Re-enactment of the Mayan ball game (pok-a-tok) at Xcaret Park, Mexico Tony HIgsett / Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for the Super Bowl, a post that combines three things I love: sports, books and history!

I make no secret of my love of sports.


He’s performing a Jedi mind trick on you right now (USA Today)

[What I should perhaps keep secret but will admit anyway is my perverse admiration for New England Patriots coach and hoodied evil wizard Bill Belichick. Watching him dominate the NFL is like watching Darth Vader in action at the end of Rogue One: I know he’s with the bad guys and he’s evil, but damn is it cool seeing him overwhelm mere mortals.]

All this is to say that on Super Bowl Sunday, I really felt like posting about sports. I’m going to shine a spotlight on five sports. To satisfy the need for my blog to also reference the historical and the bookish, these are all sports with ancient origins and I’ll be pairing them with book suggestions.

Fun Factoids About 5 Ancient Sports


THE KITE RUNNER, BOOK COVER, KHALED HOSSEINIYou may have come across buzkashi if you’ve read any number of articles profiling Afghanistan. Perhaps the most famous mention of it is from Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner. It originated among the nomadic peoples of Central Asia and might be described as polo, except with a goat carcass. The name derives from the Persian for “goat dragging.”

It’s the national sport of Afghanistan, though it may have been inspired by the Mongols. When Genghis Khan invaded the area, his men would sweep into villages and steal their goats from horseback. And a sport was born!

Pok-a-tok (the Mayan Ball Game)

From gladiatorial combat to the medieval tournament, the gruesomeness of ancient sports is a recurring theme. Few were more gruesome than pok-a-tok, the Mayan ball game. Killing one team’s players afterwards was part of the game’s rituals. It’s still debated whether the losers or the winners were the ones sacrificed!MYSTERY OF THE MAYA, CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE, RA MONTGOMERY

It also seemed to be insanely difficult. The object was to get a ball through a sort of horizontal basketball hoop fixed high on side of the court. Players couldn’t let the ball touch the ground. They could only use their right hips, elbows or knees to touch the ball. I imagine it was a low scoring affair like soccer, but a hell of a lot more interesting ?

I seem to remember learning about this from a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, The Mystery of the Maya, but grade school was a long time ago. In the interest of scholarly integrity, I’ll pair this with the Mayan mythological epic, Popol Vuh.


One of the oldest team sports in the world had a prominent place in Rick Revelle’s I Am Algonquin (see my Fall Book Tag.) Variations of it were played by many of the native nations of North America. Its traditional form was quite different from the modern game. Play could involve hundreds of players on either side and last for days. It was also very violent and sometimes led to player deaths.

Despite the violence, or perhaps by serving as an outlet for it, lacrosse also formed an important part of diplomacy between nations. The Mohawk name for the sport, begadwe, sums it up poetically: “little brother of war.”


THE SHEPHERDESS OF SIENA, LINDA LAFFERTYPalio is the name for sporting competitions for civic pride held between different parts of towns originating in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. The most famous is the one in Siena, a twice-annual horse race that takes place in the town piazza. It seems exceedingly dangerous for both horse and rider. Not surprisingly, it’s been the target of animal-rights protests.

Horses weren’t always the mainstays of the Sienese Palio. In Medieval times, the races were run on the backs of buffaloes or donkeys.

The Palio plays a central role in The Shepherdess of Siena, by Linda Lafferty, set in 16th century Tuscany.


The last of my ancient sports in the spotlight is skiing. You thought I was going to do the marathon? Boring!

Although some form of skiing existed in various parts of the pre-historic world, what we recognize originated in Scandinavia around 7,000 years ago. I’m going to cheat (like Belichick!) on the bookish and sporting connection for this one. I really just wanted to mention a recent find on Netflix, The Last King. It’s a Norwegian period action movie, starring Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane!)

The story concerns a legend from medieval times. In the midst of a civil war, two warriors smuggle the infant son and rightful heir of their recently assassinated king to safety on skis. The story is played rather melodramatically and with B-movie seriousness. But I absolutely loved how it uses skiing scenes the way other action movies show off martial arts.

Thanks for reading! You can go back to the interminable pre-game shows now.

What other ancient sports have you heard about? What are your favourite books involving sports? Please let me know in the comments!