Ancient Egyptian Games: Senet

game-nefertari

The statues and pyramids, the Nile river and the desert, the hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone get all the press, but the ancient Egyptians enjoyment of play and especially games from athletic demonstrations of strength to board games which we’ll focus upon the most popular one here.  They had toys made of clay and wood and fashioned balls out of leather. They loved to dance and also loved to swim in the Nile River. Board games and pictures depicting people dancing in circles have been found in tombs dating back thousands of years.

senet

Senet was the most popular game of the ancient Egyptians.  The oldest hieroglyph resembling a senet game dates to around 3100 BC.  The full name of the game meant the “game of passing” in ancient Egyptian.  One of the oldest known Senet board representations ever found was a painting from 2,686 B.C. in the tomb of Hesy-Ra. The board game had three rows of ten squares. Some of the squares had symbols which represented bad and good fortune. Two sets of pawns were used to play the game. The object of the game was to be the first player to pass into the afterlife unscathed by bad fortunes along the way.  People are depicted playing senet in a painting in the tomb of Rashepes, as well as from other tombs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (c. 2500 BC).   The oldest intact senet boards date to the Middle Kingdom, but graffiti on Fifth and Sixth Dynasty monuments could date as early as the Old Kingdom.

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At least by the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550–1077 BC), senet was conceived as a representation of the journey of the ka (the vital spark) to the afterlife. This connection is made in the Great Game Text, which appears in a number of papyri, as well as the appearance of markings of religious significance on senet boards themselves. The game is also referred to in chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead.  Senet also was played by people in neighboring cultures, and it probably came to those places through trade relationships between Egyptians and local peoples.

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The senet gameboard is a grid of 30 squares, arranged in three rows of ten. A senet board has two sets of pawns (at least five of each).The movement of the counters was decided by throwing four two-sided sticks or, in some cases, knucklebones.  Although details of the original game rules are a subject of some conjecture, senet historians Timothy Kendall and R. C. Bell have made their own reconstructions of the game.  These rules are based on snippets of texts that span over a thousand years, over which time gameplay is likely to have changed. Therefore, it is unlikely these rules reflect the actual course of ancient Egyptian gameplay.   Their rules have been adopted by sellers of modern senet sets.

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