2. Extraneous Origins


Since the origins of lacrosse are lost in the ‘mists of time’ there have been a few attempts to explain lacrosse as having roots in sports outside of the Americas.  While it might be easy – and desirable sometimes – to simply list and dismiss these attempts , that would fail the test of parsimony since it would ignore a set of data that, is as valid as any other.  We will therefore look at these hypotheses and examine them with a mind, not to determine whether they are valid claims , but to determine the probability of being likely even though lacrosse originated within the indigenous cultures of North America.

The extraneous origins of lacrosse also has a political element to it, as an illustration of the phenomenon of ethnocentrism in history or science where it pertains to the Indigenous people of the Americas.  While this may have played a part in developing such theories, we can safely discard this as any meaningful attribute towards a conclusion of the data.  There may be an element of ethnocentrism involved in formulating the theories, but that tells us nothing whether the theories are true or possible.  Such theories ought to be compared on merit of the research, not on the possible intent of the author.

Norse Origins

In his 1904 article ‘Nordboernes  Gamle Boldspil’ (Ancient Norse Games) Norwegian historian Ebbe Hertzberg linked the ancient Norse game ‘knattleikr’ (ball-play or ball-game) with the historical game of lacrosse.  Drawing his information from various Icelandic sagas, Hertzberg concluded that the link between these two games proved there was significant contact between the indigenous inhabitants of North America and, through the Icelandic culture, the Norse settlers of the 14th century.  

The primary sources of Hertzberg’s description of knattleikr, the Icelandic sagas, give us these information about the old Norse game:

Grettir’s Saga, chapter 15 we learn that the game is played by teams with a bat and ball in which the ball is struck with the bat and flies through the air; players of equal calibre were matched against each other; the game is played in the Autumn on or around ice; and that when the ball hits someone, it can draw blood.

Gisla Saga, chapters 8 and 10 tells us that knattleikr is a rough game played by teams of players matched up based on strength and played on ice; the ball is hurled at such velocity it causes players to stumble; there is a form of tackling employed.  In chapter 10 we note that while the bat can be broken during play, it can also be readily fixed during the game.

Egils Saga, chapter 40 reveals that knattleikr  was a well-known  game where teams were chosen from a pool of players and that children also played;  one could run with the ball in their possession; tackling was allowed and the game was often violent.

Eyrbyggja Saga, chapter 43, states that the games were played in late Autumn or early Winter and that the game was common to the people in Iceland.

The Icelandic Sagas also inform us that knattleikr was played in a specially prepared locations or ‘yard’ or ‘play-stead’ between teams comprising one locality against another or from teams picked on the spot.

In his book, ‘Icelanders in the Viking age: the people of the sagas’ William R. Short also describes knattleikr  using the Sagas as his source and notes that “the bat is occasionally called knattgildra in the stories, with a sense of a trap for the ball.”  Short also adds, “Did the bat have a crook or net which was used to catch and hold the ball?  The texts are silent on the details.”

What details of knattleikr were illustrated through the Icelandic Sagas showed an similarity to some of the more common attributes of early lacrosse as noted in William Hovgaard’s 1914 book, ‘The Voyages of the Norsemen to America:’

  1. Both games were played on flat land or sometimes ice which may have included boundaries, goals and spectators;
  2. Two teams opposed each other;
  3. An official or referee was sometimes used;
  4. Players were matched in pairs with an opponent of equal skill and strength;
  5. The object was to pass, catch and carry the ball to score against a goal or boundary line;
  6. Both games were contact games where tackling opponents and hitting with the stick was permitted;
  7. There was one ball in play for both teams;
  8. Each player had their own bat or stick;
  9. A player could only be interfered with by his matched opponent;
  10. The ball might be played with the bat or stick or by hand.

Hovgaard however, cites another author, Bjorn Bjarnason in his 1905 book ‘Nordboernes legemlige uddannelse i oldtiden’ (Norse Physical Education in Ancient Times) who disputes Hertzberg’s claim that the two games are related.  While Bjarnason recognized the similarities between the two games,  he also determined that the games were very dissimilar.  In Bjarnason’s view knattleikr, while it was played by teams, it was more of a simple match of strength between two players and that each pair of players had one bat and one ball between them.   This significantly departs from the game as imagined by Hertzberg.  Instead of two teams of players facing off against one another using one ball and each player having a bat, several pairs of opponents would face off against one another, each with one bat and one ball between them.

