Wily Ol’ Wuzurgmihr

From _The Councils of the Wise Osnar_, trans. I.M. Nazeri:

With these four things man becomes more destructive,
Drinking a lot of wine, and lusting after women, and
Playing a lot of backgammon, and hunting without moderation.

Well, at least I’m only guilty of three out of four. Wait — did I say three? Two! I meant two out of four!

That quote is one of a number of gems to be found in “The Games of Chess and Backgammon in Sasanian Persia”:http://www.sasanika.com/MPtext.htm, an article by Touraj Daryaee. It’s less a systematic look at the history of the games, and more a grab-bag of translations from a variety of obscure Persian sources — not that that’s a _bad_ thing. The inimitable Jeff Brower forwarded it to me, which is fitting in that he was the one who set me on the trail of “backgammon and divination”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/000468.html (in a comment to “this entry”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/000453.html) in the first place.

Longtime readers may recall the “story of backgammon”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/000115.html as related to me once by an Iranian backgammon player:

As everyone knows, chess was invented in India. The King of India brought a chessboard to the King of Iran and taught him to play. “It is a great game,” said the King of India, “Because, as in life, wisdom and logic shape one’s course.” Years later, on a visit to India, the King of Iran brought a game he had invented: backgammon. “My game is a better model of life, I think,” he said to the King of India. “For in backgammon, logic and _fortune_ determine what becomes of us.”

With that in mind, check out this passage from the article:

. . . when the Indian king sent the game of chess to the Sasanian court to figure out the logic of the game, Wuzurgmihr, as a challenge designed and sent the backgammon board and its pieces to India to challenge the Indians. The Indian sages could not find the logic of the game and as a result Wuzurgmihr brought more glory to the court in Iran along with much booty and honor. Since the Indians could not find the logic of the game, the King of Kings, Xusro I asked the sage to explain the game. Wuzurgmihr’s answer is central to Zoroastrian beliefs. The passage clearly demonstrates the cosmological significance of the game as described by Wuzurgmihr. His explanation of the game is analogous to the processes of the cosmos and human life. Wuzurgmihr makes fate the primary reason for what happens to mankind and the roll of the dice in the game performs the function of fate. The pieces represent humans and their function in the universe is governed by the seven planets and the twelve zodiac signs. If we are to accept that Wuzurgmihr suggests _fate_ (Middle Persian _baxt_) to be the principal determinant for one’s life and action and accept
Eznik of Kolb’s statement that in the Sasanian period, the God Zurvan was equivalent to baxt, then we should consider Wuzurgmihr as follower of the Zurvanite doctrine. What is important is the difference between the game of chess and backgammon. While the game of chess is a game likened to battle, backgammon is based on the throw of the dice, meaning based on one’s fate.

It’s the same story, more or less. Daryaee’s article also includes some verse translations of ancient Persian texts in the British Museum that touch on the whole “humans and their function in the universe” bit:

The turning and revolution of the pieces by the die is like people in the material world, their bond connected to the spiritual world, through the 7 and 12 [planets and constellation] they all have their being and move on, and when it is as if they hit one against another and collect, it is like people in the material world, one hits another [person] . . .

And when by the turning of this die all are collected, it is in the likeness of the people who all passed out from the material world [died], and when they set them up again, it is in the likeness of the people who during the [time of] resurrection, all will come to life again.

I’m never going to think of getting off the bar the same way again!

Sadly, with all the information about the cosomological roots of backgammon, the article doesn’t describe any use of the game itself as a tool of divination, which is the thing I was after in the first place. One of these days I’ll find it . . .