Field Hockey Origins
Surprisingly, we find ourselves in a “chicken or the egg” sort of situation when examining field hockey origins. Tracing the history of sports through myths and ancient representations can be challenging, but can we really know where field hockey originated?
Field hockey, as we know it today, originated in 18th-century British schools and spread globally by British soldiers during the era of colonization. The Celtic sports of hurling and shinty are the most direct field hockey ancestors. Many ancient civilizations played some form of a stick-and-ball game.
We will first look at the roots of the sport played in the United Kingdom and the events leading up to its spread to British colonies. We will also explore the ancient versions of the games and see how they may have influenced the modern sport.
Some form of sport similar to field hockey appears to have originated in multiple locations independently. However, the most direct ancestor of field hockey, as we know it, is most likely the Celtic sports like shinty, hurling, and bando.
Field hockey most closely resembles the ancient Scottish game called shinty. Even this game is understood to be a derivative of the Irish sport of hurling and the Welsh sport bando, and it is believed to be around 2000 years old (source).
Field games are mentioned in the Irish epic, Tàin Bo Cuailgne, where the hero Cù Chulainn reportedly drove a ball through the mouth of a dog.
Irish tradition claims that hurling had dedicated followers even as far back as 1000 BC. However, it is difficult to garner hard facts from these legends.
Just before the start of the Common Era, Irish missionaries entered Scotland, bringing both Christianity and the sport of hurling with them.
This sport of shinty — also known as iomain or camanachd in Scots Gaelic — also got its name in reference to the equipment that it is played with. Caman uses the root Scottish or Irish Gaelic word cam, meaning “crooked” or “bent.”
Shinty was an evolution of Irish hurling, with some essential rule variations. This sport quickly became integrated into the very core of Scottish culture. It was a challenging and physical sport, often seen as a rite of passage for young players.
There are documented occasions where the sport was played as a precursor to war, such as in the Battle of Moytura.
As the legend around this particular battle goes, the match was so intense that the players eventually lay strewn across the playing field until one army ambushed the other and won the battle.
Owing to its geographical proximity to England and the likeness it shares with field hockey, it is safe to assume that shinty is the most direct ancestor to field hockey.
However, one key difference between shinty and field hockey is that players can use both sides of their stick to control the ball.
The modern game underwent a series of evolutions before it became the sport that is played today. As we’ll discuss in a later section, there were many similar sports played worldwide, but first, let’s look at the more recent history leading to the modern game.
Historians cannot agree on the precise starting point of field hockey. It was a relatively unique sport, though it borrowed concepts from other popular sports, such as the playing field’s resemblance to football and a cricket-like technique of hitting the ball.
It is understood that, at the time, the sport was simply referred to as “hockey”, with the distinction between field hockey and ice hockey only introduced later to avoid confusion between the two sports. What is certain is that by the end of the 18th century, hockey was played in England (source).
Much experimentation took place in the stick-and-ball sports arena, with variants played on horseback — the predecessor to polo — and others played on ice, leading to the development of ice hockey.
In the mid-18th century, English public schools, like Eton College in Berkshire, began playing the relatively new sport called field hockey. By this stage, the need for a specialized stick made it virtually exclusive to affluent schools whose teams could afford to purchase a stick to play for themselves.
A tremendous catalyst for the growth in popularity of field hockey came in the latter years of the 18th century. Sports clubs began looking for off-season activities to maintain fitness and technical prowess, so many turned to field hockey.
This was especially effective with cricket clubs, who encouraged their members to give field hockey a chance to improve their hand-eye coordination — a critical skill needed for controlling the ball while playing field hockey.
It also added year-round revenue for the clubs struggling to make ends meet during the off-season months where their sporting codes weren’t traditionally played.
Since cricket is a summer sport that requires adequate sun for pitch preparation and playing in, field hockey was limited to being played in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter season.
In England, this season is dominated by cold temperatures and precipitation, which often led to snowfall. Many lakes and other bodies of water would freeze over at this time of year, too, prompting hockey players to take to the ice to continue their training and playing.
As more clubs took up hockey as an off-season sport and began to organize matches against each other, they realized the need to develop an overarching set of rules that all clubs would adhere to.
Until this point, each club had only been developing their own drills to practice and rules to play by, and it was these inconsistencies that drove the need for formalizing field hockey’s sporting code.
Teddington Hockey Club, a club that proudly boasts the oldest field hockey club in the world, played a critical role in consolidating the various versions other clubs were playing (source).
Sports historians largely regard this as the birth of modern hockey — the coming together of the various clubs to agree on how to play field hockey to compete against each other.
This paved the way for the first Hockey Association, formed in the United Kingdom in 1876, and formalized rules were finally drawn up (source). Due to the time period, these rules stayed within the United Kingdom for some time.
The association lasted six years, falling apart due to lack of support and a dip in interest in field hockey as a whole. Still, it was revived in 1886 by nine founding member clubs.
Field hockey spread across the British Isles by the early 19th century. However, the only place it was played other than the sports clubs in their off-seasons were British schools.
Even in the schools, field hockey faced an immense struggle to establish itself, as it competed in popularity with the likes of swimming and football, two other well-supported sports.
Though both boys and girls played it, it was often fronted as a sport for ladies. This could be due to its lack of direct contact or the need for a stick to play — unlike the more traditionally masculine sports like rugby and football.
Despite these challenges, once the field hockey governing body stabilized, it did not take too long for field hockey to become an established sport in Great Britain.
The British Empire sought to create “Little Britains” across the world, through colonization. Colonization had begun to lose momentum at the beginning of the 19th century. Yet, there was still an overlap coinciding with field hockey’s rising popularity.