Hovgaard explains that even though both authors  took a “…careful study of the historic sources…” a thorough comparison cannot be made to any satisfactory degree since “…it is nowhere described in a connected and detailed manner.  The rules can only be inferred with more or less uncertainty from the incidental mention of episodes in the game.”

Hovgaard suggests that the sources themselves are fraught with problems and it is something that ought to be looked at in determining the Norse origins of lacrosse.

The Icelandic Sagas mentioned above are historical narratives written in the 13th & 14th century and primarily concern events that took place in Iceland several hundred years before their writing, during the early times of the colonization of Iceland.  Most likely the Sagas originated as oral histories and were written down for preservation.  Authorship of the Sagas is unknown.  The Sagas contain historical information about events, genealogies and are a source for early information about the cultural and political organization of the inhabitants of Iceland in those times.

In one of the more familiar stories, ‘The Saga of Erik the Red’  or the later ‘Greenlander Saga,’ the tale is told of the son of the Greenlander Erik – Leif Erikson – and his adventures in a new land he called ‘Vinland.’   Scholars had often wondered if Vinland could refer to some territory near Greenland, possibly North America.  Leif ‘The Lucky’ Erikson was thought to have visited Vinland early in the 11th century, likely around 1000 AD.

Prior to 1960, the historical value of the Icelandic Sagas regarding the legend of Leif Erickson and his voyage to Vinland had been in question for decades.  In an 1911 Geographical Journal article, ‘The Norsemen in America,‘ author Fridtjof Nansen gives a good illustration of the intertextual problems with elements of the Erik the Red stories.  Nansen illuminated the interpolation of influences from classical legends well known in 13th Europe, such as the tales of the 6th century voyages of St. Brandan of Ireland and description of the ‘Fortunate Isles’ by the 7th century Archbishop and scholar Saint Isidore of Seville which included a description of islands of self-grown vines and self-sown field of wild wheat and.

Nansen provides a more detailed critique of the Erick the Red saga in his book, “In Northern Mists – Arctic Exploration in Early Times” where he states, “It would thus appear, from all that has been put forward…  that Wineland the Good was originally a mythical country, closely connected with the happy lands of Irish myths and legends—which had their first source in the Greek Elysium and Isles of the Blest, in Oriental sailors’ myths, and an admixture of Biblical conceptions. “  Despite the unreliability of the ‘The Saga of Eric the Red’ being a comprehensive and airtight historical source, Nansen was convinced the Norse had indeed visited North America sometime prior to the writing of the Sagas.

Until the 1960 discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows, a small 10 century Norse settlement on the north-eastern tip of Newfoundland, the story of the Norse adventures in North America remained  contentious, often studied and often debated legends without compelling corroborative evidence.    However, L’Anse aux Meadows proved beyond a doubt that the Norse visited North America some 500 years before Columbus.  Suddenly the Sagas, at least the one pertaining to Eric the Red and his son Leif, were validated as historical documents that pointed to contact with the indigenous inhabitants of North America.  With concrete evidence of the Norse presence in eastern North America, the notion that lacrosse had Norse origins became a real possibility.

There are two versions about Leif Erikson’s adventures in North America.  The brief story from ‘The Saga of Eric the Red’ states that Leif, after agreeing to Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason’s entreaty to spread Christianity to Greenland, was “…tossed about a long time out at sea, and lighted upon lands of which before he had no expectation. There were fields of wild wheat, and the vine-tree in full growth. There were also the trees which were called maples; and they gathered of all this certain tokens; some trunks so large that they were used in house-building.”  Leif then proceeded back to Greenland, where he rescued some stranded sailors on the way obtaining the nickname ‘heppni’ or ‘The Lucky.’

The second, more detailed and later version as told in the ‘Greenlander Saga,’ starts with a tale from Bjarni Herjólfsson whose father was a contemporary of Eric the Red and migrated from Iceland to Greenland with Eric the Red.  Bjarni was a merchant in Scandinavia who spent the winter with his father in Iceland.   Upon reaching Iceland in the late summer of 986 only to discover that his father had migrated, Bjarni set sail for Greenland, but he was blown off course and on his way back to Greenland reported a coastline than revealed low hills and woodlands.  Bjarni did not stop, but proceeded north until he reached his father’s estate in Greenland.

