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Vestiges of Pre-Christian Ritual in the Game of Hopscotch

Introduction

Casual children's games (by which I mean those without a formal set of rules, generally imposed by adults) represent a significant part of oral tradition. A child first learns the rules from older children, and in turn passes them on to younger chidren, maintaining a tradition that might go back to pre-historic times. Iona and Peter Opie (The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren) show that childen's rhymes, tricks, games, riddles, etc, may be traced back many centuries[1]. Some versions of the game of hopscotch contain eschatological symbols, and this paper puts forward the theory that these may be evidence that hopscotch originated in a pre-Christian ritual so significant that the early Christian Church felt unable to suppress it, and instead assimilated it, diminishing it by making it into a children's game.

Hopscotch

Hopscotch (from hop + Old French escocher, meaning to cut or scratch. The reference is presumably to the scratched lines which define the playing area) is played under various names in many parts of the world. The playing area takes many forms ...

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... and the rules have many variations, but the essence of the game is the same: the playing area defines a route which players must follow, proceeding according to complex rules into the deepest part of the playing area, and then return to the start. Breaking the rules ends the player's turn, and another player takes a turn. The rules are such that a two-way journey becomes progressively more difficult.

As an example, I describe the play of one version of hopscotch (of no particular significance other than being the version I played in Birmingham in the 1950 and early 1960s). The playing area (see left) was a chalked area divided into 8 rough squares some 2 feet across, numbered 1 to 8, and an unnamed semicircle. The only required equipment was the “piece”, a stone or similar object, which was to be thrown into the playing area: this could be wrapped in cloth to stop it bouncing or sliding too much[2]

Having decided the order of play[3], the first player tossed the piece so as to stop in square 1. Then the player had to hop over square 1 into square 2, jump to land with the left foot in square 3 and the right in square 4 simultaneously, hop into 5, jump into 6 and 7, hop into 8, and hop or jump into the semicircle. Having reached the semicircle, the player turned round and hop-jump-hop-jump-hopped back through the playing area, this time continuing into square 1. While standing in one foot the player had then to pick up the piece, without touching the ground, then hop out of square 1 to complete the first sequence.

This sequence was repeated 8 times, the piece being tossed into each of the squares in order.

Players must not toss the piece to land anywhere except the correct square, step on the chalk lines, or outside the proper square, or touch the ground with any body part other that the correct foot. Any infraction of a rule ended the player's turn. When their next turn came around, they started at the point in the sequence at which they had previously failed.

Once a player had sucessfully completed the 8th sequence, they had won a round, and could choose any of the 8 squares (other than any already so chosen) as their prize. The square was marked as being owned, and the player's initial added with the chalk (as are squares 5 and 6 in the diagram) and for the rest of the game the piece was no longer tossed into it, and only they could put a foot in it. Other players had to hop or jump over.

Further rounds then started at the lowest available square. Once 8 rounds had been completed, and all 8 squares won, the player who had won the most squares won the game.

However, this very rarely happened, since it becomes almost impossible to complete a sequence once many of the squares have been won. It is necessary to jump hard enough to avoid several squares, but land controlled enough not to stumble outside the square. It can be done, but so rarely as to make the game very difficult to finish before the players' mothers called them in for tea.

Early Hopscotch

Early written records are rare. J.W.Crombie (History of the Game of Hop-Scotch asserts that the game is mentioned in Poor Robin's Almanac[4] for 1667, which appears to be the earliest clear reference. Pliny[5], it is true, while describing the labyrinths, mentions “mazes formed in the fields for the amusement of children”; but it seems a stretch to take these as early versions of hopscotch without further details of the amusement.

However, the absence of earlier written records does not imply the game was not played earlier. It is a truism that records only exist of matters considered worthy of record by someone in a position to make a record or have a record made. So our written history records only the concerns of those able to write, or able to command others to write for them. In the mediæval era, “those able to write” meant the Church[6] and some of the aristocracy. In pre-Mediæval times, literacy was rare ouside of the Church. And, given the labour involved in making a record (writing by hand, with a quill pen the writer had cut from a goose feather, with ink the writer had made from soot and fat, on a parchment the writer had prepared) only a weighty matter would be considered worthy of record. So the early records cover only things considered important by the Church; the casual games of chidren passed unrecorded.

