If gambling was the purpose of the Saturnalia, it certainly wasn’t as we understand it today. Outside of the Kronos festivities, the game was forbidden. My translation from Riemschneider’s book.
Game and Worship
If we want to believe Lucianus, the true purpose of Saturnalia, the element around which everything revolves, is gambling. When the priest asks him about the powers that compete with him in the short period of his reign, Kronos can always reconcile the best shots to his protégés in the first place. And it’s still the dice that designate the king of the party, who is personally exempt from any annoying obligation. Still, he can ridicule anyone else with funny impositions of all sorts. The following bars of the dialogue are dedicated to the legends surrounding the god, whose singularity does not fail to intrigue the priests and us too. But we will return to this discussion later. Instead, we follow the gambling thread, regarding which the priest asks the god a precise question, namely whether it was already practiced in the golden age. This question arises from the belief that in such a period, synonymous with happiness and well-being, the pursuit of fortune through play was meaningless, bearing in mind that human beings were made of gold. There is, therefore, no reason to be surprised by the insults that the priest addresses to the god regarding the consequences of the Saturnalia, thinking on the one hand of those who return home with a full bag but with the unpleasant awareness of having robbed their friends, and on the other to those who, less favored by Kronos, vent their anger on the innocent dice.
The credible prohibition, in Rome, of the dice game outside the Saturnalia’, is not enough to explain all the weight given to the craze for the game during these festivals; even less is it understandable that this occurred in Athens, where not only every schoolboy, but also every adult, and indeed, as we know from Lucian, even every philosopher, always carried a bag full of knucklebones (astragals) with him. A further perplexity derives from the fact that the Saturnalia, precisely because of their social character, is considered a Greek and not a Roman festival: but in Greek banquets, the dice game was certainly not of primary importance. Only in Rome could the Saturnalia have taken on the character of gambling then officially permitted as a consolidated custom – or malpractice – whose origins, at the time of Lucianus, were by now unclear, as for us today those of the casting of molten lead in water at San Sylvester.
The explanation is that the dice game was considered much more than mere entertainment at banquets. Moreover, this is also confirmed by a calendar illustration from 354, the model for which, however, dates back to the second century. In correspondence with December appears a little man with a fur coat and high boots, holding a torch to characterize the rigid and dark season. Next to him is a table, on which dice and a cup are visible. The attached epigram goes like this:
“aurea nune revocet Saturna festa December / nune tibi cum domino ludere verna licet.” December procures gold coins at Saturn’s feast. Now, slave, you are allowed to play with the master.
Among the numerous possibilities and easiness that in the short period of the Saturnalia were granted to the slave, momentarily free from obligations and duties, only one is highlighted: to play dice with the master.
We can deduce that originally gambling was in close connection with the divinity, that it was, in short, a ritual act, and that only over time, after modifications and additions, was it introduced in private banquets and ended up being considered as an entertainment game. It is presumable that at first, gambling did not necessarily consist of the game of dice: also, in Lucianus, after all, the terms “pawn” (“pessos”) and “dice” (“astragalon”) are confused with each other.
Herodotus also seems to be referring to something similar (I, 94) when he recounts that during the famine, the Lydians invented, as entertainment tools, the game of dice, the game of ball, and many others, but that they did not dare to invent the board game. Therefore, Herodotus knows that this game is considerably older than the Lydian kingdom and has not always been part of the usual entertainment games.
We now know the gambling game as much in the cult as in myth; once, it was a prerogative of the gods or the king, their representative on earth. In the Indian epic, the gods Schiwa and Pârvatî play with each other, and their game represents and marks the events of the world. But even among the Germans, there is still a total awareness of the ritual character of the game. Tacitus (Germany, chap. 24) expresses his amazement in observing that the Germans, usually good drinkers, played only in conditions of sobriety, considering the game “a serious matter, and we could say strongly rooted in the cult”. For them, the player’s luck is not linked to the whim of fate but is instead an expression of the gods’ will.
The dice game is a simplified form of the game and is no longer known in its ritual meaning, at least by the Romans. The oldest cult oracle is the board game, in which the pawns move following the indications of the dice. Almost all ancient games of this type imitate a cosmological system in their structure. They distinguish between heaven and earth or heaven and hell; Therefore, throwing the dice becomes a means to seek one’s position in the system: an important divinatory procedure.
Lucianus no longer knew anything about all this. But what is particularly striking about him is the connection between gambling and the Golden Age, whose god is Kronos. What link unites these two elements? Is the relationship between them original, or should it be attributed to the malice of the poet, who, although convinced that an increase in happiness was not possible for those who lived in Paradise, nevertheless did not want to give up this comic effect?
We would gladly allow ourselves to be tempted by this last hypothesis, but the close connection between gambling and the golden age also emerges clearly from another source; and this time in such a lucid and rational way as to provide us with an explanation of the presence of the dice game in the Saturnalia: we are referring to the importance of the board game in the Nordic epic tale of creation, the Völuspá.