While in the Court of King Olaf, Leif hears of Bjarni’s adventures and wishes to travel to these new lands.  He buys Bjarni’s boat, hires a crew and sets sail north from Greenland.  He first encounters a rocky landscape, ‘land of the flat stones’ which he names Helluland.   Some scholars believe this is Baffin Island.  His next stop is a heavily wooded land he names ‘Markland’ which is believed to be Labrador or the coast of Newfoundland.   Proceeding south still, Leif arrives at a landscape that is mild, suitable for foraging and settlement.  After discovering wild grapes, Leif names the place Wineland (Vinland).  After wintering in Wineland, Leif heads back to Greenland, rescuing a shipwrecked crew and eventually settles in Greenland.

According to T. J. Oleson, “there is a very considerable discrepancy between the two main sources on the Vinland voyages and scholars have long argued about which is the older and more reliable. For many years the Saga of Eric the Red has been preferred but fresh research in recent years has to a considerable extent re-established the view that the Saga of the Greenlanders is the older, written probably about A.D. 1200 i.e., 50 to 75 years before that of Eric.”

There is also considerable controversy and debate on the exact location of Wineland, with some sources preferring a more northerly location, even pointing out L’Anse aux Meadows as the actual Erikson settlement in Wineland, to others preferring a southerly location with frost free winters, days of equal length and so on.   For our enquiry, this could be a key point in determining the Norse roots to lacrosse.

In ‘The Saga of Erik the Red’ there is a subsequent visit to Wineland by a character, a wealthy Icelandic merchant,  named Thorfinn Karlsefni, who, after spending the winter in the company of Eric the Red in Greenland, set sail in the Summer to find Wineland. The expedition was divided between a group who went north, were subsequently blown off course into Ireland where they lost their lives.  The second group, with Karlsefni at the head, went south where they encountered many features in the landscape before settling in a place they called ‘Hop.’

At this settlement we find a more detailed description of the Norse encounter with the local inhabitants named ‘skraelings.’  This word was a common word for the native inhabitants of contemporary Greenland who were the Thule, ancestors to the Inuit.  The events with the numerous skraelings go good a first, with trade being a focal aspect of the contact.  However, after a period of time – a year or two – the relations eventually sour and conflict arises with the skraelings, who defeat the Norse party and force them to retreat to their boats and eventually leave Hop and head home.

While subsequent tales of contact with the skraelings are brief and uneventful, the episode in Karlsefni’s tale shows us that subsequent settlement in Vinland was not considered a very sustainable idea and that they “were now of opinion that though the land might be choice and good, there would be always war and terror overhanging them, from those who dwelt there before them. They made ready, therefore, to move away, with intent to go to their own land.”

How credible are the Icelandic Sagas as a source – even a partial source – of historical information?  Having been written some 200-300 years after the events would affect their reliability, even though the written tales are faithful renditions of the oral histories, which themselves might present problems with accuracy.  The Sagas themselves are legendary tales with the appearance of embellishment and exaggeration.

We know that the Norse visited Newfoundland at least and the L’Anse aux Meadows site is dated to the 11th century, which would have been contemporary with Erik, Leif and Thorfinn Karlsefni.  The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows has not been positively identified with any of the Wineland settlements, but this was the site of either the site of Leif Erikson or Thorfinn Karlsefni.  There is no evidence from L’Anse aux Meadows who the inhabitants were and little evidence remains of any of their pastimes, specifically the ancient Norse game of knattleikr.  Outside of L’Anse aux Meadows, there is little meaningful evidence of Norse settlement anywhere else on the continent.

Hertzberg’s hypothesis of the origins of lacrosse being rooted in knattleikr is based on the description of the knattleikr and its correspondence to various aspects of lacrosse as described in the early historical record.  One of the primary sources for the description of knattleikr is from the Icelandic Sagas so Hertzberg considered them to have historical value or enough value to make the connection between knattleikr and lacrosse.

If we can consider the Icelandic Sagas of historical value in making the connection valid for Hertzberg, can we then use the same Sagas to determine other information which might inform us of the conditions of knattleikr in relation to the native inhabitants? I believe we can, but not in any definitive sense of the relation between the two games, but of likelihood that the conditions existed for such a significant cultural transfer between the indigenous inhabitants of North America and the Norse explorers.

