Enigmatic Evolution of Ancient Egypt’s ‘Game of Death’ Revealed
An ancient Egyptian board game that was similar to Ludo or backgammon is offering new insights into ancient religious beliefs. It was not only a game, but it was seen as a way for the dead to interact with the living and represented the ba’s (aspect of the soul) journey in the afterlife. A study of a board in an American Museum may show the moment that a simple game became the ‘game of death’.
Humans have been playing games for millennia and the ancient Egyptians, in particular, loved their games. The most popular was the game senet (‘game of death’), which was played by all sections of Egyptian society, even by the pharaohs and their queens. It was popular from 5000 years ago to roughly 2500, when pharaonic Egypt began to decline.
Game of the Living and the Dead
The board game involved the rolling of dice and moving counters along a grid-like pattern similar to modern board games like Ludo. The board was divided into thirty squares. The first player to move all five of their counters to the finish (30 th square) was the winner. The four squares immediately before the finish (squares 26 to 29) are believed to represent ‘miss a turn’ or ‘go to jail’ in modern games, according to The Daily Mail.
The ancient Egyptian senet (‘game of death’) board in the Rosicrucian Museum. (The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology)
Archaeologists have found evidence of the board game some 5000 years ago and at this time, it was just viewed as merely entertainment. Then 700 years after it first appeared, it underwent changes and the simple game of senet “progressed from being essentially an ancient version of Ludo to something closer to a Ouija board,” according to The Daily Mail. In funerary art, the deceased are often shown as playing the game with their still-living loved ones. The game had become a way for the dead and the living to not only communicate but to interact.
Soul in the Afterlife
The design of the board also changed and began to contain religious symbolism. According to Sciencemag, “in place of three simple vertical lines on square 28 of early senet boards, for example, some now had three hieroglyphic birds that Egyptians used to symbolize the soul.” Many texts from the Middle Kingdom onwards describe the game as expressing the journey of the soul in the realm of the dead ( Duat), which is where the souls were judged to see if they were worthy of salvation.
Top view of the ancient Egyptian senet (‘game of death’) board in the Rosicrucian Museum. (The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology)
The date when a simple dice game becomes imbued with spiritual significance has always been an enigma. However, a senet board held by the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, in San Jose California, is providing new insights. It was purchased by the Rosicrucian’s, who are an order, that claims to have esoteric knowledge that has been handed down since ancient times. There is some mystery as to its origin and “nothing is known about the archaeological context in which the board was found,” reports the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. The game was carved to resemble a small table and is not in good condition.
Archaeologist Walter Crist, from Maastricht University, studied the board, its design and compared it to others. It led him to make some conclusions with regard to the game’s enigmatic evolution. He believes that it dates to the 18 th Dynasty before the reign of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut and is the only example of senet from this period.
Another ancient Egyptian senet (‘game of death’) board inscribed with the name of Amunhotep III in the Brooklyn Museum. (Keith Schengili-Roberts / GNU Free Documentation License)
Snapshot of Change
This senet board is of an unusual design and it is “probably a transitional style,” according to the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. The layout is the reverse of the typical game with the start where the finish is usually located. The board is a mixture of secular and religious symbols. It is believed that senet boards gradually began to take on spiritual overtones from about 2400 BC.
This transformation is typical of the evolution of cultural artifacts. Sciencemag quotes Jelmer Eerkens, an archaeologist at the University of California, as saying they “tend to exhibit long periods of stasis and sudden pulses of rapid change, perhaps over just a few decades.” While technologies or everyday items evolve in a more predictable and linear way.
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Game of Death
The unusual design of the layout and the combination of secular and spiritual symbols suggest that the Rosicrucian board represents an important transition phase in the development of the game. It may represent the time when the game was being changed into something related to the afterlife. It appears that the board in the San Jose Museum signifies the period when it assumed “its role as the original game of death,” according to Sciencemag.
The research is not only important with regard to the evolution of senet. It can also help researchers to understand cultural change in ancient Egypt. More comparative research needs to be undertaken to definitively prove that the board is a crucial stage in the development of the game.
Top image: Depiction of an ancient Egyptian queen playing senet (‘game of death’) from Nefertari's burial chamber, wife of Ramses II. Source: Public domain
By Ed Whelan