u narodov Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana, Moskva 1978.

[8] Hamayon R., Jak język kobiet oddaje dominację mężczyzn, (in Polish: How the language of women expresses domination of men), „Etnografia Polska”1980, 25/1, pp. 173-189 (a revised version published in L’Homme, 1974, 19/3-4).

[9] Kabzińska-Stawarz I., Game as Communication. Symbolic and magical meaning of games in Mongolia, “Ethnologia Polona”, 1983, 9, pp. 137-147.

[10] Kabzińska-Stawarz I., Mongolian games of dice. Their symbolic and magical meaning, “Ethnologia Polona”, 1985, 11, pp. 237-263.

[11] Kabzińska-Stawarz I., Eriin gurvan naadam – Three games of men in Mongolia, “Ethnologia Polona”, 1987, 13, pp. 45-89.

[12] Kabzińska-Stawarz I., Games of Mongolian Shepherds, Warsaw 1991.

[13] Kabzińska-Stawarz I., Sostav i proiskhozhdenie svadebnoi obryadnosti, “Sbornik Muzeya Antropologii i Etnografii”,1998, pp. 152-195.

[14] Kagarov E. G., Mongol’skiye “obo” i ikh etnograficheskiye paraleli, “Sbornik Muzeya Antropologii i Etnografiyi”1927, 6, pp. 115-124.

[15] Khalzan, Khologt, bajii, shatar,Tsetserleg 1963.

[16] Klyueva V. N., Mongol’skiye igry, “Sovremennaya Mongoliya”,1960, 4, pp. 41-43.

[17] Kocheshkov N. V., Shakhmaty mongoloyazychnykh narodov 19-20 vv., “Sovetskaya Etnografiya”,1972, 1, pp. 132-138.

[18] Kotwicz W., O chronologii mongolskiej (in Polish: About Mongolian Chronology), “Rocznik Orientalistyczny”,2, 1928, pp. 220-239; 4, pp. 108-166.

[19] Lipets R. S., Obrazcy batyra i ego konya v tyurko-mongol’skom epose, Moskva 1984.

[20] Loginovskii K. D., Igry buryat Vostochnogo Zabaikalya (Games of Eastern Zabaykale region) (in:) Zapiski Chitinskago Otdelenija Priamurskago Otdela IRGO,1897, 2, pp. 45-56.

[21] Men-da bei-lu... Men-da be-lu. Polnoe opisanie mongolo-tatar, Moskva 1975.

[22] Mitirov A. G., K voprosu o kul’te sobaki (in:) Kul’tura i byt kalmykov, Elista, 1977.

[23] Mongolian folktales... Mongolian folktales and stories, Ulan Bator 1979.

[24] Namjildordj N., Mongolyn khologt togloom, Ulan Bator 1963.

[25] Nebolsin P., Ocherki byta astrakhanskikh kalmykov khoshoutovskago ulusa, SPb, 1852.

[26] Neklyudov S., Yu., O funktsional’no-semanticheskoy prirode znaka v povestvovatel’nom, fol’klore, (in:) Semiotika i khudozhestvennoe tvorchestvo, Moskva 1977, pp. 193-228.

[27] Okladnikov A. P., Petroglify Mongolii, Leningrad 1981.

[28] Orbeli L., Trever K., Shatrang. Kniga o shakhmatakh, Leningrad 1936.

[29] Plano Carpini G., Istoriya Mongolov (in:) Puteshestviya v vostochnye strany Plano Karpini i Rubruka, Moskva 1957, pp. 21-83 (see also 32).

[30] Popova A., Analyse formelle et classification des jeux de calculs Mongols, “Etudes Mongoles”1974, 5, pp. 7-60.

[31] Potanin G. N., Ocherki Severo-Zapadnoy Mongolii,1881 (2nd ed.)

[32] Potanin G. N., Ocherki Severo-Zapadnoy Mongolii (4th ed.), 1883, SPb.

[33] Potanin G. N., Tangutsko-tibetskaya okraina Kitaya i Tsentral’naya Mongoliya, vol. 1-2, 1893, SPb.

[34] Rubruck W., The journey of William Rubruck to the eastern part of the world 1253-1255, London 1900.

[35] Sargin D., Drevnost’ igr v shashki i shakhmaty, Moskva 1915.

[36] Schubert J., Paralipomena Mongolica, Berlin 1971.

[37] Serruys H., Koumiss ceremonies and horse races. Three Mongolian texts, “Asiatische Forschungen“ Wiesbaden 1974, 37.

[38] Shagdaron S. D., Ochirov B. D., Igry i uveseleniya aginskikh buryat’, (in:) Sbornik v chest 70-letiya G. N. Potanina, SPb, 1909, pp. 456-462.

[39] Sukhbaatar G., Darigangiin khuukhdiin togloom, Ulan Bator 1962.

[40] Tangad D., “Mongol’skaya narodnaya igra „tsaggan mod khayakh””, (in:) Material’naya i dukhovaya kul’tura kalmykov, Elista, 1988, pp. 52-59.

[41] Tatar M., Zur Frage des Obo-Kultes bei den Mongolen, “Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae“24/3, Budapest 1971, pp. 301-320.

[42] Tsevel Mongolyn bokhiin tuukhai, Ulan Bator 1951.

[43] Urai-Kehalmi K., Nekotorye folklornye dannye o roli luka i strely v svadebnykh obryadakh, (in:) Issledovaniya po vostochnoy filologii. K 70-letiyu profesora G. D. Sanjeeva, Moskva 1974, pp. 256-260.

[44] Vyatkina K. V., Mongoly Mongol’skoi Narodnoy Respubliki, “Trudy Instituta Etno-grafyi”, Leningrad-Moskva 1960, 60.



Adam Mickiewicz University & Academy of Physical Education

Laboratory of Olympism and Ethnology of Sport

Poznań, Poland

Key words: Sports Ethnology; Indigenous Sports; Olympism.


The article draws upon the history of Coubertinian concept of “All Games, All Nations” and discusses possibilities of its real implementation in the world where hundreds of international sports and thousands of indigenous games have practically excluded full realisation of the above principle. The article concludes with a concept of a more realistic inclusion into the Olympic program of those sports which represent more justly different cultural areas at the expense of those sports which are over-represented, like, for instance, martial sports with their numerous weight divisions.

Joseph Strutt, a pioneer in sports ethnography, wrote in the preface to his famous book Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1803):

In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the sports and pastimes most generally prevalent among them. War, policy, and other contingent circumstances, may effectually place men, at different times, in different point of view; but, when we follow them into their retirements, where no disguise is necessary, we are most likely to see them in their true state, and may best judge of their national dispositions [12, iA].

This message, although written nearly 200 years ago, over 90 years before the modern Olympic Games were finally revived at the international level, should be regarded as truly Olympic in its intercultural message and meaning, and should constitute a motto for any cultural activity associated with sport.

