Deciphering the Patterns of the Royal Game of Ur Board - Part 1
The world’s first known board game was found in Mesopotamia (c. 2600 BC). Despite this, Egyptian beliefs help us best to understand the Royal Game of Ur’s board design, rules and all. Especially the myth of Osiris and Isis.
A later version of the Royal Game of Ur board. The black enhancing outline added by author. Thebes, Egypt. c. 1635–1458 BC. ( The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund (1916) / Provided by the author)
Foreign Origin of the Game of Ur Board?
Board games similar to the Game of Ur were played through antiquity and have been found in several countries. The board’s top was elongated in the years that passed, so the central axis contained twelve squares instead of eight, but no side squares.
The particular object for this article, a board from the Royal Tombs of Ur in Sumer – or Mesopotamia, of which Sumer was an early southern part, is a first-generation board. Maybe even the ‘mother board’ of simpler copies from the same excavations, copies displaying other, clearly Mesopotamian motifs. These other motifs don’t give the same gut feeling that you get from the patterns on this famous board: that they are meaningful symbols placed with precise intent.
The other boards, as well as all the later ones with almost blank squares, demonstrate that the motifs aren’t necessary for playing, with the exception of the flower squares. Instead the many symbols may illustrate the ideas behind the game. I trust the following will show that the game is ‘in family’ with the Egyptian games Senet and Mehen in the respect that the meaning was religious.
This video describes in the first 5 minutes the basics of the game.
“As with most aspects of Egyptian life, board games were imbued with
meaning connected with the journey into the afterlife.”
Ancient Egyptians at Play - Board Games across Borders. (Walter Christ, Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, Alex deVoogt / Bloomsbury 2016)
The British Museum’s Dr Irving Finkel refers to both tetrahedron dice (the three small ones in the first photo above) and another stick-type dice with four counting sides, that were found in the excavations at Ur. He argues that since both are the only dice of such types found in Mesopotamia, the dice may be of external origin.
Was the original boardgame also either inspired by or a gift from somewhere else?
Dr Finkel has translated two cuneiform tablets dating from the first millennium BC. They give some directions to a late version of the game, in which at least some of the twelve squares in the central axis refer to signs of the Zodiac – which they probably did not in the early eight squares version.
Both the number of squares and the patterns of the original Game of Ur board (some being the same) contradict an original zodiacal symbolism. The number of moving pieces had shrunk to five for each player, they had different names, and each piece demanded a certain throw of two different sized knucklebone dice to enter the board.
The rules evidently differed from the rules of the first-generation game.
The Human Form
The ‘neck’, the peculiar narrow part of the Game of Ur board, was more laborious to make for the craftsman than just leaving the missing parts as unmarked areas on a rectangular board. The narrow neck logically must have been significant to the game’s original idea, creating the silhouette, so clearly resembling a human form – head, neck and torso. To understand the patterns we must turn the board this way.
The Royal Game of Ur board shape is unmistakably human. ( The Trustees of British Museum / Provided by the author)
Possible Indus Valley Origin
Our knowledge of Indus Valley beliefs are limited, so this is a first thought, and a long shot. However, an Indus Valley seal from Mohenjo-Daro (2600-1900 BC) depicting a meditating figure gives hints to an interesting, but unprovable connection to the board’s human shape. Present day Indian tantric meditation (of old, but unknown age) strives towards spiritual growth by means of refining energies in the body.
Meditating three-headed figure on an Indus Valley seal. Mohenjo-daro, c. 2600-1900 BC. ( Public Domain )
It’s core idea is that you gradually balance ‘male’ and ‘female’ (extrovert/introvert) energies, thereby enabling a balanced energy , likened to a snake uncoiling, to move upwards in the body along the spine , gradually being transformed from sexual energy close to the genitalia to in the end leaving the head as spiritual energy, giving the meditating person ‘clear-sightedness’ and an experience of unity with all, even gods. The similarity is obvious: if the tantric belief is old enough, it may have provided the idea to the ‘race’ up along the spine – the board’s central axis.
