The Golden Age
They played it in the presence of Ephesian Athena, Artemis of Hypapa, and Hera of Samos. Athena Skira’s ritual game was also an oracle: even in the sacred tripod of Pytho at Delphi, dice have been found. The name of king Priam’s sister, Killa, means the three divine dice made from the bones of a donkey (1).
The name of the oldest king of Egypt, the mythical Menes, was written with a game board. Should we deduce that Menes was not a king but a chessboard (2)? The ancient Egyptians gave such a high value to words that the name of the gods – as well as of rulers on earth – artistically carved in stone became their home and acquired the power of an amulet or even a temple; consequently, they believed that the stone on which the hieroglyphs were carved contained the author’s soul. And the hieroglyphics themselves were treated as living beings, to the point of being called animals, and the scribes were their herdsmen or shepherds. So, what did king Menes- chessboard represent in the mists of time? Was he an animal symbol or rather a place where animals were corralled? No memory of that distant past is left, but we still love to move pawns on architecturally patterned boards.
Our psychologists have established that compulsively arranging objects architecturally is a symptom of schizophrenia. Archaeologists thought this when they opened tombs in Greece and Italy with funerary furnishings of small objects artistically arranged together with the skeletons. Bones and toys then ended up in museums but in separate sections. Slowly, the excavators began to see too much tenacity in what was called a “primitive expression of funeral grief”. Until one day, they surrendered to the evidence that the “toys” arrangement seemed to have a geometric continuum outside the tomb and, surprisingly, in other sepulchers.
Geometry. After all, what is a chessboard if not geometry? Nature, in physics, tends spontaneously towards order. Even before knowing how to write in the true sense of the term, human beings could count and draw. And the slate given to them by nature became the stimulus for the invention of writing. Ancient writing is to delimit, assign, and distribute.
Macrobius’s commentary on Scipio’s Dream reads: “All bodies are delimited by a surface that serves as limits. And these limits, immutably fixed around the bodies they delimit, are also considered immaterial. Observing a body, thought can make its surface abstract and reciprocally make the body abstract. Therefore, the first passage of matter to immateriality meets the limits of bodies; this is the first reality of incorporeal nature after bodies. However, it is neither absolute nor entirely devoid of corporeality; although the nature of the body exists outside it, it manifests itself only around the body.“
The adoption of the number eight as an allegory of the body lies in the fact that it is used to describe the doubling of two equal squares to form a cube, the primary symbol of a solid body. This is the doubling of the corner points (3). But, to simplify, the myth that the ancients had created about the origin of geometry would suffice: to bring back to light, with lines and measures, the property covered by the mud of the Nile (4).
Given these assumptions, we can understand the enigmatic importance given to the god Terminus, the god of borders, and how important it was to find and possibly not give up these borders. It must have been a concept that made Erasmus of Rotterdam think a great deal. Inspired by Numen agro positum, fines ego terminus agri, Concedo nulli, cuique suum tribuens, his motto will become: I was erected for a Bound, and I resolve to stand my ground. Find your boundaries, and do not give up. The graphic symbol was a head protruding from a stone cube. Which curiously was also a symbol of the Roman Saturn/Kronos.
Imagine the chessboard so architectural, so essential and rigorous, even so, ethereal and invisible, still forged in fire and water, almost like Hephaestus’ net. Try to visualize it desperately tangled like an inextricable knot while you are scrambling towards the very boundaries of your body, much broader than what you can see. And to finally reach the safety of the cube border markers, lost in the countryside or along the busiest roads. Back again to your clothes tucked away in inaccessible places and guarded by caretakers who have served a lifetime in their humble role.
We were taught that the entire sacred game was simply a winter night’s pastime. The main rule was to move the pawns and dice as soon as the sun became a distant object that could no longer disturb. In the eyes of a layman, the game board must have looked like a map of the winter sky of that short period, which lasted no more than twelve nights. But really, was all this complex puzzle necessary to celebrate the winter solstice stars that shone so brightly like icy distant suns? It has been said that “the ancients celebrated the birth of the new sun out of the darkness.” But if we celebrate the game only for cosmic observance, we will never discover the map of the Numina immanent in the earth.
Cosmos and Chaos were arranged in black and white, just like pawns. We, the instant men, can easily say light and darkness. Today and tomorrow, said the ancients. To be more precise, tomorrow and today.
In some verses of the Norse Völuspá, ‘game board’ and ‘Genesis’ are mentioned not too far from each other. Once the former was lost, the latter fell into chaos. As for men, everything deteriorated, and war took possession of their souls. But once they discovered the chessboard underground, it was enough for them to sit down and play to restore the world.
Although the game board had the power to “reorder” the world or to give a cosmic shape to chaos, as the ancients said, we must remember that the pawns fight each other with no holds barred. The game’s sacredness was anything but a harmless pastime: the aim was gambling because living beings, for the deities, were challenging to reach. In any case, the whole ordeal was reserved for them, not for humans, unless they found a substitute.
Not coincidentally, some Greek myths attribute to a warrior, Palamedes, the invention of writing, numbers, geometry, and the gaming table in simulacra. Similar legends in Egypt ascribe the same inventions to the god Thoth, so close to Hermes/Mercury. The Hittites, and Northern Europeans, represented chessboard deities with aspects of war and death.
