Homo Ludens

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Homo Ludens
Cover of the French edition, Gallimard
AuthorJohan Huizinga
Subjectculture, society
PublisherRoutledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1949; Beacon Press, Boston, 1950, Random House
Publication date
Published in English

Homo Ludens is a book originally published in Dutch in 1938[2] by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga.[3] It discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society.[4] Huizinga suggests that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture. The Latin word ludens is the present active participle of the verb ludere, which itself is cognate with the noun ludus. Ludus has no direct equivalent in English, as it simultaneously refers to sport, play, school, and practice.[5]


I. Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon[edit]

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.[6]

Huizinga begins by making it clear that animals played before humans. One of the most significant (human and cultural) aspects of play is that it is fun.[7]

Huizinga identifies 5 characteristics that play must have:[8]

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
  2. Play is not "ordinary" or "real" life.
  3. Play is distinct from "ordinary" life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.[9]

Huizinga shows that in ritual dances a person 'becomes' a kangaroo. There is a difference in how western thought expresses this concept and how "primitive" religions view this. Scholars of religion use western terminology to describe non western concepts.

"He has taken on the "essence" of the kangaroo, says the savage; he is playing the kangaroo, say we. The savage, however, knows nothing of the conceptual distinctions between "being" and "playing"; he knows nothing of "identity'\ "image" or "symbol"." [10] In this way Huizinga suggests the universally understood concept of play is more fitting to both societies to describe this phenomenon.

II. The play concept as expressed in language[edit]

Word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages—for this act of "conception" has taken place over and over again.[11]

Huizinga has much to say about the words for play in different languages. Perhaps the most extraordinary remark concerns the Latin language. "It is remarkable that ludus, as the general term for play, has not only not passed into the Romance languages but has left hardly any traces there, so far as I can see... We must leave to one side the question whether the disappearance of ludus and ludere is due to phonetic or to semantic causes."[12]

Of all the possible uses of the word "play" Huizinga specifically mentions the equation of play with, on the one hand, "serious strife", and on the other, "erotic applications".[13]

Play-category, play-concept, play-function, play-word in selected languages[edit]

Huizinga attempts to classify the words used for play in a variety of natural languages. The chapter title uses "play-concept" to describe such words. Other words used with the "play-" prefix are play-function and play-form. The order in which examples are given in natural languages is as follows:

Greek[14] (3)
παιδιά — pertaining to children's games,
ἄθυρμα — associated with the idea of the trifling, the nugatory,
ἀγών — for matches and contests.
Sanskrit[15] (4)
krīdati — denoting the play of animals, children, adults,
divyati — gambling, dicing, joking, jesting, ...,
vilāsa — shining, sudden appearance, playing and pursuing an occupation,
līlayati — light, frivolous insignificant sides of playing.
Chinese[16] (3)
(wán) — is the most important word covering children's games and much much more,
(zhēng) — denoting anything to do with contests, corresponds exactly to the Greek agon,
(sài) — organized contest for a prize.
Blackfoot[17] (2)
koani — all children's games and also in the erotic sense of "dallying",
kachtsi — organized play.
Japanese[18] (1)
遊ぶ (asobu) — is a single, very definite word, for the play function.
Semitic languages
la’ab (a root, cognate with la’at) — play, laughing, mocking,
la’iba (Arabic) — playing in general, making mock of, teasing,[19]
la’ab (Aramaic) — laughing and mocking,
sahaq (Hebrew) — laughing and playing.
Latin (1)
ludus — from ludere, covers the whole field of play[20]

III. Play and contest as civilizing functions[edit]

The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning... Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhances its value.[21]

Huizinga does not mean that "play turns into culture". Rather, he sets play and culture side by side, talks about their "twin union", but insists that "play is primary".[21]

IV. Play and law[edit]

The judge's wig, however, is more than a mere relic of antiquated professional dress. Functionally it has close connections with the dancing masks of savages. It transforms the wearer into another "being". And it is by no means the only very ancient feature which the strong sense of tradition so peculiar to the British has preserved in law. The sporting element and the humour so much in evidence in British legal practice is one of the basic features of law in archaic society.[22]

Three play-forms in the lawsuit[edit]

Huizinga puts forward the idea that there are "three play-forms in the lawsuit" and that these forms can be deduced by comparing practice today with "legal proceedings in archaic society":[23]

  1. the game of chance,
  2. the contest,
  3. the verbal battle.

