The Ultimate Christmas Game… the Phaistos Disk?

In a recent Cipher Mysteries post, I mentioned Peter Aleff’s theory that the Phaistos Disk was based on Senet, an Ancient Egyptian board game. All very fascinating… but something about it all triggered an old memory, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on. However, when yesterday I did finally manage to find what I had been reminded of – Mehen – it set a much larger train of thought in motion, that might point to a new Phaistos Disk board game theory. I’ll try to explain…

Five thousands years ago, board games started as Pharaonic courtly pursuits, only becoming accessible to a wider audience three thousand (!) years later when the idea of abstract gaming spread through the Roman upper middle class. With that basic framework in mind, Aleff theorizes that the Ancient Egyptian game Senet (a rectangular race game with pawns and various hazard squares) morphed – millennia later, and by routes entirely unknown – into the relatively modern Game of the Goose (a spiral race game with pawns and various hazard squares): Aleff proposes ingenious ways in which the spiral structure of the Phaistos Disk somehow fits into that mysteriously missing multi-millennia lineage. All the same, just about the only fragment of supporting near-evidence of the modern game’s ancient parentage comes from a throwaway line in Molière’s (1668) “The Miser”:-

La Flèche: Item: a trou-madame table, a draught-board, with the game of mother goose, restored from the Greeks, very agreeable to pass the time when one has nothing else to do.

Well… that’s one theory, with a lot of speculation to back-fill an inevitably enormous historical gap. But what I don’t really like about it is the lack of any cultural mechanism by which ideas were carried down the centuries. We have plenty of evidence of various Roman versions of Senet, such as Duodecim Scripta and Felix Sex (Lucky Sixes), which developed into a game called Tabula, which then developed (eventually) into modern Backgammon. The problem? These all use rectangular boards, very much like Senet and very much unlike the spiral Phaistos Disk. If you believe – wearing your Anthony Grafton-like Intellectual Historian hat – that ideas flow through time, it’s hard not to conclude that these particular ideas aren’t really flowing past the Phaistos Disk.

Yet as every X-Files-ophile knows, for every thesis, there’s an equal and opposite antithesis (let’s not talk about ‘syntheses’, they do complicate things so): so here’s my own theory. Of course, I doubt it’s new, and I’m entirely aware that there’s more than a whiff of Gavin Menzies to its intuitive leapery, but I’m generally pretty comfortable with it, feel free to disagree all you like. :-)

While I think that Aleff’s basic idea – that the Phaistos Disk is probably a courtly board game for the Minoan palace set – is sound, I suspect the braided historical strand of games he’s trying to tie it into is the wrong one. In my opinion, if the Disk is the board for a race game such as Senet, it is far more likely to have derived from a quite different Ancient Egyptian race game, a spiral race game called Mehen (Mehen = “coiled one”, a serpent god who protected Ra at night).

Fascinatingly, there are numerous spiral Mehen game boards still extant: this illustrated list on the Jocari site is an exceptional resource. Aleff would be right to point out that these contain many more sections than the Phaistos Disk: but for me, the big question is: what happened next? Did Mehen – a game which seems to have flourished 3000BC to 2300BC during the Old Kingdom – just disappear, or might it, like Senet, have then morphed into other spiral race games on an equally winding passage through the centuries?

Fast forward to the present, and we can see a quite different race game based around snakes and hazard squares: yes, I really am referring to Snakes and Ladders. This has a direct Indian parentage going back to at least the 16th century under the names Moksha Patamu, Gyanbazi, etc: the V&A Museum has a nice game board here. According to this site, Harish Johari’s book “The Yoga of Snakes and Arrows” claims:

The origins of this game appear to be found in 2nd century BC documents from India. Some historians point out that the game may be a variation of the ancient game of dasapada played on a 10×10 grid.

