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
Some of the early rich expressed this importance of Senet to their corpses or souls on a grand scale: at least two of the large First Dynasty mastaba tombs, built in Nagada around 3000 BCE, appear to imitate that Senet grid with their ground plans.
Other tomb owners, throughout the next three millennia, consistently had their artists paint elaborate versions of that gameboard on the doors to the innermost crypt and/or carve it on their coffins. Many of them also took lavishly produced actual Senet games with them into the afterlife.
During the Old Kingdom, the departed may simply have counted on this recreation to help them spend the idle eons of their afterlife. After all, eternity might get a bit boring at times, especially the long parts.
For New Kingdom mummies, however, Senet became the ticket to Paradise. Their owners took this simulation of their lives and afterlives on the gameboard so seriously that they used it for their most important magic. Many tomb paintings and vignettes in mortuary papyri from that time depict the deceased playing Senet against an unseen opponent for the ultimate stake of his admission to eternity.
According to the captions, none of the tomb owners ever lost that crucial contest. Tomb painters who did not comply with this odds- defying rigging of the results in a game of chance did probably not stay in business long. The patrons of all those who did won the desired abilities to join the sun god in his travels and to continue playing Senet, asSpell 335 in the Book of the Dead describes their idyllic afterlife:
"... going forth by day, assuming whatever form one will, playing senet, sitting in a pavilion, going forth as a living soul ..."92
Those tomb owners did not acquire their taste for Senet only after death, to judge from the eagerness with which many of the living played it wherever and whenever they could. Even kings played Senet with their daughters and queens in carefully designed scenes and will continue to do so for millions of years, according to the typical captions.
More informally, a sixteenth century BCE schoolboy dropped his recopying from the moralizing and exhorting "Maxims of the Sage Ptah-hotep" in mid-sentence to devote the rest of his tablet to a hastily ruled Senet board93. Similar grids incised on the roof slabs of various temples suggest that the stone masons played Senet during their lunch hour, if any, or while waiting for the next blocks to arrive.
Even animals played Senet: the "Satirical Papyrus" from the 20th Dynasty (1196 to 1070 BCE) shows a wide-eyed and eagerly openmouthed lion competing against a gazelle. (The gazelle looks clearly less confident, but more research is needed to find out why.)
And when pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479 to 1425 BCE) erected a hall in the great temple of Amun at Karnak for his Heb-Sed festival of rejuvenation, to assure the renewal of his life force and the continued duration of his reign, he used the Senet grid for the ground plan of the raised central portion in that hall.
There was a simple reason for this vogue of Senet among the mummy set, and among all classes of the living up to their aging kings who sought to prolong their vigor and reign. The picture of a Senet gameboard, with its pieces lined up on top, was the hieroglyph for the Egyptian word"men" which means "to endure".
Even some of the words in which the Senet-board hieroglyph seems to appear only for its phonetic value had meanings related to the astronomy from which the game had been derived, or to the duration it embodied.
One of the ancient Egyptian names for the sky was"men" or "that which endures", written with the "enduring" Senet- board hieroglyph plus the sky- sign determinative.
The same Senet- board meant "men" = "calculations" when followed by a papyrus roll sign for words related to writing94. Calculations, of course, were specially enduring because the result of a correct calculation remains the same for all eternity.
The "men" sign was also used to designate daily offerings or ceremonies, probably in the hope to perpetuate these. And two Senet boards plus the determinative for "male" formed the name of Menu-Amen, the everlasting "bull of his mother"95 who begot himself and so traveled through time both forward and back.
Paired with the sign for things of stone, the "men" gameboard hieroglyph designated stone structures built to endure such as stelae, monuments, obelisks, colossal statues and temples96; it also referred to stone as enduring material, particularly quartz which is one of the hardest and most durable types of stone97.
This consistent use of the "men" hieroglyph illustrates the depth of its link with duration in the ancient Egyptian minds.
The most cherished goal of the Egyptians was to endure, and the incorporation of that potent word into their tombs and temples by means of its gameboard hieroglyph helped them to achieve this goal by symbolic magic.
Hieroglyphs were "the gods’ words" and had supernatural powers. They did not merely convey the word sound or picture of the object or idea represented, but the Egyptians believed that each hieroglyph contained the essence of the object or idea depicted and was identical with it, or at least equally effective in the realm of magic to which these powerful signs belonged.
This belief was so strong that the tomb painters carefully mutilated the pictures of potentially threatening animals among their hieroglyphs so that these would not be able to harm the defenseless occupant.
The presence of the hieroglyph for "enduring" in the tomb design or decoration guaranteed therefore a long afterlife for the dead. That association, in turn, assured the special religious status of the game.
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