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Senet: The Ancient Egyptian Board Game

Many people think that backgammon is the world’s oldest board game, but once again the Egyptians go back even further with their game of Senet. As often happens with ancient Egypt, its exact use is tantalizingly unknown. Was it simply a game or did it have deeper meaning? Why are Senet boards found among other funerary objects? Though enjoyed by almost everyone, why have no written rules ever been found? The exact role of Senet will most likely remain unknown, but most experts agree that the game was laden with metaphors of the journey to and existence in the afterlife.

Senet table Like backgammon, contestants aimed at getting their seven pieces off the board completely. Players threw sticks or bones — precursors to dice — to determine the number of moves they would take on the board, following a snaking pattern along the triple rows of ten squares ("houses"). Each house held mystic qualities, reflecting good or bad fortunes awaiting the players. Symbols often associated with spirituality adorn certain houses; hence, the progression around the board came to reflect the passage through one’s life, misfortunes and all, into the afterlife.

Elaborate, intricately fashioned boards (such as the one pictured above) accompanied Tutankhamen to his grave. Wall paintings of Queen Nefertari playing Senet accompany her tomb in the Valley of Queens (see image, right). Interestingly, she holds a rod of state while playing the game by herself. This may indicate its being used in an advisory capacity or in a more ritualistic fashion.

Nefertari playing Senet Many people have attempted to supply rules for Senet, though they invariably stress the entertainment aspects similar to many board games. It is necessary for a player to imagine himself in a time when omens both good and bad were taken seriously, when signs and portents were ardently hoped for and interpreted with equal ardor, and when the prospects for the afterlife caused much anxiety. It is in this respect, perhaps, that the modern player will find a common bond with the ancient Egyptians.

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Try a game of Senet at home. (PDF - requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Senet game

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