The Egyptian Games Senet and Mehen, and their Ritual Significance

As we saw in the previous article, prehistorically, all over the near east, board games were created both for the purpose of divination as well as recreation, and the game pieces, or tokens, were used in these board games.  The same types of tokens over time started to be used to represent goods in the economy, and in time, pictographic drawings of these tokens represented the first writing.

As we saw in that article, one of the early games played in Mesopotamia was the Royal Game of Ur:



This had twenty positions on the board, each one a square.  And so, this game is also called "twenty squares."

Senet

Below is a picture of a typical Senet board.  As you can see, there is some resemblance to the board from Mesopotamia:



But the Senet board has 30 squares instead of 20.  And it has been shown that some Senet boards actually have the game of 20 squares on the bottom.  Below is another Senet board from King Tut's tomb:



Of the Senet game from King Tut's tomb, we read:
One of the young pharaoh’s favorite diversions was playing games of chance. Like many ancient Egyptians, he was particularly fond of the game of senet in which the movement of pawns on a checkerboard was decided by the throw of knucklebones or casting sticks. The religious text of the Book of the Dead refers to senet as one of the pastimes in the afterlife. Of the 4 game boxes found in the Annex, this one made of wood with ebony and ivory veneer was the finest. Recumbent on a leonine frame which rested on a small sledge, it was dismantled and scattered throughout the tangle of rifled objects in the crowded chamber. (http://www.kingtutexhibit.com/catalogs/tutankhamun_catalog.pdf)
The Ancient Egyptian game of Senet represented a game of life and death.  Not a game like gladiators fighting. Rather, it was a game that represented one's progress through the various stages of life and death and resurrection, and interaction of various gods, through various spheres of action in the game or ritual.The ritual that went along with the game is shown in the Book of the Dead

Peter A. Piccione, PhD, is an Egyptologist and Associate professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at the College of Charleston and University of Charleston, S.C. in the Department of History.  Dr. Piccione describes the ritual importance of senet, and describes that there were two versions of the game.  One was just for fun, and the other was a ritual, not unlike the LDS Endowment, passing through the various stages or estates, ultimately to join with or become one with the sun god in the afterlife:
More than 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians invented a board game almost as elaborate as anything from Parker Brothers today.  Beginning simply as a form of recreation, this game was to evolve into a profound ritual, a drama for ultimate stakes . . .
. . . I have been able to substantially reconstruct both the methods and larger meaning of senet, so that the game can be better understood and even played again today.
This research demonstrates that the stratagems of the game reflect nothing less than the stratagems of the gods, and that senet, when properly understood, can reveal essential Egyptian religious beliefs about the afterlife.  At the most, the game indicates that ancient Egyptians believed they could join the god of the rising sun, Re-Horakhty, in a mystical union even before they died. At the least, senet shows that, while still living, Egyptians felt they could actively influence the inevitable afterlife judgement of their souls . . .
Such an explanation of senet is possible only because of the extensive new evidence now available.  The material includes a complete history of senet through an analysis of most surviving ancient gameboards and their decorations, annotated tomb representations, and new translations and interpretations of religious gaming texts that describe the journey of the soul through various regions of the afterlife as if it were moving across a senet board.  The Egyptians believed that in death they would join the sun god on his bark as it set in the western horizon at dusk.  The deceased and the sun god would then journey together through the subterranean regions of the underworld . . .  After freely passing through the . . . underworld, the fortunate souls would then unite and rise with Re-Horakhty into the eastern sky at dawn and become one with the sun god.Senet was originally strictly a pastime with no religious significance.  As the Egyptian religion evolved and fascination with the netherworld increased . . . 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 . . .
The final square, 30, was that of Re-Horakhty, the name of the sun god as he rose into the dawn.  By crossing this square with each of their pieces, players successfully completed the game of senet.  But far more important, they ritually joined with the sun god while still alive, and thus assured their survival of the ordeals of the netherworld even before dying.  The departure of the senet pieces form the board was tantamount to nothing less than the deceased's passage out of the netherworld, union with Ra, and eventual deification . . .
Historically, senet made its first known appearance in the Third Dynasty mastaba or tomb of Hesy-re, the overseer of the ryal scribes of King Djoser at Saqqara, dating to approcimately 2686 BC.  Unidentified senet-like boards have also been found in Predynastic and First Dynasty burials at Abydos and Saqqara and date to about 3500-3100 BC . . .
Several Twentieth Dynasty gameboards have all 30 of their squares decorated with religious designs . . . These boards, probably used in a ritual form, correspond with the development of religious gaming texts.  In these texts, the player narrates in the first person the journey of his draugtsmen [game-pieces] through the squares and the events which befall them there.  Seemingly, then, those texts describe that ritual, if they are not the recitation of the ritual itself . . .
One of these completely inscribed and surely religious boards was found buried . . . The ritual importance of this board is implied not because it was a later burial addition, but because it was interred by itself without any associated corpse.
As a game of skill, senet was undoubtedly exciting.  But as a ritual game, it must have afforded ancient Egyptians great reassurance to act out and divine the afterlife and know they might still live with Ra in heaven after death no matter what sins they committed in life. (http://piccionep.people.cofc.edu/piccione_senet.pdf).

