I recently took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Unbeknownst to me, the Met has quite a few artifacts on display that represent girls playing games!
So, as I get into the swing of things with this blog, we’re going to take a brief look at the objects I found at the Met. This is first place I start when investigating girls and gaming: the objects they left behind. These are the key to their stories, sometimes yielding little — other times, yielding more than we could ever imagine.
My first find was in the halls of Greek antiquity: “Terracotta group of two girls playing a game known as ephedrismos.” Dating between 350 and 250 BCE, this statue depicts one girl carrying another. Now, on first glance, it just looks like a fun pose — it wasn’t until I read the label that I found it was related to gaming!
According to the label, “A stone was placed upright on the ground, and balls of pebbles were thrown at it from a distance. The loser’s eyes were covered, and he had to carry the other player on his back until he found and touched the stone. There were probably a number of variations. Here the little girl carries her companion but does not have her eyes covered.”
Side note: The Met lost points with me for stating how the game was played using male nouns even though the statue depicts girls! Interestingly enough, the description in their online catalogue uses feminine nouns…
The online catalog of the Met also notes that the girls are dressed in chitons and were painted with red curly hair. The rider wears a stephanos (crown), while the loser wears a floral wreath.
But that’s where the Met’s information stops. Why did girls play this game, and how do we know this is what they were playing?
Further research reveals similar items at the John Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Their description tells us that statues depicting girls playing ephedrismos are quite common: over forty have been unearthed, most from the same time period. So scholars believe that this game was popular among young women of the late 4th century BCE.
The information at John Hopkins also states that these statues were symbolic: the winner was believed to symbolize Eros or Aphrodite, and this could mean that the girl was betrothed to be married.
How could we possibly know that from a statue? Well, I can only surmise that scholars of Ancient Greece know their stuff and would be able to reasonably make that assumption (since I have not studied Ancient Greece in depth). But there are clues that our judgment could be clouded. The object on display at John Hopkins actually dates to the 1800s — the Victorian period, to be exact. Victorians had an obsession with classical cultures like Greece, and they made many reproductions of archaeological finds. As John Hopkins notes,
Although the JHUAM figurine closely resembles genuine Hellenistic terracottas, it exhibits characteristics that point to a later production date. For instance, the amount of color, especially that used on the girls’ hair, is atypical for a genuine Hellenistic terracotta statuette. Although traces of color do survive on a number of ancient figurines, it is highly unlikely that such a vibrant tone of red would have been preserved through the centuries. The depiction of drapery in the JHUAM statuette is also inaccurate. The windblown motion of the girls’ garments is excessively artificial and dramatic, especially when compared to the more natural flow of fabric in Hellenistic sculpture. Moreover, the intimate, sentimental bond between the two girls in the JHUAM terracotta is more characteristic of nineteenth-century art than Greek sculpture. Lastly, the discus held by one of the girls does not fit in with ancient iconographic models for this group. After all, discs were not used to play the game of ephedrismos. In some cases, ancient figurines of ephedrismos players show them holding either a rounded stone or a ball, but never a discus.
So, we’ve uncovered a quirk in discussing ancient girls and gaming: we have to be careful not to be clouded by previous interpretations, or recreations, of the games.
Now, back to ephedrismos. Further research yields that the game also appears on ancient Greek vases and in life-sized sculptures. These representations include boys and men as well as mythological figures (the gods, satyrs, etc.). Many of these finds, and especially the statues, were discovered in the graves of women and girls.
That’s about where the information seems to stop. So, at this point, we know that ephedrismos was a game popular among young women during a brief 100-year period of Hellenistic Greece. We know a bit about how it was played, as well.
The prevalence of these depictions found in graves suggests that this game had an important role in girls’ lives — perhaps it was a kind of ceremony denoting engagement. But we must take caution on this assumption: gendered grave goods may be indications of everyday life, but they could also represent idealized views of gender.
We also have to note that some excavations of ancient Greek cemeteries were done at a time when context of the finds was not full realized — so, we’re often missing the answers to questions like, “Whose grave did this come from? Did she die young? Are there other goods that show she might have played games, or neighboring graves that have similar items?”
So, this statue really tells us very little when looking at the information. But when looking at the object itself, something does come to light: the life in the girls’ faces. The girl rider seems to be very happy or amused. And the girl carrying her seems to be focused, concentrating on carrying her friend and finding the stone. Both also appear to be very young: their bodies are not sexually mature, so we can assume that girls played this game at a very young age. Given that ancient Greek women married by the age of 16, we can assume that these girls are likely around 10 or 12 years of age, if not younger. And they enjoyed the game.
In truth, we may never know everything about ephedrismos or the girls who played it. But what we do know is that, like young girls today, they had games that they played together — games that challenged them and, perhaps in the pursuit of the stone, were symbolic.