Journal of Combative Sport, Aug 2007
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Ancient Egyptian Stick Fighting

Copyright © Jonathan Wayne Riddle 2007. All rights reserved.

Ancient Egyptian Stick Fighting

Analysis and Reconstruction of the Sport

Written by Jonathan Wayne Riddle © 2003

Belorussian translation


Introduction

Little Analysis has been done on Ancient Egyptian Stick Fighting. It has been addressed by authors in the study of sports history. The analysis has never been done by someone who has experience or expertise in fencing or stick fighting. Most of these books on Ancient Egyptian sports history cover a great deal on wrestling. There are more materials left by the ancient Egyptians on this subject, but even with limited information analysis can be done. Several assumptions have to be made those assumptions can be proven wrong with new evidence.

Origins of Ancient Egyptian Stick Fighting

The Egyptians, modern and ancient, were accomplished in stick fighting. In both modern and ancient times stick fighting has been a martial art. Stick fighting has at least some aspects of martial arts in them as well as ceremonial. Ancient Egyptians performed stick fighting as a tribute to the pharaoh. Stick fighting was also performed between Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Nubians as well. Stick fighting is common in the African culture and in the Middle Eastern culture. Stick fighting is found through out the region in different forms, with different systems of rules. One common element is that the game used to teach skills important to a warrior, such as speed, strength and courage. The ancient Egyptian trained for war. Just as with the Greeks they also had athletic games. They had several combat sports, such as boxing, wrestling, horsemanship, knife throwing, archery and stick fighting. The weapons and equipment that would have been seen on the battle field was the sword, a knife, or dagger, a hand axe and shield with some armor, such as helmet and greaves. The kopesh or Egyptian sickle-sword was commonly used. After studying different drawings, looking at the design and materials of the Kopesh, the Kopesh was not a thrust, but a cutting weapon. Bronze is not a very strong material and will bend when a lot of force is applied. The ideal or best target on the body would be the head and neck. Several drawings show the Pharaoh hold the head in place by the hair of the enemy. The kopesh held up high aiming for the neck or the head. The cutting action was more of a chopping motion and not a pushing or a drawing motion. Bronze does not hold an edge very well. The weight of the weapon could have been a factor.

Fig 1

1.

Factors involving the Limitations of the Study

There are limitations on studying ancient Egyptian stick fighting, or stick fencing as some authors have called it. The limitations are do to the fact that there is no living tradition of the art and the study is limited to hieroglyphs. The amount of hieroglyphs which have stick fighting represented as a sport is very limited and gives only a small representation of the sport, however even with limited materials some details can be ascertained from observations of the drawings. The first question one has to produce is, are the drawings a true representation or an artist vision of what the combatants are actually doing? One conclusion that can be drawn about the combat sports of the ancient Egyptian is that the drawings, even with the limited dimensions, can give a good idea of structure as well as positions used in the martial art. From this information one can reconstruct the rules and the techniques in the use of the stick during performance.


Fig 2

2. Tomb of Merire II at El Amarna, c. 1350



Possible Rules, Methods and Techniques used

A common theme which is seen with the hieroglyphics is the fighter having their sticks crossed. This could be the starting position of the bout. This allows for a set distance between each opponent and is a common guard between them. This allows for fair play.

Ancient Egyptian stick fighting based on the drawings, shows that the competition was between two players. The common system used seem to be that each opponent was armed with a single stick in one hand and a stick or a plank of wood attacked to the forearm. Some systems included the use of two sticks in each hand. The use of two sticks in one hand was also done. The materials that would have been commonly used would have been wood or reed material. The wood was probably a soft wood. The sticks were either coated with paint or wrapped in tape to prevent damage to the stick. It is possible perhaps, that the wrapping was also used to pad the stick.

Considering the head was protected by the helmet with a chin strap, the contest was probably not to the death or to the first blood. It was probably a contest of skill; on how well one could protect and guard the targeted area from attack while at the same time delivering a blow to the target area on the opponent. Although considering the head is protected and not the rest of the body, the body could be the target area and competition could be a test of how much pain one could endure. It is for sure that injuries did happen. The head being protected, just in case a foul strike to the head was made and not to cause death. No protect was worn over the face. Therefore feints to the face were possible, causing openings to other areas of the body.

The target area based on observations of the hieroglyphs was most likely the head. The sticks as well as the shielded arm were held in a high guard position. Similar to the guard position used in earlier versions of single stick. The area that was protected is the head. The high guard was the common position of the fighters that were drawn.

Foot could be assumed by the fact that the combatants were dressed in military attire. The sport represented combat conditions, meaning that the movements were not limited to a linear based system, but allowed for full usage of the fighting area. The sport allowed back and forth movement along a plane. The hieroglyphs show the legs are bent and the heels raised. In a few of the drawings both knees are bent and in other drawings, the back knee straight. The back leg being straight is very similar to a short lunge. This allows for quick movements. The position of the body is shown as a lateral stance, though with both feet coming forward, hips rotated forward slightly. The feet were about shoulders width apart. Having the leg back would allow for a strong frontal attack as well as a balanced retreat.

How long or how many points the fighter fought up to is not recorded. Is possible just as it is with the ancient Egyptian system of wrestling, that the contest could be a competition involving endurance? How long one can last, just as on a battle field. The counting of touches is another possible system.