The tantric belief operates with seven centers along the spine, called chakras. In its central axis the Game of Ur board displays eight squares, which likewise could denote stages on the road to spirituality. The difference is in the neck – the tantric belief (as we know it today) only has one chakra in the neck, whereas the board displays two squares. Elsewhere the numbers match: four in the torso part, and two in the head.
Indian meditation appears a far-fetched comparison, but the astoundingly logical and meaningful explanation for why the pieces should move up the central axis in the human shaped board is an argument for taking it into consideration anyway.
An almost contemporary fragment of a board has been found at Mohenjo-Daro. But since it has undecorated squares, it is not significant for the game’s origin.
As we shall see, deciphering the board gets an extra dimension assuming some knowledge similar to the tantric, along with Egyptian influence on the board.
The djed pillar holding flail and shepherds crook. ( Tour Egypt / Provided by the author)
Possible Egyptian Origin
The central axis in the board’s human shape can be compared to the djed pillar from ancient Egypt, known as the spine of Osiris . It is translated as ‘stability’.
The Egyptian god Osiris was killed by his brother Seth. Osiris’ coffin ended up inside a tree trunk, used as a pillar in a foreign palace. There his sister and consort Isis found him, brought him back and revived him, only for Seth to kill him again, cut him into pieces and spread them all over the land. Again Isis faithfully searched, found all the pieces (except his penis), and woke him to his afterlife as the god for the deceased.
He is often depicted as a seated or standing mummy.
The Egyptians were extremely keen on balancing, which makes the djed pillar’s stability of the spine comparable to the tantric goal of balancing energies. It can be recognized in Osiris or the djed pillar sometimes holding a flail and a shepherd’s crook: the slaying (outward) and the caretaking (inward) – respectively male and female energies in the tantric view.
Seth and Horus uniting the two lands with a knot around a spine. Middle Kingdom, 12 th Dynasty, ca. 1971-1926 BC. (Egyptian Museum, Cairo / Provided by the author)
The Egyptian obsession with balance wasn’t solely linked to Osiris’ or the deceased pharaoh’s body. Symmetry in architecture, which Egyptian temples demonstrate, is also a way of creating balance in the outer world. Having crowns for both the southern and northern part of Egypt is a way of demonstrating a wish to establish balance through the entire kingdom.
The ladder was another symbol dealing with balance and Osiris’ ascent to Heaven. With Horus supporting one side of the ladder and Seth the other, Osiris was finally able to climb to the sky, the myth tells. Here his son, the Sun god Horus, represents the bright side, and Seth the dark side – balancing the ladder.
If the Game of Ur board is Egyptian, playing the game may replay Osiris’ climbing of the ladder to Heaven. And Osiris’ need of the balanced ladder to ascend to the sky may again, with the help of a myth, explain the idea in meditation…
Not commonly accepted at all, but some Egyptians may have had thoughts similar to the tantric.
The floating pieces and squares with a pattern possibly symbolizing water. (Provided by the author)
The round moving pieces come in two contrasting colors (black and white), seven of each. All fourteen are decorated with the same pattern resembling the number ‘five’ of the modern cubic dice. The same ‘five’ reappears fifteen times more: on the board itself, separate or as details of other patterns.
Since the moving pieces are decorated with the ‘five’ pattern, it logically symbolizes something ‘not fixed’. Four dots would have given a fixed impression, but placing a fifth dot in the middle creates connection and movement between the four dots, figuratively speaking.
My guess is that the five-dot pattern stands for water, a fluid matter. It makes perfectly good sense.
The head part of the Royal Game of Ur board. The primordial waters are in the top row with stars to the sides, or the Sun and maybe Moon. Below we see a double-sexed god. (Provided by the author)
Water in the Sky
The micro cosmic view on the board was a first thought based on its human shape. In a macro-cosmic view, as in Osiris’ climbing of the ladder, the ‘head’ part of the game’s board is likely to be regarded as Heaven, and the torso part Earth.
