our obsession with violence, the history of heraldry, and the pagan precedent of body adornment
Along with sex, violence is a tantalizing subject in popular media discourse. Real danger, of course, is the most exciting: war, invasions, torture, rape, slayings, and shootings take up daily newspaper headlines, followed by the potential-violence-parlance of gun-control or the threat of nuclear attack. This is not new news. People are violent, and fiercly protective of their own yardage. I mean, territory. Until really very recently in human history, assumed international policy was war – unless there was a specific (and usually temporary) peace treaty on the books, usually due to a politically negotiated royal marriage. But now we’re much more civilized. Torture is not nice, war is wrong, the death penalty is questionable, and even the simulated-violence of video games and blockbuster movies is being questioned as a healthy practice (as in this Huffington Post article) in our terribly civilized society. The decline of violence in human history is nicely illustrated in Steven Pinker’sfascinating book “Better Angels of our Nature” which shows by way of many charts and graphs just how civilized us barbarians have become.
In the fashion for violence, it seems, Sports is the new War. Here is a socially acceptable practice of our strongest and bravest, marching off to “battle” their “enemies” in simulated war-playing activities, where each side challenges the other for what has been fought over by men for millennium – land, and honor.
But what is truly important, I hear you saying, is: but how do they look when they’re doing it?
But of course! I say. The Fashions for Battle have remain fairly unchanged, season to season, for roughly 5,000 years, if not ten times as long. (For recent history, see this database with the history of NFL uniforms since the 1920's. For contemporary fashion, see this Fox news reports on Nike's new look for NFL uniforms)
Here are the basic rules:
- Have your team pick a color. Two contrasting hues are best.
- Protective gear helps safeguard your ability to fight again another day, and also contributes to your fierce appearance in order to intimidate your enemy.
- Body paint is highly encouraged, for both participants and spectators.
Back when fighting was done by people, in person, it was important to distinguish your team from that of your opponent, so as not to accidentally stab the wrong person in the face. Colors were a good way to distinguish loyalties, and pictures were a good backup, for those who were either non-literate or too busy with their broadswords to do light reading during battle. This evolved into the heraldic system, popular with knights from the time of the Crusades up through modern military uniforms. Early coat-of-arms helped identify both countries and great families in easy pictorial format, much like contemporary mascots for sports teams. Having pictures was a good backup, as many of the early dyes – especially bright colors – were not color fast, and would run in the rain and fade in the sun, leaving you with a fairly washed out version of your honor. Any Olympics meet will demonstrate this historical precedent – as most countries incorporated before the 1856 discovery of aniline dyes tend to stick to white, red, and blue – since madder and indigo were both readily available and the least likely to fade.
Once you recognize your teammates for important group issues like retreat or throwing a touchdown, it helps to look as fierce as possible for intimidating your opponents at a distance, as the ancient Greeks found with their highly virile molded body armor. Today’s body padding tends to run to the advanced-plastic-cooling-shock-absorbing-type (see this CBS report on The Tech Behind the Game), which does seem an improvement over heavy plates of bronze worn over a simple woolen chemise, though the gym-hard-bodies of the players today are no relaxation in standards of physical perfection. And perhaps they need to be - NPR discussed recently if Football Hits Are Getting Harder and More Dangerous. In a similar vein, Esquire looks at the Worst NFL injuries - from the player's perspective.
But long before armor was invented, body paint was a way to prep soldiers for the thrill of the hunt. There is evidence that this was happening by 40,000 bc (here's an article on that from Archeology Magazine) even before the Ibex and Snuffleupagus showed up on the walls of the Chevaux caves. Pliny writes about the Ancient Celts painting themselves with blue derived from the woad plant before storming ferociously into battle (as demonstrated in the movie Braveheart). Many Native American tribes used their “Indian War Paint” as both a scare tactic and shamanistic device when heading into battle, and indigenous cultures all over the world today still use the rite of body painting in ritualistic ceremonies. Contemporary sports fans take this ceremonial rite to the next step, and by taking on the colors of their teams, they too are participating in this almost religious act of showing allegiance. Not sure about this? Check out this Atlantic article Just How Much Is Sports Fandom Like Religion? Of course, our most obvious usage of the ancient rite of body painting is…makeup. There are countless youtube videos demonstrating eye shadowtechniques in your favorite team colors.
One of the simplest forms of body painting is the Eye Black worn by football players to cut the glare of the sun, just like the Ancient Egyptians used kohl as eyeliner. Some players - notably Vikings players John Randle and Chris Hovan – have taken their eye black to extreme degrees, and the eccentrically smeared, stylized designs that result were clearly used as intimidation tactics. I imagine this is just as important in the dressing rooms, ritualistically smearing your face in the mirror, psyching one’s self up for the extreme physical concentration and aggressive mentality needed on the field. Here's a Sports Illustrated photo spread of "Memorable Eye-Black Moments".
Taking body painting to the other extreme is tattooing, of course. Another ancient rite, used by cultures all over the world, from deepest Africa to Otzi the Ice Man, permanently inking your skin may be a tribute to a rite of passage, commemorate an event, or just show your ferocity and willingness to suffer extreme pain. Today’s sports fans and players alike participate in this social ritual. A "Niner Insider Blog" features a photo spread: 49ers players get inked up. At the Baltimore Sun, you can take a quiz matching Raven's players with their tattoos. You can even weigh in: which team has the better tattoos?
Whatever happens on the field, players and fans alike are acting out the theater of violence, practicing these ancient rituals through one of the most prehistoric practices of all: fashion.