Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mehen: An Ancient Egyptian Board Game

More info on Mehen. This Mehen board is from the British Museum, c. 2800 BCE. Sorry, I don't have the exhibit number or provenance saved in My Pictures and when I looked for it today, I could not find it archived at the British Museum's website. Drat! Doesn't this remind you of the "ALL SEEING EYE" with sun-rays coming out from it??? We don't know the rules - but we have examples of the playing pieces in several museums. The following information comes from P.S. Neeley's website on Mehen, where you can also download a version of the game: ‘Mehen’, which means ‘coiled one’ or as a verb, ‘to coil’, in ancient Egyptian was played on a spiral game board – most often explicitly in the form of a snake – with varying numbers of slots (playing squares), six sets of differently colored marbles (the playing pieces, with six marbles to a set), and six special playing pieces in the form of a dangerous, predatory animal – most often lions (but sometimes dogs or even hippos). It is the only multi-player ancient Egyptian board game known – the others were contests between two players (or teams), while Mehen could accommodate as many as six contestants. Strangely, it also seems to have ceased being played in ancient Egypt from just after 2000 BC. (during the early Middle Kingdom)... The Petrie Museum (among others) has a collection of archaic lions that date to Naqada III (pre-dynastic and Dynasty "Zero"). (Image from Petrie Museum, from My Pictures). According to P.S. Neeley, a form of Mehen may have survived into the early 20th century: In the 1920s, anthropologists, explorers, and adventurers found a curious, spiral based, game being played by Baggara Arabs of the Sudan -- The Hyena Game (You can see the rules for this game in The Rules section of the help file). Tim Kendall writes: " In all essential details the "Hyena Game" seems to have been identical to Mehen. It was played on a spiraling track, employed stick dice of precisely the kind known from Archaic Egyptian contexts, and had two types of pieces, one representing a predatory animal. The only difference would seem to be that the ancient Egyptians allotted six counters to each player rather than only one." [But, see Piccione's comments, below] Here are Dr. Peter Piccione's comments on Mehen from the old ANE Digest message/bulletin board: From: "Peter Piccione" Date: 30 Nov 1994 17:23:28 USubject: Re: Phaistos/games/duplicate Reply to: RE>Phaistos/games/duplicate On 11/22 Dr. John Baker asked about the Phaistos Disk (Crete, 17th century BC),"can it have been some sort of table game?" As I recall, this possibility was mentioned and discussed at the Colloquium on Board Games of the Ancient World, held at the British Museum in September 1990. Timothy Kendall of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presented a fine paper on the Egyptian game of *mehen* (entitled, "The Egyptian Game of the Snake"), and I think he may have noted the similarities between the game and the Phaistos Disk. Unfortunately, the proceedings of that symposium are still in press, and I don't know that a publication date has even been set yet (but that's another matter). On 11/23, Dr. Joanna Smith wrote that the game in question is the spiral-form "game of snake" (citing W. Decker, SPORTS AND GAMES OF ANCIENT EGYPT, 131-33). She then broached the subject of small inscribed clay balls found on Cyprus about which Dikaios earlier conjectured were marbles for gaming (P. Dikaios,ENKOMI 2, p. 516). These balls are clay and impressed with Cyprio-Minoan signs, meaning uncertain (E. Masson, STUDIES IN MEDITERRANEAN ARCHAEOLOGY31/1). Dr. Smith noted the similarity between these balls and small Egyptian gaming balls (viz. "marbles"), which were associated earlier with the "game of snake." Those balls are made of stone and are incised with decorative text. She described an illustration of an inscribed Egyptian marble in association with that game, published by G. Hart, ANCIENT EGYPT, p. 53 [middle left] (BTW, the source for this photo is noted on p. 64, "p. 53ml"). She quotes Hart's description of the marble, "the stone counters are sometimes carved with thenames of Egypt's earliest pharaohs." My own extensive research into Egyptian board games and their religious associations has shed some light on the game of *mehen* (as the "game of snake"is properly called in Egyptian). The "mehen" is both the coiled serpent of that gameboard, as well as the proper noun, Mehen, denoting the specific serpent-deity embodied in the game. Regarding this game, note the following recent references: Decker, W. and Herb, M. BILDATLAS ZUM SPORT IM ALTEN AEGYPTEN: CORPUS DERBILDLICHEN QUELLEN ZU LEIBESUEBUNGEN, SPIEL, JAGD, TANZ UND VERWANDTEN THEMEN.Vol. 1, TEXT, pp. 608-11, 633-42. Vol. 2, ABBILDUNGEN, pls. 355-59. Handbuchder Orientalistik. Abteilung 1. Der Nahe und der Mittlere Osten 14. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994. Kendall, T. LEXIKON DER AEGYPTOLOGIE, ed. W. Helck and E. Otto. Vol. 5, 653-55.Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz. S.v. "Schlangenspiel" [in English]. Kendall, T. "An Ancient Egyptian Board Game among the Khababish?" In his"Ethnoarchaeology in Meroitic Studies." MEROITICA 10 (1984): 711-15. Piccione, P. "The Historical Development of the Game of Senet and Its Significance for Egyptian Religion," 41-42, 217-27. Ph.D. dissertation,University of Chicago, 1990. [Available through University Microfilms] Piccione, P. "Mehen, Mysteries and Resurrection from the Coiled Serpent."JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN RESEARCH CENTER IN EGYPT 27 (1990): 43-52. N.B., the still important seminal study (although outdated in certain conclusions and syntheses): Ranke, H. "Das Altaegyptische Schlangenspiele." SITZUNGBERICHTE DERHEIDELBERGER AKADEMIE DER WISSENSCHAFTEN 11. