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
On the other hand, the use of the Senet picture to express the concept of duration confirms that this game was associated with the passage of time to begin with, and that its representing the days of the Egyptian month was not a late attribution despite the late date of our source for this information.
Moreover, most early gameboards around the world seem to have evolved as means to count time by moving pegs or pebbles along a path that represented the days in a month or two or some other interval of time. For instance, one of the board games popular throughout the ancient Near East was the "Palm Tree Game", also called the "Game of 58 Holes", and shown above in the examples from Gezer, Megiddo, and Babylon.
The path on this gameboard was divided into two usually mirror-symmetrical halves, and each of these had 29 evenly spaced holes, arranged along a line that made a sharp U-turn. Occasionally, however, one side broke the symmetry and had 30 holes, confirming thereby that these pegboards had evolved as tools for counting the phases of the moon. These phases follow a cycle of 29.53 days and so repeat themselves alternatingly after either 29 or 30 days.
This proposed origin of the gameboard as a tool for tracking time also matches the symbolism of the palm tree which decorated many of those gameboards with no rosettes on them. In Egypt, notches cut into the rib of a stripped palm leaf were the common means for recording the passage of time. The picture of such a palm rib tally was the hieroglyphic determinative for "years" as well as for "seasons"100, and many Egyptian murals show Thoth, or his female counterpart the goddess Seshat, holding such a rib with many notches and promising the king "millions and millions of years".
Thoth was, according to some of his titles, the "Measurer of Time" and "Master of Years". Many other reputable moon gods had similar functions since the words for "measuring" and "month" stem from the same root as the word for "moon" in most Indo-European and Semitic as well as Hamitic languages101. The same is probably true in many other language families because their speakers all grew up under the same moon and had to develop measuring as well as recording methods if they wanted to understand its cycles.
The attempts to measure the moon's behavior also clearly required mathematical operations more complex than counting on the fingers and so would have led the measurers to advance the art of computing, too.
This is probably why thoughtful Thoth included the board game with his gifts, even before the written notations. Like their probable descendants the abacus and the medieval counting board, early gameboards were useful computing aids because the movement of markers along their miniature track allowed realistic simulations of the movements of sun and moon along the big track overhead.
Plato’s above myth about Thoth the moon god having invented the game seems therefore to record a memory that the moon caused its early observers to develop board games as tools for counting its cycles.
A trace of this board game origin as an astronomical simulation tool still seems to survive in the otherwise unexplained Backgammon rule that the "inner court" of its gameboard must be "turned toward the light". Similarly, rules for many traditional race games in the Old and New Worlds specify which side of their board corresponds to each cardinal direction and must be aligned with it before the game can begin102.
This appears to reflect that the track on those early sky-reproducing pegboards would typically have been oriented to parallel the track in the sky, the way we usually orient a map in the field to match the terrain.
An otherwise obscure board game mentioned in a Third Dynasty tomb was even called "Menet" = "enduring", written phonetically with the Senet hieroglyph. This name alludes again to this time-tracking function of early gameboards.
Similarly, the name of Senet conveys the same idea as its "enduring" picture because the verb "senet" meant "to pass" and described the activities of the gamepieces in several captions to Old Kingdom tomb murals of Senet players. (The pieces themselves were called "ab" which means "leapers" or "dancers" and seems to reflect their mode of moving.)
This "passing" name indicates again that the Senet board and pieces had evolved as a means to understand the passing of time. In this role, the game could easily have acquired on its own, or possessed from the beginning, a magical power over the duration which it allowed to measure and thus master, just like its divine inventor Thoth.
4.5. Senet’s evolution into Backgammon
That Senet did indeed master time is attested by its longevity. More than five thousand years after the first recognizable traces of Thoth’s probably much older gift, Senet survives today as the modern and very alive game of Backgammon.
As Christianity replaced the old pharaonic religion, Senet was deemed too pagan because of its religious context, so it underwent a few minor adaptations to match the new tastes. Its board grew from three times ten to three times twelve squares; this version continued in the Roman Empire as the "Game of Twelve Lines" which had three rows of twelve fields each. Its pieces followed these rows "as the ox plows", that is, they reversed direction at each end and so made two U-turns, exactly as in the 3 x 10 grid of Senet.
Time went on, and "Twelve Lines" lost one of its U-turns. It entered the Middle Ages with only two rows of fields as "Tabula" and emerged practically unchanged as "Tables" to then become today's Backgammon. This makes Senet the earliest known progenitor of all the games in this "Backgammon group" of race games on rectangular boards103.
And Backgammon is still as much a part of life in Egypt as it was during its Senet days. Here is how a modern Egyptian author of a book on Backgammon described his compatriots’ continued passion for that timeless time-tracking game:
Except for their choices of recreational drugs and for some minor changes in the game rules, ancient Senet players would have felt right at home among their great...great-grandchildren a hundred or more generations later. An inscription over a gaming scene painted on the walls of the tomb of Petosiris, priest of Thoth, who died in Middle Egypt around 300 BCE, says that Senet had been to him
"a delighting of the heart with friends
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