There is water in the top row. It is both in the central axis, as a big symbol, and on both side squares, inside something looking like an explosion.
The more distant stars in our galaxy, inseparable to the naked eye and later named the Milky Way , are easy to see as a heavenly cloud, containing water.
Egypt and Mesopotamia both had creation myths beginning with the existence of primordial waters.
The water symbol in the middle square in the top row may display these primordial waters.
Depictions of the sky goddess Nut (see below) standing on toes and fingers with stars on her body, and with the Sun and Moon sailing across her body, could even better represent the top row of the board than primordial waters. Nut’s headdress, when depicted, was a pot (symbolic for containing water?). Egyptian goddess Tefnut with her moisture (see also below), has been associated with the two Utchat-eyes: the Sun and Moon. Her moisture may explain the water symbols inside the two zig-zag patterns in the top corners, depicting the Sun and Moon. Or stars in the sky.
These are the eyes of two faces found on the Royal Game of Ur board. (Provided by the author)
The Great He-She and other Gods
Most of the patterns are more figurative than geometric. This one appears five times on the board. What we see is two sets of eyes. The upper set of eyes has crosses hanging under them, stylistically picturing tears – meaning feminine eyes, probably, so that this four-eyed pattern either depicts a couple of persons, male and female, or one single double-sexed god/goddess.
We might even go for the double: a macro-cosmic view, and at the same time a micro-cosmic balanced energy, in an early version of the old alchemy saying, “as above, so below”.
In ancient Egypt, creation myths had a mound rising from the primordial waters. In the specific Heliopolitan Egyptian version this mound was associated or identified with the god Atum, who created himself out of the primordial waters. He was double-sexed and sometimes called ‘the great He-She’. He created his two children Shu, air, and Tefnut, rain, mist, moisture (water as ‘stuff’) with his own female aspect, masturbating, and spat and vomited them out.
Thus Atum suits the role as the double-sexed figure on this boardgame, close to the (maybe) primordial waters in the top square. Actually his tears for joy created the first humans. This happened when Shu and Tefnut, whom he couldn’t find in the dark, were found when he created the Sun disc Re, thereby spreading light.
Shu and Tefnut gave birth to Geb, the Earth, and Nut, the sky. These two again gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephtys. Together with Atum-Re, these nine formed the primary group of gods in Heliopolis.
The god Ptah from Memphis preceded Osiris with the djed pillar in the Old Kingdom. But he merged with him, as here. He is painted green and mummified like Osiris, holding in his hands a combined djed pillar and ‘was staff’, symbolizing stability and clarity. Is ‘clarity’ comparable to tantric ‘clear-sightedness’? (Tomb of Queen Nefertari, c. 1250 BC, 19 th Dynasty (New Kingdom) / Egypt Museum / Provided by the author)
Back to the micro-cosmic tantric view: the center on top of the head is associated with feeling one with all in spirit, even with gods. The next center, the so-called ‘third eye’ center is located just above the eyebrows; having refined your energies to this level you will possess ‘clear-sightedness’. The Egyptian was staff (‘clarity’) has a double pin base on the ground, whereas the top ends in a slanting plate or pin.
It looks from the many depictions of the djed pillar and the was staff, as if the Egyptians in time lost interest in the intermediate tantric stages, if they ever knew them, and just honored Osiris/the deceased, who had now in the afterlife obtained stability and clarity.
The neck part of the Royal Game of Ur board. Sun disc Re spreading its light in all directions.
Below it water, possibly rain and mist, Tefnut’s kind of water. (Provided by the author)
Proceeding down the central axis and continuing the Egyptian line, the upper image in the neck has four small versions of the Sun/star image, which could be the Sun disc Re’s light spreading out in the four cardinal directions.
Below it, the water image occurs again in the neck piece of the board. Here the water symbol logically would represent rain and mist . It is noticeable that Tefnut’s water isn’t just falling to Earth; it is also rising as mist rises, thus connecting both downwards and upwards between Heaven and Earth.
