Three different shapes on the same board, celestial structures, introduction to the Roman Sortes, and the Nordic Runes. The ritual game begins to appear as a matter of positioning.
Unfolding the Game
The modern game rules, so distant from the original ones, certainly do not make it easier for us to understand the game of the gods in Völuspá or that of Arthur and Owein in the Mabinogion. Instead, a Hittite oracle game comes to our aid, which dates back to around the middle of the second millennium, and which is quite easily understandable, thanks also to the discovery, in Anatolia and Palestine (Megiddo), among various carvings all in ivory, of game boards and pawns. The latter, particularly small and unwieldy for our modern conception, correspond precisely to our “halma” pieces or are silver or lead needles.
The gameboards, as the ancient texts describe them to us, consisted of two halves, a right and a left (the “good” and “evil” sides, respectively), divided into regions or fields. The most important of these were then characterized by the greater width and the border of the holes in which the pawns were inserted. It is probable – to keep the reference to the Hittite game oracle – that the fields, since the oracle to which the game was based was purely warlike, were reserved in part to a small number of game divinities, and all the others to the king and to the team that represented a particular locality, a city and also – a fact of great importance for the Völuspá – a fortress.
Let’s go back, however, to the subdivision of the boards, about which it should be noted again that there were also two zones, indicated simply as “great” and “small evil” and as “long field”. The latter, precisely in contrast with the previous ones, was probably seen as the good, the Paradise, or, to use a more modern expression, the goal. It was, therefore, evidently the central field, which in fact, in the Megiddo boards has a particular border. At the same time, in the attached circle, we see only the “great” and the “small evil” or a particularly large field surrounded by small circles.
The subdivision into two parts, one larger than the other, is typical to all the gaming tables of Anterior Asia and is also found among the Egyptians. Over time, the sense of this asymmetry has been progressively lost, and the boards proved, precisely because of their shape, increasingly unsuitable for a game that was no longer ritual but entertainment. Despite this, the step to disengage from the original footprint, born as a function of the cult, was extremely long.
But, to go back to the Hittite oracle game, perhaps its strangest aspect is that the fields – linked, as we have seen, to divinities or, more often, to people – were attributed properties and situations in a well-defined way. So different. from what happens in our parlor games, where people find themselves on the fields in certain conditions.
Among these properties, too, there are good and bad ones. Concerning the latter – generically represented in our oracle by “evil” or by the “great sin” – the good ones are in more significant number and, as befits a situation of a warlike nature, they also appear as “courage”, “strength” , “victory”; but more often, they are general, as in the case of “fortune”, “prosperity,” and “resistance to evil”. The ways the cards were distributed and the dice fields were played are unknown to us. Three moves could be made in each turn, but sometimes the second already led to a decision. The ratio of 4 to l between missed and successful shots makes us think of more attempts before the “move”. One thing is sure: the outcome was positive when the “courage” came out on the field of the “Hattusa team”, negative when the “evil” came out in the bad part or even in the circular field, even if the “petty evil” still allowed a specific gradation in the face of the “great evil”. Not every roll involved an immediate decision; probably, when the edged field was not reached, the pawn returned to the edge of the board. Of course, “luck” could also “get” on the “long field”.
The surprising shape of the game board, oval, with the round part glued together, or consisting of two parts of different sizes joined by a bridge, provides a reasonable explanation for the subsequent intervention of the three giantesses. Evidently, in the original legend, it was imagined that during the golden age, only the oval table or only the largest table existed, in which fortune gradually grew in gradual joy from the edge to the center. Only the addition of the “great and small evil” made it necessary to insert further particularities and less beautiful situations, even if it would have been sufficient to bring about the good ones, such as “courage”, or the neutral ones, such as “war”, on harmful fields. The existence of a large number of variants already emerges from these elements.
At this point, the Hittites of the second millennium already completely misunderstood the original meaning of this oracle-table, foreseen for a war. They nullified the sheer number of possibilities and combinations by evaluating each encounter well or poorly, in whatever form it took place. It is not clear why, next to the “great”, there was a “small evil”. But they further complicated the situation by determining in advance whether the occupation of a field should be interpreted as a positive or a negative sign.
