Skip to content →

Homo Ludens II

A wide lens on the rest of Homo Ludens

The first chapter was really the entire thesis of Huizinga’s big idea about Play (which was dug into in the predecessor post). The remaining chapters attempt to shore up this thesis by example, looking at the histories and semantics of various cultures and their attitude towards play and ritual.

“Word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages—for this act of ″conception″ has taken place over and over again.”

The second chapter of Homo Ludens is on the various words and meanings of play in different cultures. He notes that the general Latin term for play, Ludus, has not evolved into the Romance languages. “We must leave to one side the question whether the disappearance of ludus and ludere is due to phonetic or to semantic causes.” I could not work out a simple way to excerpt the survey usefully, so I’m lifting work from Wikipedia here. I apologize for this level of laziness. Let’s quickly move on to topics I’m more willing to write about.

Civilizing Functions

The third chapter is about “Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions”. Play precedes culture but the two are related and intertwined. Using language that would later be echoed in Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games (which is not really a canon member of Game Studies but is instead almost a kind of religious book), Huizinga argues that “culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning… Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhances its value”.


When speaking of the play-element in culture we do not mean that among the various activities of civilized life an important place is reserved for play, nor do we mean that civilization has arisen out of play by some evolutionary process, in the sense that something which was originally play passed into something which was no longer play and could henceforth be called culture. The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning. Even those activities which aim at the immediate satisfaction of vital needs –hunting, for instance–tend, in archaic society, to take on the play-form. Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the .shape of play, which enhance its value. It is through this playing that society expresses its interpretation of life and the world. By this we do not mean that play turns into culture, rather that in its earliest phases culture has the play-character, that it proceeds in the shape and the mood of play. In the twin union of play and culture, play is primary.

The Aztec theater state is an excellent, evident example. It is a terrifying game, and one that is hard to make sense of from the outside. This idea that “meaning” in some sense only makes sense within cultures was also an idea I encountered when reading/writing about Spengler and his cultures-as-historical-units idea in Decline of the West. 

Each chapter in the middle of the Homo Ludens involves itself with play with regards to specific elements of culture: the law (with its wigs turning men into other people, its special places and times, its roleplay, contests, and verbal battles) war (with its rules and senses of validity and process), to poetry, and to art (especially performed art- solid works may facilitate play but themselves are not “playful” necessarily- but music is “played”).

Play and Knowledge:

Notably, play is also related to “knowing” and “philosophy”. Sophism and Bardism are traditions of “scholarship” that are almost more combative/artistic than “scientific”. The sophists aimed not for “truth” but for victory in debate; the Bard was necessarily bound by facts, either, and fathered perhaps both the scholar and the poet by lysis.  A bit more on this, since this idea is only a year or two old to me and may not come easy to people who think like I do:

The urge to be first has as many forms of expression as society offers opportunities for it. The ways in which men compete for superiority are as various as the prizes at stake. Decision may be left to chance, physical strength, dexterity, or bloody combat. Or there may be competitions in courage and endurance, skilfulness, knowledge, boasting and cunning. A trial of strength may be demanded or a specimen of art ; a sword has to be forged or ingenious rhymes made. Questions may be put demanding an answer. The competition may take the form of an oracle, a wager, a lawsuit, a vow or a riddle. But in whatever shape it comes it is always play, and it is from this point of view that we have to interpret its cultural function.

The astonishing similarity that characterizes agonistic customs in all cultures is perhaps nowhere more striking than in the domain of the human mind itself, that is to say, in knowledge and wisdom. For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is magical power. For him all particular knowledge is sacred knowledge-esoteric and wonder-working wisdom, because any knowing is directly related to the cosmic order itself. The orderly procession of things, decreed by the gods and maintained in being by ritual for the preservation of life and the salvation of man-this universal order or ttam as it was called in Sanskrit, is safeguarded by nothing more potently than by the knowledge of holy things, their secret names, and the origin of the world.

For this reason there must be competitions in such knowledge at the sacred feasts, because the spoken word has a direct influence on the world order. Competitions in esoteric knowledge are deeply rooted in ritual and form an essential part of it. The questions which the hierophants put to one another in turn or by way of challenge are riddles in the fullest sense of the word, exactly resembling the riddles in a parlour-game but for their sacred import. The function of these ritual riddle-solving competitions is shown at its clearest in Vedic lore. At the great sacrificial festivals they were as essential a part of the ceremony as the sacrifice itself. The Brahmins competed in jataviqya, knowledge of the origins, or in brahmodya, which might best be rendered by “utterance of holy things” . From these appellations it is clear that the questions asked were primarily of a cosmogonic nature.

Mythopoiesis (ie. Myth-making):

Is not personification from beginning to end but a playing of the mind? Examples of more recent times lead us to this conclusion. St. Francis of Assisi reveres Poverty, his bride, with holy fervour and pious rapture. But if we ask in sober earnest whether St. Francis actually believed in a spiritual and celestial being whose name was Poverty, who really was the idea of poverty, we begin to waver. Put in cold blood like that the question is too blunt; we are forcing the emotional content of the idea. St. Francis’ attitude was one of belief and unbelief mixed. The Church hardly authorized him in an explicit belief of that sort.


Which of us has not repeatedly caught himself addressing some lifeless object, say a recalcitrant collar-stud, in deadly earnest, attributing to it a perverse will, reproaching it and abusing it for its demonical obstinacy? If ever you did this you were personifying in the strict sense of the word. Yet you do not normally avow your belief in the collar-stud as an entity or an idea. You were only falling involuntarily into the play-attitude.

Western Civilization Sub Specie Ludi / Contemporary Play

The final two chapters are Huizinga’s assessment on play in Western history, and play in contemporary life. He occasionally gets endearingly cynical here, but also notes that these cultures are so near to him that he can’t analyze them objectively. Some select quotes to get the sense of where he was going- parts I and II should provide enough background that elaboration isn’t necessary.

