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
Returning to the Disk, we find that the arrangement of its two fields on which the "dead" bald head is paired with the "birth- death- rebirth" rosette, and the dangerous "Tartarus" field in between, perfectly matches the Senet endgame theme of a journey through death and then through great danger towards victorious regeneration -- the major concern in the pharaonic religion and in many others which picked up its hopes just as their followers continue to play its games towards the same goal.
The bald head and its companion signs three fields before the end in the center parallel the "House of Death" five squares before the end of the Senet track, and the repetition of this sign group with the "transition" rosette in the center itself matches the last Senet square from which the piece exited the board and was "born" to the sunny afterlife of the blest.
5.1. The direction of the path on the Disk
The similarity implies that the path on the Disk ended with this goal of the game, at the center of the side with the bald head, and so went from the outside in, at least on that side.
The direction of the path on the other side seems to be the same because the layout of that side is the same, with the counter- clockwise turn around the border, the U-turn reversal of direction, and the clockwise spiral from then on. Moreover, this direction matches also the location of the rosette at its beginning.
In other words, this comparison with Senet allows us to establish the sequence of the fields and to number these in their proper order, with death and rebirth at the end as shown on the drawings of both sides.
5.2. Meetings of sun and moon
In this so established sequence, the death field is number 58. That location yields another parallel with Senet because in both games death comes in the field immediately after a "meeting of sun and moon". As we saw above, this meant the time when the newborn sun of the winter solstice coincided again with a new moon.
5.2.1. The 25-year Egyptian cycle in Senet
In Egypt, those meetings took place every 25 years because the calendar makers kept a schematic 365-day solar year cycle next to their observation-based lunar calendar. They used no leap days for the civil solar year but inserted these freely and as needed for their lunar months which followed the actual moon, unlike the standardized 30-day civil month.
On the other hand, it might have been more embarrassing to celebrate full-moon festivals in the dark, or to greet the moon as new crescent when it was already waning.
Reconciling the two calendars gave the Egyptians a simple scheme for fixing the civil- calendar dates of the various lunar festivals in each year of the recurring cycles. They took advantage of the fact that 25 of these truncated civil years have 9125 days, and so do 309 lunar months, with a shortfall of only about one hour, or one day off in 600 years.
The earliest surviving account of this cycling method appears on a Demotic papyrus dated from 144 CE or later, and some scholars think the cycle was instituted no earlier than about the fourth century BCE111. The dates in that Demotic list were about a day off, so those scholars deduced that this must be the error accumulated since the start of the count.
However, that "start of the count" could just as well have been the time of the last correction, one among many that kept the calendar tuned. The discrepancy at the time of those Demotic data meant then simply that such a correction was about due again. Furthermore, a Middle Kingdom inscription appears to refer to the intercalations from this method and so implies a much greater age112.
The civil calendar on which that artificial 25-year cycle is based was already in place during Old Kingdom times or earlier113. That cycle seems to be of similar age because some of the foundations of pharaonic kingship appear to have been built on it.
18.104.22.168. The Apis bull as fake pharaoh
Twenty-five years was the canonical lifespan of the sacred Apis bull which was usually put to death when he reached his 26th year. Some authors give thirty years as his allotted time, and an inscription on an Apis mummy from the Ptolemaic period indicates that its bearer had lived at least 26 years.
However, Plutarch114 and Ammianus Marcellinus115 say Apis was slain after he had lived 25 years, and this is also the age quoted most often for earlier times.
Apis was greatly revered from the very beginnings of the pharaonic civilization and appears as divine already by the Second Dynasty, usually with a sun-disk prominent in his godís crown. The Roman author Aelianus describes how this carefully chosen bull received pharaonic honors :
Apis was perfumed with the sweetest odors and anointed with precious unguents, and any time he appeared in public, a crowd of boys sang hymns to him because the soul of Osiris was in Apis just as it was in pharaoh.
Other traditions describe Apis also as the incarnation of Ptah, the creator god from Memphis who was similarly linked with the king.
But Apis was not allowed to live longer than twenty-five years, the number of years between meetings of sun and moon in the Egyptian calendar, and also the number of squares before "Death" in Senet. When his time ran out, the priests drowned the divine Apis in their fountain or sacred lake and mourned him with great lamentations. Then they quickly found his successor116.
