Mysteries of Mehen
Each person travels alone on a journey to discover his own heart. The ancient Egyptian board game Mehen (2500BC apprx) is believed by some researchers to represent one such spiritual journey. In form of a spiral/serpent, players traveled to center (the serpent’s head) and back out again. Winning the game was seen symbolic of attaining life after death.
In a previous post I had mentioned an ancient Sumerian riddle which included the line “A house set on a base like a goose.” The riddle was one of twenty-five found written on a clay tablet which dated back to the 18th century BC. The complete riddle (with answer) is as follows:
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.
Prior to reading the above riddle, I had researched the game of Mehen and was intrigued by a similarity. 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. Senet believed to possibly later replace Mehen’s role in the new kingdom. Board games of this time had deep religious connotations and were held sacred.
Some researchers feel the head of the goose on the Mehen game board may allude to the primeval goose in an old Egyptian creation myth. This goose laid an egg which separated heaven and earth, and of which the sun god, Ra, was born. Mehen, who is also a known serpent deity, protected Ra on his nightly journey through the underworld and helped assure his return at dawn.
In 1990, Peter Piccione shared other findings about the game Mehen. He feels Coffin Texts of the First Intermediate Period (2100BC approx) refer to a secret body of knowledge known as the Mysteries of Mehen. The different spells, used in the afterlife, involve parts of the journey a person would experience and are seen portrayed in the playing of the game. Spells like, “Make way for me; open the gate for me, you who are in Mehen…” or “As for one who knows the name of those, his roads, it is he who will enter Mehen.” Only those who knew the Mysteries of Mehen could achieve safe passage.
Honestly, no one is for certain of all the significance the game held and much remains to explore on the subject. With the head of the goose depicted on the Mehen game board and feeling the game represents a path to wisdom, I like the egg incubation time of a goose. This was recently mentioned while discussing the Sumerian riddle on the tweleve forum by user Rubyfelixer. Other egg incubation times should be noted, as well; Chickens are 21 days, ducks are 28 days, and geese are usually 30-33 days. For the inner Sun (the egg) to be hatched (like mentioned above), these days seem suggestive of other period of times for gaining wisdom in other ‘mystery schools.’ A topic which I find interesting and will need to explore.
Falkener, Edward,Games Ancient and Oriental and How to Play Them, Dover Publications, 1961
Finkel, I.L., Ancient Board Games in Perspective, British Museum Press, 2007