Ancient Egyptians, like us, had board games to pass the time pleasantly. One of the most popular was senet, which in addition to being a fun board game had an undeniable ritual meaning related to eternal life.
Oh no! On the next move she beats me again!” Thinks Kha watching his wife, Merit, smiling and licking her lips in anticipation, moves her chip on what appears to be the last move of the game. “I won!” Exclaims the satisfied woman. “As always,” she adds mockingly.
Kha frowns. He is a royal architect, superintendent of public works in Deir el-Medina, the town where the builders of the royal tombs live, his position in the court of Pharaoh Thutmose III is enviable, he has a beautiful house surrounded by gardens.
Has it all. But his beautiful wife always beats him in the daily game of senet that the marriage invariably plays every night before bed.
It is a family tradition to play this popular board game to relax on cool Egyptian nights after a hard day’s work under the scorching sun. “What are you going to do to her?” He thinks resignedly. “I prefer Merit to be happy anyway,” and he offers his hand to lead his wife to bed.
Senet: A very popular game
The tomb of Kha and Merit was discovered intact by the Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli in 1906, and among its assortment of grave goods, which we can now see in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, a senet board (whose name means passage or transit) was found.
Placed on a cane table, which indicates the high esteem that the couple had for this game. But this is not the only senet board that has been found in Egypt.
In fact, this game has been documented since predynastic times (around 3100 BC), and boards have been drawn on the walls of some temples (such as in the first courtyard of the Medinet Habu temple or on the terrace of the Khonsu temple in Karnak).
Complete panels have also been found in numerous tombs. (for example, four senet boards were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb), as well as pictorial representations of the game in graves and on papyri (such as the scribe Ani’s Book of the Dead).
One of the most famous representations of a senet is the one discovered in the tomb of Nefertari, the Great Royal Wife of Ramses II, in the Valley of the Queens, where the queen is shown sitting in a chair before a senet board, about to move a tile.
Some researchers believe that this game had a ritual and magical meaning and that is why it appears so many times in the graves, it is even thought that it could have been one of the tests that the soul of the deceased had to overcome to reach the afterlife.
In fact it is considered a reference to chapter seventeenth of the Book of the Dead, which represents the judgment of Osiris and the entrance of the soul of the deceased into the underworld.
How was Senet played in ancient Egypt?
But how was senet played ? What were your rules? Apparently, the objective of the senet was to be able to move and remove the pieces from the board before the opponent.
The exact rules are unknown, because we don’t have any documents specifying how it was played. Possibly, it was so popular that everyone knew exactly how to do it so it was never considered necessary to put the rules in writing.
Some Egyptologists who have dedicated themselves to studying this game and all its representations, such as Gustave Jéquier and others, believe they have been able to decipher its rules. And they have come to the conclusion that this game had points in common with others well known to us such as backgammon or ludo.
A senet board (which could serve as a box to store the chips at the same time) is made up of three rows made up of ten squared each.
The players, who could only be two, had between 5 and 10 chips each. Normally the pieces of each player had a certain shape, conical or cylindrical, that distinguished them from those of the opposite (like the different colors in modern Parcheesi).
The players used a kind of flat sticks or talus bones that had some mark on one of their sides to differentiate them.
According to the results of these investigations, the senet could be played like this: the sticks were thrown away and the points resulting from the value obtained were then added up.
The pieces moved from left to right in the first ten squares; On the other hand, in the ten squares in the center the direction was reversed, from right to left, and in the next row, also with ten squares, the direction was reversed again, from left to right, as in the first row.
There were six special boxes: 15, in the middle of the central row, and the last of the third row (from 26 to 30), which were usually marked with drawings or hieroglyphs to distinguish them, (especially from the reign of Queen Hatshepsut).
If it fell on square 27, it returned to square 15, much like what happens in the game of the goose. Boxes 26, 28, 29 and 30 had a protective sense of the tiles, as in the insurance boxes of the current Parcheesi (they could not be “killed” or “captured”), but they had special rules: you had to go through box 26 and, once there, it had to be finished in two rolls and with the exact number of points, otherwise the piece had to stay in the initial position before the move.
When two pieces of a player were in a row, they protected each other and the opposing player could not capture them.
If the pieces that were followed were three, they could form a barrier and the opposing player could not overcome it. When you couldn’t move forward, you had to go back whenever possible.
When a piece of the opposing player was “killed”, the result was the exchange of positions: the piece that he captured was placed in the square where the piece that had been “killed” was, and this was placed in the square where the piece was before starting the game.
Earn the right to eternity
Regarding its ritual meaning, linked to the concept of immortality, it is curious that in the representations of the tombs, the deceased (as in the aforementioned case of Queen Nefertari) appears in front of the game alone, with no apparent opponent.
Various theories have been considered about the possible identity of this invisible adversary: Perhaps it was the Mehen serpent, protector of the Sun and linked to eternity, perhaps it was the hostile forces of the underworld or perhaps the deceased was playing alone.
According to some studies, the game served to overcome negative energies that could prevent the deceased’s ba (one of the parts that made up the soul, mediator between the divine and the earthly world, normally represented as a bird with a human head) move freely, cross the necropolis and join the body of the deceased.
He loves her deeply and just wants her to be happy. Look up to see his beautiful senet tabletop on the folding wooden nightstand.
How many games have they played with it, how many nights have they spent competing in the garden under the starry sky, caressed by the breeze and drinking palm wine …
Kha has arranged for his beloved senet to be included in his tomb goods. So he and his beloved Merit will be able to continue playing forever in the fields of Osiris … And perhaps, if only for once, he will be able to win his expert wife.
Source: Carme Mayans, National Geographic