The British looked to share every piece of their culture with their colonies, including their language, architecture, and sports. This meant that, for the soldiers dispatched, field hockey was a part of their culture that they aimed to share.
During this time, the first international match of field hockey was played by British soldiers, with Ireland beating Wales three goals to nil in 1895 (source).
The British commonly used sport as a cultural bridge between the settlers and the local population. A fantastic example of this working well can be seen in India and its neighbouring countries and their appreciation for cricket, which still stands today.
Another significant step forward in the modernization of field hockey was the sport’s inclusion in the Summer Olympics of 1908.
It helps that London hosted those specific games; however, it was not long until field hockey was a permanent fixture in the games and became a hotly contested competition.
While the ancient Celtic sports are likely the most direct ancestors to field hockey, it’s not impossible that the sport travelled to the British Isles from some other location. Since there were versions of the game played long before what was played in Great Britain, it’s hard to ignore the ancient variations.
We know very little about the most ancient variations. Those that we do know about are very distinct from modern field hockey in many ways. The sport, as we know it, has many differences to beikou, for example. These could vary from the rules to the number of people playing and the equipment used.
In the tomb of an ancient 11th Dynasty Egyptian administrator named Khety, archaeologists found drawings representing what looks to be a game of hockey being played. This depiction from the Beni Hasan tombs dates to the early Middle Kingdom around 2000 BC.
The players use sticks made of palm tree branches. Players would strike a ball made of compacted papyrus fibers covered in leather (source).
Egyptologists believe this game to be some form of lawn-and-field sport played by the wealthy, and it would be a blend of what we know as lawn billiards and field hockey.
Historians cannot agree on how to interpret the presence of bystanders in such depictions. Some believe that it was played as a social sport, with many players contributing together as a team.
Others believe the other “players” shown are actually bystanders, spectating a one-on-one match — perhaps similar to gladiators duelling to best one another.
The Egyptians are known to have depicted many scenes from day-to-day life, but it’s possible that these sports were linked to festivities.
For example, some historians believe the ancient Minoans used sporting events like bull-leaping and boxing as part of religious festivals (source). The ancient Roman gladiator contests emerged out of funerary rights to honour the dead.
The same could be said about evidence pointing to Ethiopians also playing a similar sport from the first century AD. They still play the sport known as genna, a word shared by the Ethiopian Christmas festival. It serves as more of a cultural exhibition than an entertaining sport played for pleasure (source).
Not too much is known about the ancient version of the sport, as archaeological evidence is sparse. It is understood that very rudimentary equipment was used, such as twisted branches for sticks, trees as goalposts, and a field with no markings.
A relief in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens depicts the Greek sport of kerētízein, dating to 510 BC, which closely resembles the Egyptian sport (source).
This is an interesting connection to observe — historical findings in Ireland and parts of England have placed bronze Greek artifacts dating back to the 13th century BC (source).
One could postulate that the ancient Egyptian game influenced the evolution and development of both Irish hurling and, in turn, field hockey.
Our English word for “hockey” comes from the French “hocquet“ for “stick,” possibly pointing to European origins (source).
Far away from the direct influence of Ancient Egypt, Inner Mongolia is home to another people group who have developed their own version that bears a resemblance to field hockey. The Daur people have been playing a sport called beikou for about 1,000 years (source).
Directly translated, beikou means “stick with a curved root,” speaking to the type of equipment players would use to hit the ball.
The sport is still played occasionally, as the Daur people honour their cultural heritage. It is interesting to observe that a modern hockey brand adopted the name Beikou to pay homage to one of the many influences that could have shaped the modern game.
The European settlers that landed in Chile in the 16th century reported that Araucano Indians played a game matching the description of field hockey, known as chueca. Translated, this means “the twisted one,” relating to the twisted sticks that the players would use.
It is interesting to see sports that bear a likeness to field hockey sprouted even in places across the Atlantic Ocean. It wasn’t common, but perhaps a European settler returned home with the Araucano version of hockey fresh in their mind, and they shared it with others?
In similar circumstances to those in Chile, settlers in Western Australia witnessed Noongar people playing a game called dumbung, where bent sticks were used to hit a ball made from dried sap.
Dumbung was the name given to the western woody pear tree by the Noongar people. It is unknown whether the tree’s branches were used as the equipment to play or whether this was where the sap was gathered to make the ball — perhaps even both.
This pastime may have been taken with settlers on their return trip to Great Britain, planting the seed for the sport to take root.
None of the other forms took root quite like that developed in Great Britain, so most of the credit goes to the British for birthing the sport. In this way, we can view the ancient variations as influencers at best, but we cannot really regard most of them as the sport’s origin.
In another of our articles, “Why Is Field Hockey So Popular in Other Countries?“ we touch on how these ancient versions of field hockey made it easier for other nations to adopt field hockey since it was not a completely foreign concept for them to pick up.
Going back to our “chicken-or-the-egg” scenario, it seems most likely that some version of field hockey emerged independently in the British Isles. It developed there into a full-fledged sport and spread to British colonies, where many natives had some form of field sport that they could relate it to.
The Brits were undoubtedly not the first to invent a stick game, but this does not mean that they had to derive it elsewhere. The competitive urge is present in all cultures at all times, and sports like field hockey are merely one expression of this.
There is no denying that sports clubs like Teddington Hockey Club played a vital role in formalizing the sport, developing its codes and rules, and creating the base for becoming an international sport.
There have been different versions of field hockey that have been played throughout the ages, even as far back as 4000 years ago. These ancient versions may well have influenced the development of the modern game, which took place in Great Britain in the mid-18th century.
In the years that followed, a unified sporting code was developed and spread across the world.