The three Giantesses of Völuspá
The Christian influence in the Völuspá has been insisted on too much. Birger Pering has called attention to the fact that no correspondence with the Christian conception can be found precisely about creation. The Christian elements present in the conception of the end of the world are due, in his opinion, to the influence exercised by popular Christian belief. He dates the Völuspá to about 1000 and considers it “with certainty” the work of a pagan poet. For us, this is certainly not without importance since at that time.
We could not yet count on the influence of continental romances of chivalry, in which the game of chess finds its precise place as a social game in feudal circles. Moreover, this is not contradicted even by the term “tafl” used to indicate the board game: the ancient Nordic “tafl,” Middle German “Kzabel” (Latin “tabula”) is, according to Björn Bjarnason, a “loan” of the first centuries of the Christian era, that is, dating back to an era before the one in which the Anglo-Saxons left their continental homeland. These considerations are also confirmed by the discovery of pawns in Germanic land, a discovery that informs us about the pagan origin of the board game, even if we do not know if the term “tafl” has supplanted the more ancient “bord”: the game it is called “tafl”, but the game board is called “taflbord”. Not “the tables”, as we often read, but the set of accessories. “Tafl” is, therefore, the game, as we still speak of the “game” of cards today. There could hardly be more games. After creating the world and giving names to day and night, the gods built houses and hearths in the Ida countryside and forged magnificent tools in the forge. This done, they sat down and played the board game. After the end of the world, which did not spare even the world tree, and even less the gods themselves, the descendants of these found the golden and “miraculous” playing instruments in the grass. Immediately afterward, we read that the fields bore fruit without being sown, that the evil diminished, and that the interrupted golden age was restored by finding and collecting the miraculous game pieces.
In his exhaustive examination of the purely ritual nature of the board game, the Dutch scholar Van Hamel concludes that the game of the gods, connected with the creation and connected, in a certain way, with its term, cannot be considered as a mere distraction and pure entertainment. Moreover, this would contrast not only with the designation of “miraculous” referring to golden gaming tools but also with their very discovery and the restoration of the golden age, closely connected to this event.
But, the scholar wonders, what caused the interruption of this age? Presumably, from the loss of the gaming board. In the same stanza, which speaks of the game of the gods, three giantesses appear, about whom nothing is said except for their arrival. Immediately afterward, the creation of the dwarves takes place. Van Hamel then puts forward the hypothesis that the three giantesses stole the game board, which seems to be confirmed by the Sumerian legend of stealing the tables of destiny by the Zû bird. However, he is perplexed by the lack of even a simple mention of a serious event such as theft. No less surprising is the fact that the fatal turning point was brought about by giantesses and not by giantesses. It has even concluded that the gods, as in other circumstances, have not remained insensitive to the charm of the three beautiful giantesses. This is precisely what causes the disaster. However, nothing is more improbable than the giants, wanting to take over the gaming table by resorting to seduction and theft, have sent three goddesses. Only one, in fact, in this case, would certainly have had a greater probability of success.
But at this point, the Hittites come to our aid. In reality, the three giantesses are nothing more than the goddesses they call the “powerful”, figures similar to the “Norns”, who, since they “weave” the destiny of men, almost identify with them; almost, but not quite. The Powerful Hittites do not limit their activity to weaving: they symbolize, in the board game, the dark and baleful side, and it is said that they provoke the “first war” with its alternating fortunes. Where it is said: “The castles of the Asi were destroyed. The Vanir could fill the fields”, it is evident, already in this apparent and often observed reversal of relations, that this is by no means a single procedure. We are not talking about real castles or fields but about the board game, the development of which always finds a counterpart in reality.
The poet means: the Vanir enemies, from then on, could capture the castles of the Ases and roam at will in the fields. As Dumézil has already observed, the weight is all on that “could”; before the giantesses made their appearance, they could not. Gambling, which had ensured peace and fertility, as it will also after the end of the world, has now become a game between opponents, ultimately dragging both sides to ruin. What has been said up to now is further clarified in the subsequent creation of the dwarfs, made indispensable precisely by the fatal appearance of the giantesses. This passage, to which it was not known what meaning to attribute, was deleted, as it was considered spurious. But with what result? The interpolator himself knew something and had his idea about it. The dwarves are just one more explanation of the board game; they are part of it. In the Nordic sagas, it is always dwarfs or goblins who carry the game boards, and certainly not by chance: dwarfs and goblins are the descendants of the Hittite divinities of the mountains. It is no coincidence that the divinity of the mountains has the pawn as its characterizing attribute; indeed, the figure with the bell-shaped skirt is itself the personification of the pawn. Already in the Nordic saga, the dwarf becomes a “pawn” as soon as a ray of sunshine touches him, and with the cap with the tip-tilted back, he resembles a Hittite deity of the mountains, despite having the crinoline.