Sunday marked the beginning of Black History Month, a time when people of African descent, especially those in the United States, remember and are remembered for their achievements and impact on greater society. Last year, GladiatHers chose to participate in Black History Month by recognizing some of the great African American women of the past who broke barriers as athletes and as Americans. This year, I’m taking it back…way back…back to ancient times. While American history often starts Black history at the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Black history actually starts at the beginning of civilization. The continent of Africa birthed great civilizations of men and women who were inventors, rulers, travelers, doctors, orators, warriors, statesmen and everyday people. In honor of Black History Month and the African Diaspora, this month will be filled with posts that provide a glimpse at women in ancient African civilizations and how they participated in sports and maintained fit lifestyles. These women, along with women in other ancient civilizations, were the precursors to the modern female athletes and deserve to be esteemed and remembered as they paved the way for Serena Williams, Skylar Diggins, Gabby Douglas and the millions of other black girls who participate in sports. So, let’s start at the beginning in ancient Egypt.
In Egyptian society, women enjoyed a freeness that did not exist for women in many other ancient or modern cultures. They worked alongside men, owned property, and made many of their own decisions. They were celebrated for their roles as mothers and wives but were also allowed to be active participants in society as a whole. It is no surprise then that ancient Egyptian women (like their male counterparts) participated in sports. Though there is little evidence to suggest that women were professional athletes in today’s sense or participated to the extent that men in their society did, drawings and writings suggest that the women of ancient Egypt were physically active and public participants in sports. Many drawings portray the female figure as being both slender and feminine, a celebration of the woman as being simultaneously physically fit and sensual. Various depictions, such as the one on a relief at the temple of Hatshepsut in Karnak, show women as acrobats and gymnasts. Texts and drawings also support that women participated in fowling, swimming and rowing. Additionally, a relief from a tomb at Sakkara and a mural from the tomb of Cheti at Beni Hassan provide evidence that ancient Egyptian women also played ballgames and juggled. One of the most telling depictions of women and sports in ancient Egyptian society (shown below) is that of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut, who referred to herself as pharaoh (the male term for king) and ruled under her own name, is depicted as running in Heb Sed, a ceremony in which the pharaoh celebrated his/her continued reign and power. While her participation in Heb Sed does not necessarily mean that ancient Egyptian women were avid runners, it does suggest that it was acceptable to celebrate strength and power in women in their culture.
Ancient Egypt may not have produced any Hall of Fame women athletes, but it did allow women to exist relatively freely. Women were able to find satisfaction and be respected as nurturing mothers and wives but also as individuals who exerted their physical strengths for fun and as competitors. Ancient Egyptians found beauty in strength. It is amazing and disheartening that thousands of years later, our modern society somehow struggles with allowing women to be simultaneously beautiful and strong.
–Women’s Sports: A History by Allen Guttmann
–BBC History online. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/women_01.shtml
–Encyclopedia Britannica online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/258986/Heb-Sed