The first thing we notice is that, while the skraelings are mentioned in the Sagas, very little information regards cultural intercourse between the two groups, which remained mostly separate in the times contemporary with the Sagas.  Maybe there was significant cultural exchange between the Norse and Thule people in Greenland, but this was not recorded in the Sagas.  Some have noted that certain games – including something akin to knattleikr – has been observed as played by the Thule and later Inuit.  Whether these ball games originated with, or were adapted by, the Thule is not known.  It would be a sensible thought to believe that during the cultural exchange, pastimes were also exchanged, observed or adopted by one group through the phenomenon of acculturation.  The Inuit have no native form of lacrosse that they play, at least not in the stick-ball game.

Whether such significant contact occurred with the ‘southern skraelings’ is another matter entirely.  The Norse were present in Greenland for about 500 years and no doubt there was contact with the indigenous inhabitants outside of Greenland since it was recorded that lumber expeditions were made to Markland.  The nature or duration of these expeditions are not recorded, nor is there any evidence implied of cultural exchange with the indigenous inhabitants of Newfoundland. This knowledge is hampered by the extinction of the Beothuk culture, who disappeared entirely from Newfoundland early in the 19th century.

We are not certain who the ‘southern skraelings’ are; they could have referred to the Beothuk people, but could also have referred to any number of culture groups that inhabited the north-eastern coast of North America in ancient times.

What we know about these people – the southern skraelings – is that they were initially friendly towards the Norse and engaging enough to trade.  However, the Sagas are short on detailed cultural information about these folk and we find that the relationship between the two groups eventually turns to violence and the defeated Norse leave and return to Greenland.

The duration of Karlsefni ‘s settlement in Hop appears to be about 3 years; Karlsefni ‘s child Snorri was born in the settlement and when they left, Snorri was alive for 3 winters.  With a significant population in the settlement, it is possible that the Norse and skraelings had form of cultural interaction outside of mere trade, however the Sagas reveal none of this information.  One key piece of evidence that the Sagas reveal is that the Norse were surprised by the weapons the skraelings possessed when relations between the two groups turned violent.   The nature of these weapons will be discussed later in this book. 

It appears, from the information culled from the Sagas, that the interaction between the Norse and the skraelings were sparse or that, if frequent, the groups mostly kept to themselves.  To date there is no definitive evidence – other than the present contention of the origins of lacrosse – that any obvious cultural exchange took place between the Norse and the skraelings.  While some indigenous stories may refer to Norse visitors or folk from another land, nothing has been positively tied to these origins and such references remain speculative.

This leaves us with the likelihood of a game, played at least contemporarily in Iceland, being passed along to the skraelings as something enduring in their culture, eventually forming into lacrosse.  While there is scant evidence in the Sagas about knattleikr being played in Greenland, the home base of the original Vinland settlers, there is no mention that the game was played in Vinland .  Knattleikr is mentioned elsewhere in the Sagas as a favoured pastime and no doubt Norse games of some type were being played in Greenland and most likely in Vinland by Karlsefni’s group.   If actual relations with the skraelings were sufficiently positive, over a significant length of time to allow for close cultural observation and contact, it is very possible that the skraelings adopted the game to play for their own amusement and, over time, the game was adapted to their own requirements and diffused across the eastern half of North America in the ensuing 500 years. 

If, however, contact with the skraelings was sparse and revolved around trade only, it is less likely that knattleikr would have been played to any degree in which the game could be observed and absorbed by the skraelings.  We can also assume that if the relationship between the skraelings was suspicious, as hinted by the Norse to trade metal weapons to the skraelings, it is only reasonable to deduce that a game, where the strongest and most agile of the community are the participants, would not be played for fear of leaving their settlement vulnerable during play.

While we can speculate what events might have happened outside of the limited bounds of the Icelandic Saga texts, those things were not significant enough for the Norse to them record and preserve those events in the Sagas and this includes sharing games and other cultural traits.  Furthermore there are no corresponding indications from any other sources including historical and anthropological studies on the indigenous inhabitants themselves, that would suggest lacrosse originated with knattleikr in the 10th or 11th century.   Therefore, the evidence that Hertzberg presents is inconclusive .

Hertzberg made his association between knattleikr and lacrosse in 1904, long before physical evidence of the Norse presence in North America was detected.  He used this association to suggest there was significant contact between the Norse and the indigenous inhabitants of North America which included settlements inland and many cultural changes.  While there is no proof that the Norse ventured much further than the east coast of North America, we will now look at a claim for a European origin of lacrosse that did include prolong contact with the indigenous inhabitants of North America.

