Board Games have been with humans longer than art and longer than language. Board Games have woven themselves into tales of Greek Demigods, Japanese Samurai, and Arthurian Knights. Let’s look at 10 times that board games got into myth and legend.
Amphora by Exekias
Amphora is a vase painted sometime in the 300’s BC, depicting Achilles and Ajax playing a board game in full war regalia. It’s understood that the scene is meant to portray the pair during the Iliad, though there aren’t any known board game scenes in Homer’s classical piece. It’s likely to portray the moment when Ajax speaks earnestly to Achilles in an attempt to overcome Achilles’s feud with Agamemnon and return him to the war.
I like that this is a piece of historic fan art, where the artist decided to add his own flair to the course of events. It shows how generally popular board games were in Greece at the time. Unfortunately, Ajax was unsuccessful in his argument, probably because they were playing a game and Ajax is a notoriously bad loser. (When Ajax lost claim to Achilles armor to Odysseus, Ajax went a little crazy killed a bunch of cattle and then was so ashamed that he killed himself).
Oware To Marry
Oware is a game from the mancala family that originated from the Ashanti culture in Africa. There is a common story of a man and a woman who were obsessed with playing this game. The more they played it, the more people complained that they were neglecting their responsibilities.
Fed up with others’ nagging, the pair decided to get married so that they could play the game in peace. Henceforth, the game was called Oware, which literally translates into “to marry”. There are a lot of two person activities that marriage allows you to do without social pressure, and I’m glad at least one culture decided that board gaming was the most important one.
Thoth Gaming For Moonlight
By many accounts, Ra—the falcon headed sun-god—was a strong, paranoid leader. Like many gods and kings, he feared the existence of those who would overthrow him. So when Nut—the goddess of the sky who is also sometimes a cow—became pregnant, he was furious. Ra declared that Nut would not give birth on any day of the year.
Nut went to Thoth—the crane-headed god of wisdom—for help and they devised a plan. Thoth went to play Senet with Khonsu—the very green god of the moon—and wagered on the game to win a bit of moonlight. The more they played, the more moonlight Thoth won. Eventually, Thoth won enough moonlight to fashion five additional days that were not a part of the year that Nut could give birth in.
So, according to the myth, not only is a board game responsible for the leap days in a year, it’s also responsible for the five gods Nut birthed during them, namely: Osirus, Isis, Set, Nephytus, and Horus.
Sato Tadanobu with a Goban
Sato Tadanobu was a samurai of legend, with a long list of daring deeds. Once, he was ambushed while playing a game of Go, and, rather than grab his weapon, he grabbed the Go Board (goban) and beat his enemies to death with it.
More than just a historical quirk, this scene has been portrayed in countless kabuki plays and pieces of artwork.
Despite killing many enemies with a large blunt piece of wood, eventually Sato is completely surrounded, and commits ritual suicide. In Go, pieces that are completely surrounded are removed, making Sato’s death feel appropriately poetic.
The Dead Man’s Hand
Like most parts of the old West, Wild Bill Hickok’s life was filled with superstition and high adventure . . .only after he died. He was a pretty regular gunslinger, soldier, and lawman; he was just good enough at shootin’ and playin’ cards that Buffalo Bill Cody deemed it appropriate to add him to the Wild West Pantheon.
As Hickok aged, his eyesight started to go, and he spiraled into vagrancy and spent less time at shootin’ and more time at cards. He beat a drunk Jack McCall at cards, and suggested the man quit until he could cover his losses. Hickok even offered him some money for breakfast the next day. Jack took that as an insult and returned the next day to kill Hickok with a revolver point blank to the back of the head while Hickok was playing cards in 1876.
It wasn’t until decades after his death that people began to bestow a superstitious quality to the cards Hickok was holding when he died. Aces and Eights, became a portend as ominous as Piracy’s black dot. It goes to show how ubiquitous poker has become to the experience of the old west that it has so captured the public’s imagination.
The Persian Chessboard
The myth of the Persian Chessboard is told and retold by mathematicians everywhere. A beggar is given an audience with a king, and the beggar asks the king for rice upon a chessboard; one grain on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third grain, and so on. The king agrees, happily until he does the math and it turns out he has offered more rice than exists in his kingdom.
