In which the Egyptian pharaohs swing for the bleachers on every pitch.
I am a lifelong baseball fan, primarily of two teams with usually less-than-distinguished records: the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. As an example of the calibre of play I’m accustomed to watching almost every season, the infamous phrase about hitting below the “Mendoza Line” (with a batting average below .200) was coined in 1979 while Mario Mendoza played for the Mariners; nine Rangers with more than 50 plate appearances hit below the Mendoza Line in 2020.
While the baseball games I watch can be boring, even depressing (and, in the case of game six of the 2011 World Series, borderline traumatizing), they do not have eternal cosmic significance. This was not the case, however, for the ancient Egyptians, for whom their pharaoh’s ability to swat away an evil eye was necessary for the world’s survival.
Even Worse Than a Spitball
Probably the best-known illegal pitch in baseball is the spitter: a ball doctored with a slippery substance to make it spin unpredictably when thrown (incidentally, the most notorious alleged spitball pitcher was Gaylord Perry, who played for both the Rangers and Mariners—and a mess of other teams). As nasty as a spitter could be, it pales before the serpent of chaos’ evil eye featured in the ancient Egyptian ritual game of seker-hemat.
Seker-hemat (which Egyptologist Peter Piccione translates as “batting the ball”) was a sporting ritual performed by the pharaoh in temple courtyards during select festivals. Rather than a simple athletic contest, seker-hemat was a vital practice in which the pharaoh (and, on a daily basis, priests acting on behalf of the pharaoh) aided the sun god Ra in defeating Apep or Apopi. While there were a number spells and rituals involved in this daily struggle—“Spitting Upon Apep,” “Defiling Apep with the Left Foot,” “Putting Fire Upon Apep,” etc.—it is the baseball-like aspect of seker-hemat that catches our attention.
The Coffin Texts, a collection of funerary texts written approximately 2181–2055 BCE, tell us Apep used the power of his evil eye to overcome Ra and his followers. In seker-hemat, therefore, the pharaoh hits a ball representing the evil eye in the act of what Piccione calls “Overthrowing Apopi” to defeat this power and keep the universe in balance. As Jim Pipe says, “We can only imagine the roar of the crowd as the pharaoh spanked evil over the nearest pyramid and into the next world” (actually, an earlier wall relief in the temple of Deir-el-Bahari, in addition to showing Thutmose III striking the ball, shows priests then reaching up to catch it with the inscription, “Catching it for him by the servants of god”).
Sending the Runner Home
As exciting as this is, there is no substantial evidence that seker-hemat involved the complex rules of bases and team involvement that make up modern baseball (not to mention such pivotal actions as adjusting one’s athletic cup and spitting). Nonetheless, Piccione says there are more possible parallels than we might think:
While there is no specific evidence as yet that running was involved, it seems likely that at some point, batting the ball was not a stationary act, since many other rituals the king performed included running.It is also a distinct possibility that physical evidence of the bats used by the pharaohs has surfaced…Since we do know that the game of baseball wasn’t really invented by anyone, that it actually evolved over the millennia, it is at least intriguing to speculate about its possible connections to Egyptian seker-hemat, and whether or not, once upon a time, mighty pharaoh might have struck out.
The ancient Egyptians would argue the fact we are still here is proof that mighty pharaoh hit for a perfect 1.000, challenging Ted Williams and all other would-be batting champions to hit above the Pharaonic Line.