This interpretation is probably because they still considered the occupation of a “bad” field to be negative, even when it took place, for example, through the “luck” pawn. But it is impossible that the original meaning of the ancient war game was this.
Praeneste and Dodona
Therefore, if already towards the middle of the second millennium, we are witnessing a decline of the ancient oracle game, it should not be surprising that nothing about it is preserved in other sources. In the Near East, the complex oracle of the fields has been transferred, for unknown reasons, to the interpretation of the liver and entrails. Here the situation, determined on the game board with dice and pawns, was already defined. An example of this is the bronze liver of Piacenza, the first attempt at an interpretation that has come down to us. Next to the “side of the sun” appears the “side of the moon”, arranged concentrically. However, the liver is not a suitable means to make such a complex subdivision understandable. We, therefore, gradually had to limit ourselves to the usual deductions by analogy, for example linking humidity to rain and deterioration to drought.
The second attempt, the transfer to the observation of the flight of birds, opened up a more significant number of perspectives, as we will see later. But also for this type of oracle, alongside the original form, an entirely meaningless practice based on chickens, soon spread, of which news has come to us through Cicero, who, after having himself been part of the college of augurs, he spilled all the secrets, indeed not to the satisfaction of his former colleagues. This example also draws our attention to the fact that the myth is always more conservative than the effective exercise of the divinatory rite. In fact, at the basis of this, there are always more ancient conceptions, and in some way purer, than the descriptions and explanations born in conjunction with the holidays.
The simplifications with which the priests intended to simplify their lives consisted, among other things, of the use of divination rods and a simple roll of the dice. This procedure is explained to us by the ritual legend of the very ancient oracle of Praeneste, also referred to by Cicero.
The monuments of Praeneste illustrate how Numerius Suffutius was driven by recurring dreams, which had finally assumed the character of a threat, to split a stone (“silex”) in a particular place». As the stone was broken, oak wood divining rods fell from it, engraved with ancient signs of writing. In this case the awkward pawn was therefore transformed through “crushing” into divination rods, all the more manageable. However, another object also appears alongside these, which recalls the original character of the oracle: a wooden ark, in which, presumably, the “sortes” were kept. The ark, built for this purpose with a sacred olive tree, is certainly not a usual container for divination rods; in fact, a vase was usually used, which they were extracted after shaking. On the other hand, an ark is unsuitable for this operation, and if it appears, it is, therefore, for a specific reason. Next to the “pawn”, so usefully broken up, it is nothing but the game board, which, in the second millennium, often had the appearance of a box equipped with a drawer in which the pawns and dice were placed. This is why the corresponding god-child is precise “the arcane”, “the one of the ark”, which of course, could also be seen as “the mysterious”.
Perhaps the inscriptions on the monuments were clearer than one deduces from Cicero. In him, there is another proof of the existence of an oracle-board game; but this time, he needs to understand the source in front of him or learn how to interpret it. He tells of a particularly surprising oracle of Dodona, following a prediction requested by the Spartans before the battle of Leuctra. When the legates had placed that object in which the “sortes” had been inserted (illud in quo inerant sortes collocavissent), a monkey would have thrown into the air and scattered not only the “sortes” themselves, but everything that had been prepared for the oracle. Following this event, the priestess in charge of the oracle would have replied that, rather than victory, they should have thought of their salvation”.
Before the words “the object in which the sortes” were found, the term “vase” was inserted, but in this way, the clarity of the passage was further compromised. The location of the vase does not belong to the legates; moreover, the extracted wands and “everything attached to them” cannot be messed up, and nothing else is needed to divine fate. Cicero’s account is undoubtedly faithful; it is clear that the monkey throws eliminates the disposition made by the legates themselves through the dice and scatters the pawns, which is interpreted as a negative premonitory sign.
