Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mythical origins of the game of knucklebones in the Mediterranean World

Beginning in 5000 BCE, the talus bones of hooved animals (also known as astragali) have been found in higher numbers than other bones and in contexts unrelated to food preparation in archaeological excavations.  Although the astragalus is not entirely symmetric, it is thought these bones were used like dice in games of chance.

Sophocles, in a written fragment of one of his works, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to the mythical figure Palamedes, who taught it to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones. 

Palamedes was the warrior Agamemnon sent to Ithaca to retrieve Odysseus, who had promised to defend the marriage of Helen and Menelaus. Odysseus did not want to honor his oath, so he plowed his fields with an ass and an ox both hitched to the same plow, so the beasts of different sizes caused the plow to pull chaotically. Palamedes guessed what was happening and put Odysseus' son, Telemachus, in front of the plow. Odysseus stopped working and revealed his sanity.

Odysseus never forgave Palamedes for ruining his attempt to stay out of the Trojan War. When Palamedes advised the Greeks to return home, Odysseus hid gold in his tent and wrote a fake letter purportedly from Priam. The letter was found and the Greeks accused him of being a traitor. Palamedes was stoned to death by Odysseus and Diomedes. According to other accounts, the two warriors drowned him during a fishing expedition. Still, another version relates that he was lured into a well in search of treasure, and then was crushed by stones. 

Although he is a major character in some accounts of the Trojan War, Palamedes is not mentioned in Homer's Iliad but Euripedes and other dramatists wrote plays about his fate. The Greek sophist, Gorgias, penned the "Defense of Palamedes", an oration dealing with issues of morality and political commitment in which he demonstrates how plausible arguments can cause doubt in the acceptance of conventional truths.  Later, the Roman poet Ovid discusses Palamedes' role in the Trojan War in his Metamorphoses and Palamedes' fate is also described in Virgil's Aeneid. 

However, both  Herodotus and Plato ascribe a foreign origin to the game. Plato, in Phaedrus, names the Egyptian god Thoth as its inventor, while Herodotus relates that the Lydians, during a period of famine in the days of King Atys, originated this game.

Two young women playing knucklebones Greek 330-300 BCE said to be from Capua, Italy that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Closeup of one of Two young women playing knucklebones Greek 330-300 BCE said to be from Capua, Italy that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Maidens Playing "Knucklebones" Greek Late 4th or early 3rd century BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The maidens are playing an ancient form of jacks, known as astragalus (knucklebones), a game in which five small animal bones were tossed into the air and caught on the back of the hand. The grouping of separate statuettes is almost unknown before Hellenistic times, when artists became fascinated both by the interaction of figures and by the challenge of representing complex poses, such as this crouching stance.

One of Two Boys Fighting Over a Game of Knucklebones 1st century CE Roman copy of 2nd century BCE original from Rome that I photographed photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Game piece of bone in the shape of a baboon, 332–30 B.C.E., Ptolemaic Period, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Animal ankle joints, anatomically termed astragals, were used as gaming pieces. The knucklebone itself might be carved, or astragal-shaped gaming pieces might be carved from other sources or materials. All were termed astragals, which were used like dice or jacks. 

Terracotta vase in the form of an astragal (knucklebone), ca. 460 B.C.E., Attributed to an artist recalling the Painter of London D 12, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Astragals were popular toys in antiquity. As each side of an astragal is distinctive, what mattered in a game was how the pieces fell. Such games of chance also acquired prophetic or erotic aspects. The poet Anacreon wrote about the astragals of Eros—the dice of Love. It is entirely appropriate that this large example is decorated with a lyre-playing Eros.

Carchemish orthostat at the Gaziantep Archaeology Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dick Osseman. This is one of a set of orthostats, that adorned the Royal Buttress in Carchemish in Gaziantep province. They are from the 8th century BC. The hieropglyphs at this scene bear the names of children of the Country-lord: Malitispa, Astitarhunza, Tarnitispa, Issikaritispa, Sikara, Halpawaki, Yahilatispa. These are two of three people holding knucklebones.


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