By Emily Cook
Published Online by Early Medieval Irish Túath (2010)
Introduction: There are few people in the modern world who could imagine their lives without sports: from Monday Night Football to Tiger Woods and anywhere in between, aspects of sporting events have become almost necessities of pop culture. However, the deeper implications of these events are rarely considered. The reality, though, as emphasized by prominent psychological theories, is that societies around the globe and throughout time have used games as a way to emphasize cultural values and establish a sense of hierarchy and individual selfworth. Medieval Ireland is an especially interesting example of this concept, due to its high emphasis on the intricacies of status and honor. Legend has it that Prince Lugh organized an event in Ireland called the Tailteann Games thousands of years ago, as a tribute to his fostermother. The games lasted until the twelfth century AD, and were a way for young Irishmen to show off their talent at various athletic competitions, such as chariot-racing, horse-racing, and hurling. Games such as these have long been used by the Irish as a way to enhance their cultural identity and encourage societal values of status and leadership.
First it is important to gain an understanding of the prominent viewpoints on the correlation between cultural identification and competition. Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” begins by stating that we try to fight our inevitable human mortality by achieving “heroism”, in which we become something that we believe will last forever. This concept begins in early childhood, the time in which “the struggle for self-esteem [is] at its least disguised” and children will fight for nearly any means of differentiation from their peers.
However, Becker specifies that even children generally do not seek to become heroes regardless of the consequences, but instead follow society’s socially accepted means of distinction, while still trying to make something special of themselves. While some find this heroism through success in government or religion, others try to find it within the athletic arena. In fact, the athletic sphere is an excellent example of Becker’s theory. As he describes it, “an animal who gets his feeling of self-worth symbolically has to minutely compare himself to those around him, to make sure he doesn’t come off second best” – there is almost no better realm for socially acceptable competition than is present within the immediate feedback of the sports arena. Additionally, Becker spends a bit of time specifically describing society’s effects – “this is what society is and has always been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior…” He says that this interpretation of society is a concept which spans countries and cultures, and is a basic truth in human life. To tie together the statements about culture with those of athletic activity, Becker’s theories can be summarized thus: through society’s rules of status and conduct, people can achieve a sense of socially-acceptable heroism by being successful on the athletic field.