Sacred games did not have a golden age; they were the golden age. Anyone who thinks it was just a gullible way of revealing the deities’ will – what we presently call the “future” – is misguided: the numinous ordeals had to do with the past, instead. And it shouldn’t be surprising since the past, for the ancient Greeks, contained everything, even the present. As well as the future, of course.
Incidentally, the Roman goddess Fortuna/Luck – the cynical Cicero reveals she was the only deity still respected by his contemporaries – was connected with the Lares (the ancestors in the territory). So it wasn’t a matter of chance but to rediscover one’s ancient past, what of the eternal present is still present in us. Kronos was also the god of time before time. But didn’t someone say that Kronos is the gaming board itself?
Could the moves of the pawns all be about those mythical beings forged in fire and water and breathing in bronze? And could their fight be an abysmal journey into the depths of simulacra of all kinds? There, at the bottom, where ghosts chase minds. And that we call love.
Lucretius‘ De Rerum Natura, the nature of things, reads: “Now I will begin to tell you what is closely connected with these things: there are what we call simulacra of things, which, like membranes torn from the surface of things, whirl here and there in the air… and form like the smoke of objects, like Derectum Natura, or nature directly expressed.”
It has been called a cosmic game because the north and south stars are perfectly balanced on those long winter nights, not you and your faults. Knowing this, will you gaze again at the losses and gains in the goldsmith’s hands, or will you scrutinize the divination mirror, your actual sky? The Roman “Inauguratio”, or divination through an augur, corresponded to “a power transmission”. Indeed, reaching the sky.
As for gain and losses, coins or dice, please don’t be greedy and remember that, in the sacred game, they are only worth the sound of going round and round. By the time they’re just motionless on the table, it’s all over. They can only be used for bartering. Which is no small thing, we must admit.
But don’t disrespect the pawns, for it has been said that everything sacred must be in toy form. Furthermore, Norse sagas and Greek mythology say they tend to scream when touched.
And what about the king’s weakness? With bound feet on the chessboard, his distant kingship counts for next to nothing in the game. Nonetheless, the pawns look for some piece of him and jostle each other to reach the end line. In the ancient Hittite language, the hieroglyph representing the concept “each and all” was represented alternately by a chessboard or a knot; at this point, magical.
Finally, to complicate it all, let me quote a passage from that eighteenth-century novel in which the same disillusioned noblewoman mentioned in the Introduction is now trying to leave traces of Greek mythology in the mind of an ignorant soldier (who was elected the vice of kings for the winter games (the usurping king had to be educated, even if in charge only for twelve days):
D’Hassin: “Cattle… ”
The Duchess: “So were the souls of the departed called… the chthonic cattle. And perhaps also the souls of the initiates. And once in the afterlife, those animals needed a herdsman to take them inside an enclosure… ”
D’Hassin:: “A labyrinth!”
The duchess smiled in surprise but continued: “… from which, generally, they could no longer disperse… therefore, understand well, that no one could enter these menageries with impunity… but above all, it was necessary that only a select few left… Nowadays, we live in such a sophisticated world that we need poems to grab attention—attention that will fall on other poems, of course. So a good epilogue can erase everything else. After all, it was so easy to erase our memory.”
D’Hassin: “We are so used to reasoning by narrative, ma’am… But if a labyrinth is a lock, where is the door?”
Duchess: “I see that you, too, interpret the labyrinth as a long and tortuous initiatory path where the hero undertakes to meet and defeat the monster… A path that can only be shortened and simplified by the advice and wisdom of those who have already traveled it.”
D’Hassin: “Where is the mistake?”
Duchess: “The first mistake is to believe that the hero enters accompanied by his body.”
D’Hassin: “But Theseus was alive!”
Duchess: “According to some interpretations, Theseus was the personification of the initiate… There are initiations of different types, but the result is always the same: no one can enter the labyrinth with the body. In the mysteries of Demeter, it is said that the initiate becomes a thing carried by the wind. And it is intriguing that, for the ancients, wind and sound had a similar origin… Also, remember that Theseus was the son of Poseidon and a mortal. And, given that in mythology, the degrees of kinship define different aspects of the subject evolutions, one wonders whether Theseus enters the labyrinth as an aspect of his father or his mother. Not an idle detail.”
D’Hassin: “If it’s a detail, it can’t be insignificant.”
Duchess: “I welcome your acumen, D’Hassin; anyway, let’s not get lost in the details. Back to the cattle, we know that Helio’s cows were 350 – the missing 15 belonged to the cosmic night. In fact, at that moment, Helios becomes part of Okeanos again. From here, you can understand the importance of this period, during which the sun Helios is in a state of vacuum, to be reborn only after the solstice or twelve days of cosmic night. Cosmic chaos that we know by the name of Saturnalia. After that, Xanthos wins over Melanthos. White wins over black… The bad news for you, D’Hassin, is that you are normally expected to disappear with the first white day.”
- Hesychius of Alexandria under Cillae;
- Margarete Riemschneider, Riti e Giochi nel Mondo Antico, Convivio/Nardini Editore, Firenze, page 117;
- Macrobius’s commentary on Scipio’s Dream, first book, 5,5-11;
- Isidori Hispaliensis Episcopi, Etymologiae, X. De Inventoribus Geometriae et Vocabulo Eius;