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The Oldest Game: The History of Dice

The Oldest Game: The History of Dice


The game of dice is known to all, even those who have never set foot in a casino in their life. It is simple, addictive, and as old as the human civilization. It was played in Mesopotamia, China, and America. It was used to pass the time and to ask the gods for advice.

The modern name of the game comes from the Latin word “datum”, meaning “something given”. In Old French, the word was “dé”, and then Middle English transformed it into “die”.

The actual time and place of origin of the dice remains unknown. They might have come from the Indus Valley Civilization or from various locations in the Middle East. Most likely, the game has been invented independently in various locations, by various peoples. It is mentioned in the Vedas, as well as in the Old Testament. In Mahabharata, the major epic of Ancient India, a game of dice between the Kauravas and the Pandavas ended in a massive war. The game is also listed among the ones that Gautama Buddha said that he would not play.

The first individuals to roll the dice were the gods of the ancient world. In Ancient Greece, the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades cast the dice to divide the Universe, the heavens, the sea, and the underworld, between themselves. The oldest dice that was used by humans were found in Iran, at the excavation site of Shahr-e Sūkhté, the Burned City. This Bronze Age settlement dates back to about 2800 BC. The pieces belonged to a backgammon-like game set and have exactly the same look at the dice nowadays – one could just pick them up and start playing.

The oldest known icosahedron, a die with twenty sides, was found in Egypt. It was made around the second century BC, at the time of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. In total, three icosahedrons from that era have been found, all of them inscribed with the letters of the Greek alphabet, since the Ptolemaic dynasty was started by Macedonian Greeks and Koine Greek was used in the kingdom as well as the Egyptian language. We do not, unfortunately, know what game the Egyptians played with these particular dice. It has been suggested the dice were used in Egypt for divination, each side of the die marked with a letter that indicated one of the gods. It this case, the die would be cast to determine which god would be able to help the inquirer.

In Mesopotamia, a region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Western Asia, the Royal Game of Ur was played with the dice as early as the 3d millennium BC. Sir Leonard Woolley, an English archaeologist, discovered this game at the excavation site at Ur, a Suremian city-state that was located in the southern part of modern Iraq, at the Royal Cemetery, and named it after the place of its discovery. We own our knowledge of the rules of the game to a scribe named Itti-Marduk-balālu who has written them down on a clay tablet in the 2nd century BC. The Game of Ur appears to have been an ancestor of backgammon. There were two sets of pieces placed on the game board and the pyramid-shaped die with four sides would be rolled to determine each player's movement. The game was not only a form of entertainment, but also a means of divination: depending on the events of the game, the players’ destiny could be predicted, and messages would be received from the dead ancestors or from the gods themselves.

One of the oldest known games in America, Patolli, used the dice as well. Even the unfortunate Moctezuma II, the ruler of the Aztec Triple Alliance killed by the Spanish conquistadors, liked watching his noblemen play Patolli at his court. The game was known to many pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. The players would bet their possessions, and sometimes the stakes would go as high as the players’ homes and freedom. The aim was to get one’s six game pieces to the end of the game board. The dice could be substituted by six black beans, each with a hole in one side.

In Ancient Greece, dice and board games were so popular they would even be played in the Parthenon, a great Athenian temple dedicated to the goddess of wisdom Athena, protector of the city. Scenes with people playing dice were depicted on numerous vases, the most famous one of them showing Achilles and Ajax, the great Greek heroes, playing dice during the siege of Troy. In fact, the Greeks believed that the dice was invented during the Trojan War. Because the siege lasted for ten years, the warriors suffered from boredom until Palamedes invented a game played with dice, a predecessor of backgammon. Palamedes dedicated his invention to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, at a temple in Corinth.

The Romans were passionate gamblers too. There were two standard dice configurations: the large four-sided dice “Tali”, and the smaller six-sided “Tesserae”. However, twenty-sided dice made from glass were also used occasionally. In a game, the bad score was nicknamed “the dog”, and the good one was “Venus”, after the goddess of love and beauty. The legionnaires of the Roman armies carried the dice with them all over the conquered territories. According to the New Testament, the Roman soldiers even cast dice to decide who gets the garments of the crucified Jesus. Because dice were so popular and ruined so many wealthy citizen's fortunes, the Roman government passed a law prohibiting gambling. The law, however, had barely any effect.

In Medieval Europe, dice became especially popular around 1100-s. Chaucer mentioned the game in his “Canterbury Tales”: “They dance and play at dice both day and night”, wrote he. Naturally, the church tried to prohibit dice as the invention of the Devil ruinous for Christian souls. The prohibition did not work, of course.

Today, there exist over twenty versions of dice, from the one-sided Möbius die to the mind-numbing disdyakis triacontahedron with 120 faces. They are used for numerous games, not only for gambling and divination, but also for board games and role-playing, such as the iconic Dungeons & Dragons. A simple device that started as pieces of bone, the dice continue to move fortunes from one owner to another, provide entertainment, bring delight and despair, and, if one believes in such things, pronounce the will of the stars.

Words: Jelena Schmidt

Images: Shutterstock

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