The tantric belief only has one center in the throat. It concerns communication between the higher and lower centers and to the world. Also taking in what the world gives you and what others tell you.
The four lower squares in the central axis of the Royal Game of Ur. Right: Is it Sumerian Inanna or Egyptian Shu: symbol for air (smells)? (Provided by the author)
The Four Lower Squares in the Spine
The boardgame’s colors are almost kept in black and white. With their eight red and blue leaves of the “flower” patterns that stand out visually. An eight-pointed star or a flower is usually considered to symbolize the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna (Ishtar). But an Egyptian statue of the wife of Prince Rahotep, brother of Khufu (contemporary with the Game of Ur), wears a hair band decorated with eight-leaved flowers. In another style, agreed, but it shows that relating this board symbol to ‘Inanna’ may be inaccurate.
Nofret, wife of prince Rahotep, half-brother of Khufu (4 th dynasty, c. 2600 BC). (Egyptian Museum, Cairo / Provided by the author)
A colorful flower could very well be chosen as the symbol for air. Flowers have nice scents and are used to produce perfume, their scent being, like incense, transmitted through the air. If the board is Egyptian, the flower can represent the air god Shu, which then also explains the flower symbols in the head part on both sides of the double-sexed god Atum’s symbol , because it was Shu who separated Nut, the sky, from Geb, the Earth, by lifting her up and permanently holding her with his two arms.
The micro cosmic tantric belief places the first psychic center below the neck (meaning this flower), close to the heart and lungs, and associates it likewise with the element air, and with love, inclusiveness and conscience.
Other Tantric Centers
Can collating tantric centers in the boardgame continue? It can.
On the board the next square displays sunlight again (Egypt’s version) – this time delivering life energy to the body/the world. It is well-known that the Egyptians believed the Sun delivered life energy. The equivalent tantric center is the solar plexus center, associated with life energy and the fire element.
The following square displays water again. The tantric center at height with the intestines (and womb and bladder) are associated with the element water.
Tefnut was associated with body fluids the way she was born (spat or vomited out), and in earlier pyramid texts she was said to produce pure waters from her vagina.
Fields with canals or ditches? (Provided by the author)
Coming to the bottom of the central axis, the pattern in this square is difficult to understand. The equivalent tantric center is associated with the Earth. Is it a field map – with canals or ditches, symbolizing the work with the soil, maybe?
Teaching humans to cultivate the soil was in Egypt ascribed to Geb the earth god, and also to Osiris.
Clearly symbolic, a vague idea is that the ‘unfilled’ tiny squares show that this square at the bottom must have the movable pieces entering – filling water dots into the dry fields – from both sides, in accordance with the rules for playing.
- Where Sumerian Rulers Lie: The Royal Tombs of Ur
- Revealing the Secrets of Sumerian Riches: Treasures from the Royal Cemetery of Ur
- Satire in Mesopotamia: Unravelling the Bull Headed Lyre of Ur
For simplicity I have omitted most of the possible Mesopotamian parallels in the pantheon. There are some – they had a similar creation myth including primordial waters and nature gods like the couple An and Ki (god of creation/sky, and Earth), Enlil (wind, storm and rain) and his brother Enki, the water god.
But I am not aware of Mesopotamian myths similar to the myth of Osiris.
By the way, the Indian god Yama bears interesting similarities to Osiris: he is also depicted green (or black) and presides over the resting place of the dead. He wears a mace and a noose, in some respect comparable to Osiris’ flail and crook (outward and inward energy), and he weighs the good and evil deeds of the deceased. He has two four-eyed dogs guarding his realm.
So the question of origin is still open.
This article is continued in Part 2 where the Egyptian story of Osiris and Isis emphasizes the Egyptian connection and where you will learn how to play a thrilling version of the game.
Top image: The Royal Game of Ur board (or Game of Twenty Squares), found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Mesopotamia, dating c. 2600-2400 B.C. Source: The Trustees of British Museum / Provided by the author
By Niels Bjerre