V. Play and war[edit]

Until recently the "law of nations" was generally held to constitute such a system of limitation, recognizing as it did the ideal of a community with rights and claims for all, and expressly separating the state of war—by declaring it—from peace on the one hand and criminal violence on the other. It remained for the theory of "total war" to banish war's cultural function and extinguish the last vestige of the play-element.[24]

This chapter occupies a certain unique position not only in the book but more obviously in Huizinga's own life. The first Dutch version was published in 1938 (before the official outbreak of World War II). The Beacon Press book is based on the combination of Huizinga's English text and the German text, published in Switzerland 1944. Huizinga died in 1945 (the year the Second World War ended).

  1. One wages war to obtain a decision of holy validity.[25]
  2. An armed conflict is as much a mode of justice as divination or a legal proceeding.[25]
  3. War itself might be regarded as a form of divination.[26]

The chapter contains some pleasantly surprising remarks:

  1. One might call society a game in the formal sense, if one bears in mind that such a game is the living principle of all civilization.[27]
  2. In the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible.[28]

VI. Playing and knowing[edit]

For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is magical power. For him all particular knowledge is sacred knowledge—esoteric and wonder-working wisdom, because any knowing is directly related to the cosmic order itself.[29]

The riddle-solving and death-penalty motif features strongly in the chapter.

  • Greek tradition: the story of the seers Chalcas and Mopsos.[30]

VII. Play and poetry[edit]

Poiesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a different physiognomy from the one they wear in "ordinary life", and are bound by ties other than those of logic and causality.[31]

For Huizinga, the "true appellation of the archaic poet is vates, the possessed, the God-smitten, the raving one".[32] Of the many examples he gives, one might choose Unferd who appears in Beowulf.[33]

VIII. The elements of mythopoiesis[edit]

As soon as the effect of a metaphor consists in describing things or events in terms of life and movement, we are on the road to personification. To represent the incorporeal and the inanimate as a person is the soul of all myth-making and nearly all poetry.[34]

Mythopoiesis is literally myth-making (see Mythopoeia and Mythopoeic thought).

IX. Play-forms in philosophy[edit]

At the centre of the circle we are trying to describe with our idea of play there stands the figure of the Greek sophist. He may be regarded as an extension of the central figure in archaic cultural life who appeared before us successively as the prophet, medicine-man, seer, thaumaturge and poet and whose best designation is vates.

X. Play-forms in art[edit]

Wherever there is a catch-word ending in -ism we are hot on the tracks of a play-community.[35]

Huizinga has already established an indissoluble bond between play and poetry. Now he recognizes that "the same is true, and in even higher degree, of the bond between play and music"[36] However, when he turns away from "poetry, music and dancing to the plastic arts" he "finds the connections with play becoming less obvious".[37] But here Huizinga is in the past. He cites the examples of the "architect, the sculptor, the painter, draughtsman, ceramist, and decorative artist" who in spite of her/his "creative impulse" is ruled by the discipline, "always subjected to the skill and proficiency of the forming hand".[38]

On the other hand, if one turns away from the "making of works of art to the manner in which they are received in the social milieu",[39] then the picture changes completely. It is this social reception, the struggle of the new "-ism" against the old "-ism", which characterises the play.

XI. Western civilization sub specie ludi[edit]

We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played.
It does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb:
it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.[40]

XII. Play-element in contemporary civilization[edit]

In American politics it [the play-factor present in the whole apparatus of elections] is even more evident. Long before the two-party system had reduced itself to two gigantic teams whose political differences were hardly discernible to an outsider, electioneering in America had developed into a kind of national sport.[41]


  • "Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays." (On the Aesthetic Education of Man — Friedrich Schiller)[page needed]
  • "It is ancient wisdom, but it is also a little cheap, to call all human activity 'play'. Those who are willing to content themselves with a metaphysical conclusion of this kind should not read this book." (from the Foreword, unnumbered page)


Homo Ludens is an important part of the history of game studies. It influenced later scholars of play, like Roger Caillois. The concept of the magic circle was inspired by Homo Ludens.

Foreword controversy[edit]

Huizinga makes it clear in the foreword of his book that he means the play element of culture, and not the play element in culture. He writes that he titled the initial lecture on which the book is based, "The Play Element of Culture". This title was repeatedly corrected to "in" Culture, a revision he objected to. The English version modified the subtitle of the book to "A Study of the Play-Element in Culture", contradicting Huizinga's stated intention. The translator explains in a footnote in the Foreword, "Logically, of course, Huizinga is correct; but as English prepositions are not governed by logic I have retained the more euphonious ablative in this sub-title."[42]