Carl Sagan called the story the Persian Chessboard in a book outlining exponential growth in bacteria, and the math involved in the story has interesting properties for applied mathematics. It’s likely the story originated in India, where chess and high level maths were common in early history.
The Völuspá is the first and best known poem of the Poetic Edda, which summarizes in prophecy the whole of Norse Mythology. It begins with the prophetic völva (seer/shaman) describing the Norse creation myth, with the gods going about their duties to make the world. In stanza 8, the gods retire from their labors to “play at tables”.
While the rules aren’t explicit, scholars believe this is a reference to Tafl, an early Scandinavian chess-like game. The game doesn’t play much into the plot of the myth, but it shows how the Norse humanized their gods. Norse Gods ate, drank, and played board games, just like the rest of us.
Peredur son of Efrawg
Peredur is a welsh knight with legends adjacent to the Arthurian Mythos. His story follows the similar grail-seeking story as Percival, but takes place primarily in Wales.
His search takes him to the Castle of Wonders where he encounters a magic gwyddbywll, a welsh board game in the tafl family of games. The gwyddbywll plays itself and the little men cheer as though they’re real.
Peredur does the only sensible thing when encountering a mysterious board game that plays itself; he picked it up, went outside, and threw it into a lake. Turns out the board game belonged to a quasi-magical “empress”, who then sends Peredur on a series of quests to atone.
If a friend wrecked my one of a kind board game, you can bet I’ll send them on quests of atonement. To be fair, my quest probably wouldn’t include murdering a unicorn and some dude out of spite.
The Pope’s Chess Game
According to a Jewish legend, there was once a Jewish boy who learned chess from his father and became incredibly skilled at a young age. He was so good that a Catholic servant thought that it would be a great service to kidnap the boy and give him to the Church to raise as a Christian.
The Jewish boy was so smart and good at chess that he rose quickly in the Church, though, secretly, he never forgot his father or his roots.The boy grew up and became Pope. Now at the top of the Catholic Church, the boy wished to find his father and help the Jewish people.
So the Pope declared heavy taxes on Jews from his hometown. Sure enough, a representative was sent from that region to contest the Pope’s new rules. The Pope met with the man, but before he would talk he demanded that they play a game of chess.
The Jewish leader agreed, and was soon surprised at how well the Pope played chess. The Pope used maneuvers and techniques that the Jewish leader had taught his son. Soon, the Pope revealed himself as the lost son, and quickly rescinded the harsh new rules. He sent his father back with a secret message to his hometown, letting them know what had happened.
Moral of the story? If you get really good at chess, you too can become Pope, even if you’re not Catholic.
BUDDHA Hates Board Games
According to the Brahmajāla Sutta, Gautama Buddha had a list of games he would not play: Games on boards with 8 or 10 rows, Games of throwing dice, and more. While it’s easy to imagine that board games are frivolous activities that the Buddha would deem distracting from the path to enlightenment, board games had an interesting role in ancient India.
India has a history associated with lots of rules; it enforced a complex caste system, it advanced mathematics quite a bit, and it was the birthplace of a lot of board games. A common board game that is likely to have been excluded by the Buddha would have been Gyan Chauper, a game we know today as Snakes and Ladders.
While we think of Snakes and Ladders as a children’s game, it has a history in ancient India as a religious tool. Roll a die, and land on spaces that either send you upwards towards enlightenment or downward into vice.
Looking at ancient india as a society heavy with rules, it makes sense that Buddha would caution against games that encourage mindless adherence to those rules. You can’t expect to find enlightenment by following a prescribed set of rules, enlightenment must come about through mindfulness and rigorous self reflection.
King Atys and the Kingdom of Lydia
Recorded in the histories of Herodotus, the Ancient Kingdom of Lydia faced a famine. To survive this hardship King Atys declared they would only eat eat every other day. To cope with the hunger, the Lydians would play games on days without food. Nothing distracts quite like getting wrapped up in complex gaming minutia. Try to imagine a culture of hangry MTG players, it’s a surprise they made it as long as they did.
It’s a testament to the power of games that their culture was able to persist through a famine, but I have to imagine it was remarkably unpleasant. Think about playing cards with your family on Thanksgiving once you found out there wasn’t going to be any food.
There’s certainly more to the Lydian’s story, that I’ve gone into before. Take a look, here.
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