French Origins

There is that early French explorers in North America, including the Jesuit missionaries, named the game of lacrosse after observing the sticks being used by the Indigenous people.  Since the sticks resembled a bishop’s crozier, they named the game ‘la crosse.’  While this may be partly true, better reason believes that the early French journalists were already familiar with a game played with a ‘crosse’ (stick) and merely referred to this game when they observed the indigenous folk playing their indigenous ball and stick game.  This appears to be the case with Jean de Brebeuf, who mentions the indigenous game almost casually as ‘crosse’ in his journals.  It was as if he was familiar with the game .   He might well have been familiar with a stick-ball game played in France and used this game as a reference to what he was seeing the Wendat folk playing in 1636.

La Soule or Choule is a very ancient game with its origins in the northeast of France in the Normandy and Picardy regions.  The game appears to have originated as football where teams tried to take the ball to score on a designated goal.  In the earliest times, soule might pit teams from one parish or town against another with the designated ‘goals’ located somewhere within the parish or town.  The goals could be a door on a church or some other designated spot. The ball could be made of wood or a  leather pouch stuffed with hay or bran and could be carried, kicked or thrown.  Early records suggest there were few rules, was often violent, but much enjoyed by the participants, including early French royalty.  It is believed that la soule is the forerunner of soccer and rugby.

There is a variation of the game played with sticks and a smaller ball.  The sticks are curved at one end and take the appearance of a bishop’s crozier hence the name of this game is la soule a la crosse, often referred to a just ‘crosse’  The goal of la soule a la crosse is the same as soule, to move the ball and score a goal against a distant target.  Participants could use their sticks to hit the ball or pick it up in their hands to bat the ball away.

Since the rules were varied from region to region, it became a very rural pastime.  Eventually  la soule fell out of favour and in modern times is played as regional hobby sport or as a minor pastime.  It has been supplanted by the more popular soccer and rugby.

In 1593, la soule would have been a well-known game in Normandy and highly likely was played at the little Norman village Condé-sur-Vire where Jean de Brebeuf was born in March of that year.  It is also highly likely that Brebeuf played la soule or la soule a la crosse as a child although biographical information does not reveal this as a fact.  While studying to become a Jesuit in Caen, the capital of the Lower Normandy, he was exposed to the existence of the game.  So for Brebeuf, a game with curved sticks was not alien to him and when he saw the Wendat people playing a game with curved sticks, naturally he was familiar in part with it.

Brebeuf’s description of the game of ‘crosse’ as played by the Wendat people was sparse and included only a few details, but nothing on the manner of play, the rules or equipment.  We cannot be certain that Brebeuf even witnessed a lacrosse game despite the very popular notion he did.

The similarities between the indigenous game of lacrosse and the French game of la soule a la crosse has been noted by authors familiar with both games.   In the 1894 edition of ‘Dictionnaires du français du Canada’ author Sylva Chapin remarked,” The game of soule, as practiced today in France, especially in the Ardennes, is close to our lacrosse, even to where many see it as a direct link, and claim that the sport comes in line with the first French settlers.”   In 1904, this idea was echoed by Eugene Beauvois in a critique in the “Journal de la Societe des Americanistes de Paris” suggests that the diffusion of lacrosse from the early 17th century French settlers to the Algonquin people makes more sense than a diffusion of the game of knattleikr from the 11th century Norse.  Citing Beauvois, Fridtjof Nansen writes, “It is true that Eug. Beauvois has pointed out the possibility of the game having been introduced into Canada by people from Normandy after the sixteenth century; but before such an objection could carry weight, it would have to be made probable that the characteristic Norse game was really played in Normandy; but this is not known.”

In more recent times, Robert W. Henderson notes that the, “…phrase chouler a la crosse found in a letter dated 1361 leaves no doubt as to this form of the game: it was the forerunner of modern lacrosse.”  Although we are not certain if he is referring to the actual modern game of lacrosse or the name of the game.  Interestingly, in his book, “Ball, Bat and Bishop” a survey of the origins of modern sport, Henderson mentions no details of the Norse game of knattleikr, which is a rather curious omission as we will see.

La soule a la crosse was diffused from the early French settlers to New France, in the 17th century, to the Algonquin speaking people that inhabited the east coast and St. Lawrence Valley.  It was further diffused from the Algonquins to the other indigenous people throughout the north-east of North America, eventually to spread throughout the entire eastern half of the continent in a few hundred years.