  • Huizinga, Johan (1938). Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur. Groningen, Wolters-Noordhoff cop. 1985. Original Dutch edition.
  • Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Huizinga, Johan (1955). Homo ludens; a study of the play-element of culture. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0807046814.
  • Huizinga, Johan (2014). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing ISBN 978-1-61427-706-4.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Norman Polmar; Thomas B. Allen (15 August 2012). World War II: the Encyclopedia of the War Years, 1941–1945. Courier Corporation. pp. 927–. ISBN 978-0-486-47962-0.
  2. ^ Artur Skweres (25 October 2016). Homo Ludens as a Comic Character in Selected American Films. Springer. pp. 11–. ISBN 978-3-319-47967-5.
  3. ^ Huizinga, Johan (1944). "Homo Ludens" (PDF). art.yale.edu. Switzerland: Routledge. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 March 2015. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
  4. ^ Stephen Grabow; Kent Spreckelmeyer (3 October 2014). The Architecture of Use: Aesthetics and Function in Architectural Design. Routledge. pp. 51–. ISBN 978-1-135-01646-3.
  5. ^ "JM Latin English Dictionary | Free Latin Dictionary". www.latin-dictionary.org. Retrieved 19 September 2016.
  6. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 1.
  7. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 3.
  8. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 8–10.
  9. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 13.
  10. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 25.
  11. ^ Huizinga 1955, p.28
  12. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 36.
  13. ^ Starting from his remark on Professor Buytendijk's use of the word "love-play", Huizinga remarks that in his own opinion "it is not the act as such that the spirit of language tends to conceive as play; rather the road thereto, the preparation for and introduction to 'love', which is often made enticing by all sorts of playing. This is particularly true when one of the sexes has to rouse or win the other over to copulating". Today one uses the word foreplay to describe this "love-play". Huizinga, 1955, p. 43.
  14. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 30.
  15. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 30–31.
  16. ^ Huizinga acknowledges the assistance of Professor Duyvendak Archived 18 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine's "friendly help [which allows him] to say something about the Chinese expressions for the play-function". Huizinga 1955, p. 32.
  17. ^ The information on the Blackfoot language used by Huizinga comes from Professor Christianus Cornelis Uhlenbeck. Huizinga 1955, p. 33. See the book Montana 1911: A Professor and his Wife among the Blackfeet for further details behind this contribution of the Blackfoot Indian language to Homo Ludens.
  18. ^ Huizinga acknowledges the assistance of Professor Johannes Rahder, Huizinga 1955, p.34. Having identified a single word, Huizinga then goes on to explain that the matter is more complicated, Specifically, he mentions bushido (which was enacted in play-forms) and later asobase-kotoba (literally play-language — for polite speech, the mode of address used in conversation with persons of higher rank).
  19. ^ Huizinga makes a point of noting that this Arabic word is used for the "playing" of a musical instrument, as in some modern European languages. Huizinga 1955, p. 35.
  20. ^ Huizinga then makes a point of noting that jocus, jocari does not mean play proper in classical Latin. Huizinga 1955, p. 35. The primary reason for making this point here is that later he shall note the disappearance of ludus to be supplanted by jocus in the emergence of the Romance languages.
  21. ^ a b Huizinga 1955, p. 46.
  22. ^ Huizinga 1995, p. 77.
  23. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 84.
  24. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 90.
  25. ^ a b Huizinga 1955, p. 91.
  26. ^ Note from the translator: "Huizinga's own English MS. replaces this third factor by 'the cessation of normal social conditions'." Huizinga 1955, p. 91.
  27. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 100–101.
  28. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 101.
  29. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 105.
  30. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 109. Details of the contest are not easy to come by. Just after the fall of Troy, Mopsos meets Chalcas. Chalcas points to a fig tree and asks him: How many figs are there on that fig tree over there? Mopsos answers 9; Chalcas say 8. Chalcas is wrong and drops dead on the spot. Symboles, mythes et légendes. Archived 29 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine. Date of last access 10 September 2008.
  31. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 119.
  32. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 120.
  33. ^ Huizinga, p. 121. The spelling of Unferd is sometimes given as Unferth in other texts.
  34. ^ Huizing 1955, p. 136.
  35. ^ The quotation is taken from Chapter XII The Play-element in Contemporary Civilization. It seems appropriate to bring it forward to Chapter X Play-forms in Art to characterize the naturally occurring -isms of Impressionism, Cubism and so on. One wonders if Huizinga also had in mind the politically occurring -isms of Communism, Fascism, Republicanism, Socialism and so on. Huizinga 1955, p. 203.
  36. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 158.
  37. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 165.
  38. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 166.
  39. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 169.
  40. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 173.
  41. ^ Huizinga 1955, p. 207.
  42. ^ Huizinga, Johan (1944). "Homo Ludens" (PDF). art.yale.edu. Switzerland: Routledge. pp. ix. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 March 2015. Retrieved 17 March 2014.

External links[edit]