Some Think That Tetherball Has A Disturbing Origin Dating Back To The 9th Century

Many might remember the tall vertical pole that stood off the side of childhood playgrounds. Rather than a flag flying from it, a volleyball was attached by a thin rope from the top of the pole. The dangling ball and pole were the only equipment needed to play the game they were designed for. In case you have forgotten its name, "tetherball" will probably ring a bell.

The game is played by two people, who each stand facing the other on opposite sides of the pole. One player serves the ball, hitting it clockwise around the pole to the opposing player. The second player hits it back, making the ball fly counterclockwise. The game is won by hitting the ball past your opponent's waiting fist so many times that the rope gets wound around the pole. 

Like many games of our childhood, this one might have some pretty dark and sinister roots. Though never proven to be true, the origins of this game just might have included a severed human head.

The game of tetherball might have once used a severed head

The game we know as tetherball isn't really a sport. As it lacks any formal organization, there isn't much information regarding its roots, though the game is widely believed to have originated in the early 20th century. A variant of tetherball was detailed by Jessie H. Bancroft in her book "Games for the Playground, Home, School, and Gymnasium." This game called for a tennis ball to be dangled from the top of a pole by a rope, with opposing players batting it back and forth around the pole with rackets. 

But there is one theory that traces the game back to the 9th century. Bleacher Report describes an old Tartan ritual that had players bat a round object around a pole. But it wasn't a ball — this game called for a severed human head. The outlet describes the steps in making the ritual complete. Once your enemy is killed, you move to cut his/her head clean from the body. You then secure a rope from the top of a wooden pole and attach the other end of the rope to the fresh and bloody head. Once the head is on the end of the rope, you take turns hitting it around the pole. Fun for the whole family, right?

No matter how interesting this origin theory is, there is a less gruesome one that is probably more likely.

Tetherball has not changed much over the last century

Backyard Sidekick surmises that tetherball became a thing after the volleyball was invented. As tether tennis was being played by school children, the tennis balls were slowly exchanged for the bigger volleyballs. This led to the rackets being phased out, and a new playground game was formed. The game has undergone some modifications since then, namely the use of the softer tetherball replacing the volleyball. Tetherball also gained some traction with players more than a decade ago when the first tetherball championship was played in 2007. But that seemed to be a one-off event, as there have been no sanctioned tournaments since then.

Batting around a tetherball with your hands is certainly a lot less messy than hitting the head of your enemies. But with a little bit of childlike imagination, you can envision yourself as a Tartar from yesteryear, celebrating the defeat of your foes.