Since the death square in Senet corresponds to the first of the two Phaistos fields with the bald head, it is noteworthy that the priests who killed Apis then shaved their heads in mourning and stayed bald until they found the new Apis, as reported by Pliny the Elder117.
The reason for this strange-appearing ritual was that the bull functioned as a magical substitute for the king. The pharaonic state was based on linking the king with the sun.
The form of this link changed over time from identifying the king with the sun to promoting him as its incarnation or its son and representative on earth. You can see this evolution in the relative sizes of the king and the sun-falcon as they changed in the sculptures that showed them together.
For instance, the hawk that protected the Old Kingdom pharaoh Chephren was perched on his shoulders whereas the statue of the Ptolemaic king in the Horus temple at Edfu stands dwarfed between the legs of a towering falcon.
However, in all cases the king was seen as representative of the sun and therefore subject to the same cycle as his celestial counterpart.
Accordingly, when the sun died at the end of 25 years, the king had to die, too. This was necessary before he could celebrate his Heb-Sed festival of royal renewal and rebirth in year 30 of his reign.
The renewal ceremonies would not have worked as well if the king had been killed in person, so the clever pharaohs chose to delegate this part of their role in the ritual to the more expendable Apis bulls. They had long identified themselves in their titles and images with bulls because these were admired for their strength and prowess, so it was a logical step to substitute this equivalent for themselves when their sacrifice was required.
Such substitutions were a religiously acceptable practice. The idea is illustrated, for instance, in the Vandier Papyrus which tells of a magician who descends into the netherworld to request more time for the ruling king. He learns there that this can be granted only if he, the magician, offers himself to die in place of the king118.
We ignore whether that magician agreed, but we know that the Apis bull had no choice.
To make the substitution of the Apis bull for the king more credible, each Apis was buried with pharaonic honors, sometimes wrapped to resemble human mummies and placed in human-shaped coffins with golden human-faced masks119. Similarly, the king wore a bullís tail attached to his kilt when he raced around the Heb-Sed court.
On a lintel with the cartouche of king Nectanebo II (360 to 343 BCE), the Apis is even shown as a man with the head of a bull120, like the Cretan Minotaur which may well have filled a similar function. The royal reverence given to the animal and the sun-disk in its crown reinforced its identity with the king. The ruse seems to have worked because the gods never complained about the switch.
The connection between Apis and the meetings of sun and moon is expressed in its outward appearance: the new Apis had to be all black, like the moonless night sky, and the Roman writer Pliny (23/4 to 79 CE) adds that it also displayed a symbol of the new moon:
The beetle was a common symbol for the morning sun, well known from many scarabs made in its shape. The association is said to recall the dung beetleís rolling a ball of dung from which new beetles then hatched as if by themselves.
The word and picture for that beetle were also the word and hieroglyph for "becoming" or "coming into existence". Apis bore it therefore as the mark of the new sun and so united its beginning with that of the new crescent moon.22.214.171.124. The renewal of the real pharaoh
The king saved in this manner by his proxy then organized a Heb-Sed festival, a sort of royal jubilee which started on the Egyptian New Year's Day, when the inundated lands began again, at least theoretically, to emerge from the waters.
Although the kings had some liberty in scheduling this event, and some Apis bulls may have died of natural causes before their allotted time was up, the traditional "ideal" time for these festivals of renewal was usually year thirty of the kingís reign, echoing the square thirty in Senet where the gamepieces were reborn into the afterlife.
During the business part of the five-day Heb-Sed celebration, the gods renewed the powers of the king for another term, and his dead father Osiris gave him in the netherworld the new divine law, called "The Secret of the Two Partners".
Like the transaction between Minos and his dead father Zeus in the Cretan cave, this ceremony confirmed the role of the king as the vital link between heaven and earth and consequently his legitimacy.
Classical Greek mythology and Egyptian religious writings yield also clear parallels between the sacrificial bull Apis and the Minotaur whose name means simply the "Bull of Minos":
Unfortunately, the Cretan ritual survives only second- hand, and with its original symbolism distorted, in the Theseus myth which was hatched by Athenian anti- Cretan propaganda. However, the Egyptian Heb-Sed jubilees are well documented in art and writings from the First Dynasty onwards down to Roman times.
These festivals and their meaning remained essentially the same throughout this immense time span although the religious beliefs and the position of the king changed substantially during those three millennia of pharaonic rule.
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