The restorer of the Modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was convinced as well that sports representing different events and different cultural areas were indispensable for the international character of the Olympic Games. In 1910 Coubertin wrote an article for the “Revue Olympique” in which he discussed the question on what kind of sport should be admitted to the Olympic Games. The article was his response towards some efforts made by officials from different Western countries who favoured the dominance of some sports at the expense of other nations. Similarly, some international sports federations overemphasised the role of their sports while diminishing others. The federations maintained, for instance, that international championships would be sufficient for the existence of a particular sport and, as they argued, also for sport in general. In response, Coubertin wrote:

It appears that in several countries, people are having difficulty in conceiving the primordial and essential truth that the Olympic Games is a gathering of all sports. [...] From the very beginning, it was understood that the modern Games would include all form of exercise practised throughout the world today, to the greatest extent possible. [...] The restored Olympic Games have forced all sports to create unforeseen and fruitful contacts. This progress toward such valuable unification is one of the greatest aspects of the work of the Olympics [...]. There can be nothing Olympic outside the contact and cooperation of the various branches of sports, united on a footing of total equality for theimprovement of humanity [5, 706-709].

One year later, in 1911 Coubertin wrote in his letter to Victor Silberer, Editor-in-Chief of the “Allgemeine Sportzeitung” of Vienna: “The fundamental rule of the modern Olympiads is summarised in these terms”: “All Games, All Nations”. He anticipated the famous conflict which took place during the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, where three national teams, of Finland, Hungary and the Czechs, refused to participate together with their political superiors (i.e. Russia and Austria), and marched during the Opening Ceremony separately while attempting to use their own national symbols. The event infuriated the Russian and Austrian ambassadors in Stockholm. Coubertin solved this problem skilfully by adding Czech, Hungarian and Finnish ribbons to the flags of their political superiors commenting at the same time on the geographic distribution of sports all over the world: “I must add that a nation is not necessarily an independent state. There is an athletic geography what may differ at times from political geography”[3, 590].

The question of “athletic geography” cannot be limited, however, to the problem of technical participation in the Olympic Games of one national team or another. The principle “All Nations – All Games” pertains also to different types of sports and games conceived and practised in different cultural areas of the world. It is obvious that the primary Olympic program established during the first decade of its existence consisted exclusively of Western sports due to the fact that at that stage of development only Western nations usurped their right to international games. One of the early attempts to introduce non-Western sports traditions into the Games had, unfortunately, a quite shameful character. During the Olympic Games of 1904 in St. Louis, USA – organised alongside with the World Exhibition at the same time – the so-called Anthropology Days were included in exhibitions staged on August 12 and 13th. That was one of the most controversial incidents in the entire Olympic history, of which Pierre de Coubertin wrote as “an embarrassing one” [4, 79]. The main purpose of that event was to compare physical and mental capacities of peoples consisting of Pygmies, Bushmen, Zulu, and other Africans; Asians represented by Syrians, Turks, Filipinos, Ainu from Japan, South Americans (Patagonians, Tehuelce, Cocopas of Mexico) and Pueblos of the USA. The purpose was officially “scientific” and was initiated by two divisions of the St. Louis' World Exhibition: the Department of Physical Culture and the Department of Anthropology. Two people were central figures in that unfortunate experiment: an American anthropologist Dr. William McGee, who attempted earlier a similar experiment at the local Louisiana Purchase Exhibition; and James E. Sullivan, Secretary of the Amateur Athletics Union as well as a former Coubertin's opponent in the argument about organisation of the Olympics in the United States.

Particular groups of indigenous people, called by the American press collectively, but not very politely, “savages” took part in such “white sports” as baseball, 100-yard and 400-yard run, and participated in shot put, long jump, javelin and weight throwing, pole climbing, archery, etc. All these events however, were arranged separately from the “white” events. Some competitors unaccustomed to Western regulations performed rather poorly in comparison with the “whites”. This gave the researchers a sufficient reason to conclude that the “savages” were not mature enough to compete on equal terms with the whites. On the other hand, there was no interest in their own indigenous plays and games. From later research of such anthropologists we know how rich, colourful, and exciting some of the native games could be if they are not deprived of their own setting. One can only imagine how any white competitor could have behaved if suddenly and without preparation he had been forced to compete in, say, Afghan buskashi or Turkish yagli gűres. Some decades later the people of Asia, Africa and other non-Western parts of the world proved beyond any doubt that if given a chance they would not only be able to compete on equal terms with the most advanced nations of the world, but to win as well.

The people of Africa, Asia and South America were, however, not the only under-appreciated ethnic group during the first decades of the history of the modern Olympic Games. There were numerous nations of Eastern and also Western Europe deprived of freedom and not permitted to take part and compete in the Olympics under their own banner. Poland, for instance, did not exist politically between 1795 and 1918 being partitioned by her three neighbours: Russia, Austria and Germany. Meanwhile, more and more nations were gradually gaining access to the Olympic Games. Immediately after World War One nations of Eastern Europe started to proceed into the Olympic Movement; whereas after World War Two former colonial countries became members of the Olympic Movement. One can easily notice, however, that most of these countries were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games with the right to compete but without any consideration of their own sports as part of the Olympic program. The maxim “All Nations – All Games” did not work out again. Many factors were responsible for that state of affairs. First of all, most of regional sports remained unknown to international participants and, consequently, failed to gain sufficient popularity. Secondly, a number of countries, even if allowed to participate in the Olympic Games as independent nations, had no voting power in the IOC to effectively apply for inclusion of their sports in the program. There were of course attempts to include some less internationally known sports into the Olympics, but what seemed very characteristic, all of them were of either Western origin, or, if derived from non-Western traditions, they were “remade” under the influence of the Euro-American concept of sport. This can be said about such sports temporarily included in the Olympic program, like the Canadian lacrosse borrowed from traditions of several North American Indians, such as Algonquian baggataway, Mohawk tewaarathon or Choctaw toli. Lacrosse was included in the Olympic program in 1904 and 1908. Polo, in turn, adapted from Asian tradition of pulu by the British was played at six Olympic Games in 1900, 1908, 1920, 1924 and 1936. A number of other sports, largely unknown internationally and mainly practised by some influential Western nations, were introduced occasionally just to fade away after one or two appearances at the Olympic Games. These were, for instance, English cricket; French jeu de la paume – known in the English speaking areas as court tennis or royal tennis; American roque and many others including some particular events of such sports as standing high jump, standing long jump and standing triple jump in track and field athletics, underwater races in swimming, rope climbing, tug of war, etc. Altogether, the list of such and similar discontinued sports and events contains 159 types of competition!

For many decades the inclusion of a particular sport into the Olympic Program was a free decision of the IOC. Currently, the Olympic Charter stipulates that in order to be considered (but not automatically included) for the program of the Olympic Games, candidate sports should meet the following criteria:

  1. Summer sports should be widely practised by men in at least seventy-five countries and on four continents, and by women in forty countries and on three continents.

  2. Winter sports, regardless of sex, should be practised on three continents, in at least 25 countries.

Particular events being part of wider sport disciplines must be practised by both sexes on at least three continents, but by men in at least fifty countries, and by women in at least 35 countries. All the above requirements are listed in Chapter 5 of the Olympic Charter, art. 52, [11, 74-76].

In this context inclusion of any additional folk sport which does not meet requirements of the Olympic Charter seems impossible. In theory, all regional sports can compete in that “ethnological race”, but due to their lack of international influences the majority of them have simply no chance to win it.

