A game, a Queen, and a bit of luck

Board games are one of the oldest forms of gaming — and one of the oldest games found to date comes from Ancient Egypt.  It is called Senet, the game of “passing.”

Queen Nefertari tomb scene playing Senet
Scene from Queen Nefertari’s tomb, depicting her playing the game of Senet, circa 1298 to 1235 BCE.  Source: The Yorck Project.  As published in Wikimedia Commons.

The picture above depicts Queen Nefertari playing the game of Senet, making it one of the oldest representations of a woman playing games that I have found so far.  The scene is found in her tomb in the Valley of the Queens near Thebes.

Abu Simbel temple
Abu Simbel temple showing large statues of Ramesses II flanked by smaller statues of his Queen Nefertari.

Nefertari was the wife of Pharaoh Ramesses II, and believed to have died around 1256 BCE.  She was a beloved woman, as evidenced by her many titles: “Great of Praises,” “Sweet of Love,” “Great King’s Wife, his beloved,” and Ramesses’s personal name for her, “The one for whom the sun shines.”  Though we don’t know much about her life, there are many depictions of her that show her role as queen.  She appears in various scenes leading the royal children, presiding over worship or festivities, and as the king’s consort.  Most famously, she flanks both sides of the colossus of Ramesses II at the Abu Simbel temples.

We do know that she was literate and prominent in court life, as evidenced by her letters with King Hattusili III and his wife, Pudukhepa, of the Hittites (in modern-day Turkey).  She is also depicted playing the sistra, a percussion instrument.

Senet was first discovered in the tomb of Hesy-re, who was an overseer of the royal scribers of King Djoser at Saqqara.  His tomb and the board date to 2686 BCE.  Future discoveries revealed that Senet has been played since at least 3500 BCE, with various Senet-like boards having been found in tombs and depicted on tomb walls.

Game box and pieces of Senet from tomb of king Tutankhamen
A game box and pieces for playing the game of Senet found within the intact KV62 tomb of king Tutankhamun. This object is today part of the permanent collection of the Cairo Museum of Egypt. This photo was taken at the King Tut exhibition at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington State, USA, by D. Denisenkov.

Scenes found in Old Kingdom tombs, dating 2686 to 2160 BCE, reveal that Senet was a game of position, strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was also a favorite game of King Tut, whose tomb contained four Senet boards.

Senet was also described in The Book of the Dead as one of the occupations of the deceased in the afterlife.  Like many other aspects in the Book, Senet was also played in real life.  Other texts reference the game as one played by the deceased in order to decide their fate in the afterlife.  Senet probably wasn’t always linked to the afterlife, but through the centuries it seems to have become inextricably linked to beliefs about the afterlife.

Senet was likely played until the Christian era, though we still don’t know when the game died out or why.  But when Senet’s popularity did finally pass, so too did its rules — becoming lost to time.

We know that Senet was played by a range of people.  Boards range from highly decorated to plain, and it is even speculated that the game could have been played using squares scratched into dirt or on stone — much like how you might play Tic-Tac-Toe by drawing on napkins at a restaurant.

The board featured three rows of ten squares, some of which were inscribed with hieroglyphics.  These inscriptions vary, except for the last five squares, which were consistently decorated with the inscriptions for “good,” “bad,” and the numbers 1, 2, and 3.  Each player also had five or seven playing pieces, frequently conical in shape.

It is believed that Senet was a game of strategy and chance, using knucklebones or casting sticks as early forms of dice to determine how many squares a player could move.  Various rules have been proposed as to the details, and you can view many of them online.

Peter A. Piccione detailed his version of the game in the July/August 1980 issue of Archaeology.  He believed that Senet could reveal essential Egyptian religious beliefs about the afterlife. He writes,

Senet was originally strictly a pastime with no religious significance. As the Egyptian religion evolved and fascination with the netherworld increased – reflected in such ancient works as the Book of Gates, Book of What is in the Netherworld, and portions of the Book of the Dead – the Egyptians superimposed their beliefs onto the gameboard and specific moves of senet. By the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty in 1293 BC, the senet board had been transformed into a simulation of the netherworld, with its squares depicting major divinities and events in the afterlife.

Piccione correlated his rules based on this belief that Senet was a game about the afterlife.  While this could be true for later versions of the game, it is likely not the original rules.

Another set of rules was devised by Timothy Kendall in 1978.  His version features two players using the dice to determine the number of moves made by pieces.  Special squares had effects on play, such as restarting or only being able to move when a specific number was rolled.  The winner was the first to move all of their pawns off the board.

The British Museum has their own theory, and even allows you to play the game on their Ancient Egypt website as well as look at Senet boards in their collection.

Interestingly, Senet persists in modern culture.  For example, in the 1999 Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, players must play a game of Senet in order to advance through the Tomb of Semerkhet level:  Winning the game reveals a shorter route, while losing the game forces the player to take a longer route.  Senet is also featured in the Nancy Drew computer game Tomb of the Lost Queen.  Thus, girls are still prominent players of the game — 5,000 years after it first appeared.


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