Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Life is the game that must be played:
This truth at least, good friends, we know;
So live and laugh, nor be dismayed
As one by one the phantoms go.


 The Uitoto creation myth begins by telling of Moma, the moon god, ancestor of the tribe and maker of the world. His symbol is the rubber ball, and it is said that his soul lives in the ball and in the fruit of the rubber tree. His soul lives but there was a time when wicked magicians knocked away his head and consumed his body as they competed with him in a great celestial ball game. The sons of Moma took revenge in a second game in which they burst the magicians' water ball, without which they could be destroyed. Thus the deluge broke free and covered their wickedness, only to be followed by the emerging sphere of a new generation. The powers of darkness eclipsed the light but the great ball exploded forth with new life, elasticity and play, just as the rubber ball bursts through the basket in the Uitoto festival games.

 In this re-enactment of cosmic cycles, the Indians of the New World attempt to keep the ball flying as long as possible before the opposing team can grasp it and aim it into the basket. Each momentary encirclement of the ball symbolizes the waning of light, its periodic eclipse and the great obscurations which envelop, in their turn, successive chains of manifestation. Each period of play represents the waxing and expansive exuberance of life with all its quirks and curves and abrupt bounces. Such cycles were celebrated in many games such as that known as volador which is still played by the Totenacs in northern Vera Cruz. Atop a tall pole, a square frame is fastened with a round cylinder at its centre. One man stands upon the cylinder whilst four others stand tied to the corners of the platform from which they jump simultaneously, causing the ropes to unreel and turn the cylinder continuously. Dressed as macaw birds sacred to the sun, each of the four players whirls around the pole thirteen times, thus representing the fifty-two years that made up the Mexican calendrical cycle.

 By re-enacting the sun and moon myths of their cultures, the American Indians joined in a rite of summoning strength to preserve their own tribe and uphold the continued existence of the world itself. The Algonquian north of the Great Lakes had a legend that the ball game was invented by the sun god, Manabush. Manabush's brother had been captured and killed by the underworld. He called for a ball game between the sky people led by the golden eagle and the Anamqkin of the underworld, commanded by two chieftains in the form of bears. In the course of the game Manabush killed the two bear chiefs whose followers conjured up a great flood and pursued him. Like the spreading of night did their waters cover the earth, and Algonquian people strove to keep back the tide through the continued play of the solar ball in their games.

 A round ball and a square field – a picture of earth and heaven.
 The ball sailing above us like the moon while the teams face each other.
 Captains are appointed and take their places, following unshakeable rules.
 No favour for relations,
 No room for partiality.
 Instead, firmness and coolness, and not the slightest irritation at failure.
 If all this is necessary for football, how much more for the business of life?

LU YU (A.D. 50-136)

 This poetical tidbit of Chinese practicality points to the image of a sphere of light flying over the square of its material arena of manifestation. While it is in play, the unshakeable laws of nature prevail. Karma unerringly acts and the masters of the game are those who divine the true nature of its ceaseless interplay of cause and effect. As Lu Yu asks: "If all this is necessary for football, how much more for the business of life?" The symbolism in the analogy is so closely drawn as to suggest a ritual origin to the football games which were played in China centuries before the Christian era. The rules of the game were copied from a celestial blueprint outlining the courses of activity taken by archetypal captains of the cosmos – by the gods themselves. Like reflections of divine motion, the rules became guidelines of moral action and set limits against which men could measure and test themselves.

 The rules of the greater 'game', no matter how dimly perceived, are thus mirrored in the lesser game and exert a far more lasting power than the ephemeral win or loss experienced by the player. As one poet quaintly noted: "When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he marks, not that you won or lost, but how you played the game." Such an idealistic conception affirms the value of the moral imperative implicit in individual development, and the lesser game is clearly seen as a means to a greater end. From this perspective the body is merely a visible mask of the soul. Strength, physical fitness, symmetry, performance, posture and endurance are meaningful only when it is understood that they have no significance in themselves. They are means by which the potential perfection inherent in the macrocosmic plan may be gradually realized in the microcosmic nature of man, and games provide a playing-field upon which these two worlds may meet. Certainly games are natural vehicles of moral values which they tend to propagate. The asceticism of training, the ideal of balance between mind and body, the sense of justice implicit in obedience to rules, the acute awareness of the effects of one's actions upon others – all these elements sharpen the conscious expression of standards which represent a specific cultural conception of the ideal.

