Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A game with death

After yesterday's dismal political post, today we're going to look at something more upbeat and cheerful:

Playing a board game with your dead relatives.

Well, okay, that's not exactly upbeat and cheerful.  But it's pretty interesting nonetheless.  The topic comes up because of a recent discovery in Egypt of a board for playing the game of senet, which was apparently something like ancient Egyptian backgammon.  No one knows what the rules are except that it involved dice throwing, followed by moving pieces along a grid of thirty squares.  Squares number 26 through 29 had special characters on them, of unknown purpose, but probably corresponded to things like "lose one turn" or "go back five spaces" you find on modern board games.

So it looks like the idea that used to frustrate the absolute hell out of me as a little kid playing "Chutes & Ladders" was invented a very long time ago.  If you don't know "Chutes & Ladders," its a one-hundred-square grid with ladders (moving you ahead in one jump) and chutes (moving you backward).  And there's a chute -- on square #98, if memory serves -- that moves you back to, like, square #4 or something.

I'm guessing the Egyptians also invented the time-honored method of dealing with such circumstances, namely, picking up the board and hurling it at your opponents.

Be that as it may, when you get to Middle Kingdom times (2040-1782 B.C.E.) there are some tomb paintings that show people playing senet not against the living -- but against their dead family members.  And a new symbol shows up on square #27.

The symbol for water -- which Egyptologists believe represented a lake or river that spirits encountered on their journey through Duat, the realm of the dead.

The newly-discovered senet board [Image courtesy of the Rosicrucian Museum, San Jose, California]

You have to wonder what the purpose of playing a board game with a deceased person was.  Was it just supposed to be entertaining for the dead guy?  After all, there was probably not much to do, stuck in a pyramid forever, even though they did things like burying the dead with food, drink, their belongings, and even mummified pets.

On the other hand, the paranormal-fiction-writer part of me wonders if it might not be something more sinister.  After all, another age-old tradition is people playing against Death (or in Judeo-Christian cultures, against Satan) for their lives or their eternal souls.  I have a legend like this in my own family -- on my dad's Scottish side one of my ancestors is a gentleman named Alexander Lindsay, who was the 4th Earl of Crawford.  Lindsay, known as "Earl Beardie" or "the Tiger Earl" because of his flaming red hair and beard, was born in 1423 in Auchterhouse, County Angus, Scotland, and became well known for his violent temper and fondness for scotch.  The legend goes that he was playing a dice game with a friend on a Saturday evening, and the friend heard the church bells chiming midnight in the distance.

"We should stop now that it's the Sabbath," the friend said.  "The devil is always watching."

Lindsay laughed, and said, "Let him show up, then, and I'll play a game against him for my very soul.  Otherwise, I'm not stopping."

Well, the predictable result was that Satan showed up in person, said, in essence, "The hell you say," and held Lindsay to his word.  And Lindsay wasn't as lucky as Johnny was in the Charlie Daniels song "Devil Went Down to Georgia," unfortunately for him.  He lost the game and his soul, and now goes stomping around Glamis Castle, swearing drunkenly and throwing dice in a futile attempt to win his soul back.

I remember telling my dad about this years ago.  His response was to snort and say, "Yeah, sounds like one of my relatives."

But I digress.

Anyhow, the senet board and the research into what the game signified -- and what connection it may have had with rituals surrounding death -- is pretty interesting stuff.  A paper last week in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, by Walter Crist, describes the new find as follows:
Egyptian senet boards follow a very consistent morphology that varies in small but notable ways throughout the 2000-year history of the game.  A previously unpublished board, in the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, California, may provide new insight into the evolution of the game in the early New Kingdom.  A game table with markings distinctive of the Thutmoside Period, but oriented like Middle Kingdom and Seventeenth Dynasty boards, it is probably a transitional style.  It likely dates to the Eighteenth Dynasty before the reign of Hatshepsut, a period to which no other games have previously been securely dated.
So that's really cool, whether or not the game turns out to have any supernatural connection.  Myself, I'd just as soon it didn't.  The world's a risky enough place on its own, without adding the potential for playing a game with death.

Look what happened to poor Earl Beardie.


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is both intriguing and sobering: Eric Cline's 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.

The year in the title is the peak of a period of instability and warfare that effectively ended the Bronze Age.  In the end, eight of the major civilizations that had pretty much run Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East -- the Canaanites, Cypriots, Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans, Myceneans, and Hittites -- all collapsed more or less simultaneously.

Cline attributes this to a perfect storm of bad conditions, including famine, drought, plague, conflict within the ruling clans and between nations and their neighbors, and a determination by the people in charge to keep doing things the way they'd always done them despite the changing circumstances.  The result: a period of chaos and strife that destroyed all eight civilizations.  The survivors, in the decades following, rebuilt new nation-states from the ruins of the previous ones, but the old order was gone forever.

It's impossible not to compare the events Cline describes with what is going on in the modern world -- making me think more than once while reading this book that it was half history, half cautionary tale.  There is no reason to believe that sort of collapse couldn't happen again.

After all, the ruling class of all eight ancient civilizations also thought they were invulnerable.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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