in our e-book
by H. Peter Aleff
Volume 1: its siblings Senet and Snake Game,
and its surviving sequel the Royal Game of the Goose
The repeated combination of the rosette with the bald head functions here like the "cartouches" on the Rosetta Stone that gave Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion the first clues for their decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
This grouping of signs in a "death" field shortly before the end of the track matches the "death" field marked shortly before the end of the track on many surviving boards for the ancient Egyptian race game ofSenet which plays here the role of the readable text on that Stone.
Since Senet is our key to understanding the closely related game on the Disk, let me briefly outline some of the many connections between ancient Crete and Egypt, and then describe this long-lived national passion of the latter.
4.1. Ties between ancient Crete and Egypt
The Cretans of the Disk’s New Palace Period did not live in isolation but traded far and wide, particularly with their rich and nearby neighbor to the south. Their island lies less than a week by sail from Egypt in good weather, and Odysseus could claim plausibly in one of his tall tales that he had covered that distance in five days (14:228 and 291).
Crete and Egypt are so close that at Alexandria in the Ottoman era, sailboat cargoes included snow exported from Crete and butter brought to it78. Many traces of intense early contact between the two regions survive, including the Cretan domestic cats which descended from Egyptian sires, not from the native wild cats79.
Already centuries before the Disk, the Cretan wall painters colored males red and females white to yellow, in the same arbitrary convention as their Egyptian colleagues, and the Cretan seal-makers used designs closely parallel to those found in Egypt80. Their work included even some Cretan-styled seals with Egyptian gameboards on them81, so there is no doubt that Senet was well known and highly esteemed in the culture that left us the Disk.
The Egyptian influence in Crete was so strong that several of the occupation levels at Knossos are dated by the Egyptian artifacts in them82. Even the base of a 12th Dynasty Egyptian dignitary's diorite statuette came to light at Knossos83, in a deposit from a couple of centuries before the Disk.
And after the time of the Disk, both queen Hatshepsut (1473 to 1458 BCE) and king Thutmosis III (her successor to 1425 BCE) received formal embassies of Cretans in their Theban capital, as depicted in tombs of their nobles84. Slightly later the Linear B tablets from Knossos mention an "Aiguptios"85.
Most revealing for the transfer of ideas, more than any imported artifact or written mention, is a clay sistrum of apparently Cretan manufacture found in the cemetery of Arkhanes Phourni, buried about four centuries before the Disk. This clear imitation of a uniquely Egyptian ritual instrument and its presence in the funerary building imply knowledge of its use and purpose. It thereby proves that the Cretans had bought in their travels not only material objects but also some of the symbolism they encountered in Egypt86.
The sharing of symbolism between Crete and Egypt was particularly intense around the time when the Disk got buried. The Hyksos kings who ruled Egypt from about 1640 to 1540 BCE adorned their palaces with unmistakably Cretan-style wall paintings of maze-like meanders and other motifs from the Aegaean.
In one spectacular fragment from the Hyksos capital Avaris, a young person with the typical long and curly black locks well known from Cretan paintings clasps the neck of a bull from above87. The parallel to the famous "bull- leaper" frescoes from the contemporary palace in Knossos is so pronounced that some scholars suggest these murals may express a dynastic or religious connection between Hyksos kingship and the rulers of Knossos, and in any case an interlocking of the beliefs in the two cultures.
4.2. Sources about Senet
This sharing of beliefs between Egypt and Crete makes the Egyptian game of Senet a valuable parallel to the proposed game on the Disk. Fortunately, a lot of information about Senet has survived in the form of actual gameboards, descriptions, and tomb paintings of Senet players with captions, and much of it has been conveniently assembled by two Egyptologists:
Edgar B. Pusch published a series of photographs and drawings with descriptions of all known Senet boards and Senet playing scenes in papyri and murals88, and Timothy Kendall wrote a detailed and well documented narrative about the role and context of the game and its religious importance89. Much of the descriptive information that follows about this game is based on the material they collected.
According to a scroll fragment which dates to Graeco-Roman times but seems to record a much earlier tradition, the 30 squares on the Senet board represented the 30 days in the standard ancient Egyptian calendar month, and more specifically the month of Thoth, the first month of the Egyptian year.
Thoth was a moon god and the god of science, astronomy, reckoning and writing, and in a myth the Greek philosopher Plato cites inPhaidrus, 274d, he was also the inventor of the board game which he bestowed on humanity together with those other arts.
The first Senet square was the "House of Thoth", and the festival of Thoth was indeed celebrated on the first day of his month which was also New Year’s day. The thirtieth square stood for the last day of the standardized month "when the moon is invisible".
In Kendall’s reconstruction, the last 16 squares, numbers 15 to 30, were the initially empty part of the track where the pieces lined up on the first 14 would perform their race to the end. The author of the fragment deemed it significant that the numbers of the stations on this active part of the track add up to 360, the number of days in the Egyptian twelve-month civil year90.
(The five additional days needed to stay approximately in tune with the solar year were not counted as regular time but remained outside its flow as birthdays of the gods.)
The most common version of the Senet board was laid out as a rectangular grid of 3 x 10 squares. U-shaped markings at the ends of two rows in an Old Kingdom mural indicate that the pieces turned there, "as the ox plows", to follow a continuous path with two U-turns. Like the pattern of travel up and down the Nile, that path went up the length of the board and down its middle and then up again on the other side.
Crude copies of boards for Senet pop up already in pre-dynastic graves from before 3100 BCE, and the game remained during the entire pharaonic period an important funerary gift for rich and poor. Kendall cites several examples of humble graves in which, aside from some pottery and a few beads, a Senet board and its pieces were the only other objects buried with the dead91.
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