 In Elizabethan times this idealism flourished in a perfection of style and execution. The games of this period embodied an abstract morality which was consistently informed by theoretical speculation of a religious and philosophical nature. Formalized contests of skill, strength and nobility were patronized by Queen Elizabeth. The tourney, racing, archery, tennis and wrestling were pursued with enormous attention to etiquette and the preservation of sportsmanlike behaviour. They represented exemplary demonstrations of a refined adherence to principles of a transcendent order which in themselves approximated eternal laws of the universe. The other side of this eternal operation of forces was the prize of survival, of strength, fertility and rebirth. If gamesters sought to achieve a standard of excellence, they also sought to celebrate their strength and their ability to overcome opposing forces. Thus the festivals of spring were witness to boisterous games of keen contest and conflict. Individuals struggled for what had been in pagan times the fertility prize, and their mass participation sometimes took on riotous proportions. In Indo-European cultures the football was originally the head of a bull which had been sacrificed for the crops and which was competed for by those who wanted to fertilize their fields. In some of the sixteenth century English games the symbolism lay nearer the surface, as in the case of the phallic maypole erected for adornment in spring fertility rites during which dancing and wrestling contests took place. Even the fetes of the church calendar were marked by celebrations of a combative nature like tug of war, where the victors represented the rebirth of vernal potency and the subjugation of darkness. It is significant that the losers were usually dragged in the darkness through the mud.

 While Martin Luther advocated games and physical activity, his successor, John Calvin, did not. The Reformation induced a negative and suspicious attitude towards the body and its sportive uses. The profound distrust of any physical exertion pursued for other than 'honest toil' led the Puritans to become "one of the most effective pressure groups to which physical activities have ever been subjugated". If honest labour was service to God and construed as a man's moral duty, then any form of play took on the taint of time-wasting, idleness and indulgence in vice. English Puritans, like their American descendants, viewed all pride in physical prowess and the pursuit of physical activity for its own sake as personally damning and socially corrupting. They condemned dancing for its carnality, football for its violence, maypoles for their paganism, and all sport that despoiled the Sabbath. Since Sundays were the only days when most people had the opportunity to play, this amounted to a condemnation of games in general.

 Though these prejudices now seem remote to us, it would be a mistake to assume that they are distant from us psychologically. Suspicion and reservation still lurk in the subconscious of many moderns when it comes to play, and those who actively pursue it often feel the need to rationalize their activities in utilitarian terms. A suggestive question was raised by one writer who asked, "Is it because we are puritanical at heart that we have given so little serious attention to man as a playing animal?" One might carry this further and ask whether man is not rather a playing mind. But the body does express the play and the experience of the senses in enacting that which the mind seeks to understand. Play contains the twin elements of chance and competition. Both are expressions of macrocosmic law at work and man ponders them through mental and physical involvement in their testing. The frivolous-seeming nature of play really affords a freshness of approach to an old problem, an exploration of limits through joking and jest. By dodging and running, feinting and jumping, the game goes on and the endless mystery surrounding the forces which weave in and out and lead to its completion are again re-examined and pondered. That Plato well understood the many shades of mental expression possible through such gamesmanship is wittily borne out in the words he ascribes to Socrates, who cautions his fellows: "Let us be wise now, for I see a fool coming."

 The complexities of human nature are not necessarily unravelled in the context of play, but many of their most powerful facets are revealed during its course. The behaviour of a crowd at a football or soccer match, the peculiar play of a rugby scrum, the paraphernalia and pageantry of the fox hunt, all remind one that rational and conscious motivation occupies only a small area of the prompting behind many of our play pursuits. It may well prove that a proper investigation of the various pressures upon popular attitudes towards games in the past might yield helpful insights for the twentieth century in which game theory has become part of sociology, politics, psychology and international affairs. Such an examination would be misleading, however, if it only took into consideration the attitudes that have existed in one or two regions of the globe. The puritanical attitudes of seventeenth century Europe were not experienced by Algonquian or Uitoto ball players and they do not help one understand the mythic symbolism in games which arouse such strong responses in both participants and spectators alike.

 Another consideration is the distinction that might be made between games of the courtly and folk traditions. In many cultures games become associated with restricted classes, and social stigma is often attached to the more naturalistic forms of play. Games prompted by an immediacy of motivation and an absence of long-term ends held at a conscious level fall into this category. Pursued for their own sake, such common play contrasts with the controlled attitudes of medieval European courtly traditions which subjugated personal ends to the stylized and formal exemplification of socially esteemed patterns. The riotous participation in Shrove-tide football, wherein legs and heads were broken, was not considered suitable for the sophisticated. This attitude was not lost on the emerging middle class which could find no appropriate role in the traditional social order. For them there was profit and consolation in a religion which was seeking "to adapt Christian morality to the needs of a population which was being steadily driven from its old feudal status into the untried conditions of competition between man and man in an increasingly commercial and industrial society under a money economy". Avoidance of games permitted them to avoid problems of class identity which arose in the arena of play and thus conserved their energies for the pursuit of monetary gain. With their stern repudiation of all profitless physical activity and their positive condemnation of physical prowess, they masked their social and economic ambitions and thereby denied themselves a deeper understanding of the role of the human body in philosophy, culture and art.