Surely, every national or folk sport has a real chance to succeed, on the principle “Make your own popularity world wide and then compete for inclusion in the Olympics.” But the fact is that the majority of traditional sports will never gain popularity sufficient enough to enter the Olympic program. There is, however, a chance to let them become known all over the world: a limited selection of them could be included in the Olympic Cultural Program. Such a selection should be organised regionally in the form of open concourses held prior to every Winter and Summer Olympics. It should not be based on competitive performance of particular teams, but on their cultural attractiveness and content. This way minor and less known sports and games may have a chance to demonstrate the cultural wealth of particular regions which otherwise could not have gained any international fame, but contain a grain of human experience and cultural achievement. This kind of contribution to better understanding of other cultures and nations through non-Olympic sports could appear truly Olympic in its cultural effects and in the process of better understanding of different nations of the world.

So far, the contribution of particular nations and cultures, apart from those from the Western hemisphere, has been represented by few sports. The most common examples include Japanese judo which entered the Olympic scene in 1964, and Korean taekwondo, part of the Olympic program since 2000. Especially striking is the absence of any single sports from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Athletic geography” appears in this context out of all proportion. Olympic history, regardless of any factual reasons, has not given a chance to a number of nations to join the Games, not just as followers of “others' sports”, but also as competitors in their own games.

This situation dating back to as early as 1950 was the basis of the so-called Soviet “democratisation program” for the Olympic Movement. The Soviets intended the IOC's enlargement to two hundred members, which were to be elected in particular countries, instead of being appointed as it is today. This could have given the Soviets more influences in many matters, including introduction of their own sports. This proposal was referred to in the novel The Games by the Australian novelist Hugh Atkinson, “They want the index of games enlarged to include thirty-five new events they have listed. Most of these sports they suggest are hardly played in the Western world. If the Russians succeeded in this democratisation program they will not only dominate the Gold medals but they will have the voting support in the IOC to take the games out of the West” [1, p. 22].

To understand the world one must understand its plays and sports. The diversity of sports and games practised by different nations, despite destructive influence of industrial civilisation is amazing. Let me give just a few examples extracted from over one hundred national encyclopedias of sports I collected when writing my own World Sport’s Encyclopedia, published in Poland in 2001 and containing over 3000 thousand entries on sports and games of different nations (the English language version of the encyclopedia is currently in the final stages of preparation and will be published under UNESCO auspices in June 2003).

In 1987 under the auspices of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education and UNESCO a well-known anthropologist Alice Taylor Cheska published her dictionary of Traditional Games and Dances in West African Nations. The long list of African sports and games includes such sports as egede, ekak, fa kor, and many others. In New Zealand Alan Armstrong published his tiny but excellent Games and Dances of the Maori People (1986, sec. ed. 1992).

The tiny nation of the Basques with its two-million population produced some years ago a three-volume encyclopaedia of Basque sports Gure heria. Juegos y deportes del Pais Vasco, (San Sebastian, 1989), [four-volume encyclopedia Gamle idraetslege i Danmark in Denmark Jørn Møller published his Slagelse, 1997]. The Basque most famous sport is pelota, played in many variations not only in the Basque country and Spain but also in almost all countries of South America. But less known is Basque style wood-chopping, called aizkolaris, type of running known as korikolaris, etc. etc.

Chile features Oreste Plath's dictionary Juegos y diversiones de los Chilenos (1946, the first part devoted to Indian games before European colonisation, the second on sports introduced into Chile by the Spaniards).

Another example is a unique Arab dictionary entitled Min al 'Abina ash-sha 'biyya (From Our Folk Games, 1983). Until present day no single entry of that Arab dictionary has ever been included in any Western sports encyclopaedia or sports history. Is anyone of us familiar with such Arab sports as al.-ba’ ‘a; all-hagla; berber; al-hol, etc?

As early as in 1979 the Portuguese Instituto Nacional dos Desportos published a dictionary titled Jogos tradicionais Portugueses. During the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona Cristobal Moreno Palos published his magnificent encyclopaedia Juegos y deportes tradicionales en Espańa preceded by another publication with the same title but this time written by Rafael Garcia Serrano (1974). All these works contain descriptions of numerous variations of bolos, lanzamiento del barra, and many other Iberian sports.

A few years ago the Institute of Ethnology at the Polish Academy of Sciences initiated research on Mongolian sports. After long years of research Mrs. Iwona Kabziń-ska Stawarz produced her magnificent book in English entitled Games of Mongolian Shepherds (1991)including about 200 games, including also chance games, but several dozens of that list displays typical characteristics of physical, sporting competitions, e.g. wrestling or horse riding. The best known Mongolian sport is bökhiin barildan, also known as buh wrestling. Mongolian sporting games include such interesting folkloristic form of competitions, as horse wrestling, where competitors are mounted, and tu-tchichmee, a kind of competition which includes sexual activity!

A few months ago I received a book from Turkey entitled Turk spor kűltűrűnde aba gűreşi (1999). It contains descriptions of numerous forms of Turkish wrestling, including the famous yagli gűres, kusak gűreşi and many others.

Folk games of the Ugro-Finnish group of languages and cultures (Finland, Hungary and Estonia) were given a thorough explanation in the book on Traditional Sports, Folk Games (Tradicionális Sportok Népiu Játékok, 1996), edited by Siklódi Csilla and published after an international conference devoted to them. As early as almost twenty years ago the Bulgarians provided the West with their own book on the topic, Physical Culture and Sport in Bulgaria Through the Ages (ed. Angel Solakov, 1983).

In the USA Joseph B. Oxendine produced his valuable book American Indian Sports Heritage (1988). It contains valuable information on numerous ancient Indian sports including double ball, chungkee, or bagataway (now transformed into its modern form of lacrosse – the Canadian national summer sport).

Tremendous effort to popularize traditional sports of different nations has been initiated by the Olympic Museum in Lausanne by way of two recent exhibitions on Mezo-American Sports, entitled Ulama, after the best known sport of that area.

Most recently the Olympic Museum in Lausanne organised an exhibition titled 5000 Years of Sport in China Art and Tradition (2000), which was followed by a wonderful album publication containing descriptions of several dozen of ancient Chinese sports such as lian acrobatics, baksi, chuiwan, cuqiu, dulu, etc.

When I became convinced on the basis of this publication that I had got to know almost everything about Chinese sports, I received yet another publication from Beijing, i.e. Traditional Sports and Games of National Minorities in China, by Mu Fushan, Wu Yazhu, Li Xingxiang, Wu Baoliang, translated into English by Song Xianchun. It contained as many as 67 sports.

Australian scholars, Vray Vamplew, Katharine Moore, Richard Cashman and Ian Jobling have recently published their Oxford Companion to Australian Sport (1992, sec. ed. 1994), where extensive information can be found not only on Australian Football but also on such original Australian sports as cricko or vigoro, The most Australian sport imaginable is of course, tossing the boomerang. The Boomerang Association of Australia was established in 1969 and at present the sport is practised world wide, featuring numerous national organisations, including the very influential United States Boomerang Association.

Nowadays we are all usually aware of some two or three hundred sports which have reached the international level more or less successfully. Only several dozen of them found a more extensive international media coverage. This may create an impression of a very limited number of sports practised on a wider population basis. Meanwhile, according to my own ethnological research, I have found information on nearly eight thousand (yes, eight thousand!) traditional and folk sports existing at different stages of development or eminence in different countries. It is really hard, therefore, to imagine organisation of the Olympic Games precisely according to the principle “All Nations – All Sports”.

