Senet: The Game of the Pharaohs

The Egyptian game known as Senet is one of the oldest known board games, perhaps dating all the way back to pre-Dynastic Egypt before 3,500 BCE.

nefertiri playing senet
A tomb painting of Queen Nefertiri playing a game of Senet                                   photo from WIkiCommons

 

The Egyptian game of Senet has a long history. The earliest rulers of the First Dynasty, dating from 3150 BCE, apparently played the game, since a fragment of what appears to be a game board and playing pieces were found in royal burials from the period. In the Third, Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, ranging from 2700-2500 BCE, there are depictions of Senet players on tomb paintings, which continued right up to the New Kingdom (a famous painting in the tomb of Ramses the Great’s wife Nefertiri depicts the Queen sitting at a Senet table) and then on to the Roman period. The game seems to have then gone out of practice in around 400 CE, though it managed to survive for at least some time after that in Asia Minor and the Aegean.

The game, in its original form, was known as “Senet Netab”, or “the game of passing”. Since it was played on a board consisting of thirty squares in three rows of ten, it may originally have been adapted from a simple calendar device used to keep track of the 30-day lunar cycle. Senet is in essence a racing game, in which two players try to maneuver their cone-shaped  game pieces  (known as ab, or “dancers”)  around  the S-tracked board first. The player’s moves were determined by “casting sticks”, some of which were flat sections of wood with one side painted black, and others of which were simple lengths of twigs that had been split down the middle to have one flat side and one round side. Later, these were replaced by Roman-style astragali (crude dice made from the knucklebones of goats or sheep).

The simplest boards were made of wood, and crude Senet tracks have been found scratched into stones at quarry sites, for use by the artisans and workers during their breaks. In later tombs, including that of Tutankhamen, elaborate Senet boxes were found that had been carved from ivory or molded in glazed pottery: these often contained a drawer to hold the casting sticks and playing pieces. Large tables, with legs often in the shape of animals, were also produced with stone, tile, or ivory Senet boards inlaid into the wood for wealthy players. Ab game pieces were most often clay cones, which were usually fired and glazed: carved wooden pieces in the shape of stylized animals were also sometimes used. The simplest sets used colored stones, seeds or beads.

Although the game seems to have been widely played by people of every social level, it was the wealthy leisure class, such as the Royal Court and the priests, who were the most devoted. Indeed, Senet, perhaps with the encouragement of the priesthood, appears to have begun as a form of religious symbolism—a layman’s depiction of the journey of the soul (known as ka) from death to the Afterlife. Playing the game also became a method of reminding everyone, from rich to poor, of their duties to the Egyptian gods and of the paradise that awaited them after death if they lived a virtuous life.

Although many Senet boards had squares which were mostly empty, others were more elaborate, with hieroglyphics representing religious symbols in every square. In nearly every version, however, at least some of the game squares, such as the House of Resurrection, the House of Water, and the House of Beauty, were representative of portions of the Egyptian funerary rites and the soul’s pathway to eternity. In game play, these significant squares affected a player’s actions, and the number and effect of these special squares apparently varied with time and place.

In nearly all of the various adaptations, moreover, the last five squares had a particular religious significance. Square 26 was the House of Beauty, where the dead body was mummified. Square 27 was the House of Water, symbolizing the river that carried the ka Soul to the underworld. Square 28, 29, and 30 represented the gods Thoth-Amun, Amun-Ra, and Ra-Horus, who guided the soul on its voyage. Most versions of the game board also have a House of Resurrection, a place of good fortune where the god Osiris abodes, and some add a House of Netting, representing the various traps and tests that awaited the Soul which it had to pass through before reaching the Afterlife.

By the time the Egyptian Book of the Dead was compiled in around 2000 BCE, Senet was already regarded highly enough as a religious rite to get a mention in the sacred texts. It was believed that a good Senet player could gain the favor of the gods Thoth, Amun-Ra and Osiris, perhaps easing his way into the Afterlife. Depictions began to appear in tombs of people playing Senet alone at a table: they were symbolically competing against their own soul to determine their eternal fate.

After the end of the classical Pharaonic Egypt and the collapse of the Roman Empire, the game of Senet was forgotten. When the science of Egyptology appeared in the 1920s, especially after the 1922 discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamen’s intact tomb (with its solid carved ivory Senet board and playing pieces), the game was rediscovered, though all memory of how it was played had long ago disappeared. Since then, several different archaeologists have made an effort to figure out the original play rules. Unfortunately, all that remains of the once-thriving game are some tomb paintings, a number of board sets, and a few fragmentary references in papyrus scrolls. Although the basic layout of the 30-square board did not change much (the major change seeming to be an increase over time in the number of player pieces from five to seven and sometimes more), the gameplay itself seems to have altered significantly over the centuries, and also to have varied with geography as well (something like modern checkers). As a result, though there have been a number of reconstructions of the rule set, none of them agree with each other. Although some of these versions have been released commercially (and there are a number of versions available online for free download), it is unlikely that any of them actually represent the game of Senet as it was played in ancient Egypt.

In many elements, Senet is very similar to other dice-based “racing” board games such as Backgammon or Parcheesi, both of which appeared later. It is possible, but not certain, that these games were influenced by, or perhaps even grew out of, a Senet tradition that had been carried abroad by Egyptian traders.

If you would like to try your hand at the game of pharaohs (and perhaps win yourself a place with Osiris in the Afterlife), this is a version of Senet with a simple rule set:

senet 1

Download the fullsize game board and pieces here:

www.flickr.com/…

And the rule set here:

www.flickr.com/…

Print the game out on a sheet of 8.5×11 heavy cardstock paper, cut out the player pieces, game board and dice sticks, and you are ready to play Senet using the  rules reference card.

Em heset net Amun-Ra!   (“May Amun-Ra favor you!”)

6 thoughts on “Senet: The Game of the Pharaohs”

  1. Thank you for a very unique article, I feel good about this ancient game being “resurrected”. What is known about it stimulates my imagination for constructing something similar…for playing in camp sites.

    I have an “Oh Wa Ree” board game. It uses pockets, carved in a wood board and stones…or some such. Its game goals are the capture of an opponents stones. Scoop and sow and capture…if one “sows” right.

    I think it originated in Africa and migrated to the Muslim World.

    Anyway. That is very interesting about “Senet”. Thanks.

  2. One can imagine some crazy pharaoh whose supporters argued that not only was he Making Egypt Great Again, but every time he did something seemingly crazy, he was in fact engaged in a game of 3D Senet. 🙂

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