Eschatological Symbolism

There has been some speculation of eschatological symbolism in hopscotch. Gomme (The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland) quotes Crombie as saying: “It would seem more probable that the game represented the progress of the soul from earth to heaven through various intermediate states, the name given to the last court being most frequently paradise or an equivalent, such as crown or glory, while the names of the other courts corresponded with the eschatological ideas prevalent in the early days of Christianity”[7]

But Crombie's argument, I feel, misses a number of significant points:-

Firstly, while some of the courts are indeed given names with eschatological significance (see the illustration from Crombie's article, left), and the deepest court is often called “Paradise” or “Heaven”. But the object of the game in not to attain this Paradise, whereas that of the Christian is. In most versions, the object is to go to the deepest part of the playing area and return unscathed, although in a few others it is to pass through the playing area and out of the other side; but in no version of which I am aware is the object of the game to reach and remain in any part of the playing area.

Secondly, there are two aspects central to the play of the game that have no obvious analogue in the progress of the soul after death: that players succeed by retrieving some object from within the playing area, and specifically an object that they themselves have placed therein; and that the game is a contest, a player winning only if all others lose. These aspects are so fundamental to the game that they must have had some equivalent in the game's precursor.

Thus it seems the game cannot symbolise “the progress of the soul from earth to heaven” as Combie asserts: rather, if it has any symbolic meaning, it would symbolise some venture into a dangerous place and sucessful return, or some rite of passage. Thus, while the eschatological nomenclature does suggest some Christian beliefs embedded in hopscotch, they appear to have been overlaid on some other foundation.

Such assimilation of aspects of non-Christian belief is frequently seen in early Christianity: the adoption of December 25th, celebrated as the Birthdaay of the Unconquered Sun in Mithraism, as the birthdate of Jesus, unsupported by (and inconsistent with[8]) any biblical tradition, allowed the wholesale adoption of pagan Solstice celebrations as celebrations of the Nativity; the redefinition of the Sabbath from the Jewish Saturday to Sunday allowed claims of consistency with Roman Sun worship, etc.

That such assimilation was a matter of policy is clear from a letter of Pope Gregory, written in 601AD, concerning the conversion of Anglo-Saxon pagans:- “... I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined opon, viz,. that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let alters be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things ...”[9]

It is, therefore, not unlikely that a Pagan ritual which was too significant to be banned, might have had its threat to the early Christian Church reduced, by being assimilated into the ritual of the Church, overlaid with eschatological symbolism which amost fit; and later, its significance reduced by recreation as a chidren's game.

The most obvious Christian ritual which might parallel hopscotch is that of baptism, particularly baptism by immersion. Baptism has been understood in two ways, as a ritual washing away of sin[10], or as a symbol of being born again[11]. In the first interpretation, we may see Baptism as a continuation of the various Jewish rituals commanded in the Torah to attain or re-attain purity. But in the second, there is no equivalent in Judaism. If immersion and emergence is seen as a symbol of rebirth, then that which is entered into and emerged from is a symbolic grave, suggesting a far more pagan origin.

The precise details of the baptism ritual in the early Christian Church is unclear. The biblical record implies immersion: John 2:23 has John the Baptist choosing a location for baptism “because there was much water there”, and Acts 8:38-9 says that both the baptiser and baptised “went down into the water” And the Didache, a Syrian liturgical manual written circa 70 AD, and widely circulated among the churches in the first few centuries of Christianity, recommended baptism in “living water” (ie in running water, as in a river). But it goes on to say the other water may be used if there is no living, and “If you have neither, pour water three times upon the head”[12]

However, early Christian artwork: tile mosaics in early churches, wall paintings in catacombs, designs on ordinary household objects such as cups and spoons, engravings on marble, etc, depict baptism by pouring; and there is some archælogical evidence that some baptistries in early churches were too small for anything beyond dipping. Thus while it may be, as Gonzalez (A History of Christian Thought) argues, that baptism by immersion was the standard form in Early Christianity, it was not exclusively used.

