Board Games of 5000 Years Ago

The Ancient Egyptians worked hard, but also loved to play. They had many leisure pastimes, with board games high on their list.  One of the most famous games is senet, invented over 5000 years ago.  Played with two sets of pawns, some kind of dice and a board with thirty holes, the game was symbolic of the journey of the dead. A player who did really well at this game was considered to be under the protection of a major god or goddess. We don’t know the actual rules any longer, although various scientists have put a lot of effort into coming up with reasonable ideas.

In a Tale of the Nile novel I have out on submission right now, my heroine discusses playing senet with the goddess Isis herself. Here’s the excerpt (Khenet, one of Pharoah’s warriors, is the hero):

Isis returned to her contemplation of the game board. “Do you play senet?”

Startled, Tiya didn’t quite know what to say so she kept silent.

Picking up one of the major pieces, the goddess slanted a sideways glance at her. “I ask because life is much the same. I pose you a question – what outcomes are possible in senet?” She tossed the piece to Tiya.

Automatically, she cupped her hands to prevent the elaborately carved piece from falling to the ground. “Win, lose or draw, Great One.” Tiya glanced at the small token in her hand and gasped. The face was unmistakably Khenet’s, carved in great detail, even down to the scar on his cheek and the tattoo on his upper arm.

“Exactly,” Isis was saying. “Arriving at any one of the outcomes involves many game pieces, deployed in a vast array of choices. You and this Khenet are game pieces. Harsh for a mortal to hear, but true.”  Shaking her head slightly, beads in her elaborate wig chiming, the goddess held out her hand for the pawn. Taking a step forward Tiya reluctantly set the piece upright in Isis’s palm. For a heartbeat, the queen studied the pawn’s face, before returning it to a position among the ranks of other pawns.

In another work in progress I’m still editing, the heroine plays a different, high stakes game with a wily caravan master. They play hounds and jackals, which seems to be an early version of our snakes and ladders. The object was to get your five pieces around the palm tree “course” and all safely onto the eternity hieroglyph first. I have a feeling you could probably send other players back to the start, depending on how the dice fell, but again, we don’t really know. The game pieces are irresistible though!

And then there was mehen, named for a great serpent who protects the sun god Ra as he makes his journey. This game is also about 5000 years old, played on a board shaped like a snake. The pieces may have been shaped like lions and lionesses, and there may have been dice or small stone balls like marbles.  The serpent was segmented into “spaces” and it is believed as many as six people could play. Over time, the game fell out of favor, possibly due to an increasing belief by the Egyptians that the segmentation of the snake on the game board might actually be hurting or killing the “real” Mehen snake who guarded Ra, thus endangering the daily rising of the Sun.

Parker Brothers never had to worry about things like that with their games! Monopoly and Risk were always big favorites at our house, though we usually gave up before anyone declared a decisive victory. Scrabble and Parcheesi  are the other, quicker games we play. I think the Ancient Egyptians would get the point of any of today’s games rather quickly and join right in!

What’s your favorite board game? What would you invite visitors from the past to sit down and play?


2 comments on “Board Games of 5000 Years Ago

  1. Pingback: From the Archives Board Games of 3000 Years Ago | Veronica Scott

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