Universality of Olympism is not confined just to the question of inclusion of particular sports in the Olympic program. Olympism is not merely a sport competition. It is basically an intellectual movement supported by the Games which are held every four years. The Olympic Charter and general Olympic principles are based on highly developed philosophical foundations and premises. They were established, however, on the basis of European philosophy. And hitherto, the philosophy of Olympism has not respected or involved any of non-European intellectual elements. From the Eurocentric point of view the Olympic Movement should be accepted by non-European societies because of its undisputed all-embracing values. I am not certain, however, whether this remains the right assumption.

The intellectual foundation of Olympism, for instance, based on the fair play concept and the Coubertinian doctrine of mutual respect. In my opinion all these notions can be positively enriched by elements taken, for instance, from traditional Chinese, Confucian philosophy. The Coubertinian concept of mutual respect is very close to Confucian yen, meaning respect and love toward another human being. The European fair play concept is traditionally derived from chivalric spirit upheld by medieval nobility, i.e. knights. It is situated very near to the Confucian chun-tzu, the concept of man who always behaves in a noble way regardless of his descent, and not too far from the ethical budo code of Japanese samurai or Korean hwarang-do. Obviously the Asian philosophical and ethical achievements, when properly adapted to Olympism, can secure a deeper development and meaning of Olympic sport. Some Asian philosophers, including the Chinese Mou Tsu-san and T’ang Chun Yi already tried to accommodate and synthesise some areas of European thought, especially the idealism of Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Hegel. Why not try carrying out similar undertakings in the area of Olympic philosophy, keeping in mind the right proportions? Singapore boasts its famous university well-recognised all over the world. In my opinion this is the best place imaginable where, for instance, an international team of scholars could work on such philosophical synthesis of Olympism, and not only Olympism. Singapore is a place where for almost two hundred years Western and Asian cultures have remained in close relationship. It is in my opinion the most ideal and eligible place where such philosophical synthesis could be achieved. It could become an outstanding contribution to world’s culture made by a country which itself has recently become known in the world for its economic and social achievements. The University of Singapore together with the Olympic Academy of Singapore may constitute a perfect research duo to initiate studies that could have some serious influence upon the new concept of Olympism.

In any case the intellectual concept of Olympism must cease to be exclusively European in character. It must absorb the wisdom and perspicacity of civilisations and cultures other than European or Western. Asian philosophy should be taken into account in the first place. Without initiation of such a process cultural and intellectual universality of the Olympic Movement will be very soon doomed to failure.

Paper delivered at the 6th Session of Singaporean Olympic Academy, Singapore, Nov. 11, 2002.


[1] Atkinson H., The Games, New York 1968.

[2] Barreau J. J., Jaouen G., eds., Les jeux populaires. Eclipse et renaissance, Morlaix 1998.

[3] Coubertin P. de, Athletic Geography, (in:) Olympism. Selected Writings, ed. N. Müller, IOC, Lausanne 2000, pp. 589-590.

[4] Coubertin P. de, Olympic Memoirs, Lausanne 1997.

[5] Coubertin P. de, Tous les sportsAll Sports, (in:) Olympisn, N. Müller, ed., International Olympic Committee, Lausanne 2000, pp. 706-709.

[6] Gøksyr M., “One certainly Expected a Great Deal More from the Savages”. The Anthropology Days in St. Louis, 1904, and Their Aftermath, ”The International Journal of the History of Sport”, September 1990, 2, pp. 297-306.

[7] Lipoński W., Encyklopedia sportów świata (World Sports Encyclopedia, Poznań 2001; published in Polish; the English version under UNESCO’s auspices is about to be published in June 2003).

[8] Lipoński W., Olympic Universalism vs Olympic Pluralism: Problems of Eurocentrism, (in:) The Olympic and East/West and South/North Cultural Exchange, Kang Shin Pyo, J. Mac Aloon, R. DaMatta, eds., Seoul 1987, “Hanyang Ethnology Monograph” 1, pp. 513-528.

[9] Lipoński W., Possibilities and Chances in Olympic Cooperation Between Countries Previously Isolated: Case of Poland and Taiwan, “Report of the National Olympic Academy” Session XVI, 1993, pp. 21-33.

[10] Nayer P. P. de, Renson R., eds., The History, the Evolution and Diffusion of Sports and Games in Different Cultures, Documents of the 4th International HISPA Seminar, Louvain 1975.

[11] Olympic Charter, IOC, Lausanne 1999.

[12] Strutt J., Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, London 1810.



The Department of Physical Education

Biała Podlaska, Poland

Key words: Podlasie; Folk Plays and Games.


Podlasie is a historical region situated along the Bug River and the upper Narew River in eastern Poland. The ethnic and religious diversity of southern Podlasie has vastly contributed to the mingling of cultures and the introduction or formation of various customs and traditions in the area. The latter also include plays and games which along with the settlement of different ethnic groups have enriched the lives of inhabitants of the region.

Traditional folk plays and games are disappearing in southern Podlasie. Old-time pastimes traditionally passed on from generation to generation have been replaced with modern sports already known in other regions, or by passive forms of leisure such as computer games or television.

The plays and games described in the article were collected from among the eldest inhabitants of numerous towns and villages of southern Podlasie.

They are divided into games played on village paths, playgrounds and in households as well as holiday games and winter games.

They all bear witness to the richness of life of children and youngsters in the area in the past.

Podlasie is a historical region situated along the middle stretch of the Bug River and the upper Narew River in Eastern Poland. Throughout the centuries it underwent various alterations often changing borders and the national status. The former Podlasie was the land of primeval forests, woods and marshlands cut by the rivers Biebrza, Narew, Bug and Krzna. For a long time the immemorial Podlasie was an object of contentions and fights, and that is why over the centuries it went under Polish, Russian and Lithuanian rule respectively. On numerous occasions throughout its existence it was also burnt and devastated by the Tartars, the Swedes, and the Teutonic Knights. Apart from the mentioned incursions the peoples of Podlasie successfully resented the marching of troops during the wars.

As a result of many factors, Podlasie has become a mixture of Polish, Russian and Belarussian people. The region of southern Podlasie is strongly diversified as far as ethnicity is concerned. Ethnic groups living there included the Mazovians (western part), the peoples from Podlasie (central part), the Belarussians and the Ukrainians (eastern part), as well as some admixtures of the Tartars, Germans, and the Dutch.

The characteristic feature of Podlasie in the 18th and 19th century was a considerable religious diversity. Along the predominant group of Roman Catholics, there also lived the Uniates, members of the Orthodox Church and Old Monasteries, and small groups of Protestants and Muslims.

The religious and ethnic diversity brought about the mingling of cultures and the introduction of many rituals and customs already known in other regions.

This also refers to plays and games which were enriching the inhabitants’ social life as various groups of people were settling down there. Therefore numerous games and plays known in southern Podlasie can be encountered in different variants and under different names in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.