And here is a picture of a round version of Senet, carved into a platter:


The Egyptian word for game-piece, or token, was ab or ib or aba depending on how it is transliterated.  For example:


(Budge, E. A. Wallis, The Mummy: A Handbook of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology, p. 474)

So, the meaning of this word, ab, is a dancer, or that which is moved about.  And the general word in Egyptian for dancing is Ib3 (also transliterated abU or ibU):
The etymology of dance in ancient Egypt is rather confusing, and frequently of little assistance to us in understanding dancing during pharaonic times. Actually, the ancient Egyptian language contains no generic word, that we know of, meaning dance, just as there was no single word that exactly corresponds with the overall concept of art. From the very beginning, there were several words for dance, of which the most common was ib3 which might me properly translated as "caper". In writing the word, a game piece was frequently included in its hieroglyphics, suggesting that there might be some resemblance between the movement of the game piece and the dancer. (To Dance in Ancient Egypt, by Jimmy Dunn, http://m.touregypt.net/featurestories/dance.htm#ixzz47BzHbG42)
Caper in this sense, of course, means "to leap or skip about in a sprightly manner."
Senet was an immensely popular game in ancient Egypt, and was played by both commoners and nobility. In later times it even seems to have taken on religious significance.
The game was played on a board of 30 squares; the object being to get one's pieces on the board, then around the board in an S-shaped pattern, and finally off again at the far end. The game required strategy as well as chance. The most common playing pieces were 5 cones shaped pieces pitted against 5 reel shaped pieces (These pieces were called 'ibau' which means 'dancers' in Egyptian). Senet was originally a two player game but during the New Kingdom period a game in progress would often appear painted on tomb walls as a 'one' player game, the opponent being a spirit from the afterlife. (Ancient Board Games and the Nabataeans, http://nabataea.net/games3.html)

Mehen

A separate but very closely related game among the Egyptians was called Mehen, and the following is a picture of a Mehen game board:



According to some authorities, Mehen in some respects was very similar to Senet, especially the round versions of Senet engraved into a circle, and Mehen had ritual significance as well.



Mehen is known as the game of the snake.  Mehen means "coil."  Mehen was the name of an Egyptian Snake god as well.  The following are some comments made by Dr. Peter Piccione, who I also quoted above with regard to the Senet game:
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 . . .
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 . . .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 . . . 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.).(https://web.archive.org/web/20120901034946/http://www.talkingpyramids.com/piccione.pdf)
Note that in the previous article, we showed how the inscribed scarab beetles of Egypt, as well as the later Abrasax stones of the Gnostics in the Greco-Roman period were derived from the complex, inscribed tokens of Mesopotamia.  And we saw how the idea of the cartouche, containing names of individuals was derived from the belly of the scarab stones where names and other things were inscribed.  And now here, we see that some of the tokens for both Mehen boards, as well as a limited number of Senet tokens were inscribed with the names of royalty.  Keep all of these facts in mind going forward.