To delimit the timing of when la soule a la crosse was diffused into North America, we can return to the now very familiar Jean de Brebeuf and his journal entry from 1636 where he mentions the game of ‘crosse’ being played.  If we agree that the game Brebeuf witnessed was la soule a la crosse, then we can deduce that the game had already been diffused into Wendat territory by that time and the actual moment of diffusion in New France was prior to 1636.

There are likely possible three points of the diffusion of la soule a la crosse in the early historical period of North America: 16th century east coast fishing colonies, late 16th century colonization efforts in Florida and the late 16th early 17th century colonization efforts of New France.  The problem with all periods is that the historical records, where they exist, are scant and do not mention the game of soule a la crosse being shown or taught to the indigenous people .

While the earliest exploration and colonization of the St. Lawrence area by the French in the 16th century was mainly unsuccessful, the French maintained seasonal fishing outposts on the east coast of Canada and had limited merchant trade in the interior, like along a route in the St. Lawrence river.  The French fishermen and sailors, if sufficiently acquainted with la soule a la crosse, could have shared this game with the local inhabitants, especially if there was enough cultural proximity.  It is reputed that many outposts were manned by fishermen from Normandy who would go ashore to dry their fish.  No doubt these fishermen had contact with the indigenous inhabitants near their fishing outposts that resulted is sort of acculturation, even if in a minor sense.

Since we can safely estimate there was some cultural contact and exchange, i.e. for trade, between one indigenous culture and another, diffusion of la soule a la crosse could have happened during these exchanges and eventually be passed westward or southward, from community to community, until it reached a level of integration within a community, to the degree that Brebeuf casually mentions in his Relation of 1636.  It is likely that the Wendat people had direct contact with the French merchants in the late 16th century and might have had a direct demonstration of la soule a la crosse in one of those contact episodes.

A more fertile ground for the diffusion of la soule a la crosse to the indigenous population would have come during a time of prolonged cultural contact, commensurate with the establishment of the initial French colonies in New France.  This time period would have been in the 30 years prior to recording the game by Brebeuf, in the early part of the 17th century.  The initial failures of early settlement were overcome  and small villages were established in New France, even though life was hard with disease to content with and with the intermittent hostilities with the Iroquois to the south.  Is it possible that one day, during a respite from the constant strain of colonial life, that the settlers invited the local indigenous inhabitants to watch them play la soule a la crosse?  If it happened, it was recorded nowhere despite the increase in the written observations  of life in New France being recorded by those early French merchants, explorers and colonists.

In 1564, one French merchant, the Huguenot René Goulaine de Laudonnière, was in charge of a colonizing expedition into  Florida where he recorded his observances of the Timucuan ball game, a game in which a small, fist sized ball was hurled against a basket atop a post to score points.  There is an engraving of this game credited to 16th century artist Jacques LeMoyne, showing the characters as throwing the ball at the target, but it is not known whether LeMoyne drew this scene or it was embellished by others later for printing purposes.  Regardless, at least one form of ball play was observed by Laudonnière early on. 

Kendall Blanchard suggests that while indigenous ball games might have existed prior to contact with the Europeans, those games where influenced by the French by adding the stick or racket.  Citing James Hoffman’s opinion that, “The game of lacrosse originated without doubt among some of the eastern Algonquian tribes, possibly in the valley of Saint Lawrence river, and from there was carried down among the Huron-Iroquois, and later on into the country of the more southern members of the Iroquoian linguistic stock…” Blanchard suggests that the eastern origin of lacrosse lends itself easily to a French influence regarding use of the ‘crosse.’

That the indigenous inhabitants had at least one form of a ball game is certain, at least from the early record.  These ball games were acculturated to include the use of the stick in a manner than quickly diffused to the eastern half of North America is much less certain.  To re-iterate, there are no clear records of the French colonists playing la soule al la crosse in the New France, let alone teaching or otherwise revealing the game to the indigenous folk.

The lack of documentation about la soule a la crosse in early historical times in New France is problematic.  For one, despite the mundane details of everyday life – including leisure activities –  that were recorded by the journalists of the day, one would think that something as important a pastime as la soule a la crosse would be mentioned, but the records are silent on the matter.

Another problem would be the actual playing or demonstration of the sport, in a similar way to the participants being disarmed during playing.  There might have been a high level of trust between the friendly indigenous visitors to one of the early villages, but it would be a grave risk to the survival of the village if the players – the men of the village – were surprised.  Despite the many hostilities recorded during these early years there are no reports of combatants being surprised while playing la soule a la crosse or some other game.