In the years 2001-2003 the author of this article carried out research in several locations of southern Podlasie. The plays and games presented in this work were gathered from the eldest inhabitants of such sites as Kodeń, Kostomłoty, Kijowiec, Dobryń Duży, Horbów, Polubicze and Łomazy. Information was also obtained from the inhabitants of the Old Age Pensioner House in Kozula and Kostomłoty. These villages are situated in eastern Poland close to the Polish-Belarusssian border. The biggest town of southern Podlasie is Biała Podlaska inhabited by 60 thousand people and located 160 km away from Warsaw and 120 km from Lublin. Everywhere hospitable people were a good source of information. The people of southern Podlasie were primarily occupied with agriculture. The majority of them were destitute, mainly due to poor soils. However, the area of farms was so varied that the poorest were employed by wealthy owners as well as in manors. In spring and summer teenagers and children from the other side of the Bug were readily employed as well. Farmers’ offspring would work hard since their early childhood. A a very young age they used to graze their cattle.

Since physical activities and playing games are something natural in children, they try to seize every opportunity to pursue those forms of leisure.

Some plays and games performed during the interwar period in southern Podlasie derived from many hundred years before and were known in a large part of Europe or even on other continents. The play called “Czarny lud” (“Black man”) may serve as an example which goes back to medieval times. Another example is “Jaworowi ludzie” (“Sycamore people”), whose variants were known throughout the whole of Poland as well as in other European countries, and it was usually made up of two motifs: a bridge and a sycamore. Not always has this play been called “Jawor” (“Sycamore”), but there has always been a motif of bridge. Feiberg found 150 variants of the play in Europe only. We can also come across it in eastern Africa, Madagascar and among the tribes of Papua New Guinea [3].

In his works Oskar Kolberg mentions that a similar play can be found in Germany and may go back to pagan times [5]. An interesting version of both plays was present in the village Polubicze, close to Wisznice. While the research for the work was being done, one of the interlocutors recalled, “both girls and boys used to play ‘Czarny lud’ in the playground.” Two standing people would hold their hands up and sing:

We are building bridges for our mayor

All the horses across will go

But to this one we’ll say “no”

Players were moving one after another under raised arms of a chosen couple. When the couple lowered their hands, the person they caught became a “Czarny lud”. Then this person stood opposite the group and asked “Are you afraid of the “Czarny lud”?” The group answered “No” and started to run towards him or her. The person stopped by him became then the “czarny lud”.

It is noticeable that these two plays formed one entity. “Czarny lud” was chosen by means of the play “jawor”.

“Bierki” is another old play appearing in different versions in eastern Poland. In Głuszyn and Sadlno in the region of Kujawy “Bierki” consisted of throwing stones into the air so that they would fall at a designated area [6]. In the Białystok region beans and broad beans were used [2].

In Podlasie games associated with throwing and catching various combinations of stones, screws and buttons were called in different ways. In Kodeń it was called “Kamyki” (“Stones”) or “Hacele” (“Screws”), in Kostomłoty – “Kamieńci” and in Kijowiec – “Czechi”. The research carried out by the author in southern Podlasie made it possible to divide former folk games and plays into groups. A good example may be games on pastures grouped according to the region where games and plays took place. When a child was given such a task as grazing, it was freed from the direct care of adults and found itself in its own environment. This led to the appearance of team plays and games. On huge pastures groups of children organised games which met their interests and abilities. Such plays and games include “Świnka” (“Pig”), “Koń” (“Horse”), “Czyż” (“Siskin”), “Kamyki” (“Stones”), “Kiczki kary” and “What’s the time?” In these games props such as sticks, stones and rocks were used.

“Świnka” (“Pig”) was a very popular game. In Kijowiec children dug a hole and with the help of a bat they tried to put a small ball into it. It was not easy, as the hole was closely watched by a guard. A person who managed to do that became the hole guard. In Polubicze stones were used in this game. Around the main hole there were more holes. One player called “shepherd” was left without a hole and his task was to place a stone (“pig”) into the hole by pushing it with a bat. The other players prevented him from doing it.

Children stuck a 50-centimeter-long bat on top of a small mound and played “pikier”. One player was a guard and watched this “pikier”. The other boys threw their sticks in turn to overturn it. If the pitcher managed to hit the “pikier”, he ran quickly for his bat and came back to the finish line. The guard was to put the “pikier” back up and tag the runner with his bat.

In Polubicze one 1-meter-long and one 20-centimeter-long bat were used for playing “Czyż”. A small bat was placed on the ground. You were to hit it with a big bat strong enough so that the small one sprang as far as possible away from a small circle. The second player was to pick this bat from the place where it fell and throw it back to the circle it came from. The game of “Czyż” was played according to the same rules in Dołholiska, and Kijowiec under the name of “Czyżyk”. It should be noted that many plays and games were known in different variants and under different names. They spread in different regions and, as I mentioned before, they had a very long tradition. “Kiczki”, for instance, was known as “Sztekiel” in the Poznań region, or as “Klipa” in the Silesia region, and was played according to different rules. The game of “Świnka” (“Pig”) which was very popular in Podlasie had been known in the vicinity of Wieruszów since the 17th century.

Village paths were attractive places to spend one's free time. Among the props used here for games was, for instance, a stove lid with a wire or a bat ended with a nail. The most common plays were “Krążek” (“Puck”), “Krąg” (“Ring”), “Dwa ognie”, “Klop”, “Raszka”, “Łachman”, “Czapka” (“Cap”), “Czarny lud” (“Black man”) and “Zaciągacz”. To play “Krąg” a round, 10-centimeter-thick piece of wood was used. All the participants stood in two rows 20-30 meters from each other. Players in one row were throwing the wooden disk while the opposite players were trying to seize it. If it was not caught, the throwing row moved forward, whereas their opponents had to move backwards. The play had many names, e.g., it was called “Krążek” in Kijowiec. To play “Klop”, bats and a 20-centimeter-long stick were used. In Kostomłoty, a player had to use his bat to hit a lying stick sharpened at its ends to put it out of a square or a circle.

Village paths were also places where boys and girls would sing and dance joyfully to the accompaniment of musical instruments.

Another place to play games was the playground. One of the most popular games, especially among boys, was “Palant”. This game was popular during the interwar period in eastern Poland. Polish immigrants brought “Palant” overseas, where it was adapted to American conditions and became promoted as “Baseball”. This game goes back to medieval times and bears some similarities to other games known in Europe. It had a number of variants [7].

In the vicinity of Kodeń a hard ball as big as a fist was used. The ball, called “Lanka”, was made from animal fur. A bat which was about 60 centimetres long was used for the game. There were two teams. A pitch which could be of different sizes was marked by lines drawn on the ground. It was divided into the serving area, called “kingdom”, the halfway mark, and the finish line. One team was standing in the “kingdom” and the other was in the so-called “outfield”, i.e. the part of the pitch separating the “kingdom” from the finish line. The first player of the team standing in the kingdom had to throw the ball up into the air and hit it so that it would go as far as possible. Then he put the bat away and ran towards the finish line. The members of the opposite team had to catch the ball and throw it at the running player. Another playground game was football. The ball was most often made from an animal bladder and animal fur or rags filled with sawdust. People would also throw a stove lid to hit the mark. A curved branch with a tight string fastened to its ends served as a bow. In Horbów children used to shoot reed arrows with tin arrowheads at a target. On farms and in the woods children played “Chowanki” (“Hide and seek”).