There was an average length of the forearm protector at about 19 inches based on the cubit measurement. The forearm protector was about a cubit in length or the length of the forearm, plus a few inches passed the finger tips and in some cases extended past the point of the elbow. This allowed the fingers to be protected from a hit. The forearm protector could used to parry or block an incoming attack, leaving the armed hand for a quick counter. The forearm protector also extended past the fingers, this could also be used to strike as well. The whole forearm was protected and the plank was tied to the arm and the other hand a stick in it, grappling was probably not allowed. The hand of the shield arm is open and fingers extended, grabbing the opponents stick was probably not allowed. The position most commonly seen is the forearm bent at the elbow and arm held up at the shoulder. With the shield attached to the forearm, there is a limitation to the amount of movement at the shoulder. With the shield attached to the forearm, there is a limitation to the amount of movement that the competitors can do during a bout. All movements would come from the elbow and shoulder. To block would have come with a beat or deflection of an incoming blow. It is possible that the forearm protector was used not just in defense, but in offense as well. Striking with the shield using punching, elbowing or pushing techniques could have been a part of the game also.

The stick was about three feet in length based on comparison of the size of the forearm protector in the hieroglyphs. The forearm protector was about a cubit in length, which is from the bend of the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. There is the basic or root royal Egyptian cubit, which is 1.714285ft, and the standard royal cubit, which is 1.71818 ft. The English Cubit is 1.5ft long. This is about the size of a modern foil or a single stick. Considering the design of some of the sticks trapping was probably allowed. Some sticks had curved ends, or had a Y shaped end. This would allow for trapping the arm, the stick or the shield arm. This would also allow tripping as well with the stick. Cutting or thrusting with the stick would be allowed based on the system of rules allowed. The tips of the stick having different designs could allow for thrusts, assuming the end was padded or at least blunt. If the sticks were used just to score a “touch”, then large, strong movements involving the shoulder and elbow would be important. Incorporation of the twisting of the hips is noted in the hieroglyphics. This would allow a lot of force from a blow. In some cases a guard made up of a strap of cloth was wrapped around the fingers and knuckles to protect the hand. The strap was held in the fingers against the stick to prevent disarming.

The uniforms worn, was that of the soldier or warrior. Uniforms are designed for the climate to allow easy of movement, and afford some protection from a cut. The positions of the fighters are always up right and show dominance in this position. Losing ones balance would not be good tactically and falling down to the ground could mean a loss. Falling to the ground during battle meant death. This also represented in many drawings of battles in which the Pharaoh has his enemy on their knees and he is about to strike with his sword or mace. The fact that stick fighting was performed during ceremonies in front of the pharaoh meant that the determining factor of selection for the military, as well as an exercise or training for the military, just as with the tradition of the Zulu (Coetzee, 2002). Stick fighting still happens in modern Egypt. Unlike its ancient cousin, the stick is held in two hands. The fighting is performed for ceremonial reasons as is with the ancient version.

Fig 3

3. Thebes, Egypt, c. 1350 B.C.E.

Modern Egyptian and African Stick Fighting

In modern Egypt stick fighting and stick dancing is called tahtib. Tahtib is stick fighting and stick dancing is performed during marriage ceremonies and is popular during Ramadan. The stick is symbolic of masculinity and a phallus. This is a male dance only. Although there are women who are performing the dance, they are dressed as men and they are dancing with other women. The dance with the women, is to be flirtatious and the stick is a general symbol of masculinity and is manipulated by the woman. The stick is about four feet in length and is called an Asa, Asaya, or Assaya or Nabboot (www.alliancemartialarts.com/tahtib.html). In parts of Africa many tribes perform stick fighting, among the Surma, the Donga is performed. The Donga is only practiced among the men. The sticks are six feet long and individually carved by the owner. The objective is to knock down the other competitor. No protection is worn, with the exception of body paint.

The ancient Nubians performed stick fighting as well. In one picture a figure waits, while two competitors wrestle. The stick fighter is holding the stick in two hands, and the height of the stick almost equal to the height of the figure of the fighter. The stick fighter is also wearing the same type of belt as the wrestlers.

The similarities between the Zulu and the ancient Egyptians is uncanny. With the Zulu a blocking stick is used. Some of the stances used by the Zulu are similar to the drawings of the hieroglyphics.

Conclusion

Ancient Egyptian Stick fighting was probably based on actual fighting systems used in combat with a shield and a sword. It then probably evolved into a system with its own rules and methods. Several assumptions had to be made in order to understand stick fighting of the ancient Egyptians. The rules used by the ancient Egyptians were probably simple and few. There are two conclusions; either the contest was of endurance or of skill. There is stronger evidence that the game, is a game of skill and that hitting the head was goal. There were advantages of teaching stick fighting, along with other combat sports such as wrestling. The main advantage is the fact that the Egyptian army could be kept trained and ready for war. Reconstruction of this system of stick fighting can be possible with some imagination and ingenuity. Reconstructing a system based on the head being the target would be easier and safer of the two possible systems are used. Development of equipment is not out of the range of most modern practitioners.

Illustrations:

  1. Scott T. Caroll, Journal of Sport History, Vol 15, No. 2

  2. Michael Poliakoff, 1987 Competitioin, Violence and Culture Combat Sports in the Ancient World, 26

  3. Michael Poliakoff, 1987 Competition, Violence and Culture Combat Sports in the Ancient World, 64


Bibliography:

Carroll, Scott T., Journal of Sports History , Vol 15, No. 2 (1998)

Coetzee, Mariť-Heleen, “Zulu Stick Fighting: Socio-Historical Overview” (2002)

Gumede, Thabisile, “Zulu man’s mission to put stick fighting on the SA sports map” Sunday Times-South Africa (2002)

Poliakoff, Michael Competition, Violence, and Culture Combat Sports in the Ancient World Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987

Reardon, Christopher “Days and Nights in the Artist’s” ‘ Workshop ‘ Ford Foundation Report 2000

Tahtib-Middle Eastern Stick Fighting” <http://www.alliancemartialarts.com/tahtib.html>



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