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Senet

 

General Information

 

The ancient Egyptians (both royal and commoner) adored board games very much and one of the most popular examples of such is that of Senet. It was a ancient game with many meanings: that of distraction and that of a symbolic, ritualistic meaning. Concerning the former meaning, some illustrations show two people playing the game; concerning the latter, other representations show one person playing alone with an invisible opponent, as shown in the picture of Nefertiti, below.


 

The ancient Egyptians played this game from as early as the pre-dynastic period just until the first few centuries after Christ. Although it is not exactly clear how this game was played, we can formulate a possible set of rules because of what Egyptologists and archeologists learned from tomb paintings, illustrating rulers playing this game, as well as from text written on papyrus.

 

The layout of the board looks like this (minus the numbers--they are only to show the direction that the players follow):

 

 

 

The Board

 

This game was also known as the Game of Thirty Squares, in that, on the top of the board there are 30 squares--24 of which are left blank, while 5 have hieroglyphic pictures on them. The hieroglyphic symbols on each of the last 4 squares are as follows: a row of three long-necked instruments, representing nfr, meaning beautiful or good in ancient Egyptian; three rows of zigzagged lines, representing water (landing on this square might have been a good or a bad thing: water could mean purification or it could me chaos); a line of three ibis; Nephthys and Isis, facing each other (which could mean that if one landed on this square, one was protected by both goddesses); and the last square depicts a figure of what looks like Re'. There is also another square (#15) that has written on it the ankh symbol, which probably marked the starting point of the game. The direction in which each play was to move might have been in the shape of a backwards "S".

 

 

Player Pieces

 

The pieces one used to distinguish players were either of the following: pawns, knucklebones or sticks. The number of player pieces varied, depending on which tomb painting you look at. Some illustrations show the players using five pieces, some using seven, while others show them using as many as ten. The discarded game pieces were stored in a drawer that opened from the base of the Senet board.

 

 

Rules of the Game

 

Below are links to various rules of the game. It should be noted that Tim Kendall's rules (from the 1970s) seem to be the most sound and acceptable in that they are based on archeological and textual data. Another person to create rules to the game of Senet was RC Bell. His rules are commonly cited and are based on the rules of Tabula--a Roman version of what we know as backgammon. However, since no one knows exactly how Senet was played, it would be erroneous to think of these rules are similar to those of backgammon.

 

 

Dogs and Jackals

 

Yet another ancient Egyptian board game was that of Dogs (or Hounds) and Jackals. This game was also called the game of fifty-eight points because there are 58 holed poked into the board's surface. Also on the face of the board is an image of a palm tree. Because this game was more complex than the game of Senet, adults played, rather than children.

 

Typically, the game board rests atop a piece of furniture that had carved legs resembling those of an animal. A Dogs and Jackals board found in the tomb of Reny-Seneb was fashioned of ebony and ivory and dates ca. 1800 BCE or Dynasty XII. Within the drawer at the base of the rectangular board were found 10 pawns: 5 with the heads of dogs and 5 with the heads of jackals. These player pieces (rather, sticks) were typically made of ebony. Since there are only two animals represented fro each set of player pieces, the game allows only two players to play the ancient game. For these pawns there are 58 holes poked into the surface of the board in which to stick them (29 holes on the dog side; 29 holes on the jackal side). Some of these holes were inlaid with ivory, probably giving them a more important role in the game. Other holes on the board were left unfilled and were probably meant to be a means of a shortcut to any of the players, according to some sources.

 

 

R.C. Bell's Rules to the Game

 

PLAYERS:

The game is designated to two players: one player represents the 5 dog-headed sticks and the second player represents the 5 jackal-headed sticks. The goal is to reach the five holes labeled 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29, on your side of the board to win the game.

 

MOVING:

Using three coins or spare change or whatever you have, the rules for moving are as follows:

*one head facing up = move one pace

*two heads facing up = move two paces

*three heads facing up = move three paces

******one cannot move four paces in this game, apparently******

*three tails facing up = move five paces and you receive another turn

 

PLAY THE GAME:

  1. Both players agree on a wager (say if Sithathoriunet wins, Sathathor must give her her set of diaphanous gowns; if Sathathor wins, Sithathoriunet must give Sathathor her cosmetic jars); remember, gambling is frowned upon in the occidental culture, so many of you should not consider this rule, sorry folks!
  2. The right side of the board belongs to the dogs and the left to the jackals.
  3. The brown circle above the palm tree is the starting point. Each player is to start off with only one pawn. The direction for each player to move his or her pawns is marked on the outline of the board, and then continues from the base of the tree trunk to the top of the tree trunk. Each player's goal is to reach the top of the tree trunk first (holes 25 through 29).
  4. Exact throws are required to reach the final positions (holes 25 through 29). The order in which it is done has no importance. In other words, one does not have to fill each hole in order, starting with 25, then 26 and so on. One could fill hole 29 first, then hole 25, 27, 29, then 28 or any other order.
  5. The tow players throw the three coins in turn. A five is required to introduce a new pawn on the starting point (the circle above the palm tree). Then the coins are thrown again to move the pawn(s).
  6. The first pawn to reach a hole with a horizontal mark (hole 15 on both sides) wins the bet (whatever Sithathoriunet and Sathathor bet each other).
  7. Only one pawn may be put on a hole (obviously, the holes are not big enough for more than one, plus this is not Candyland we are playing here!)
  8. If a pawn reaches a hole linked to another hole by a path (holes 10 through 24; 20 through 22, on both sides), it follows the line, which acts like a ladder to victory (sounds like shoots and ladders, doesn't it?); let's say one lands on hole 12, then that player gets to move his or her piece to hole 15.
  9. A player may move his pawn when he or she can do so. If one can move no pawns, his or her opponent is allowed to add the unlucky person's throw to his or her own and this unlucky person looses his of her turn. Say Sathathor rolls a three, but is unable to move because one of her pawns is in the way, that means that Sithathoriunet get to move three paces and Sathathor looses her turn.
  10. The first player having put his or her five pawns in the five holes, numbered 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29, wins the game! This person may or may have not won the bet, however (just like a candidate for president may have received the popular vote, but did not become president because another candidate received more electoral votes).

 

Mehen

 

This game, also known as the game of snake, was another game in ancient Egyptian times, was played by everyone, and held religious significance. The latter statement is evident because it is mentioned in the Coffin and Pyramid Texts. In ancient Egyptian history, Mehen is the serpent god who protected Re' during his nighttime voyage through the Underworld. On a more interesting note, the game and the god seem to have been deliberately synchronized: it is relatively impossible to decipher which one influenced the other; if Mehen (the deity) inspired the game of if Mehen (the game) inspired the creation of the deity.

 

 

The board was composed of squares (or rectangles, depending on your perspective) that coiled up into a ball, which resembles a coiled serpent. From the known Mehen board games found (about 14), the number of squares varies. However, one thing remains the same: the squares lack distinguishing marks or images, unlike the game of Senet.

 

Just as the rules to the game of Senet are unknown, so are those of Mehen and for the same reason: there are no surviving documents that can tell us what they are. From what has been found in paintings in tombs and from the game itself, we can guess the function of the game: to win, one must be the first player to reach the center.

Furthermore, we can guess that the game was played with six (or two, according to some Egyptologists) marbles or stones that at most six (or two) players moved all the way around the board into the center, which represents the serpent's eye. These game pieces (six pieces to a person, thus 36 in all...or 12 in all, if there are only two players) were in the form of dangerous and predatory animals, such as lions/lionesses (the more prominently represented pieces), dogs, or hippos. If, in fact, Mehen permitted up to six players, then, unlike Dogs and Jackals and Senet, this game was the only known multi-player ancient Egyptian board game.

 

The first findings of the game of snake can be dated around ca. 3000 BCE, or earlier, until ca. 2300 BCE. From 2300 BCE until 700 BCE, representations of this game seem to disappear, but reappear after 700 BCE. The best representations appear during the Old Kingdom; the best illustration of the game can be found in the tomb of Hesy-Re'.

A game that seems to resemble the game of snake is the Hyena Game. One reports that around the 1920s Baggara Arabs of the Sudan played this game. The board of this game is similar in design to the game of snake: it was of a spiral pattern and one used stick dice (of the ancient Egyptian kind) to play the game, and had two player pieces (one of which represented a predatory animal). Again, according to some, the latter characteristic would not fit that of Mehen because Mehen permitted six people to play. However, if you are one of those people who believe that the game allowed only two people to play, then the latter characteristic is valid. Personally, I believe that six people could play the game at a time, just by looking at the number of spaces on the board. Otherwise, if only two were permitted to play at a time, then Mehen would be a rather long game to play. Then again, the ancient Egyptians did not have television or shopping centers with which to occupy them, so this game could have possibly been meant for only two players. Hey, even Monopoly is a long game, even when there are more than two players playing! ;) 

 

Would you like to try your hand at Mehen? Click here to be directed to a brilliant website that offers rules to the game and it allows you to download the game onto your computer (it is about 1 MB). If you would like to know the rules of the game, click here. You will be directed to a help file that is from the same website. Here, you will find a list of other games. Look for the sign, that I have placed at the bottom, and you will be on your way to playing the most "forbidden" games of ancient times...
















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Latest Update: December 17, 2007 at 10:10 am

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