Another type of games were plays organised in homes. For example, in Kostomłoty during the interwar period girls used to take their distaffs and attend the so-called “Wieczorki” (“Evenings”). During the day girls discussed to which hut they would bring their spinning wheels. While spinning songs were sung, fairy tales were told and gossip spread. Girls were usually of the same age and came from a few neighbouring huts. Hosts usually provided them with some food and drink. Also boys gathered at such “Evenings” to play pranks on girls and disturb them in their work. During these gatherings “Flirt”, “Fant” (“Forfeit”), “Ciuciubabka” (“Blindman’s buff”), “Pomidor” (“Tomato”) and “Czółenko” (“ Little canoe”) were played.

In Horbów after flax spinning the threads were wound into a long skein and after being washed and dried they were hung on a hook at a beam. A child used to sit at a lower part of the skein and swing on it for some time. This play was not only funny but also useful. During swinging the threads were stretched and then wound into a hunk. Afterwards they were used for knitting sacks and rags.

Plays connected with religious holidays and other occasions constituted another group. Each holiday was accompanied by specific plays. On Easter children played “Taczki” (“Wheel-barrows”) or “Taczanka” and “Bytki” also known as “Wybitki”. For these games children needed coloured, boiled eggs which they shackled holding them in their hands or pushed them on the ground. Three weeks before St. Peter and Paul’s Day (in Kostomłoty this period was called “Pitriwka”) girls from all over the village gathered in houses and sewed the so-called “Kupałnica” from small pieces of fabrics. “Kupałnica” was a beautifully decorated puppet on a bat. In the period of “Pitriwka” girls gathered in several places in the village and played “Kupałnica” called after the puppy. The ready-made “Kupałnica” was stuck in the ground and girls would sing, jump and dance around it.

During Lent groups of youths played various jokes on one another, for instance, boys would loiter in the village and throw stones at girls’ houses, throw pots with ash into huts, block doors with a beam, close chimneys with a pane, or paint windows.

Another group of plays included winter games. Skating was a popular activity near Kodeń. Skates were made of linden wood. In a typical wooden skate there were two holes through which a string bringing the skate and the shoe together was pulled. To achieve a better slide some wire or a piece of sickle was fixed to the edge of a skate. The skaters used a special bat called “Kośtur” to help them move on the ice. The bat was placed between legs and by pressing it hard against ice children moved forward. They would also play hockey using skates. Another play in which children eagerly participated was “Karuzela” (“Merry-go-round”), popular also after the World War Two. On a frozen pond or lake an air-hole was made and a long bat touching the bottom was put into it. The bat should move around. Then a guard rail with a sleigh attached to its end was fixed to the bat with strings or nails, forming a merry-go-round. Some participants sat on a sleigh and others pushed the rail, putting the sledge into motion. In winter a sleigh with fixed wire and skis were used. In spring, children used to swim on ice floats on the Kałamanka River close to Kodeń.

Both boys and girls were able to take part in most of the described games and plays. In some of them boys were the main participants. Such games could be called “masculine” games. Girls felt more attracted to plays with singing and dancing. These, in turn, could be described as “feminine” games [4].

The tradition of folk games and plays in Podlasie has gradually disappeared. Old-time games, passed from generation to generation, have been replaced with fashionable sports from other countries or with more passive leisure time activities such as playing computer games or watching television. W. Lipoński in his “World Sports Encyclopedia” presents over 3000 sports, most of which are of folk character. People of different ages practise them. They enable young generations to get to know the tradition of their ancestors. In Podlasie those old-time rather forgotten plays and games could now enrich not only physical education at schools but also activities of agro-tourist farms or leisure centers.

The comforting fact is that the Lublin Village Museum, preserving the cultural heritage of Lublin area, tries to make young people realise the importance of regional and family tradition by displaying numerous rituals and customs as well as games played while grazing cattle and on village paths [8]. The Association for Activating People of Polesie Lubelskie in Podedwórze, in cooperation with the museum, is going to present traditional folk plays. It is a part of the project “Regional education – cultural heritage in the region” [1].

These initiatives are very precious and worth following. Only conscious people who are proud of their roots can be in a humanistic sense full members of a larger community – the United Europe.


[1] Bilkiewicz G., Ocalić od zapomnienia ginące zawody Lubelszczyzny (Saving perishing professions of Lublin District from obscurity), Podedwórze 2002.

[2] Chaliburda I., Przejawy kultury fizycznej dzieci i młodzieży białoruskiej mniejszości narodowej na bialostocczyźnie (Manifestations of physical culture among children and youth of Bielorusyan minority in Bialystok area), “Roczniki Naukowe Akademii Wychowania Fizycznego w Warszawie” (“Yearly Publications of the Physical Education Academy in Warsaw”), Tom XXXVIII, Warszawa 1998, p. 82.

[3] Cieślikowski J., Wielka zabawa (Big Play), Ossolineum, Wrocław 1985, p. 17.

[4] Halczuk A., Dawne gry i zabawy dziecięce w okolicach Dołholiski na Podlasiu (Ancient children’s plays and games of Dolholiski in vicinity of the Podlasie Region), “Podlaski Kwartalnik Kulturalny” (“Cultural Quarterly of Podlasie”), Nr 2, 2001, p. 27.

[5] Kolberg O., Dzieła wszystkie (Complete Works), vol. 3. Kujawy (Cuyavia area), Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, Warszawa 1867, p. 220.

[6] Kolberg O., Dzieła wszystkie (Complete Works), vol. 3. Kujawy (Cuyavia area), Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, Warszawa 1867, p. 228.

[7] Lipoński W., Humanistyczna Encyklopedia Sportu (Humanistic Encyclopedia of Sport), Sport i Turystyka, Warszawa 1987, p. 239.

[8] Miliszkiewicz G., Stachyra H., Poznajemy dziedzictwo kulturowe regionu (Let Us Know Cultural Heritage of the Region) (in:) W zagrodzie jak za dawnych lat (On the Farm as in Old Times), “Muzeum Wsi Lubelskiej w Lublinie” (“Village Museum of Lublin Area in Lublin”), 2002.

[9] Żmudzki J., Gry i zabawy rekreacyjne, TKKF, Warszawa 1981, p. 59.



Robert R. Sands, Sport Ethnography, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois, 2002.

The title of this book seems to promise a lot. “Sports ethnography” as a scientific term sounds very well. Except that the author completely does not understand its etymology. On page XIX he explains to the astonished reader its particular elements as ... Latin combination of two words, consisting of “ethno – for people, graphy for written”. I do not know, how classical languages are taught at American academic schools, however, if we had to estimate it on the basis of Sands’ book we may be convinced of a very poor level of American classical scholarship. Neither “ethno” nor “graphy” – “graphos” is any Latin derivative! We have here no choice but to inform the unfortunate Author that both these words are derived from ancient Greek, the language of a country somewhat distant from ancient Latin-speaking Rome. It is true, that after the conquest of Greece the Roman Empire used extensively the knowledge of ancient Greek scholars, especially in the field of philosophy, but the Romans appreciated the Greek languages to the extent that they carefully learned it (contrary to Robert R. Sands, who seems, so to speak, rather incompetent in Hellenic studies). Even if Latin absorbed a number of Greek words they were usually assimilated by adding Latin spelling and endings. There is no trace of Roman assimilation of the concept of ethnography which is a compound word artificially coined by modern scholars rather than ancient inhabitants of the Roman Empire. For instance, the Romans absorbed the Greek word ethnos only in the meaning of ethnicus – meaning in ancient Latin ... pagan, heathen. Also, they absorbed more correctly the word graphos in such forms as graphis or graphiumetching-needle. All known Latin dictionaries which contain modern Latin equivalent of ethnography, i.e. ethnographia, explain the term as being derived from the Greek language in modern times, meaning “the knowledge of folk culture”. If Sand then appreciates Latin more than the Greek languages, he eventually should derive the etymology of ethnography from Latin ethnographia, stressing nonetheless at the same time its Greek original roots.