Dasapada (10×10) and ashtapada (8×8) were both race games which it is reputed that Gautama Buddha would not play in the 5th century BC. Apparently, Ashtapada was played on a square board with crosses on certain squares: though intriguingly, the game’s race did not – according to famous board-game historian H. J. R. Murray – proceed in the kind of boustrophedon (alternate rows go forward and backwards) order we now associate with Snakes and Ladders, but in a spiral pattern, moving clockwise to enter/capture a castle and then anticlockwise to return. (Though here’s a link to a dissenting opinion on this that doubts Murray’s certainty.)

Of course, you’ve already worked out where all this is, errrm, racing towards: that the Phaistos Disk probably fits not into the whole Senet…Backgammon game development line, but into an entirely different line moving from [spiral snake race] Mehen to [spiral race] Ashtapada/Dasapada to [boustrophedon race] Moksha Patamu to [boustrophedon race] Snakes & Ladders.

Perhaps the “snake” in the modern game was some kind of long-standing memory of (or some long-lost cultural reference to) to the Egyptian snake god Mehen, or perhaps just the snake-like Mehen game board: I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?

Ultimately, however, I can’t prove a single thing of this whole tenuous chain (you know that, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise). And there’s the the awkward issue of the awkward gap between Phaistos and India to fill: how did idea in place A travel to place B?

The Menzies-like lateral ‘bridging’ step is the observation that it’s entirely possible that the Minoans were trading with India circa 1500 BC. For instance, chapter 17 of Gavin Menzies’ Bronze Age speculatiathon “The Lost Empire of Atlantis” (called “Indian Ocean Trade in the Bronze Age”) wonders whether the ancient Indus civilization’s port of Lothal (built around 2400BC) was connected with the Minoans (hint: Menzies concludes ‘yes’). However, my suggestion is rather more modest in scope than Menzies: it’s merely the story of a single idea, travelling with the flow of Bronze Age trade traffic.

Ultimately, for the Minoan palace elite, was the Phaistos Disk the ultimate board game, insofar as (like Mehen) might it have been a way of improving your odds in the afterlife? And if we now play Snakes & Ladders, are we not merely recapitulating 16th century Jain morality but also travelling in time on the back of a serpent to the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt? When our counter lands on a snake, is it Mehen we’re landing on? Just a thought!

A Happy Cipher Mysteries Christmas to you all! :-)

14 Comments

  1. avatar diane o’Donovan December 25, 2011 11:00 pm

    Nick, we sometimes get overdependent on “evolution” to explain dispersion and variant forms.

    It only takes one Indian trader to bring a Pachisi cloth – perhaps to while away time in the caravanseri – and one Arab willing to buy the cloth and there you have it: an ancient Indian game leaps space and time, and – perhaps the original rules being too obscure, or culture-dependent – as a morphed game played a bit differently and called something else.

  2. avatar nickpelling December 25, 2011 11:11 pm

    Diane: most of human history can indeed be reduced to random misunderstandings between travellers well met on the road. For the Phaistos Disk, I’m just suggesting which roads it might have been, is all. :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  3. avatar diane o’Donovan December 25, 2011 11:17 pm

    Sorry – I forgot to mention that the key to transmission might also be philosophical, religious or technical information. Most old games were intended that way. Anyway, you get a coiled snake in some objects that are supposed Pythagorean. Usually show a bath-sort of thing with people ranged around the rim and “il-serpentio” in the middle.
    Couldn’t find a picture of one online. But this is much more in keeping with a Christmas day post.
    http://www.southgateschools.com/web/?idpage=2020&iduser=130

  4. avatar nickpelling December 25, 2011 11:26 pm

    Diane: sorry if I sound disbelieving, to get to the end line on this post I had to wade through countless webpages claiming that (for example) the Knights Templar encoded secret heretical information in board games X, Y, and Z. You wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, I’m sure. :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  5. avatar Diane o’Donovan December 26, 2011 4:23 am

    I was thinking something more ordinary, with ‘technical’ as something like practicing arithmetic and ‘religious and philosophical’ a Tibetan game of rebirth. But I must say that chapters entitled “Allegorical ludic symbolism” and “tropological ludic symbolism” have a certain beer-and-cream cakes appeal.

