When he stood up, she asked him if he was praying for victory. Patton exclaimed, “Hell no, I’m praying that I do my best.” – Patton

Chaplains in the locker room. Pointing skyward after a home run. Doesn’t it just drive you nuts when you hear an athlete say, “Jesus Christ threw that touchdown pass”? Really, how much can the King of Kings care about the success or failure of a bunch of athletes competing for nothing other than Pride and Greed, two deadly sins? I think lots of us roll our eyes when we look at these wanton displays of fair-weather faith (who thanks Jesus when he loses?), but athletes continue putting words in JC’s mouth, and probably will until the End of Days.

Then again, so do I. Whenever I’m locked in mortal combat in a multiplayer game, competing with some other player thousands of miles away for nothing other than Pride (and if it’s an MMOG with free looting, Greed), I toss a silent prayer for victory and bragging rights to the ether. Me, a confirmed agnostic – and a hypocrite.

But something tells me I’m not alone. If pro athletes are thanking Jesus, and I’m thanking Possible Higher Power Maybe Who Knows, something tells me quite a few of us look to the heavens for help, even when we’re just, well, goofing off and playing games. And there’s a reason beyond the metaphysical for doing so. Since the dawn of civilization, sports and games have been tied closely to the gods we worship far more tangibly than hoping Animus Cristi is smiling down on the big game.

Here, by region, are a few of the games we would have been playing alongside high clergy in past lifetimes. You know, if you believe in reincarnation.

Western Civilization
No sense in getting off on an obscure foot. The Greek Ancient Olympics are the most famous marriage of play and faith on record. Dating back to 776 B.C., the first Olympiad has numerous mythological origins. The first makes mention of Pelops, the king of Olympia who killed King Oenomaus of Pisa (son of Ares) during a chariot race. Pelops went on to get the girl, Oenomaus’ daughter, and live happily ever after. To celebrate, the first ever Olympic Games were thrown. A second story tells of demigod Heracles winning a footrace in Olympia. After the race, he decreed that a race should be held there every four years. Another credits the origin of the games to the Spartans throwing a similar event a couple hundred years before, in order to appease the gods before a battle. In one story, Zeus himself gets involved; it’s told he inaugurated the first Olympiad in commemoration of his defeat of the titan Cronus.

The games were held in Olympia, a high-holy area for the Greeks. During the events, priestesses of Demeter were on hand to oversee the games. To honor the games, Greek sculptor Phidias constructed a 40-foot statue of Zeus made in ivory and gold. Additionally, if the games were in some way corrupted – if athletes took money or someone invaded Olympia as part of a territorial dispute – it was considered blasphemous. And perhaps most telling how closely the Olympics were tied to Greek religion, the ancient games were abandoned in the 392 A.D., when the Christian emperor Theodosius I was picking apart the remnants of paganism in Roman culture.

Of course, the Romans weren’t without religious games themselves. The Secular Games, which featured animal sacrifices and ceremonies in addition to sporting contests, were held roughly every 100 years to celebrate each new generation. The procedure of the Games demanded a new ceremony to be held after the last person to witness the previous one died, literally celebrating the death-rebirth cycle.

The first Games were held in celebration of the miraculous recovery of a man named Valerius’ three children during a Roman plague; they were cured by drinking water from a place called Tarentum. Valerius returned to Tarentum and made sacrifices to Pluto, the god of the underworld, and Prosperina, the goddess of spring and rebirth, to give thanks. Succeeding Games were dedicated to Pluto and Prosperina, as well as lesser gods of disease, the thinking being they would be too busy watching the revelry to create new plagues.

The Far East
Asian spiritualism is flexible enough to make its way into any number of aspects of life, not the least of which is martial arts. While the majority of Eastern martial arts are based in religious philosophy, of all of them sumo is the most interesting. While it’s turned into a competitive sport, the origins of sumo date all the way back to the Chinese Han dynasty. It eventually made its way to Japan and became closely tied to Shintoism. Originally called sumai, sumo began its life as a ritual dance simulating something of an exorcism rite. Participants were thought be ritualistically wrestling with a Shinto kami, or spirit. Since then, it’s evolved into the sport the Japanese go crazy over, where 400-pound men hurl each other dozens of feet and then bow ceremoniously. Between a modern Yokozuna and a Shinto demon, I’m not sure which I’d rather be staring down in a ring.