After such an unfortunate introduction one could expect that Sand’s Sport ethnography will contain precise definition of what he means under that name, and especially what it means against a similar term of sport ethnology. We are, however, rather disappointed. On page XIX the author gives a short definition of ethnography as “a tool for describing a culture in a qualitative sense”, but we look in vain for any definition of sport ethnography as its specialised branch. He gives us exclusively the American point of view toward modern understanding of ethnography and completely ignores early sports ethnographers, such as Joseph Strutt, the author of the classic Sports and Games of the People of England (1803), and Alice Bertha Gome, the author of a two-volume The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (vol. 1, 1894; vol. 2 – 1898), a part of a much larger, 30-volume British Ethnography. Summarizig, Sands has no idea at all what was achieved in sport ethnography in Britain and the other English speaking countries during the last two centuries. Moreover, Sands constantly confuses ethnography with ethnology and anthropology. He simply uses these terms alternatively, without any explanation why he does so in any particular place. It is true, that the precise meaning of these three notions is blurred, but this is why their meaning and methodological borders should be carefully outlined at least for the needs of his book, simply to avoid confusion.

In the bibliography section of Sand's book we can find interesting information about some pioneering work on sport ethnography, ethnology and anthropology, but some of the most important publications are obviously listed but not used in the main text, e.g., Karl Weule’s Ethnologie des Sports. Der Sport der Natur und Urvölker. Erotische Sports, published in B. A. F. Bogeng’s, Geschichte des Sports alle Völker and Zeiten, band 1, Leipzig 1926, pp. 1-73. It is a truly pioneering and quite extensive ethnological work on sport, containing much observation still valuable, but not a single sign of Weule's way of thinking can be traced in Sand’s book (it is confirmed by the fact that even the smallest paper referred to in Sand’s book is provided with the page numbers, when published in a journal or collective work, while only in the case of Weule’s work pages are not even mentioned).

It is also irritating that except for Weule’s extensive paper in German we cannot find in Sand’s bibliography any publication associated with sport ethnography or ethnology in a language other than English. Weule’s extensive article should draw Sand's attention to Germany where sport ethnography has a long and enduring tradition, and where a number of scholars, including Karl Diem, have devoted many of their works to that field of sport research. The Deutsche Sporthochschule in Köln has also outstanding achievements in that field, as far as ethnography of German, European and even Asian sports are concerned. It is here where a fascinating book on history and ethnography of Korean sport appeared, written by Koo-Chul Jung (Erziehung und Sport in Korea im Kreuzpunkt fremder Kulturen and Mächte, Köln, 1996). Among many German scholars interested in sport ethnography or ethnology, I can mention the research of Henning Eichberg, beginning with his Spielverhalten und relationsgesellschaft in West Sumatra. Problem des interkulturellen vergleichs und Transfers von leibesungen in Sdostasien (“Stadion”, 1975) or Einheit oder Vielfalt am Ball. Zur Kulturgeschichte des Spiels am Beispiel der inuit und der Altislnder, in Spiel-Spiele-Spielen (herausg. O. Grupe, H. Gabler, U. Ghner, Tübingen 1983). Such German journals as “Stadion”, probably the most prestigious academic sport journal on the European continent except Great Britain, are entirely ignored by Sand despite the fact that he could have found there a number of publications on sport ethnography as such. When it comes to German scholars it is also impossible to omit Gertrud Pfister and her Research on Traditional Games – the Scientific Perspective (“ICPES”, 1997).

In France, sport ethnography is rapidly developing under the auspices of several centres, including the Université de Montpellier with the leading contribution of Professor Charles Pigeassou; while in Brittany the Confédération FALSAB is responsible for “C'hoariou Breizh”. Guide annuaire des princinpaux jeux traditionnels de Bretagne, and also a series of conferences devoted to traditional sports which have resulted in extensive proceedings such as Les jeux populaire. Eclipse and renaissance (1998) or Le jeux traditionnels en Europe (2001). Similar conferences, although less systematically, occurred in Europe much earlier, e.g. aconference onThe History, Evolution and Diffusion of Sports and Games in Different Cultures (proceedings edited under the same title by P.P. De Nayer & R. Renson, Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven 1975). In Spain we can find a number of ethnographic publications, such as Rafael Garcia Serrano’s Juegos y deportes tradicionales en España (1974). Under the identical title in 1992 an extensive ethnographic and at the same time encyclopaedic overview was published by Cristóbal Moreno Palos, while recently Fernando Maestro published his work on local Aragonian sports entitled Juegos y divertimentos del Aragón rural (1996). The tiny Basque country produced a three-volume ethnographic encyclopaedia of Basque folk sports written by a single author, Rafael Aguirre (Gure Gerria. Juegos y deportes del Pais Vasco, San Sebastian, 1987). The number of Basque ethnographic publications on sport ethnography is simply astonishing.

Finally, Sand ignores the substantial recent achievements of ... American and especially European sport ethnology and ethnography published in ... English. For instance, he lists some minor publications on sports of American Indians, forgetting about the hitherto most extensive book on the matter, i.e. Joseph Oxendine's American Indian Sports Heritage, published, by the way, by Human Kinetics, the same Publishing House, which has produced Sands’ Sport ethnography. Some attention is paid in Sands’ bibliography to African tradition (John, Bale, Joe Sang, Kenyan Running: Movement, Culture, Geography and Global Change, London 1996). If African runners are considered, why not Turkish and Mongolian wrestlers? If Sands pays rightly so much attention to Bronisław Malinowski, a Polish ethnologist writing in English, he should assume that ethnology has some importance in Malinowski’s native Poland since it produced scholars of such eminence. It could be well confirmed by tracing results of the conducted research, for instance, in Mongolia by Iwona Kabzińska, who published her fascinating Games of Mongolian Shepherds (Warsaw 1991) in English (!). In “International Review of Sport Sociology”, a journal established in Poland on the initiative of the Polish sport scholar Stanisław Wohl, despite its sociological character, Sands could find such interesting papers associated with sport ethnography as Research Methods and Development of the Flemish Folk Games File by Roland Renson and H. Smulders. In our “Studies of Physical Culture and Tourism” a number of ethnographic or ethnological papers can be found which were written by professors of the University of Athens, Greece or the Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, concerned with traditionally recognised areas of ethnological research, such as Greece itself, the isles of the Mediterranean (e.g. Cyprus), Chilean Rapanui (i.e. Easter Island), etc. However, such non-American publications are not even mentioned in Sands’ book. It should be emphasised that the area of ethnographic or ethnological research should not be confined to the sports recognised in the USA with surfing as the most important case (so irritatingly preferred in Sands’ book). Contemporary sport is much more diversified that Sands assumes, and ignorance of this fact means ignorance of the very ethnographic nature of sport. Unless Sands had entitled his book American Sport Ethnography with emphasis on Surfing.