 Truth is the cry of all, but the game of the few.


 The famous statue of the discus thrower (Myron's Discobolus) seems to capture the eternal movement belonging to the central truth of effortless strength and beauty. When one observes a discus thrower in action, one does not automatically experience the timelessness of play. The thrower in action cannot compel one to transcend the temporal or ephemeral and discover an eternal value. Where is the archetypal pattern which is a symbol of something transcendent? Where is the story that rests behind the dancer's steps or the painter's images? The archetype does not lie in the physical action itself, but rather in the rules of the game, in the play which timelessly recapitulates the struggle inherent within the greater game. The action is thus made noble and the body rendered capable of reflecting universal truths in action. It is said that in the course of their spiritual studies the Pythagoreans always looked after their bodies, "to ensure that they always kept in the same condition, not becoming lean at one stage and putting on weight at another, for they regarded such changes as reflecting irregular living". According to Iamblichus, it was the same with the mind, for they took care not to burst with happiness at one moment or sink into depression at another. They saw a direct connection between body and mind in their tranquil pursuit of truth, and the games they played were seen as means of transcending the ephemeral flux of external appearances.

 Few would accept the dictum of a now forgotten Latin thinker who claimed, moveo ergo sum ("I move, therefore I exist"), but if it is added to Descartes' cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I exist"), a more complete description of the human condition is achieved. In Greece both mind and body were believed to be capable of expressing the human potential. Plato advocated their combined exercise in his description of the education of the Guardians of the polis. In Laches Plato outlines alternative views of the meaning of courage which include intelligence, moral and physical strength and endurance. Nicias, the great general who debates with Laches, argues that training in gymnastics "inclines a man to other nobler lessons". Here it is the asceticism of training, the sense of justice in relation to the following of rules and the striving for control and excellence, that mirror the nobler lessons. In the game it is the pattern itself which teaches, much in the manner suggested by Thomas Huxley, who likened the world to a chess-board. He suggested that the pieces were the phenomena of the universe whilst the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. Though the player on the other side is hidden from us, we know that his play is always fair. "But we also know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance."

 An awareness of the inexorable nature of these laws is undoubtedly what induced the proud Mayans and later Aztecs to record the defeat of a ball team by taking the life of its captain. The teams played on H-form courts called tlachti with a solid rubber ball which was struck with elbow, knee or hip. The object was to knock it from one field to another, driving it across the dividing line in the centre of the court. Points were gained and lost in this way, but if one team succeeded in knocking the ball through one of the stone rings fixed on the lateral walls of the court, the game was over and the victors celebrated. In the Popul Vuh the Quiche demigods are depicted as defeating the gods of the underworld in such a ball game in Xabalba. According to the Popul Vuh there was a time before time when all was dark except for the light that came from the fire-faced divinity, Arara. From this god sprang the twin brothers Hun hunahpu and Vucub hunahpu. Their chief pastime was an innocent playing of ball, but their noise disturbed the rulers of the underworld, who challenged them to descend into the nether realms for a match. Tricked by the dark rulers, the twins were dismembered and their heads placed upon a barren tree from which miraculous fruit began to grow. One of the daughters of the underworld was attracted to this tree and from its sap conceived. As her pregnancy became apparent, she fled to the earth above, where she gave birth to twin sons who became cunning and brave gods whose favourite pastime was playing with the ball. In a subsequent game with the rulers of the nether world, they proved victorious, and exhuming their fathers' bodies, placed them in the sky as the sun and the moon. The Quiche game was played in celebration of the cycle of victory of these orbs and of their inevitable eclipse when existence had reached its completion and darkness conquered all. The earthly ball court was, in reality, a temple and the ball symbolized a star, the sun or the moon, or else the sequential movement of the entire firmament. The war between heaven and the underworld was waged in the middle world and represented the familiar and endless struggle between light and darkness.