Piccone also writes in a different article the following regarding the ritual background of the Mehen game:
In order to enter the roads and presumably approach Ra, the deceased must "know" the roads and their name . . . 
The . . . "circuit of Ra," refers to the entire courseway of roads with Ra as its focus.  It consists of the enthroned Ra, the "Roads of Mehen" and their gateways, as well as the gods located in them.  The spells indicate that Mehen not only sails the fiery roads, but that he is the roadway itself, spiraling inward toward Ra at the center . . . 
Remarkably, the description and layout of the "Circuit of Ra" with its "Roads of Mehen" are nearly identical in form to the earlier Old Kingdom board game, likewise named mhn, i.e., the game of the coiled serpent . . .  Typically, the squares of this game are laid atop the slotted spine of a coiled mhn-snake . . . 
As a parallel to the Old Kingdom game of mhn, the . . . "Roads of Mehen," in the Coffin Texts were formed by concentric circles; and just as the draughtsmen spiraled around the gameboard toward the center, so the deceased . . . likewise traveled in a spiraling direction in order to apprach Ra enthroned at the center of the roads.  Just as the track of the mhn-gameboard was segmented with individual squares, so the "Roads of Mehen" were also broken up incrementall by gateways through which the deceased had to pass and which otherwise had the power to turn him away.  There is no doubt that the coiled mhn-serpent, which gave its name to that Old Kingdom gameboard, was identical to the deity properly named Mehen . . . It is apparent then that either the mhn-gameboard was the basis on which the "Roads of Mehen" were conceived in the afterlife or that both the gameboard and the "Roads of Mehen" originated in the same well-spring of Egyptian religious thought. 
A parallel for the assimilation of the mhn-game and afterlife roadway occurs even earlier than that indicated in the Coffin Texts, i.e., during the old Kingdom--although in a sightly different context, for certainly in [a] Pyramid Text . . ., the deceased king comes forth from a mhn-gameboard during his ascension into heaven . . . 
This passage describes the circular direction of the travel on the board, as well as exiting on the breath of the snake.  Kurt Sethe understood the text in a similar manner . . . 
Furthermore, he interpreted the mhn-game in this and similar contexts as some kind of ordeal or legal trial for the deceased . . . 
. . . Sethe would appear correct in this context.  Mehen is both gameboard and serpent.  While the king is conceived of as "coming forth" from that board, he is, at the same time, understood as being reborn in a blast of the serpents breath.  The entire action functions less as a matter of "escape" than as a stage in the process of ascension.
. . .  Residing within the coils of the serpent is synonymous with being upon the mhn-gameboard, and is part of the resurrection process. 
For the same reason, in [another Pyramid Text], the deceased king is exhorted to move his pieces around a mhn-board in the context of his own deification . . . 
During the New Kingdom, a closely related aspect of the mysterious nature of Mehen and his relation to game-playing is found in the Book of the Dead, Chapter 172, which enumerates the parts of the head of the deceased: . . . 
"Your teeth are the heads of Mehen, wherein the two lords played."
Ranke . . . logically and plausibly suggested that according to this text, the two lords, i.e., Horus and Seth, should be understood specifically as playing the game of mhn.  Ritner has indicated that in this passage ibhw conveys a double meaning.  While it means "teeth" in a context of body parts of the deceased, in the parallel context of the mhn-game, it conveys the meaning "ivory pieces," i.e., "draughtsmen."  Hence, it is consistent with the ibhw hdw, "white ivory pieces," associated with the mhn-game in [a Pyramid Text] . . . 
. . . [I]n his secret form, Mehen has two heads, which according to the Book of Gates are manifested as Horus and Seth . . . 
As Horus and Seth are conceived as playing within the two heads of Mehen, they are understood as being inside the body of the serpent . . . 
In conclusion, we note the following:  the mhn-game was understood as a means of transformation to rebirth through a process of journey.  In the Pyramid Texts, this was to journey across the board and through the serpent in order to issue forth reborn ina blast from the serpent's nostrils.  Later in the Coffin Texts, this notion was reinterpreted as to journey within the context of the "circuit of Ra," which probably was conceptualized from the pre-existing mhn-gameboard.  By the new Kingdom, the lingering memory of the gameboard, in conjunction with notions of rebirth from the serpent, fostered the development of mhn-style amulets to facilitate the transition to resurrection.  At the same time, the memory of the mhn-game was associated with the mysterious two-headed aspect of Mehen that was otherwise related to the birth of the sun god . . . (Mehen, Mysteries, and Resurrection from the Coiled Serpent, https://www.academia.edu/8169539/Mehen_Mysteries_and_Resurrection_from_the_Coiled_Serpent)
Here are some take-aways from this quotation.  Firstly, the game has essentially the same context as Senet, in that it is a game/ritual of the afterlife.  It has the same point as Senet, in that the deceased ends up in the presence of Re for his exaltation/deification.  As was mentioned, the dead must pass through a number of gates (veils) to get to the presence of Re, along this spiraling path.  This is a journey motif like in the LDS Endowment, going from one station to the next.  And the dead must know a password to be able to be in his presence, which in this case, was the name of the roads.  Mehen in his secret/hidden form is two-headed, not unlike the Janus-god of the Hypocephalus (Oliblish), or the Khnum-Re of the Joseph Smith hypocephalus (Kolob), which is also two-headed.  It is the breath of the snake Mehen that resurrects the deceased.  The breath of resurrection and fellowship with the gods, in the Egyptian language in general is the word Sensen.  The game players in this game, like in Senet, represent deceased individuals.  Like in Senet, they are also called Ibu ("dancers").  They go in a spiral toward the center.  But some of the game pieces of Mehen were sometimes lions.

