Play the Oldest Board Game in the World: Royal Game of Ur - Part 2
In the first part of this article, we attempted to unravel the mystery symbolism on the oldest board game in the world - the Royal Game of Ur. The Heliopolitan creation myth was used to explain how the head part of the board, in one way, could denote Heaven in which the first gods Atum-Re, Shu and Tefnut had roles. The central axis of the board was likened with the spine of Osiris , the djed pillar.
Read Part 1 of this article here.
Osiris’ sister and consort Isis can help to explain the patterns in the sides of the lower part of the board: the body or torso part. In the macro cosmic view this part is the world below the sky.
The djed pillar and the ‘tyet’ are well-chosen symbols for the two Royal Game of Ur phases as proposed below. The tyet is also known as the Knot of Isis. Detail of chair from Hatnefer’s and Ramose’s tomb, 18. Dynasty Egypt, c. 1492–1473 BC. (Metropolitan Museum / Public domain / Provided by the author)
Knot of Isis
The ‘Knot of Isis’, the tyet, resembles an Ankh sign with long arms hanging by the sides. Sometimes it is even interpreted as ‘life’ like the Ankh. This symbol of Isis, as well as the djed pillar, are of very old ages. The tyet can be found besides the djed like in the photo above, as if they represent two complementary or supplementing aspects.
Often painted red, the Knot of Isis has been suggested to represent the female genitalia or blood. Thus this Knot of Isis, the tyet symbol, can be said to, in a way, symbolize the fluid blood in the living body, or broader: earthly life – prior to the spiritual, not sexual afterlife, which is symbolized by Osiris (minus his penis) or the djed pillar showing his obtained ‘stability’. Some have supposed the two symbols to also signify male and female genitalia, in which case the game’s board expresses the love act between Osiris and Isis resulting in their son, the Sun god Horus.
The long arms of the tyet may be incorporated in the board game’s patterns, as described below.
Presuming the side squares have a role as important as the middle axis in the Royal Game of Ur, they can be connected in a meaningful way via the central flower square, revealing the board game as a combination of the djed and the tyet. Right: the pieces pass the flower in the middle from two directions. (Provided by the author)
Changing the Pieces’ Entry Point
When wondering about the original rules, especially that fact that the side squares aren’t drawn into the ‘battleground’ too, I have tried out different side-battle possibilities, playing the game over and over, for instance with diagonal strokes over the central axis, or symmetrical. The far most giving idea, however, came with inspiration from the Knot of Isis.
It introduces a whole new confrontational phase to the game and changes the course of the pieces , compared to the one normally assumed:
The pieces enter at the bottom instead of at shoulder height – on the flower square on your own side, move up to the ‘shoulder’, cross the board and move down your opponent’s side, entering the central axis via his flower square. This creates a veritable battlefield of confronting pieces in this torso part of the game’s board, ending in a one-way race up the central axis. Still in one flow, the game now has two phases for every piece: the confrontation including a horizontal passing of the central flower square, and the one-way chase up the vertical axis.
With this route, each piece has to pass twenty-one squares , since the middle flower in this version is passed twice. The flower becomes a crossing point horizontal/vertical with the new passing of pieces in both directions. Playing, I prefer to regard the flower squares as unsafe like all other squares, so pieces on the middle flower can be beat from two directions. I still grant an extra throw when landing on a flower to honor the fact that the flower squares were the only ones to be emphasized in later boards.
The change is considerable. It is more fun to play, both frustrating and relieving – and exciting. It changes the game from a simpler version of Ludo to a double-phased game, demanding more strategy and overview.
The tyet arms stretched out to demonstrate the confrontational part of the Royal Game of Ur. (Provided by the author)
From He to She to He to She to He
Using the Egyptian god names, the new path goes: Shu – Atum – Tefnut – Atum – Shu – Atum – Tefnut – Atum – Shu. The pieces float over the three first existing gods’ squares, shifting like a pendulum, the pieces eventually clashing with the opponent’s pieces.
Besides the beauty in the symmetry of it, this route is a bit overwhelming because it creates an unexpected order.
There is absolutely no indication that this route is the original – but the same can be said of any other route. We simply don’t know how it was to begin with. This proposed route adds beauty and reason.
It is possible that both contestants filled in their pieces at the same flower and followed the same route, all the way through 21-squares, chasing each other’s pieces. But the confrontation phase version adds more punch. Not least because the two contestants, black and white, after a frustrating phase (‘of pre-religious life’, symbolically) ends up following the same (spirit-refining) path in the central axis.
The first rather frustrating phase – because your pieces will be beaten off the board quite frequently - can be symbolic of Isis’ search here and there, whereas it gets direction and speed in the second phase, in the central axis, symbolic for Osiris’ obtaining of ‘stability’ in the afterlife.
In a tantric view, the troublesome phase shows how you alternately prefer male energies and female (landing on the different patterns) in your confusing everyday life.
In later statues of Isis, her garment has a distinct knot between her breasts/over the heart.
There might have been an additional philosophical intention in placing the crossroads over the heart. The deceased’s heart was to be weighed against the feather of Maat, truth, before the deceased was allowed access to Heaven and the solar barque. Too much trouble would make the heart too heavy. It had to be as light as air.
Some Mesopotamian gods resemble the Egyptian ones, being nature gods. For instance it was the wind god Enlil who separated the sky from the Earth, quite similar to Shu in Egypt. If it was Mesopotamian gods that the board patterns depict, the symbols in the side lines would be translated similarly, with Enki the water god instead of the Egyptian goddess Tefnut.
