Egyptian Fisherman Jousting (Water Jousting)

Egyptian fisherman jousting was an aquatic combat sport practiced in ancient Egypt. Modern knowledge of this sport comes from studying ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs, such as the one depicted immediately below, and is fairly limited as such. These depictions show that each vessel held a small group of men, each one wielding a long pole. While most of the crew used theirs to maneuver the boat, a few of them would stand upright, wielding their poles to knock opponents off their respective boats.

Saqqara tomb relief of fisherman jousting (early 6th Dynasty, c. 2345–2320 BC) – Egyptian Fisherman Jousting (Water Jousting)
Saqqara tomb relief of fisherman jousting (early 6th Dynasty, c. 2345–2320 BC)

The biggest question when studying these murals is whether water jousting was sportive or hostile. Though the Egyptian reliefs that depict fisherman jousting don’t appear in contexts of war or battle, many of these depictions appear to be quite malicious and violent. This leaves the impression that the activity pictured may not have been entertainment, but rather something more aggressive, such as battles for fishing territory. Were this the case, the apparent aggressive gestures would make much more sense.

However, some historians argue that these reliefs don’t picture fisherman at all, leaving the inference that these are indeed sportive competitions. If this is to be accepted, then the term “fisherman jousting” would be a misnomer, less accurate than the infrequently used term “water jousting.” Allen Guttmann, Ph.D., puts forth in Sports: The First Five Millennia that the term “fisherman jousting” has been retroactively applied to this sport by German scholars familiar their traditional sport Fischerstechen, also translated “fisherman jousting.” The implication is that this German cultural filter has since been applied to all depictions of this ancient Egyptian sport. However, it should be noted that some of these depictions of Egyptian water jousting appear next to clear depictions of fishing.


How to Play

As our knowledge of Egyptian fisherman jousting is inferred from ancient reliefs such as the one depicted above, information on its specifics is scant. What we can ascertain is detailed below.

As variable numbers of men can be seen in both maneuvering and offensive positions, it appears that they were not restricted to one role – that is, any rower could stand up and “joust” with an opponent. Were this true, then the terms “fisherman jousting” and “water jousting” would both be fairly inaccurate; this sport would be much more chaotic and unstructured than one-on-one jousting.

Given the aquatic nature of the sport, swimming would have naturally been a desirable skill, although not completely necessary. It is true that a felled opponent could make it back to shore with poor swimming technique, but the possibility of hippos, crocodiles, or other hungry creatures lurking below the surface would be a pressing incentive to swim swiftly.

Bibliography

Guttmann, A. (2007). Sports: The first five millennia. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Craig, S. (2002). Sports and games of the ancients. Greenwood Press.