Thus it appears that, in practise, there was no prescribed baptism ritual in the early Church. That would leave an individual Church free to adopt whatever ritual was most convenient, which might have included the assimilation of a local pagan ritual practised in the area, as part of the campaign to christianise the local tribes.

Suitable Pagan Rituals

The theory outlined above would be more convincing were a pagan ritual to be found, whose actions were similar to those of hopscotch. Here again we meet the problem of a lack of suitable written records. The Church, which drew up the records, would have no reason to describe such rituals. However, we may perhaps infer such rituals from myths and oral tradition which may have led to such rituals, or from archæological discoveries.

Myths and Oral Tradition

To the Classisist, a journey into the depths and back brings to mind Orpheus' doomed attempt to bring his wife Eurydice, dead from a serpent bite, back from the Underworld. According to the version of the Orphean legend given by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, following the second loss of Eurydice, Orpheus founded the Orphic mystery sect. We have no record of the Orphic rites, but it seems possible that they would re-enact Orpheus' failed enterprise, perhaps with some element of sympathetic magic, a belief that, were the journey to be completed properly, Orpheus' looking back would be counteracted and Eurydice released again.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold in the Middle English romance of Sir Orfeo. Although not written down until about 1330, this also contains elements of much earlier Celtic faerie lore. Tolkien was of the view that it was “more probably that not that it was translated from a French original”[13], perhaps because the mythic elements are particularly strong in Breton lore.

Sir Orfoe tells how King Orfeo of Thrace (which, the story insists, was the early name for Winchester) rescued his wife Heurodis. She had been stolen her away by the King of Fairy, and taken to his underworld kingdom. Distraught, Orfeo left his court, and wandered into the forest for ten years, then saw Heurodis riding with the fairy host. He followed them to the Court of the Fairy King, whom he entertained by playing the harp. Charmed by the music, the Fairy King asked Orfeo to name his reward, and he asked for the release of Heurodis, returning with her to reclaim his throne.

This legend remained current long enough to appear in song, King Orfeo being one of the ballads collected by Francis James Child. This is one of a corpus of songs in Child's collection, others being Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, which tell of the recovery or return of someone from Fairyland, suggesting a widespread beief in such occurances. Given such a belief, it seems reasonable to assume there would have been rituals to ward against being taken away with the fairies, which might have taken the form of a symbolic rescue.

One version of the Tam Lin ballad has the curious stanza

First dip me in a stand of milk,
And then in a stand of water;
Haud me fast, let me na gas,
I'll be your bairnie's father.[14]

This is a reference to the belief that someone who had been put into non-human shape by enchantment count be returned to their true shape by immersion in liquid. The similarity to Christian baptism is striking, and perhaps one reason for the Church to baptise by immersion was that pagans would understand this as a ritual to promote “rebirth” in a better form.

Another classical myth which features a journey into peril and safe return, is Theseus' journey into the Labyrinth to kill the Minatour and out again following Ariagne's thread. Following this, according to Plutarch:- “Now Theseus, in his return from Crete, put in at Delos, and having sacrificed to the god of the island, dedicated to the temple the image of Venus which Ariadne had given him, and danced with the young Athenians a dance that, in memory of him, they say is still preserved among the inhabitants of Delos, consisting in certain measured turnings and returnings, imitative of the windings and twistings of the labyrinth. And this dance, as Dicæarchus writes, is called among the Delians the Crane. This he danced around the Ceratonian Altar, so called from its consisting of horns taken from the left side of the head. They say also that he instituted games in Delos, where he was the first that began the custom of giving a palm to the victors.”

It seems possible that these dances, “imitative of the windings and twistings of the labyrinth”, might have survived long enough to have become a precursor of hopscotch.