Alongside the drawing of equal divining rods (“aequatis sortibus”), Cicero also knows other “sortes”, which, however, as he believes, should instead be counted among the oracles. Since he mentions them twice in close connection with wands, it is clear that by the term “sortes” he does not mean every kind of oracle. According to Cicero’s affirmation, the form of prediction, with its unequal “sortes”, presented a particular affinity with the keen vision of the seer. And it wasn’t as quick and accessible to everyone as the extraction of wands, the meaning of which was known to everyone. Between the drawing of the latter and the long-winded oracle, there was, therefore something, which cannot have been other than the interpretation of the layout of the board game. If Cicero had intended to indicate with the term “sortes” generically any oracle, the invitation to include the “sortes” among the oracles would be genuinely singular. Since he always speaks of the extraction of the equal sortes, the unequal sortes must have been tools that were not extracted from the urn. Not having any explanation for these “sortes” and their long-winded interpretation, he – who had to refer to older reports – didn’t know where to insert them.
Even the ritual legend of Falerius informs that a game with dice was used in Dodona, the most ancient pre-Greek oracle. Pausanias reports (I, 36, 4) that, during the war of Erechtheion against Elausis, a seer, Skiros, came from Dodona in Attica and founded the temple of Athena Skira at Falerio. Fallen in the battle, he was buried in Skiron, which derives its name from the locality and the river. There is no doubt that an oracle with dice existed in Skiron. What matters to us is that its origin is traced back to Dodona.
Consequently, an oracle with dice must have prevailed here too. Skiron initially takes its name not from a seer but from a term meaning “umbrella.” The strongly curved Greek solar umbrella has precisely the shape of a pawn; it is as steep as the rock from which the bandit Skiron, one of the funniest expressions of Greek taste for jokes, effortlessly throws passers-by into the void who have to wash his feet. In this context, the tortoise also has its place, which must devour those who fall. In reality, it is entirely unsuitable for this purpose, and one would think that it is included in this story precisely under the protective shield it is equipped on its back, which, being heavily armed, gives it the appearance of a “skiron”, an umbrella.
The Norse Runes
The runes are a Greek-Etruscan alphabet imported from northern Italy. Just as the Greek letters also represented numbers with which oracles and all sorts of magic could be done, so among the Nordic peoples, the runes were considered an instrument of communication and prophecy. Each letter and rune also had a meaning distinct from its phonic value. The extraction of three runes was equivalent to the moves of the pawns, which, as we have seen, had different characteristics according to their coincidence with the differently named and valued fields.
The original meaning of the oracle-runes is still recognizable through the names of the 24 letters of the alphabet; they were assigned by adapting the original intentions to the acquired graphemes. If you look at the totality of these names, handed down in an almost unified way, you have to agree with the rune scholar Sophus Bugge when he says: “No child could have put together a more confusing list of names”.
But everything becomes more evident if you refer to the Hittite ritual oracle. Let us examine them more closely. In the alphabetical sequence, the runes have names that conform to their meanings, differing only in some details. Let’s look at some examples: possession of livestock, fe) Vieh (wealth); auro, u(r); demon, th(orn); Asa, (als) (Odin); carriage ride, r(ad); disease; gift; joy; hailstorm; misery (slavery); ice (insinuating illness); fertile season (harvest); badger (magic); perth (game, dice game); moose (twins); Sun; the god Teiwaz, tyr (the one-handed Asa); birch branch (spring); horse; man; water; the god Inguz; day; hereditary property.
The first observation that comes spontaneously is that we are faced with the same subdivision into three existing among the Hittites; in fact, the divinities indispensable to the practices of magic appear; all the others, however, are absent (here it is naturally not Thor, because in this case the supreme magician Odin would be missing), and also good luck and bad luck objects. The latter are in the minority and of a more generic nature: they follow one another closely and are hail (to be understood certainly as the destruction of vegetation), necessity (slavery and dependence), and ice (in the sense of chronic disease, in contrast with “cen”, the ulcer). In its superstitions and medical science, even the entire Middle Ages lived on the distinction between external, superficial damage and “phthisis”. The meaning of “cen” as an ulcer is also supported by its other purpose of torch since even “fire” – think of St. Anthony’s fire – is one of the skin diseases. Among the Hittites, we find the ” fever ” among the predictions of misfortune, the “fever” which is all the more frequent in the Near East. Among the goods of fortune, unstable possession appears first, stable possession last, while gambling is placed more or less in the center. This provision can therefore be understood as a generic framework. For some signs, it is challenging to establish whether they are to be considered divinities or qualities, even when in connection with the other runes. However, sometimes the positive or negative meaning indeed depended precisely on the relationship of the signs to each other. In this picture, the one-eyed god (Odin as Asa) meeting with the one-armed god (Teiwaz, Tyr) and with the twins in the shape of moose or deer acquires a precise meaning since they are precisely the divinities linked to the game ritual.