 This contest between light and darkness is dramatically enacted in the play between the matador and the bull. The hulking animal is a symbol of the dark beast within ourselves which is subdued by the silver and gold bespangled matador. His traja de luces (dress of lights) symbolizes the sun and the moon and his studied defiance and unearthly grace suggest the stance of the God within. Some enthusiasts have gone so far as to suggest that the bullfighting arena is a ritual bath wherein the soul washes itself clean. The corrida derives from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and the fighter repeats the gestures of the hero as he stands with his back to the sun and his cape tracing a shifting labyrinth in the sand and air around the bull. The only escape from this dreamlike encounter lies in the death of the hesitating animal who falls beneath the sword of the solar hero. The sun rises victorious over the conquered darkness just as the ball is kept aloft over the ball court and defies the attempts of the opposing forces to pull it down.

 Like gods hurling globes' meteorites and stars across the skies, ball players subdue the forces of chaos and shed light upon the field. The ball itself is like a living thing which seems to impose itself. It demands to be played with and offers direct provocation by its very promise of flight. Judging by the mass of historical and contemporary evidence, it would seem that human beings have conceived of endless ways to test the magic powers that they sensed were contained within the ball. To release these powers has been part of the fascination of the game, and when the powers represent a victory over various obstacles or even darkness itself, the result is truly cathartic for both players and spectators. Pitting oneself against objects, forces, others or even against oneself releases and cleanses the emotions, whilst onlookers purge themselves of anger, malice and frustration. Whether the ball or the player himself soars to victory, the crowd is carried up out of itself and its collective darker side is abandoned like the dead carcass of the bull. Sometimes frightening instances of this cathartic effect are shown in sudden explosions of savagery and violence. Such outbreaks represent a destructive surge of darkest chaos welling up out of the nether regions of the human mind and heart.

 How different is the play wherein men attempt to honour and to emulate the God within themselves by valiant contest in the name of the gods on high. In ancient Greece the hero was worshipped for the virtue of his superhuman strength and ability to prevail. Because he was powerful in life, he was believed powerful in death, and acts of veneration in the form of sacrifices and games took place at their graves. If this was true of heroes, it was even more so with the immortal Zeus-Pelops around whose sanctuary the first Olympiads were played. Pausanias, recording the legendary origin of their contest, told how Herakles, the eldest of the Idaean Dactyli, challenged his four brothers to a race. The winner was to be crowned with a wreath of wild olive which was sacred to Herakles and said to be inhabited by him. The ancients at Olympia celebrated the sacred marriage between Demeter, the Magna Mater, and Herakles on a litter of olive branches, and by making the connection between the victory of the god and his marriage with the Earth Mother, the contest between the Dactyli could be regarded as a mythological account of an ancient ritual suitor's race. Thus it was that when a victor of the Olympic Games was crowned with a wreath of wild olive, he was believed to assume the properties of the god and was allowed to enact the sacred marriage. His partner in this ceremony was the priestess of Demeter who stood at the end of the track to mark the finish of the race. She welcomed him with her divine light and ushered him into the immortal realms.

 Thus the great contest with the self was won and the wild olive brought a peace between the struggling realms of heaven and earth. In this the lesser game of the individual combines with the larger collective games which take place within the perimeter of a great cosmic lila embodied in the Hindu tradition by Lord Krishna, whose omnipresent motion whirls wildly and playfully around his own immortal stillness. Like the discus thrower's silent expression of truth bursting forth in the action of hurling, the potential power of this lila manifests again and again. It is a spirit leaping forward to be pursued and enjoyed and, ultimately, understood. It moves according to rules which can be discovered only after repeated play; its effortless charm can be mastered only with detached adherence to an impersonal ideal, to principles of a transcendent order which approximate the eternal laws of the universe. The game of truth may be for the few but life itself will compel the play. The ball must be carried forth across the course and the hero, sooner or later, will have to master the field.

 This mastery is accomplished slowly as the game is repeated again and again. The violence and monomania of competitive games may often act as a catharsis for players and spectators, but the very passion of their response reveals the alarming degree to which men have failed to come to grips consciously with their inner natures. To deny the power and expression of games and the symbols which they represent is to neglect one of the most penetrating means available for use in the discovery of the hidden Self. The victory over the enemy, the thunderous roar of approval when the bull's ears are tossed by the matador from the ring, are acknowledgements of the conquest of darkness that all men strive for in their souls. They are like shadowy, barbarous reflections of the great universal game between good and evil. The crowd roars every time the game is played, whilst the wise man knows what the rules mean and plays for sheer love of his fellow man.

O Nike of winged grace,
Bearing your garland of honour sealed,
Crown these efforts of enlightenment
And cast them upon the Olympian field.