Sacred Shapes and the Royal Game of Ur
The Sumerian game can also be referred to as Twenty Squares. Understood by this name, the board consists of twenty spaces on which the pieces move across. Fourteen discs displaying five dots (seven black with white dots and seven white with black dots) are used by two players to denote progress. Three tetrahedral (triangular sided) dice determine a player’s actions.
The square, circle, and triangle served as the game’s components. It is interesting to note the corresponding shapes to their utilization in the game. As described, the squares, which often signify the earth and material world, were used to indicate the spaces on the board. The circular pieces characterized the men moving upon the ‘earthly board’. These circles, the combining of two halves like yin and yang, may have been used to symbolize the dualistic nature of man. Could the five dots have been meant to symbolize man’s five senses? The tetrahedral dice revealed the direction for a player to move. During the age of the game, decisions were frequently made by means of divination. The triangle is seen used for this divine intercession in the game. The comprising of sacred shapes echoes thoughts mentioned in the article concerning the Riddle of the Sphinx.
Excavated from royal graves by Sir Leonard Woolley in the late 1920’s, the Royal Game of Ur offers a unique look into the past. The tombs date back to around 2600 B.C., and like the other artifacts found, the games can provide understanding to the people who lived there long ago. Sometimes overlooked, these elaborate boards offer insights into the culture and sacred beliefs of the time. The fact they have been included in royal tombs prove they hold significance.
The boards have depictions of eyes, rosettes or stars, and geometric designs upon their surfaces. Some boards display alternating scenes of peaceful stags or bulls grazing off a central tree, to attacking lions devouring prey. This suggests a belief of a good and evil struggle upon the ‘earth’ [source1]. Although different layouts of boards have been discovered, the design of the 4×3 and 3×2 surface bridged by 2 spaces may imply a crossing to another level. From this other side, players were believed to have exited the board. Maybe coincidentally, but still appealing, the board imparts a mathematical expression; 12/2 gives way to 6. Or 6, doubled, provide 12. Could this board hold deeper meaning?
Games, even many today, are known to portray or express situations found in the life of the players. The rolls and spaces landed upon present different challenges, aid, or benefit, for players to learn from or experience. Since no instructions for playing the Royal Game of Ur accompanied these particular boards, full meanings remain unknown for the game. It is believed to have been played as a race game, where player’s competed to be the first player to enter and exit all their pieces from the board.
A cuneiform tablet, dating to 177B.C., was recently discovered and translated by Irving Finkel. From this tablet’s inscriptions referring to Twenty Squares, Finkel deduced a method for playing the game. Changes are immediately recognized from the earlier game displayed now at the British Museum. Only five pieces instead of seven are employed and movement is determined by knucklebones of a sheep and ox. Layout for the board is a 4×3 square with 8 squares extending from center. This is not an uncommon form for the game, but, different from the above mentioned.
Within these instructions, each of the five playing pieces is named after a bird. The ‘shining pieces’ were specifically called a swallow, storm-bird, raven, rooster, and eagle. Each entered onto the board upon a different ‘house’ and to a different roll. They had various attributes applied to them, like supplying women, beer, or food. The rosettes, which are the main constant to all style of boards of twenty squares, are considered ‘safe havens’.
From the pieces being called ‘bird’s, a possible understanding for another discovered board may be considered. One game of Twenty Squares depicts a serpent entwining the entire surface. Inside the twenty carved coils the players would place their pieces. If the players were seen as ‘flying birds’ (close to the Heavens), could then, a board with the Earthly serpent, symbolize a game of Unity? Know this is pure speculation, but one I find interesting.
Even to suggest the game makers of the Royal Game of Ur wanted to demonstrate and utilize the three primary shapes of geometry may be too much speculation for some game historians. Nonetheless, the facts are, these games were important to those who created, played and took the boards to the grave with them. Believing they embraced other valuable aspects, like the primary, sacred, shapes, does not seem improbable. The square, circle, and triangle are the basis for many creations. They certainly may have been understood and purposely used for one of the first royal games.
Finkel, Ancient Board Games in Perspective, British Museum Press, 2007
Bell, RC, The Board Game Book, Bookthrift, 1983
Lawlor, Robert, Sacred Geometry, Thames & Hudson, 1982