The situation of the Hittite oracle game is analogous: here, Zababa, usually known as a divinity, appears among the qualities, and it can be presumed that it simply means the “player’s luck”. Inguz, the father god of the Ingweoni, indicates only the people who completed the transition from runic signs to the alphabet on a Northern Italian model. As far as the oracle is concerned, the god Inguz does not occupy a relevant position. If we wanted to research the value of every single rune for the effects of the oracle, we would transcend the limits that we have set for this book. Of genuine interest is only the existence of an effective relationship between the conceptions that underlie the elements of the Hittite ritual game – the only one we know a little more closely and the names of the runes. The division into three themes (gods, good things, bad things) is certainly not accidental. The Hittite square returns as “human being, man” and represents the questioner who wants to be placed in a specific position. Instead, we are surprised – but only in comparison with the Hittite ritual game – by the king’s absence. Among the Hittites, the fate of the king and the people are identical; but probably the god Inguz represents the common destiny here. Elsewhere he is replaced by the god or national hero.
The signs “journey by carriage” and “horse” are usually explained differently. As a graphic sign, the use of writing the moves is not only of today – the “rest” pawn, corresponding, in our chess, to the rook, allows us to recognize the front part of a carriage. But when chess (or, more cautiously, the modern rules of the game of chess) was invented, it had already disappeared for two or three millennia, leading to a certain skepticism about the late dating of the game with symbolic figures. The old front part of the chariot could only be kept on the game board. And if in the chariot and the horse, we don’t have to see the ritual journey and the sacrificial horse – after all, only rarely used even in the oracle – the continuous passage between the two ritual forms, game board and divination rods, becomes more apparent. We then also understand that in the Völuspá, after the new beginning of the world, the pawns find a further use, and that, however, at the same time, Hönir also continues to keep the runic staves.
The meaning of the prehistoric calendar
It may surprise us that the complex board game can be documented long before the divination rods and that these are indeed a later variant. And yet the explanation is simple. The world’s first slate is the sandy beach or firm ground. With a knotted staff, the priest draws the good and bad days in a system of lines and fields. Then, having picked up a pebble, he indicates with it the moment in which the great hunt must take place, the feast in honor of the divinity. The oracle, calendar, and calculus table are the same; they remain so for millennia, and their “instrumentarium” does not differ. Still in Rome, the mathematician is called “arenarius” (“calculator on the sand”) since he draws his figures on a table sprinkled with sand; but he just as willingly traces them on the arena floor.
In India, the highest mathematical art is called “dhuli-karma” (“sand work”). With the transition to the wooden table, if this is small, the fields are formed. In the calendar, this happens as in the game board and the handy abacus, where the balls that roll in the grooves are called “claviculi”. In Siberia, carpets are used precisely as playing tables: they link the sandy soil and the wooden table. We will encounter these “nails” again in connection with the game board, but now we like to point out that even the playing or calculating pieces are the same. Even in the modern age, the British used to calculate on a table in the state administration, on which was spread cloth with the design of a large chessboard: hence the name “house of the chessboard” given to the Ministry of Finance.
Even before knowing how to write in the true sense of the term, man could count and draw. And the slate given to him by nature became the stimulus for the invention of writing. Ancient writing is to delimit, assign, and distribute. In the bouncing or other very ancient games, they mimic our fields on the ground; they do nothing but repeat what their ancestors did millennia before. We “indicate” when we write, when we play, when we pray and when we let the future be revealed.
A stick was used to push the pieces. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the shepherd’s staff, the wayfarer’s staff, and the pastoral staff become sacred signs in all writing systems, just as there is no ancient writing system in which the drawing of fields does not appear in its development phases. The ritual game is the writing used by the gods before man learned to write, and its symbols were not tied to individual languages any more than our digits are today. They were the same all over the world.
Previous Chapter: Rites and Games in the Ancient World: 2 Game and Worship
Next Chapter: Rites and Games in the Ancient World: 4 Heimdal’s Heads