It may seem unintelligible for an alchemist to deal with “games”, but this is research on “game boards”. The reason is soon to be said: Hermes/Mercury, the god of alchemists, even better, Alchemy tout court, also presides over games and contests. No wonder, Hermes’ shrewd and unpretentious ductility makes him the instrument of mètis par excellence.
Titaness friend of humans – daughter of Thetis-a-deity-of-the-primeval-waters, and Okeanos-more-than-one-deity-the-all – Métis is the intelligence of cunning exercised on very different levels, but always for practical purposes: the bricklayer, the politician, the helmsman, the weaver… all protean realities that did not lend themselves to the immutable reasoning of abstract philosophical conjecture, and one which philosophers hastened to reject as ‘non-knowledge.
If the Hermes-Apollo alternation represents Alchemy in its physical forces – what today is improperly called “energy” – Saturn/Kronos delineates the cycle of repetitions and perpetuity, which today fades into too full of meaning “theurgy”. Still, in ancient Roman times, Kronos was not a philosophical postulate but a tangible aspect of their daily life. The ancient divinity of agricultural calendars based on stellar cycles – or rather a stellar calendar tout court – strictly speaking, was not even Olympian but the son of Titans and father of whoever begins the series of true Olympian gods. Best represented by “the Golden Age” attribute, Saturn/Kronos had many aspects which led it (yes, it) to be described with the characteristics of a gaming board.
So, can we identify theurgy with the gaming board? Theurgy, which literally means ‘god-working’ or ‘divine work’, was widely respected and extensively used by later Neoplatonist philosophers. Although its meaning is controversial, the term, first attested in the fragmentary Chaldean Oracles, designates a set of ritual practices coupled with a way of life based on ethical and intellectual practices. The aim of theurgy was contact with, assimilation to and, ultimately, union with, the divine.
Nature tends toward order
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 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 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.
In the 1st and 2nd dynasties, the Senet game boards were deposited inside the tombs with other furnishings for use by the deceased in the next life. The Egyptians later depicted Senet tablets on Old Kingdom tomb walls, offering lists, and wall paintings as part of burial equipment. The deification of the squares of the game board coincides with the first association of the game with the Egyptian book of the dead.
The ludic version of the senet was played for recreational purposes, while the religious version was performed to communicate with the deceased, to effect the passage of the ba, and to achieve spiritual renewal.
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 board (1)? This is not a detail to be taken lightly as 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/gameboard 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 – at least for us ordinary people – but we still love moving pawns on architecturally patterned boards.
In Palamedes sive de Tabula Lusoria, alea et variis ludis, Palamede or the game board, dice, and various games, it seems clear that the table is the game itself, beyond any game rules. The table is described as a terrestrial location, sometimes a valley, other times a locality with a terrestrial reference to the “seven stars” identified in seven grains. Often table and Turricula – the little tower from which the dice are rolled on the table – are confused with each other.
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 gaming board underground, it was enough for them to sit down and play to restore the world. During the lack of the table, real wars have been unleashed in mysterious places with references only to the temporarily disappeared table’s surface.
In both the Hittite world and the Celtic world, chthonic deities – but also of war, since war is related to death – are represented by what has all the appearance of being chess boards. An object that seems to give these gods, such as Cernunnos, the power to transmute or send/withdraw souls from bodies.
For the Greco-Roman world, the gaming board could take on all the connotations of a “map”. This reminds me of 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 (2). 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 (3).
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 lot. 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. For the Romans, the boulder was Terminus, the head that jutted out of it symbolized Saturn.
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.
After all, what is a gameboard if not geometry? 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. Not coincidentally, some Greek myths attribute to a warrior, Palamedes, the invention of writing, numbers, geometry, and the gaming table in simulacra, i.e., Pessos. 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. And vice versa.
Let’s resume the initial topic, or at least the page heading: Nature, in physics, tends spontaneously towards order. A typical example is crystals, whose regularity manifests itself in space, composed of atoms, molecules, and ions. In 2012 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Franck Wilczek (4) advanced the theoretical hypothesis of the existence of time crystals. The first reproduction in the laboratory took place in 2017, described in Nature magazine. Time crystals unfold not in space but in time; they are chains of atoms that pulsate in the absence of energy, remaining in motion in time without requiring the action of a force. Structures that constantly change over time and then always return to their initial configuration.
Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Eclogues of Vergil: “Also Pherekydes (the legendary first teacher of Pythagoras) agrees, but introduces different elements: he speaks indeed of Zas, Chtonia, and Chronos, meaning Fire, Earth, and Air, and argues that Ether is what rules, Earth is what is ruled, and Time is that in which all things are ruled” (5).
Sacred games did not have a golden age; they are 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.
Although the game board had the power to “reorder” the world or give chaos a cosmic shape, 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.
We were taught that the entire sacred game was a winter night 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.
We know the Saturnalia lasted 12 days; those in Cicero’s time were still defined as “Illud Tempus”. Nigidius Figulus, the last augur of Etruscan tradition and Cicero and Varro’s contemporary and friend, explains that during “that time” of 12 days, the gods disappeared from the earth. And “that time” surprisingly assumed a spatial denomination: land of the Hyperboreans.