If the game of la soule a la crosse was diffused in earlier times, this would give more time for the game to be diffused further in the interior of the continent.  Even still, for the game to be adopted and adapted by the peoples, the diffusion must be quick, under a hundred years from the east coast of Canada to Huronia in west Ontario at least.  This is not out of the question since there was likely a great deal of cultural contact within the indigenous cultures along the St. Lawrence River.

One of the main questions that Blanchard et al fail to ask is why would the indigenous people adopt the game la soule a la crosse or adopt sticks into their present ball games, if they had them?   For diffusion to have taken place is a compressed timeframe, especially in the time frame from the early colony to 1636 in Huronia, it would require the indigenous communities to find a value in doing so and in a uniform manner since practically all indigenous cultures down the St. Lawrence River played form of lacrosse.  Plus those peoples in the south-eastern part of the continent.  For a game not mentioned in any early records in New France, such a phenomenon as its wholesale adaptation would be significant to note.

In addition, – even from the early writing by Brebeuf – lacrosse carried significant cultural value with those indigenous people, including a body of lore and religious undertones which would also have to be included or created with its adoption into the indigenous community.  If ball play was so significant to the societies of the day, what could compel them to want to change their game from the status quo to something foreign and, possibly, superior to their own games?  And we note, that from existing evidence, if la soule a la crosse was adopted, the ‘crosse’ came in many forms.  Of this the record is silent.  Why do none of the indigenous records – the myths and stories – not reflect this change in their own game or the adoption of another?

For the adoption of la soule a la crosse to have happened, we might have to imagine ideal conditions for such a phenomenon to take place.  On the one hand, a group of settlers sufficient acquainted with the game, with enough time on their hands, with enough direct contact involved with the indigenous people to allow for such an adoption to take place.  This also takes willing participants to accept the game, or an adaption to their game, as more valuable than what they already possessed.   And this cultural exchange must happen all without mentioning it anywhere, from either colonial or indigenous sources.

As we saw earlier, diffusion, as a comprehensive model of how culture is formed, is problematic even though , sometimes cultural diffusion occurs.  A primary example of this diffusion – on a scale that appears to be more reasonable – is the subject of our next extraneous origin.

Irish Origins

There is a notion that lacrosse has its origin because of a journey of a one Saint Brendan, a 6th century Irish monk who, on one of the epic ‘immram’ voyages, was supposedly blown off course and landed in somewhere North America.  Saint Brendan, the story goes,  set sail for Paradise in the early to mid-6th century, between 512-530 AD.  This navigational story of Saint Brendan was recorded as one of the immrams – legendary navigation stories.  There are various sources to this immram, but the earliest account was written in the 10th century, some 350-400 years after the event.  Depending on which version is consulted, St. Brendan took with him settlers numbering between 17 and 60.  Once setting off from Ireland, St. Brendan visited several interesting islands, which some suggest represent a north Atlantic route than included the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and then North America, possibly Newfoundland.  There is suggestion that St. Brendan went as far south of Virginia, allegedly leaving runic inscriptions carved in rock in West Virginia although the authentication of these runes is tentative .

As a historical resource, the immram of St. Brendan is much less reliable that the Icelandic Sagas and contain much more fantastical and legendary sections.  St. Brendan visits several islands, which might refer to actual places since there is a history of travel from Ireland by the monks.  Whether or not St. Brendan visited North America is very contentious, but one interesting clue has captured the imagination of historians: the affinity between lacrosse and the Irish game of hurling.

Hurling is an ancient Gaelic team game attributed to the Celtic origin and it thought to have arrived with the Celtic immigration into the British Isles in the 6th century BC, although John Waddell argues there might have been a Celtic presence in Ireland as far back as the 2nd millennium BC.

The object in hurling is to move a small, fist sized ball – using a caman (bat) with one end flat and flared out  – to score goals against a target.  Players can hit, carry or pick-up the ball with the bat, or carry the ball in their hands.  Hurling is known as ’Iománaíocht’ in the Gaelic language and in its modern form is a popular game in Ireland.  , it is organized and played in countries where the Irish diaspora exists.

Hurling can be traced back in history for almost 1800 years and first appears in renderings of the ancient Gaelic tale ‘Táin Bó Cuailgne,’ which itself is estimated to have taken place in the 1st century AD and passed along as oral history until written down sometime in the 12th century AD.  While ‘Táin Bó Cuailgne’ was compiled centuries after the event, hurling is mentioned in the codified Brehon’s Law in the 5th century AD.  An even earlier reference to hurling, or a similar martial game, is recorded in the Mythological Cycle or Irish Sagas, as part of the First Battle of Moytura in 1218 BC.