It has not been difficult to show that a certain play-factor was extremely active all through the cultural process and that it produces many of the fundamental forms of social life. The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests. The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living were built up on play-patterns. We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. I t does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb : it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.
If this view is accepted as correct-and it hardly seems possible not to accept it-the question that at once presents itself is : can we substantiate such an assertion? Does civilization in fact never leave the play-sphere? How far can we detect the play-element in later periods of culture which are more developed, refined and sophisticated than the early ages and stages we have, in the main, been dealing with hitherto? We have repeatedly capped our examples of the play-element in archaic culture with parallels from the 18th century or from our own times. Particularly the 18th century seemed to us an age full of play-elements and playfulness. Now for us this century is but the day before yesterday. How then should we have lost all spiritual affinity with so recent a past? We must end our book by asking how much of the play spirit is still alive in our own day and generation and the world at large.

On Rome (emphases mine).

It is no accident that these rites always kept the name of ludi with the Romans-for that is precisely what they were, games. The strong play-element in Roman civilization is implicit in its markedly ritualistic structure, only here playing did not take on the lively colouring, the teeming imagination it displayed in Greek or Chinese civilization. [An idea shared by Spengler, I noted.]

Rome grew to a World Empire and a World Emporium. […]  Its culture was fed on the overflow of a dozen other cultures. Government and law, road-building and the art of war reached a state of perfection such as the world’ had never seen; its literature and art grafted themselves successfully on to the Greek stem. For all that, however, the foundations of this majestic political edifice remained archaic. The State’s raison d’ etre was still founded on the old nexus of ritualism. As soon as the political careerist had possessed himself of supreme power, his person and the idea of his authority were immediately transposed into ritual. He became Augustus, the bearer of divine power, the incarnation of godhead, the saviour, the restorer, the bringer of peace and prosperity, the dispenser of ease and abundance and guarantor of it.


The society which possessed, and propagated, these ideas was in many respects extremely advanced. These worshippers of the Emperor’s divinity were people who had passed through all the refinements of Greek philosophy, science and taste and come out into scepticism and unbelief. When Virgil and Horace glorify the newly inaugurated era with their highly cultivated poerns we cannot withhold the feeling that they are playing at culture.

A State is never a utilitarian institution pure and simple. It congeals on the surface of time like frost-flowers on a windowpane, and is as unpredictable, as ephemeral and, in its pattern, as rigidly causal to all appearances as they. An impulse of culture, spawned and pushed hither and thither by disparate forces of the most various provenance, finds embodiment in that aggregation of power we call “State”, which then seeks some reason for its existence, discovering it perhaps in the glory of a particular house or the excellence of a particular people. In the way in which it proclaims the principle that animates it the State will often reveal its fantastic nature, even to the point of absurd and suicidal behaviour. The Roman Empire bore all the features of this fundamental irrationality which it tried to disguise by claims to some sacred right.


The play-element in the Roman State is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the cry for panem et circenses. A modern ear is inclined to detect in this cry little more than the demand of the unemployed proletariat for the dole and free cinema tickets. But it had a deeper significance. Roman society could not live without games. They were as necessary to its existence as bread -for they were holy games and the people’s right to them was a holy right. Their basic function lay not merely in celebrating such prosperity as the community had already won for itself, but in fortifying it and ensuring future prosperity by means of ritual. The great and bloody Roman games were a survival of the archaic play-factor in depotentialized form. Few of the brutalized mob of spectators felt anything of the religious quality inherent in these performances, and the Emperor’s liberality on such occasions had sunk to mere alms-giving on a gigantic scale to a miserable proletariat.

Huizinga later identifies, in Rennaisance life, a Pastoral and a Chivalrous mode of play. He smiles down on some historial eras for their vibrant sense of play and it quickly becomes evident that he will not think highly of contemporary attitudes of play (he writes in the late 1930’s).

On modern sport:

In the case of sport we have an activity nominally known as play but raised to such a pitch of technical organization and scientific thoroughness that the real play-spirit is threatened with extinction.


On culture:

Sterile systemization, bureaucracy, and the impersonal instutitional frameworks that the modern world erected don’t allow as much space for play.

More and more the sad conclusion forces itself upon us that the play-element in culture has been on the wane ever since the 18th century, when it was in full flower. Civilization to-day is no longer played, and even where it still seems to play it is false play-I had almost said, it plays false, so that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where play ends and non-play begins. This is particularly true of politics.[…]

American Politics:

In American politics it is even more evident. Long before the two-party system had reduced itself to two gigantic teams whose political differences were hardly discernible to an outsider, electioneering in America had developed into a kind of national sport. The presidential election of 1840 set the pace for all subsequent elections. The party then calling itself Whig had an excellent candidate, General Harrison of 1812 fame, but no platform. Fortune gave them something infinitely better, a symbol on which they rode to triumph : the log cabin which was the old warrior’s modest abode during his retirement. Nomination by majority vote, i.e. by the loudest clamour, was inaugurated in the election of 1860 which brought Lincoln to power. The emotionality of American politics lies deep in the origins of the American nation itself: Americans have ever remained true to the rough and tumble of pioneer life. There is a great deal that is endearing in American politics, something naive and spontaneous for which we look in vain in the dragoonings and drillings, or worse, of the contemporary European scene.


The observance of play-rules is nowhere more imperative than in the relations between countries and States. Once they are broken, society falls into barbarism and chaos. On the other hand we cannot deny that modern warfare has lapsed into the old agonistic attitude of playing at war for the sake of prestige and glory. Now this is our difficulty: Modern warfare has, on the face of it, lost all contact with play.

Published in Games notes Uncategorized