Sunday, June 3, 2007

Senet and the Promoted Pawn

Here is an example of a senet board, this one from the tomb of Amenhotep III (c. 1386 – 1349 BCE). Senet was a game of 30 squares, and although the rules of the games are not precisely known, intact games recovered from tombs consisted of either five or seven pieces of the "spool" and "reel" type, as in the photograph, and several squares on the board were marked with either hazards or blessings. Some of the marked squares can be observed in this example and notice the checkered pattern on the drawer end. The game dates back possibly to c. 3500 BCE, and in later years during the long Egyptian civilization it took on religious and mystical significance. Some tomb paintings depict the senet board as a red and black checkered board. One of the most famous depictions of this type of board is from the Theban tomb of Nebenma'at (c. 1250 – 1100 BCE), where he plays Senet with his wife, Meretseger, on just such a board (click on view 9). Another view here.

As shown by the ancient Egyptians' use, the two-colored checkered gameboard goes way back in history. During the Egyptian ceremony of the judgment of the dead, the gods stood on a checkered floor, thus associating it with Egyptian religious ritual. In senet, which developed mystical and religious associations connected with the journey of the deceased through the underworld, the game was won by a player successfully moving all of his pieces off the board. At that point, the literature says, the pawn (decedent) becomes an imperishable star. In the latter years of Egyptian religious practice, this transformation was not restricted only to Pharoah, but could be achieved by anyone. Could this tradition, perhaps, be the ancient root of the concept of "pawn promotion?"

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