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1920. The archaeological and artistic evidence for the game of *mehen* is found only in contexts dating from the Predynastic Period through the Old Kingdom (perhaps as late as the First Intermediate Period). Later in the Saite Period, the play of the game is again depicted on the walls of two tombs, as part of the neo-Memphite revival--when Old Kingdom artistic motives and themes were temporarily revived for socio-political purposes. The pattern strongly suggests that the *mehen*-game ceased to be played in Egypt after the Old Kingdom. Representations in the tomb of Hesyre and various other mastabas reveal that 2-6 people played at any one time (probably forming 2 teams of 1-3 players ea.) Gaming pieces included: 6 sets of marbles (6 per player) and 2 sets of feline draughtsmen (3 couchant lions and 3 couchant lionesses), probably 1 set for each team. That the game quickly developed significant and deep-seated religious associations (if these were not actually original to the game!) is indicated by the game's occurence and function in the Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts (q.v. Piccione, "Mehen," passim). While marbles were an important component of the game, none have ever been found together with any *mehen*-gameboards. Thus, the photograph of marble and board in Hart's ANCIENT EGYPT represents a false assemblage, composed, no doubt, for illustrative purposes (a common practice in museum display). That marble does not belong to that *mehen*-board. Because marbles were also in popular use with games other than *mehen* (e.g., Petrie, NAQADA AND BALLAS, p.35, pl. VII [1]), their occurence in an archaeological context does not necessarily indicate the presence of a *mehen*-game, specifically. Dr. Smith asked about the significance of Egyptian marbles which happen to be inscribed. Actually these are very rare, given the large number of uninscribed marbles recovered in Egypt. Most of the known examples are published by Peter Kaplony, DIE INSCHRIFTEN DER AEGYPTISCHEN FRUEHZEIT. Supplement, pp. 28-31[1050-1052], pl. 2. Aegyptologische Abhandlungen 9. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1964. The specimen published by Hart, now in the British Museum, is incised with the name of King Aha. The marbles of Kaplony's corpus are incised with the names of kings of the Archaic Period, specifically. They usually derive from the mastabas and cenotaphs of these kings and are probably inscribed as such to denote them as the property of their owners. The kings whose names are found inscribed on such marbles include: Aha (c. 3050-3016 BC), Djer (c. 3016-2970 BC), Wadji (c.2970-2963 BC), Anedjib (c. 2949-2897 BC), and Ninetjer (c. 2815-2778 BC). Uninscribed marbles have also been found in the tombs of these and other kings of the period. Other than this limited group of royalty, no other inscribed marbles are presently known to me (but that's not saying too much!). Note that the draughtsmen of other games (e.g., *senet*) are also rarely inscribed with the names of their owners (royal or otherwise). These incised Egyptian marbles probably were associated originally with*mehen*-boards in the burials. To my mind, though, there is almost certainly no connection between the Egyptian incised marbles and Dr. Smith's inscribed balls from Cyprus. (BTW, despite Dikaios' suggestion that these balls are gaming pieces, I am not convinced they are marbles for gaming. There is nothing to suggest that they could not, otherwise, have been used in some fashion as counting stones, for divination and sortilege, etc.). Whether or not the *mehen*-game was actually the inspiration for the Phaistos Disk of Crete or for stone slabs on Cyprus carved with patterns of coiling dots or for the Hyena Game of The Sudan is another more vexing question, and it is better kept for another discussion. Those interested should see S. Swiny, "Bronze Age Gaming Stones from Cyprus," REPORT OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ANTIQUITIESCYPRUS 5 (1980): 54-78 and Kendall's article in MEROITICA (cited above). However, because of chronological considerations--although I do not deny the possibility, I am far more cautious and hesitant than Swiny and Kendall in identifying such stones on Cyprus and games in the remotest backwaters of The Sudan specifically as *mehen* or as descendents of *mehen*. Peter Piccione
Here is some information about the ancient Egyptian Goddess Mehen: Mehen Patron of: defender of the Sun Boat Appearance: A serpent-headed man holding a spear, standing in the prow of the Sun Boat, or as a giant snake coiled around it. Description: In the Old Kingdom and in predynastic literature, Mehen, along with Set in his original form, fights Apep daily as the sun travels across the sky. Mehen wraps his coils around Apep, while Set strikes at Apep with a spear. Yes yes, darlings, I know - Mehen is referred to as a "serpent-headed man" in later ancient Egyptian references (all long past the Archaic Period) and the early 19th century adventurers who excavated Egypt just assumed that Mehen was a god. But think about it: (1) Mehen was paired with Set in his original form (Set was the original husband of the goddess Nepthys, sister of Isis). The Egyptians often paired their goddesses and gods together (think of the four pairs of gods and goddesses that make up the original Egyptian Ogdoad). (2) There were TWO GODDESSES on one of the sacred crowns of Egypt, signifying the uniting of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt): the Vulture Goddess and the Serpent Goddess who, together, guarded Pharaoh. Depictions of Mehen encircling the Sun God Re (Pharaoh incarnate) on the Royal Barque remind me of a fetus within a womb. I haven't done a study on the subject, but my guess is that the serpent-enclosed depictions of Pharaoh are older, and the depictions of Mehen as a serpent-headed male with a spear on the Royal Barque are much later interpretations of the ancient texts that New Kingdom Egyptians incorporated into tomb paintings of Re's journey through the "underworld", which those artists no longer perfectly understood.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

Lots of good information on the Mehen game. Here is a link to a post I made on the game of Mehen:

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