When we think of the ancient Egyptians, we summon images of Giza’s pyramids, the vast Abu Simbel temple complex, the Valley of the Dead or King Tutankhamun’s death mask. Rarely do we get a glimpse of ordinary ancient Egyptians doing ordinary everyday things.
Yet there is ample evidence to suggest ancient Egyptians both children and adults enjoyed playing a range of games, particularly board games. For a culture with a near-obsession with the afterlife, the ancient Egyptians strongly believed that to earn eternal life, one must first enjoy life and ensure one’s time on earth was worthy of an enduring afterlife. Egyptologists and linguists quickly discovered the ancient Egyptians have a rich and complex appreciation of the simple joys of life and this feeling was reflected in the day-to-day aspects of the vibrant culture.
They played games requiring agility and strength, they were addicted to board games that tested their strategy and skill and their children played with toys and played swimming games in the Nile. Children’s toys were fashioned from wood and clay and they played with balls made from leather. Images of ordinary Egyptians dancing in circles have been discovered in tombs thousands of years old.
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Facts About Ancient Egyptian Games and Toys
- Board games were a favourite recreational game amongst ancient Egyptians
- Most ancient Egyptian children owned a basic toy of some sort
- Senet was a popular board game for two people
- Board games could be scratched into the bare earth, carved from wood or fashioned from elaborately carved boards inlaid with precious materials
- King Tutankhamun’s tomb contained four Senet boards
- Board games were often excavated in tombs and graves to accompany their owner on their journey through the afterlife
- Board games were used to relax after a long day’s work
- Knucklebones were fashioned from the ankle bones of sheep
- Ancient Egyptian children played versions of hopscotch and leapfrog.
Separating Myth From A Game
It is not always apparent whether a toy or game was intended to be just a toy or a game or whether it was a magical item such as dolls or figurines used for religious or magical purposes. The popular Mehen board game is an example of a game, which shares its roots with a ritual display of the casting down of the god Apophis in a ceremony designed to prevent the Great Serpent from devastating Ra’s barque as it voyaged on its nightly journey across the underworld.
Many Mehen boards have been discovered where the surface engraving of the serpent is divided into segments replaying Apophis’ dismemberment. In its game form, the squares are simply spaces on the board delineating the places for the game pieces with no link to the Apophis legend aside from its serpentine design.
Board Games In Ancient Egypt
Board games were very popular in ancient Egypt with different types being in widespread use. Board games catered to both for two players and multiple players. In addition to the utilitarian game sets used by everyday Egyptians, lavishing decorated and expensive sets have been excavated in tombs across Egypt, These exquisite sets feature inlays of precious materials including ebony and ivory. Similarly, ivory and stone were often carved into dice, which were common elements in many ancient Egypt games.
Senet was a game of chance dating back to Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE). The game required both a dash of strategy and some higher level playing skills. In Senet, two players faced each across a board divided into thirty playing squares. The game was played using five or seven game pieces. The aim of the game was to move all a player’s game pieces to the other end of the Senet board while stopping your opponent at the same time. Thus the mystical objective behind a game of Senet was to be the first player to successfully pass into the afterlife unscathed by bad fortunes encountered along the way.
Senet proved to be one of the most enduringly popular board games, which has survived from ancient Egypt board. Numerous examples have been found when excavating tombs. A painting depicting a Senet board was discovered in the tomb of Hesy-Ra dating from 2,686 B.C.
The format of a standard Senet board game featured three rows each of ten squares. Some of the squares depicted symbols representing good fortune or ill luck. The game was played using two sets of pawns. The ancient Egyptians believed the winner enjoyed the benevolent protection of Osiris and Ra and Thoth.
Senet boards have been discovered in commoner’s graves and royal tombs from Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period through to its Late Dynastic (525-332 BCE). Senet boards have even been found in graves in territory far beyond Egypt’s borders, confirming its popularity. Commencing with the New Kingdom, it was thought the Senet game was based on a reenactment of an Egyptian’s travels from life, through death and onwards through all eternity. Senet boards often formed part of the grave goods placed in tombs, as ancient Egyptians believed the dead could use their Senet boards to help them navigate their perilous journey through the afterlife. Amongst the prodigious quantity of luxury grave goods found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter were four Senet boards
The game is captured in painted scenes dating from the New Kingdom showing members of the royal family playing Senet. One of the best-preserved Senet examples shows Queen Nefertari (c. 1255 BCE) playing Senet in a painting in her tomb. Senet boards appear in surviving ancient texts, reliefs and inscriptions. It is referred to in The Egyptian Book of the Dead, appearing in an early part of Spell 17, connecting it with Egypt’s gods and beliefs in the afterlife.
Mehen dates from Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE). It was also called the Game of the Snake by ancient Egyptian players and refers to the Egyptian snake god that shared its name. Evidence of the Mehen board game being played dates back to around 3000 B.C.
A typical Mehen board is circular and is inscribed with the image of a snake coiled tightly into a circle. Players used game pieces shaped like lions and lionesses, together with simple round objects. The board was divided into roughly rectangular spaces. The head of the snake occupies the centre of the board.
While the rules of Mehen haven’t survived, it is believed the goal of the game was to be the first to box in the serpent on the board. A range of Mehen boards has been excavated with different numbers of game pieces and a different arrangement of the numbers rectangular spaces on the board.
Hounds and Jackals
Ancient Egypt’s Hounds and Jackals game dates back to around 2,000 B.C. A Hounds and Jackals game box typically has ten carved pegs, five carved to resemble hounds and five resembling jackals. Some sets have been found with their pegs carved from precious ivory. The pegs were stowed in a drawer built under the game’s rectangular shaped surface with its rounded. In some sets, the game board has short legs, each carved to resemble hounds legs supporting it.
Hounds and Jackals was an immensely popular game during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom Period. To date, the best-preserved example was discovered by Howard Carter at a 13th Dynasty site at Thebes.
While the rules of Hounds and Jackals have not survived to come down to us, Egyptologists believe it was the ancient Egyptians’ favourite board game involving a racing format. Players negotiated their ivory pegs through a series of holes in the board surface by rolling dice, knucklebones or sticks to advance their pegs. To win, a player had to be the first one to move all five of their pieces off the board.
Aseb was also known amongst ancient Egyptians as the Twenty Squares Game. Each board comprised three rows of four squares. A narrow neck containing two squares connects the first three rows with another three rows of two squares. Players had to throw either a six or a four to progress their game piece out of their home and then throw again to move it forward. If a player landed on a square his opponent already occupied, the opponent’s piece was moved back to its home position.
Reflecting On The Past
Humans are genetically programmed for game playing. Whether playing games of strategy or simple games of chance, games played just as important a part in the leisure time of the ancient Egyptians as they do in ours.
Header image courtesy: Keith Schengili-Roberts [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Sunday 11th of July 2021
So, who wants to help me? England, UK, 2002 (give or take), SNES (one assumes), and RPG overworld game (I think). The question is, what game did I use to play? Help me find my memory. I am half thinking of a 'marketplace' and half thinking of 'open fields', finding monsters along the way -- but I was 6 at the time, lest we forget. Not sure if the game was A Link to the Past, Breath of Fire II, Secret of Mana, Soul Blazer, or something else! Anybody know which were known/unknown at that time and place? Harold Burton