  6. avatar Zlatoděj J.T.Prof. December 27, 2011 12:51 pm

    Hi Nick.
    Dorabella cipher is Latin.
    1/ sings – letters.
    2/ letters – numbers.
    3/ numbers – letters.
    4/ letters – words.
    5/ words – Latin.

    The third line translation Latin :
    EDE,,AT,,SEA,,DET,,SEA,,V,,DEM,,ET,,TEME,,DEUM.

    ( EDE = Edward).

    http://zlatodej.blog.cz/

  7. avatar Zlatoděj J.T.Prof. December 27, 2011 2:44 pm

    Correction .( 1 )
    Character – a letter.

    http://zlatodej.blog.cz/

  8. avatar shazghost March 19, 2012 9:09 am

    Phaistos disk: i think the disk is an ancient form of counting goods for sale or trade in monetary ways , much in the same way the chinese used the abbacus

  9. avatar Chris Cobb January 22, 2014 6:01 pm

    I was searching for info on the Phaistos disk and just stumbled upon your site. You’re right up my alley.

    After seeing the disk last November in Iraklion I decided to research it. None of the various attempts to explain or translate it were at all satisfactory to me – until I came upon a laundry list of all the proposed theories. There I came upon ‘. . . board game . . .’ and the penny dropped. A royal game board just felt intuitively right.

    I mentioned the disk to my friend Irving Finkel at the British Museum without mentioning the game board theory and he dismissed it as a fraud. I am now marshaling my arguments for authenticity to present to him next time.

    Thank you for the ammunition.

    Chris

  10. avatar nickpelling January 22, 2014 6:48 pm

    Chris Cobb: the notion that Luigi Pernier concocted the Phaistos Disk has been growing in popularity over the last few years, though personally I think the existence of the Arkalochori Axe is probably the most persuasive evidence that Pernier genuinely found it, one that Eisenberg rather skims over:-
    http://www.utexas.edu/research/pasp/publications/pdf/disk.pdf

    Oh, and there’s a shouty email exchange online here with Eisenberg:-
    http://sci.lang.narkive.com/PU57BkZy/minerva-paper-on-the-phaistos-disk-a-big-step-backwards

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  11. avatar Gregory January 22, 2014 9:34 pm

    Disk of Phaistos, your encrypted knowledge equals greatest achievements of human genius, such as the Pyramids of Giza and even the Bible. In a symbolic way is stored in the whole history of the creation of life on Earth, Evolution of Man, as well as in the broader aspect of the whole Megacykl – from the Big Bang, until its final collapse , which is the beginning of a “new cycle ” .
    In my opinion, the drive to be read from the center to the shore. Side A – ” talks ” about the beginning of the creation of the universe (rosette in the center of the disk) – the Big Bang until the reign of the Age of Mammals in the extinction of the dinosaurs ( 65 million years ago ). Side B disc – ” talks ” about Human Evolution from apes through the present , to the inevitable future – that is the end of Our Universe.
    Knowledge ” encrypted ” in the disk of Phaistos in a surprising way correlates with that knowledge which is encoded in the Voynich Manuscript, which thread on VMS try to prove it .

  12. avatar SirHubert January 23, 2014 12:08 am

    Make that ‘shouty and somewhat ill-informed’, in my opinion.

    I do wish the Iraklion Museum would have this thing thermoluminescence tested. If it checks out, at least people could spend their time arguing about what it is rather than whether it’s real. Not that I think we’re going to get a accepted answer, but at least the question is more interesting.

  13. avatar nickpelling January 23, 2014 12:29 am

    SirHubert: it didn’t seem to me as though either side of the shouty debate was doing itself a lot of justice. But I completely agree that thermoluminescence testing would indeed be such a positive contribution to the discourse, it’s just awful that it hasn’t been performed so far.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

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