A Mesopotamian version is in some respects as good as the Egyptian version except for the problem that Enki is a male god like Enlil, which is one of the reasons why I put my money on the Egyptian version. Balance, you know.
Besides, Osiris’ story and the Knot of Isis aren’t parallelled in Mesopotamia.
So Who Made the Royal Game of Ur?
Assuming built on Osiris’ story, the board depicts his body (the human shape of the whole board), as well as the combined tyet and djed pillars, symbolizing in the first phase of the game, Isis’ hard time searching, and in the second, the establishing of stability in Osiris’ spine.
In a macro cosmic view, the gods of the Heliopolitan creation myth also nicely explain the board’s top part, the neck and the central axis of the lower part.
To this point, it is still not definite which culture invented the game. If anything, it looks as if somebody had combined the three old cultures’ beliefs, or as if there had been close contacts between them.
Some tantric beliefs seem to have influenced the patterns as well as the Egyptian, so that the board also displays a micro cosmic personal modus operandi for spiritual development. This is not the place to elaborate this view in detail, but it is noticeable that the patterns display the same sequence of nature elements as the tantric energy centers along the spine. The Osiris-like Indian god Yama (mentioned in the first part) could be interesting in this connection too.
But until a better candidate is found, Osiris and Isis must be favorites to explain the game.
The later stretching of the top of the Royal Game of Ur could indicate that both contestants followed the same route in the head/Heaven part. (Provided by the author)
The Stretching of the Top Part
Confrontation in the top part doesn’t suit the religious intention of the game. The confrontational clashing should take place in the lower earthly spheres. But being a game, the players still had to be able to beat each other’s pieces all the way through.
The later stretched version of the board suggests that both players followed the same route round in the head, even before the stretching took place.
I agree with that, even though the ‘stability’, which Osiris obtained, symbolized by the djed pillar, would suggest a straight vertical route to the top. But it is a good argument that all the squares should be used in the play. We can imagine that the pieces now follow the Sun’s daily route over the sky. It would mean from left to right, because the Egyptians were oriented facing south.
It also means that in the path every fourth square is a flower . The game nicely begins and ends with a flower square.
My stick type die, made from a piece of wood to use in the Royal Game of Ur. (Provided by the author)
On the Dice
The stick type dice found in the excavations at Ur were numbered 1-2-3-4, according to Dr. Finkel. Each number would have equal chance to come up.
The tetrahedron dice had four points, two marked and two unmarked (translates to 0 or 1). If they originally threw three tetrahedron dice with 0-1 values, the throws would vary from 0 to 3. Statistically Zero and Three would each come up 1/8 th of the throws, One and Two would each come up 3/8 th of the throws.
Personally I like the Zero and the suspense it creates, when you are bereaved of the possibility to fly or to chase. I have combined the options in my own stick die, numbered 0-1-2-3. With the stick 0-3 die, each outcome has the equal probability of 1/4 th, so Zero and Three come up a little more frequently, compared to the use of three tetrahedron dice (using four tetrahedron dice, the Zero is even more random).
But of course, this is not strictly original, so I shouldn’t claim it...
Summing up, I find the game works fine with these simple rules:
1 - With no other pieces on the board, you have up to three throws of the stick die to hit ‘three’ (or four, if you use the 1-4 die), which allows you to put a piece on the board.
2 - The pieces enter on the flower squares at the bottom . Each player has one side. The path is: from your entering the flower square to the shoulder, then crossing to your opponent’s shoulder square, and down to his flower square. From there you enter the central axis, move up to the head and turn left, and move round the head till you end on the final flower square, from where your piece leaves the board.
3 - You must land on the decided ending flower in the head part, and use a throw to get the piece off the board from there (result: you can be caught if it takes long to throw the right number. Actually this is a coup for the winner here, but frustrating for the loser. So you can decide differently, if you play with a child or another person who hasn’t sufficient strength in his or her backbone to have to start a piece over from this late point).
4 - Every time you land on a flower, you get an extra throw – including pieces entering on the starting flower. You decide whether the extra throw is used to move the piece that landed on the flower square, or another piece.
5 - No flower square is ‘holy’ . If you stand on one, you can be beat off the board. Even on your starting flower square.
6 - Only one piece on each square is allowed . If you cannot move a piece the thrown number of squares, you lose your turn.
7- You cannot restrain from moving . If legal moves are available, you must play.
If you haven’t watched the video showing the basic game play, it is revealed in the first 5 minutes here:
Click on the picture to enlarge, and print your own Royal Game of Ur board! You can use coins or buttons as moving pieces, and you can produce a stick die from a piece of wooden stick. (Provided by the author)
This version of the game could be named Game of Twenty-one Squares, or The Osiris and Isis Game .
Comments are most welcome.
Top image: The oldest board game in the world, the Royal Game of Ur. Source: Shriram Rajagopalan / CC BY 2.0
By Niels Bjerre
Christ, W., Dunn-Vaturi, A. & de Voogt, A. 2016. Ancient Egyptians at Play - Board Games across Borders. Bloomsbury Academic
Finkel, I. 2007. On the Rules for the Royal Game of Ur. Available at: < https://www.academia.edu/15173145/On_the_Rules_for_the_Royal_Game_of_Ur>
Jacobsen, T. 1978. Mesopotamiske Urtidssagn (Danish edition). Gad
Wolley, L. 1934. Excavations at Ur, vol.II. New York: Trustees of the British Museum and the Museum of University of Pennsylvania.