A serious sports ethnographer should not omit achievements of such sport ethnologists as Mats Hellspong of University of Stockholm, Sweden, the author of innumerable publications on sports ethnography and ethnology, included in a number of German, English and Swedish academic journals, and summarised recently in Hellspong’s magnificent book Den folkliga idrotten (Stockholm, 2000, see a book review in vol. 8th of “Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism”). Mentioning Scandinavian countries one should not forget about tremendous achievements of Jørn Møller of the School of Physical Education in Gerlev, Denmark. His four-volume Gamle idraetslege i Danmark (1997), evokes nothing but scholarly admiration. Similar works can be found in Belgium (Erik de Vroede and his Het grote volksporten boek, 1996), Turkey (H. Murat Sahin’s Aba güresi, Ankara 1999), and many other countries. In my private library I have gathered as many as about 140 books on sport ethnography, folk sports and national encyclopedias of sport published in dozens of different national languages, including Arabic and Chinese. In the era of global communication, the Internet, electronic databases, finding all these positions is not very difficult. The fact that such works are written in different languages should not be either an obstacle or justification to any serious scholar working on the ethnographic matter internationally. Unless Sands’ book had been titled Ethnography of Anglo-Saxon Sports. But it is not. It is titled Sport ethnography, meaning “not only American, and not only Anglo-Saxon or Western”. The knowledge of languages other than one’s own is one of the basic requirements for ethnological research. It is a fact emphasised in all theoretical and methodological works of this field. The world consists not only of the English language. Scholars from other countries have also something to say in the field of science, including, of course, sports ethnography. In this context especially shameful is the fact, that some scholars for whom English is the native language, ignore even those publications of their foreign colleagues which were published in ... English. References to significant works published in English by the aforementioned international sport scholars such as Eichberg, Pfister, Kabzińska, Hellspong, De Vroede cannot be found in Sand’s book, and so to speak, cannot be found in books of other numerous American authors, who by their specialization are obliged to mention what was written by others. Can we call it American megalomania?

To be just, some chapters found in Sand’s work seem very valuable, especially those devoted to field work and methodology of field work. He is absolutely right, when writing: “Works in ethnography since the 1980s differ from the traditional or classic monographs in several ways, all relating to the changes in global order and an increasingly connected world. First, the perception of monolithic identity of individual cultures has been replaced by treating the local culture as being embedded in a larger regional and world nexus. Second, much of recent ethnography is focused on a topic of interest. The goal of presenting a holistic picture of a culture seems to be no longer viable – no one can cover all the complex and complicated angles of a people [...]. Much of sport ethnography today reflects a third trend in ethnography – doing field-work in Western industrialised cultures. Although much of this research and fieldwork methodology of ethnography allow a variety of traditional and emerging fields of study to provide a more richly detailed look at a human behaviour” (p. 1”). There is much more valuable observation in Sands’ book’ no one can deny. But, on the other hand, in numerous places, one can gain an impression that, subconsciously, Sand, as we say in Polish, opens the doors already opened. Anyone who wants to be competent in sport ethnography or sport ethnology should be at least aware of the tremendous number of ethnographic publications produced in different countries during the last two centuries. It is, of course, impossible to read and know all these references. But at least a selection of them should be mentioned and analysed. A limited bibliography and consequently one’s knowledge of exclusively English and American publications is simply shameful for academic competence, and so to speak, also academic ethics. Appreciation of others’ achievements, estimation of their works, and one’s modesty should be in my opinion a basis for any ethical approach towards any scientific work. Making an indirect impression that someone is almost exclusive pioneer in any branch of science is simply an expression of megalomania.


Lorraine Barbarash, Multicultural Games, Human Kintetics, Champaign, Illinois, 1997.

This book appeared over five years ago, but we did not have an opportunity to be informed about it earlier. It is, however, an extremely important textbook in its purpose to provide “ideas and strategies that will help [...] students develop an awareness of and appreciation for other cultures while enjoying physical activity”. In that sense the book is also ethnographic in nature, although its main purpose is not to create research principles but just provide practical and methodical guidance for those who want to spread among children the knowledge of different world cultures through sporting exercises.

The textbook features 75 games from 43 countries on 6 continents. Certainly, it is impossible to gather sports of every nation and every cultural area, but nevertheless the author was able to provide the readers with sports and plays of almost all main cultural regions of the world, such as Africa and all three Americas (South, Central and North). It is somewhat surprising, however, that the small Central America and East Asia has a separate chapter, while European games, extremely numerous and culturally belonging to the richest collection in the world are connected with ... Western Asia, whereas Central Asia is entirely ignored. It is a truly astonishing combination. By the way, I could not find any West Asian game in that chapter, unless the Author considers Russia partly Asian. But the eastern fringes of Russia reach ... Far East Asia, bordering with Korea, China and even facing Japan across the sea. The concept of West Asia seems to me rather artificial, and in fact not a single West Asian country has been recounted in Barbarash’s textbook as representative of this part of the globe. Which countries should be ascribed to that part of Asia? Georgia with her games of gakvra-bukrti, kabei, leuo? West central part of Asia is in Barbarash’s textbook entirely omited, as if there were no Kazakhstan with its famous tajak-djugurtu, then numerous and so interesting children’s games of Kirghistan, Tadjikistan, etc. Mongolia bordering with China has several dozens of fascinating indigenous sports and children games which can be easily adapted for educational purposes (davsand iavakh, dorgotsokh, or khusgha kharvakh, etc.). But contrary to China (represented by 4 games) no single Mongolian game is included. I would also make an improvement to this book by adding some important European areas, such as France and Spain (entirely ignored) and also Sweden (Swedish cubb, extremely attractive, making now quick international progress, or pärk belonging to the most interesting folk games in the world). Finland is another Scandinavian country exceptionally rich in tradition of her national and folk sports, such as pesäpällo or kyykkä. Some European countries, like England, Greece and Russia are represented by two or three games, while others obviously deserving more attention by none. This proportion, in my opinion should be improved in the further editions of the textbook, which I can predict without a doubt.

The most important is, however, the fact, that the textbook encourages students to discover and learn about other cultures through sports and makes it possible to compare them with their own. Moreover, special “Culture Quest” paragraphs, as it is stated in the book suggest “additional activities that encourage deeper investigation into a culture”. It is one of the most commendable purposes of any learning and any book. Thus we recommend this book to any school teacher of physical and sport education regardless of her/his nationality. We suggest even translations of this textbook into other languages to make its circulation wider and more effective. If there were more such books in universal use it would simply mean a much better mutual understanding between conflicting cultures of modern world.



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[1] Allison, L., ed., The Politics of Sport, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1986.

[2] English, A. W., Tigges, J., Lennard, P. R., Anatomical organization of long ascending propriospinal neurons in the cat spinal cord, “Journal of Comparative Neurology”, 1985, 240, pp. 349-358.

[3] Grys, I., Foreign influences on Russian sport in the 19th century, “Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism”, 1999, vol. VI, pp. 63-72.

[4] Renson, R., Sport historiography in Belgium. Status and perspectives (in:) R. Renson, M. Lämmer and J. Riordan, eds., Practising Sport History, Akademia Verlag Richarz, Sankt Augustin 1987, pp. 1-18.

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