But for those of us who fear martial combat, we’re blessed with go, a Chinese-turned-pan-Asian board game. Famously linked to modern numero-mysticism in the movie Pi, go’s roots are linked to ancient divination techniques. The board itself, a lined network of tiny squares into which you put black and white stones, represents a blank universe. Diviners would then place astronomical symbols on the board and would then make their predictions depending on where players placed their stones in relation to the symbols. Even now, the center of the go board translates to “axis of heaven,” and the four quadrants retain mystical symbolism: male, female, mountain and wind.

Go’s creation is also surrounded in myth and bears similarities to a Judeo-Christian story, that of Moses’ discovery of the 10 Commandments. The story tells of a special mountain with a maze-like ascent. The first person to make it to a cavern at the summit returned with the first go board, made entirely from magical stone. So two guys climb an ancient mountain and one comes back with a game under his arm that ponders the heavens, and another comes back with the foundation for modern lawmaking.

While much of the Americas doubtlessly linked games with their omnipresent religions, the only example to survive with any ubiquity was the Olmec game pok-a-tok. Dating back to 3000 B.C., pok-a-tok was religious ceremony, political d

Senet boards exist today, and archaeologists have pieced together enough of the rules for The British Museum to host a flash version.

Moving into the Judeo-Christian realm, the Jews developed dreidel, a dice-and-top gambling game, to both hide their religious activity and teach their faith under the oppression of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus, during the sacking of Jerusalem, made the practice of Judaism illegal, so Jews who congregated to teach the Torah would keep a dice-and-top game handy to fool Greek guards. Eventually, they began carving Hebrew letters onto the top and incorporated the game into their teaching.

After a successful Jewish revolt in Jerusalem, the Jews inaugurated Hanukkah, and dreidel became part of the holiday, used in part to teach children the story of the Greek expulsion from Jerusalem. The letters on the dreidel top stand for nun, gimmel, hey, pey, which means “a miracle happened here.”

Jesus Didn’t Play Dice with the Worldly
As I did my research for this article, I kept trying to find an instance of early Christian churches, or Jesus, playing games in a way to get closer to God. But each avenue I searched, there wasn’t anything to be found. I came across hazard, but it was developed during the Crusades and was never spiritually motivated. I also found nine men’s morris, but it predates Christianity, though boards have been found inside Christian churches. Nothing from Jesus’ time. How could Christianity, a religion that now covers the globe, be devoid of early holy games?

The answer lies in two places: Jesus himself and the politics of early Christianity. First and foremost, Jesus wasn’t exactly a man of the Earth. Much of his teachings only touched upon what people did here. Rather, his message was this life was temporary; a short step in the journey to becoming one with God. The idea of him staging something like the Secular Games, or suggesting his disciples try to speak with him via a senet board, was contrary to all of that. What’s more, Christianity is a monotheistic religion. There is no god of discus, just like there’s no god of spring or disease. There’s just God. Without a Zeus to defeat a Cronus or a demon to dance with, there’s not much to draw from.

Additionally, Christianity’s beginnings were of secret origins. It was looked upon as a dangerous fringe cult by the Jews and the Romans. Openly celebrating your faith in Jesus landed you in a gladiatorial match against hungry lions. People had to declare their faith in code; creating something more elaborate than an ichthys would most likely have been viewed as time-consuming and dangerous.

And ultimately, even if there were Christian games like senet or the Secular Games, their chances of surviving Theodosius’ anti-pagan purges would be doubtful. This was a man who not only canceled the Secular Games and the Olympics, he expelled bishops of Christian ideology different his from Constantinople and Rome. If there were sects that incorporated games into their worship, which could easily have been construed as paeans to old pagan ways, they probably didn’t risk passing down the traditions to the generations born after Theodosius.

“Zeus Threw That Touchdown Pass”
And that brings us back to the original question: Does Jesus care if we win the big game? Probably not; if anything, he cares how we play the game. But that doesn’t mean we’re without a little help from whatever may be up there. Next time you pray for a little help in Counter-Strike or during the World Series, consider asking a bit louder: Those old gods who seemed to take such an interest in the games we play probably don’t hear so well in their old age.

Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He quotes Wayne’s World and Dr. Strangelove more often than what can be considered normal.

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