A game often related to hurling is shinty, which is a game primarily played in modern Scotland in which a ball is driven by a curved stick to score goals into a net.  You cannot hold the ball with your hands in shinty, as you can in hurling, but you can carry the ball on your stick as in hurling.  , both games are related to Cornish hurling, played in Cornwall, England and to bandy, a stick and ball game played on ice.

No doubt that hurling was a well-known game in the 5th century AD, if not played, at least talked about in legend so St. Brendan knew of it.  If the game had widespread popularity in Ireland, which appears to be the case since it was referred to in contemporary civil law those that travelled on the voyage with St. Brendan could also know of the game.

In 1977 adventurer Tim Severin made a voyage to North America from Ireland using a leather clad boat similar to what was available to St. Brendan.   So it was possible for St. Brendan to have made the voyage to North America using the watercraft that was available to sailors of his age.  The Irish had a solid reputation as a sailing nation and their reputation for this ability appears to be well known .

So St. Brendan, sailing from Ireland with anywhere from 17-60 companions, island hooped from Ireland to North America and brought with them a knowledge of hurling which they passed along to the native inhabitants of 6th century North America who, over the ensuing centuries diffused the game into many forms across the eastern half of North America.  The only problem is, there is no record of this event in either the Irish legends of St. Brendan or the myths and stories of the indigenous people themselves.  It must also be noted that physical evidence of any 6th century Irish contact in North America is very limited and what exists is somewhat suspect .

Again the diffusion of the sport from European sources is not supported in any evidential way except as a possible imaginary concept and while this does not prove these sources cannot be possible, they leave the possibility as highly unlikely.  This does not equivocally rule out any ancient European origin for lacrosse but it would be reasonable for someone to assume that it does regarding the evidence that exists.

Hurling, shinty, la soule a la crosse and knattleikr show signs of a diffusion of sorts and that is within Europe itself.  There appears to be a good case for the origin of these games having a common ancestor in prehistoric Celtic sport and was diffused over the centuries as the Celts expanded and immigrated to different regions of Europe over the millennia.  However, strong proof of the diffusion of the stick-ball games in Europe does nothing to shore up the very weak proof that stick-ball was further diffused into North America.  There is no requirement for a diffusion of any ball game from outside of North America to have taken place for the eventual creation of game we know today as lacrosse, by the indigenous inhabitants in prehistoric times.

There is also a key difference between the prehistoric European Celtic games and that of lacrosse as recorded in the early historical record.  It is this difference, as we will come to see, that provides the largest gap to bridge between the two forms of sport.

One could ask, what came first – foot-ball or stick-ball?  In Western France we see that the root of soule a la crosse is a ball game called soule, played without sticks and played with a larger ball or ball like object.  We could liken this game to foot-ball or at least a ball game where the ball could be kicked.  Games where the ball is played  – or can be played – with the foot appear to have a long history in Europe, back into antiquity in Greece and possibly even longer in ancient Egypt.  Depictions of a foot-ball type game are played in ancient China.  Stick-ball, where the ball is played with a stick also has a long, ancient history including polo in ancient Persia and various field hockey like games in ancient Egypt and as far away as China.

One can imagine the very beginnings of these games originating out of every day human interaction with their environment, kicking stones or fruit – or an enemy’s head – for fun, which eventually leads to a pastime and then codified into a sport.  The ancient stick-ball pastimes or games might have had a similar genesis with shepherds knocking stones around with their staffs, aiming for a distant target or – as with golf – a hole.

The main difference between the stick-ball games of Europe, at least la soule a la crosse, shinty and hurling – and other hockey-like games from ancient times – is that the stick resembles a foot and leg ‘foot-like‘ with which to kick the ball, while the lacrosse stick in early historic times resembles and a hand and arm ‘hand-like’ in which to catch and throw the ball.  More study must be applied to this concept but if such a model exists, the distinction between the two games is remarkable in the substitutions that the playing implements of each form of sport uses.

A reason for the lacrosse stick is an ‘extension of the arm’ as it is often referred to.  It is a grasping implement designed in ancient for a specific purpose, but before we can get to that aspect of lacrosse we will first turn to what the indigenous people themselves have to say about it’s origins.

NEXT: 3. The Mists of Time