Behind the Scenes, Chapter 2: An Ancient Game

Hi folks, and welcome back. It’s been hectic around here with home projects, kids graduating high school, and all that stuff. I’ve also been doing a lot of prep for book 2, The Strife of Camlann, and working with the publisher on editing it.

Coming Soon!

But it’s time to get a blog post out and this one is going to be fun because I’m going back to the “Behind the Scenes” series. The last one was almost two years ago! Since then there have been a lot of blog posts about the world of the Arthurian Age, like the “Dark Ages Politics” and “Places in the Arthurian Age” series. I also have some posts about the characters and their origins.

For today’s Behind the Scenes, we’re moving on to Chapter 2. For the articles in this series, there is always the chance of spoilers for people who haven’t read The Retreat to Avalon. For the most part, the spoilers aren’t anything major. If they are, I’d give a warning.

Chapter 2 is where I introduce a major character (not giving away that spoiler yet), but the chapter is about a game. Throughout the story I make small references to unusual cultural aspects of the era, either known or theorized. For instance, one of the characters is called ‘Ajax’. It’s not his given name, but a nickname based on his size and strength. The point was to show that people in Britain during the “Dark Ages” were familiar with classical stories, including the Greek hero Ajax from The Iliad.

Sport is a common feature of people throughout history. Everyone is familiar with the Olympics, founded in Greece sometime between the 12th and 8th centuries, BC. Cave paintings in France show wrestling and racing from over 17,000 years ago. While it’s generally thought that organized sports developed as a way to train for war, there’s no reason to believe people haven’t always just played for fun as well.

The oldest ball game is unknown, but the oldest ball was found in a child’s tomb in Egypt from over 4,500 years ago. Hair-filled leather balls from China suggest a game like polo or field hockey was played there over 3,000 years ago, at about the same time as a rubber ball was used for team sports in Central America for a game still played today.

Pokolpok being played by these youngsters in Belize.

There are references to ball games in Homer’s Odyssey. In the ancient Irish epic, Tain Bo Cuailgne, the hero, Cú Chullainn, played an Iron Age game thought to be the ancestor of modern Irish Hurling. Across the sea, the Celtic Britons had their own games.

Setanta kills the hound with his hurling stick and becomes Cú Chulainn.

The earliest reference to a ball game in Britain is from Nennius in The History of the Britons, written in the early 800’s. It relates to an early legend of Merlin, which we will explore more thoroughly in a later post.

The game Gawain plays is based on Cnapan, a kind of mob-football attested in western Wales from the early medieval period and thought to have existed for centuries earlier. In The Retreat to Avalon, Gawain is from what would become southern Scotland, but in The Arthurian Age, this region was strongly British and culturally the same as the British to the south. The eventual overtaking of Irish, Norse and English cultures would erase much of the culture of the Britons of Scotland, so it’s only a guess, albeit a reasonable one, that they played similar games.

Gawain’s folk don’t have a name for the game, instead referring to it by the name of the ball, or Criapan. It is a fierce game of few rules, chiefly being no weapons or intentional brutality, played by all the male members of the greater community of villages within a combrogi (Brittonic term roughly equating to “clan”). The game can include hundreds to a couple thousand players, range across several miles between villages, and last the entire day.

19th century drawing of a game of Cnapan in Wales.

In the medieval period, the goal was to get the Criapan to your village’s church. Since consecrated churches were few in the early Medieval period, I portrayed the goal as getting the Criapan to your own village’s square, or inside the gates of the chieftain’s stronghold.

Criapan, and other forms of Celtic medieval football have long faded away, mostly due to the frequency of serious injury and death. Modern games, such as Football/Soccer, Rugby and American football are descended from these ancient sports. Today, the only place to see something similar is in Cornwall, another haven of ancient British culture. There, in the communities of St. Columb Major and St. Ives, you may witness annual events of a similar game called Hyrlian, or Cornish Hurling, using a silver-encased wooden ball. I hope to attend a match someday.

Cornish Hurling at St. Columb

My next article will be about a major character introduced in Chapter 2. There’s far more to him than you may know. Thanks for stopping by and, as always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or email.

2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes, Chapter 2: An Ancient Game”

  1. Regarding the drawing. It is possible that very long “boat spears” were used to attack enemy boats. These were not the later triremes but most likely narrow boats based on a logboat with sewn plank sides. Not terrible stable and could be overturned or the helmsmen/crew attacked. See the sea peoples Egyptians sea battle with its overturned boats.


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