Archæological Evidence

At Danebury in Hampshire is an Iron Age hill fort, excavated by a team led by Prof. Barry Cunliffe in the 1970s. The chalk bedrock is peppered with numerous large pits, from which many archæological relics have been recovered. Many grains were found, suggesting the pits had been used for the storage of seed corn. There were also objects apparently deliberately placed in the pits: quernstones, clay plots such as those used for the storage of beer or honey, etc. Other, more gruseome objects included single skulls, animal skeletons, the body of a man spread-eagled on the pit floor covered with flints which may have been used to stone him to death, and (most gruesome of all) the pelvis of a young man, chopped off at the waist and thighs.

Cunliffe suggests that storage of seed grain in pits was a deliberate act designed to place the graon in the protection of the chthonic deities[15], and that the other objects were thanks offerings to the deities:- “... the digging of a grain storage pit may well have been circumscribed by ritual behaviour. After all the domain of the gods of the underworld was being penetrated and society was putting its trust in the gods to preserve the quality and the fertility of the crop stored in the ground. To a superstitious mind it was a risky thing to do unless the proper rituals had been upheld ... The crucial time would have come at the end of the storage period when the pit was emptied and the gads had to be acknowledged.”

We can only speculate as to what these “proper rituals” might have been. But the retrieval of the seed corn must surely have been considered a dangerous task: if the quernstones, pots, skulls, etc, are seen as thanks offerings to the chthonic deities, then would not the deities have been expected to have regarded the seed corn as such? If so, then retriving the seed corn from the pits would in effect have been stealing from the gods.

How this would be dealth with must be a matter of conjecture. But it seems not unreasonable to imagine the retrieval to have been preceeded with a ritual of sympathetic magic, in which the retrieval was performed in symbolic form, to ensure safe and successful perfomance when it was done for real. And this ritual could have a competitive element, to allow the deities to indicate who they wished to perform the real task, and what offering they would consider fair recompence for returning the grain.

And perhaps over cinturies the ritual became associated not just with retrieving the stored grain, but with its planting and growth. So eventually it became accepted that before the planting of crops, the blessing of the Gods shoudl be invoked by the performance of a ritual in which participants competed to retrieve a symbolic object.

Conclusion

Primary source evidence on hopscotch, and any possible pre-Christian precursor, is scant. Children's games have, in general, not been felt significant to deserve recording; and those in a position to record primary source evidence for Pagan ritual had a vested interest in not doing so, except as vague condemnatory references such as the “worship of devils”

We may say with certainty that there was eschatological nomenclature within some hopscotch layouts. But these, and the rules by which the game was played, cannot be reconciled with teh Christian doctrines of the soul. And we have primary source evidence that it was the custom of the early Church to assimilate non-Christian practises, so that “they should offer them to God and not to idols”[9], and thus make them less threatening to the Church.

Beyond this is conjecture. One possible explanation is that an early Church observed the local population practising an ancient ritual, inconsistent with Church teaching, involving the competitive retreival of an object. The ritual was of such significance to the people that the Church felt unable to anathamise it. So the Church assimilated the ritual, overlaying it with Christian eschatological symbolism, even though the symbolism didn't quite fit. Later, this emasculated ritual was made even less threatening, by being made into a game for children. While the details of such a ritual are now lost, probably beyond any hope of recall, both mythology and archæological evidence suggests that such rituals were once practised.

We must, of course, say with Prof. Cunliffe (Danebury: Anatomy of an Iron Age Hillfort) “The story is entirely plausible and may even approximate to what really happened, but as with so much of archæological interpretation it is necessary to sound the warning that other explanations are always possible” But I find it an intruiging possibility that children tossing a stone into a rough;y-drawn pattern of chalk squares might be re-enacting a magic rite meant to ensure the safe retrival of seed corn from an Iron Age pit.