Now we will bring to your attention a controversial object called the Phaistos Disk.




This disk was originally recovered in Crete in 1908, so it is not specifically an Egyptian object.  According to the theory of some, this may be a descendant of the Mehen game, or it may be another version of Mehen that made its way outside of Egypt.  Some people do not believe that it is a game at all.


But, take a close look at the "flower" patterns on the Royal Game of Ur above again, as also, some of the other designs, such as the five-dotted pattern on the game-pieces and on the squares.  These also occur on the Phaistos disk, except they occur there as seven-dotted patterns.  There seems to be at least a visual association from a surface level.

An article appeared in the online journal Popular Archaeology back in 2012.  An author named Peter Aleff makes the proposal that the Phaistos disk is a game much like Senet or Mehen.  He is the author of the book Solomon's Sky: The Religious Board Game on the Phaistos Disk.  The article reads:
. . . [T]he eight-petaled rosette (pictured right) on four of the Disk fields was a frequent sign on many ancient Near Eastern gameboards, where it always marked the same fields on boards of the same type. This rosette was also well-known from other contexts as a symbol of birth, death, and rebirth, and this meaning of transition from one state of existence to another fits all its appearances on the Disk as a gameboard path. Two are at the beginning of the path on each side of the Disk, one in the center of one side and another one three fields before that center. Those in and near that center share their fields with a bald head (pictured below) which is the same size and profile view as the head with the “crest of rays” (pictured below) but lacks this prominent hedgehog hairdo.  (http://www.phaistosgame.com/PopularArchaeologyArticle1.htm, http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/december-2012/article/the-phaistos-disk-a-new-approach)
In another article, you will see that this symbol of the rosette fits well with the symbol of Mehen, which symbolizes resurrection, and the breath of life that resurrects, as we shall see in an article to come.  It is unfortunate that Aleff only tries to liken the Phaistos disk to Senet.  It appears that he may have not had knowledge of Mehen.

