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martes, diciembre 10

Cottabus (Ancient Beer Pong)

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Amongst the many red-figured vases in the Berlin Alte Museum, I was struck by one in particular not because of its beauty, but because it seemed completely bizarre. The plaque indicated that its figures were playing κοττάβος, a game that I thought involved revelers at a symposium throwing drops of wine into bowls floating in pools. Yet this vase showed drinkers flinging what looked like disks at a tall pole. Because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how these two things were both cottabus, I decided to research it.

These two seemingly disparate games are actually both versions of cottabus and are similar in that they involve throwing the dregs of wine at targets. The version with which I was initially familiar is actually just a subset of the game called κοττάβος δἰ οχύβαφων. Drinkers toss their wine dregs into ὀχύβαφα, the shallow bowls that some scholars argue are actually fish plates. The player who sinks the most oxybapha wins a prize of κοττάβιον (the diminuative of κοττάβος), or sweet cakes.

The more standard version of the game, called κότταβος κατακτός (a tongue-twister if I’ve ever heard one), involves players tossing their wine dregs at a figurine (μάνης) perched on top of a bronze pole (ῤάβδος). A successful throw would knock the tiny disk (πλάστιγξ) held in the figure’s outstretched arms off and hit a larger disk (λεκανίς) halfway down. Both the wine dregs flung and the sound the plastinx made hitting the lekanis were called λάταξ. The apparatus could be used in a variety of ways, with either the plastinx or the manes toppling to strike the lekanis with a clatter.

Both versions of cottabus originated in Sicily but quickly spread throughout Greece in the fourth and fifth centuries. It wasn’t just a drunken pastime; circular buildings were erected in Sicily solely so that drinkers could play more easily, following each other in rapid succession. There was a certain amount of skill involved too; players flung their wine dregs with a flick of their right wrist while reclining at the banquet so that the dregs hit the stand in one lump instead of spattering everywhere. Success in cottabus was even correlated with good javelin-throwing skills.

Numerous reference to cottabus are scattered throughout Greek sources including Pindar, Bacchylides, Alcaeus, and Aristophanes. Like many other games of chance in the ancient world, cottabus contained an element of prophecy; the player would say the name of his beloved as he threw the wine dregs, and failure to hit the target signified another lack of success later that night. Even though this festive game seems more suited to comedy, references are found in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aechylus manages to give the game a particularly tragic twist in his Bone Gatherers:

Eurymachus, and no one else, did heap
No slighter insults, undeserved, on me;
For my head was always a mark at which
To throw his cottabus….

Despite its wild popularity in Greek culture, there are virtually no references to it in Latin literature, signifying that it had fallen out of practice.

Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists. Trans. Charles Duke Yonge. Vol. 3. N.p.: H. G. Bohn, 1854. Print.
“Cottabus.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wikisource, 24 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. .

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