Notes

  1. The Opies' Children's Games in Street and Playground says little on hopscotch. Instead, then say “it is intended that the intricacies of ball-bouncing and other ball games, of skipping, marbles, fivestones, hopscotch, tipcat, and gambling, shall be described in a further volume, where they can be treated more fully, together with the singing games”. Sadly, this intention did not survive the death of Peter Opie in 1982: when the widowed Iona Opie published The Singing Game in 1985, hopscotch was not covered.
  2. Normally a handkerchief was used as the wrapping; although if a girl wanted to join in the game, the price of (and deterrence against) joining was the loan of her knickers for this purpose.
  3. How the order of play was decided would merit an essay in itself. The Opies devote the first chapter of Children's Games in Street and Playground to the matter.
  4. A comic almanac published under the pseudonym of Poor Richard, Knight of the Burnt Island.
  5. Pliny, Natural History xxxvi, 13: “That Dædalus took this for the model of the Labyrinth which he constructed in Crete, there can be no doubt; though he only reproduced the hundredth part of it, that portion, namely, which encloses circuitous passages, windings, and inextricable galleries which lead to and fro. We must not, comparing this last to what we see delineated on our mosaic pavements, or to the mazes formed in the fields for the amusement of children, suppose it to be a narrow promenade along which we may walk for many miles together; but must picture ourselves a building filled with numerous doors, and galleries which continually mislead the visitor, bringing him back, after all his wanderings, to the spot from which he first set out”
  6. It is not mere coincidence that the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines Clerical as: adj 1) concerned with or relating to the routine work of an office clerk. 2) of or relating to the clergy.
  7. The source of this quote is unclear, and Gomme gives no reference. The obvious source would be Crombie's History of the Game of Hop-Scotch, which certainly contains the sense of the quote, but not the actual words.
  8. Luke 2:8 “in that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping over their flock by night”. This could not have taken place in December, when the flocks would have been in shelters.
  9. Quoted in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation Book 1 Chapter XXX
  10. Acts 22:16 “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptised, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord”
  11. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews “For as Christ died on the cross, so do we in baptism, not as the flesh, but as to sin. Behold two deaths. He died as to the flesh; in our case the old man was buried, and the new man arose, made conformable to the likeness of His death. If therefore it is necessary to be baptised [again], it is necessary that this same [Christ] should die again. For baptism is nothing else than the putting to death of the baptised, and his rising again.”
  12. Didache, Chapter 7: “And concerning baptism, baptise this way: Having first said all these things baptise into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptise into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptiser fast, and the baptised, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptised to fast one or two days before.”
  13. This is given in the introduction of Tolkien's translation of Sir Orfeo, published posthumously.
  14. “Young Tom Line”, Glenriddell MS, vol. xi, No 17, 1791
  15. Later archæologists have suggested a different, or additional purpose, that of keeping the grain fresh. The pit is sealed with a clay plug, keeping out all air. It is theorised that as the grain on the outside germinated, the carbon dioxide produced would inhibit germination of the grain in the middle of the pit. In this way, grain may be kept fresh for many months. It is possible this was a serendipidous discovery, interpreted as acceptance of the grain by the deities.

References

Campbell, J. The Masks of God, Vol III: Occidental Mythology
Condor Press, London 1964

Child, F. J. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Houghton Mifflin, 1882 - 1898

Cunliffe, B. W. Danebury: Anatomy of an Iron Age Hillfort
Basford 1983

Eliade, M. (trans Mairet, P.) Myths, Dreams and Mysteries
Harvill Press, London 1960

Gonzalez, J. L. A History of Christian Thought, Vol I: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon
Abingdon, Nashville, 1981

Monter, W. Ritual, Myth and Magic in Early Modern Europe
Harvester Press, 1983

Opie, P. and I. A. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren
Oxford University Press, 1959

Opie, P. and I. A. Children's Games in Street and Playground
Oxford University Press, 1969

Opie, I. A. The Singing Game
Oxford University Press, 1985

Tolkien, J. R. R. (trans) Sir Orfeo
George Allen and Unwin


Alan M Stanier, 2008