An interesting observation made by Peter Aleff is the connection he has made between the Phaistos Disk and the more modern Game of the Goose.  Whatever the case, the connection between Mehen and the Game of the Goose is very interesting to say the least.  Here are some examples of Game of the Goose:



And here is another curious connection between this and Mehen:


A couple of Mehen boards that have been found have the head of a goose on the outer part of the board, where the snake's tail would generally end.  The connections get more and more curious between the games, but a direct historic connection between Senet, Mehen and the Game of the Goose is not something that can be documented.  It strains belief that there would not be, however.

The Senet game has 30 squares.  A goose's egg incubation period, depending on the breed, is somewhere around 30 days.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was an English Egyptologist at the University College, London.  He wrote the following:
The sun is called the egg laid by the primeval goose; and in later time this was said to be laid by a god, or modelled by Ptah.  Evidently this goose egg is a primitive tale which was adapted to later theology. (The Religion of Ancient Egypt, p. 68, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29010/29010.txt)
Some other interesting information, connects this to the sun god Re:
In Hermopolis, four differing stories of the Creation were known. The first stated that the world began in a cosmic egg which was laid by a celestial goose on the primeval mound. The egg contained the bird of light, Re who then created the world. Pilgrims to Hermopolis were often shown the remains of this great egg. 
Another version says that the egg was laid by an ibis, the bird of Thoth. As the cult of Thoth was newer than that of the Ogdoad, it is likely that this version was created by the priests of Thoth to merge the mythologies of the Eight and of Thoth. The Ogdoad was sometimes called the souls of Thoth. 
The third creation story says that a lotus flower emerged from the waters of a lake called "the Sea of the Two knives". This lake was located in a park near the temple in Hermopolis. When the lotus' petals opened, a divine child was revealed - Re.
The final story is the same as the previous with the exception that inside the lotus was a scarab beetle, which is a symbol of the rising sun. The scarab then transformed into a crying boy. His tears became mankind. The lotus was sometimes identified as the Eye of Re. (http://www.egyptianmyths.net/ogdoad.htm)
There seems to be a lunar calendar connection to both the number of squares in the Game of Senet (30), as well as the number of days in the incubation period of goose eggs (around 30).  The connection between this and Thoth, being the Moon god may not be a coincidence.  And so, it is likely that the squares or stations in the game of Mehen may have also originated as days in a calendar, like the squares in the game of Senet.  Scholars have suggested that the Senet game was a Lunar Calendar.  In a later article, the connection between between the Goose, Re, and the Sun will become more clear in our further explorations of the game Mehen.

An author Jenny Kile made a connection between an ancient Sumerian riddle and the game Mehen.  Firstly, she quoted the riddle from the 18th Century BC:
A house based on a foundation like the skies,
A house one has covered with a veil like a secret box
A house set on a base like a goose
One enters it blind,
Leaves it seeing.
What is it?  A school.
Then she observes:
Although depictions of the game are seen on tomb walls (the earliest about 2620BC), and the game’s held significance is observed in Egyptian funerary texts, only fourteen physical game boards of Mehen have been discovered (carved of ivory, faience, or stone).  Two of these games depict a head of a goose on the outer edge where the tail of the serpent would terminate. 
As the game of Mehen would begin from this house (spaces on ancient boards games are often called ‘houses’), it would seem possible there may be a connection to the Sumerian riddle and the game of Mehen.  One would enter the ‘school’ (a house set on a base like a goose), travel to the serpent’s head, and then travel back out; leaving it ‘seeing’. 
There are proven links between Sumer and Egypt.  For example, the tomb of King Tutankhamen (1300BC) contained games known from both places; Twenty Squares (Royal game of Ur) and Senet.  (http://mysteriouswritings.com/mysteries-of-mehen/)
This seems to be a good connection between the Sumerian riddle and the Egyptian game.  A foundation like the skies goes back to Peter Aleff's identification of the Phaistos Disk as a star chart.