Roll the Bones

Don’t you hate it when there’s stuff you want to know and it isn’t on the Internet? I’ve been meaning for a while to write a little piece on backgammon & divination, but even with the almighty Google at my beck and call, research results have been limited, to say the least. This is exactly the sort of information that could probably be found by poking around in a good library or used bookstore, which is exactly the sort of thing I’d make time to do if I was gettin’ paid, but doesn’t quite meet the threshold for an everyday blog entry—and a backgammon blog entry, no less.

What I failed to find was a clear instance of the game of backgammon, as we know it, being used to tell the future or otherwise commune with the Powers that Be. Certainly the trappings of the game are plugged into the warp and weft of the world: twenty-four points, just as the hours of the day; thirty checkers, just as the days of the month; alternating day and night in both the points and the dice. But that sort of thing has more to do with backgammon’s precursors than its actual usage. Dice games (and board games in general) have their roots in religious ceremony.

The best example of that is the ancient Egyptian game of senet. The Game Cabinet has a good overview of its structure and a speculation about its rules, though this: “It appears that Senet began as a simple game and later acquired a symbolic, ritual function . . .” has it backwards. Senet and early games like it probably began with a ritual function, and got more gamey as time went on. Senet boards were placed in the tombs of buried pharohs—perhaps as a way for their ka (ghost) to pass the time, or perhaps because winning a game or two against the gods would lead to benefits in the afterlife. Indeed, the final squares on the board, like the Per Nefer (Beautiful House) and Per Mu (House of Water) represent the steps and pitfalls of the afterlife journey.

By the time a game recognizable as backgammon was around, it no longer carried much religious significance, but was instead a form of gambling. One reason less is known about the history of backgammon than chess, even though backgammon has historically been much more widely known and played, is that backgammon was played for money, and thus frowned upon by the religious authorities of both Christianity and Islam.

But we’ve strayed from the topic of divination. The use of dice for such things persists. Certainly it was around in Aquinas’ time, since the subject came up in the Summa Theologica:

To this second species of divination, which is without express invocation of the demons, belongs that which is practiced by observing certain things done seriously by men in the research of the occult, whether by drawing lots, which is called “geomancy”; or by observing the shapes resulting from molten lead poured into water; or by observing which of several sheets of paper, with or without writing upon them, a person may happen to draw; or by holding out several unequal sticks and noting who takes the greater or the lesser. or by throwing dice, and observing who throws the highest score; or by observing what catches the eye when one opens a book, all of which are named “sortilege.”

More fun vocab: cleromancy is the practice of divination by tossing lots on the ground. Beans, bones, stones, dice, you name it. Astragali—the knuckles of sheep or goats—were the precursors to dice that were used for this purpose. Senet, incidentally, didn’t use dice, but a set of four jehau, or counting sticks, each with a colored side and an uncolored side.

And if I ever do find a reference to backgammon itself being used in divination, I’ll be happy to predict the future for you.