Strange Games

Leap by StockSnap, Pixabay
Photo by StockSnap, Pixabay

Today on Museum Bites we’re diving head first into some strange games. From bull-leaping to ear pulling (yes, that’s a thing) these unusual competitions may not be widely known, but they have been immortalized in art and local lore.  Join me for a closer look. We begin on the island of Crete….

Bullish:  Our first strange game was popular among the ancient Minoans and dates back more than 3,500 years. Performed before local crowds, bull-leaping is fairly straightforward. Young Minoan men took turns executing a series of twists, turns, flips and jumps over a charging bull. The object of the game was to execute these daring moves without getting gored or killed. It is unclear if bull leaping was purely entertainment, part of a religious ceremony, a rite of passage, or some combination of the aforementioned. Regardless, it is a breathtaking sport.


Bulls are a common motif in Minoan art. Perhaps the most famous bull-leaping depiction is located in the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. This ancient fresco features a man vaulting over the back of a bull with two females providing assistance. The female figure on the left appears to be holding the bull by its mane, while the female on the right is either planning to catch the vaulter or is providing Vanna White-style-wave-of-the-hands showmanship. Bull-leaping is still performed today in parts of Mexico, Spain and France. Click on this Bull-Leaping video clip courtesy of Vimeo and the Great Big Story to see this thrilling sport in action. Note bulls are not harmed during this sport.

Blind Man’s Bluff:  Saccomazzone Players (c1621) by Italian sculptor, Orazio Mochi (1571-1625) is a playful depiction of a rather unusual game from 17th century Europe. In Bird Box fashion, two blind-folded players attempt to whack one another with a knotted cloth. Each player must keep a hand on a stone placed in the center of the playing area. Participants can hop, duck, weave, and maneuver around the stone to gain advantage and more importantly, avoid their opponent’s blows. A winner is declared if the opponent loses his or her grip on the game stone or after much bashing, concedes defeat. It is unclear how saccomazzone got its start, but several references refer to it as a “peasant game”.


A life-sized, marble version of Mochi’s Saccomazzone Players is on display in the Boboli Gardens in Florence Italy. Click on this Saccomazzone link, courtesy of Robert Pettena to view a modern attempt at recreating this peculiar game.

Bend an Ear:  Our final game is deeply rooted in Inuit culture. Ear-Pulling Contest (1979) by A. Karpik and Josea Maniapik features a friendly game of ear pulling. But don’t be fooled! Ear pulling is painful. Players often suffer cuts, bruises, and abrasions while “playing”. Like Saccomazzone, ear pulling is a two-person game. Players sit or kneel facing one another and are connected by a loop of string around both ears. Once the signal is given, players try to dislodge the string from their opponent’s ear. Head jerking and using hands or other parts of the body are not allowed.  A winner is declared when both strings are freed or one of the players signals defeat.


In addition to ear pulling, the Inuit have designed a variety of games that focus on building up pain tolerance, strength, and endurance. These skills were crucial to surviving the frigid and barren environment within the Arctic Circle. Ear pulling is still conducted today, and the best of the best ear pullers compete at the biennial Arctic Winter Games. This Olympic-style event features athletes from countries bordering the Arctic Circle who compete in traditional Inuit survival games. If you’d like to learn more about Inuit games including knuckle hops and drops kicks, click on Museum Bites: Survival Games. If you’d like to learn more about Inuit art and culture, click on Museum Bites: Cold Comfort.

That wraps up our look at strange games. Stay tuned! Next week we’ll be digging into the archives with a look at mythical beasts. Until then, have a fun week!

Road Swimmer by Jonny Lindner, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by Jonny Lindner, courtesy of Pixabay.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network

Art Institute of Chicago: Saccomazzone Players

Britannica: Minoan Civilization

CNN: Ear Pulling Competition

Dennos Museum Center

Firenze Curiosita: Saccomazzone

Khan Academy: Bull-Leaping Fresco of Knossos

Museum Bites: Cold Comfort

Museum Bites: Survival Games

Municipality of Heraklion

National Geographic: Bull Leaping


The Atlantic: History of Ancient Sports

Victoria & Albert Museum

Vimeo: Bull Leaping

Vimeo: Saccomazzone Players

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons: Bull-Leaping Fresco of Knossos


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