We’re back sifting through the cultural layer for something resembling modernity and natured order. This time examining how our ancient ancestors gambled, what they played, what forfeits their losses incurred, and how those early degens formed the basis of today’s games. We’ve covered this topic previously, although most articles pertained to later 20th and early 19th century events.
Recency in the rearview, we’re backwards bound through lost epochs and strifeful aeons, circumventing enlightened ages and the rebirth of classical pagan thinking to eventually arrive at the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, where pius men endeavoured to construct a godly tower and brought about the fall of man, which orthodoxy dictates we’re currently living through.
Babylon is a by-word for excess, covering four of the seven Deadly Sins – watch out Spacey. Ur is the most famous of Babylon’s games, not to be confused with the similarly-named Great Ziggurat of Ur outside modern Baghdad, reputed by maniacs to house an ancient stargate through which the ancients travelled to meet their cosmic creators. Ur was a royal game, taught to the Babylonians by Marduk, the dark Old Testament God whose fury was the hammer of archaic vengeance, as well as an inspiration for a range of future occult-interest arts.
Ur is a two-player strategy race game originating from the early third millenium BC, sometimes called the Game of Twenty Squares, which was also what my school’s bullies played to allay their lunchtime boredom, gathering twenty geeks in a single place for a famous thrashing. Like any of today’s overhyped computer games, Ur became rapidly popular and spread across the Middle East like the Turin shroud laid end-to-end, before finally becoming widespread enough for people of any social class to partake. In tandem with Babylon’s famous demonic legendarium, the game took on an almost mystical significance; its game pieces, like tarot cards, were rumoured to augur prophecies of the future.
Maintaining its popularity in the region until late antiquity, around the 5th century AD, the game evolved later into backgammon or similar variants, where it was forgotten by the majority except the extant Jewish populations of Kochi in India, who practiced Ur into the 1950s when Israeli emigration began.
In our modern world of fleeting fame, it’s a testament to Ur’s playability that it survived almost 4000 years unhindered, unchanged and, to modern audiences, mostly unplayable. It’s unlikely you’ll see Ur integrated into your favourite rooms unless there’s an enormous cultural renaissance with a renewed focus on eastern interest, but know that the sidegame advertisements flashing in the sidebars of the internet’s most nauseating porn sites have their origins in ancient Babylon. Doubtless, being a King’s game, the Babylonians weren’t strange to a wager, although one additionally assumes the spiritual aspect assigned the game by its players may have dissuaded the pius from betting on fate. One particular archaeological discovery confirmed theories related to how gambling in Ur took place, with 21 white balls believed to be wagering tokens discovered alongside a set.
Render unto Caesar
We’ve previously discussed Rome’s laws governing gambling. To quickly recap, prohibitive laws were ratified but weren’t strictly adhered to, especially for frontline legionnaires who practiced regular games of chance outside the remit of imperial decree. Outside martial downtime, Romans famously gambled and feasted on the Saturnalia, a 24-hour period during which society transformed; emperors served slaves, horsemen went afoot and gambling was permitted wholesale. Read about the development of poker, including additional information on Roman gambling and a host of other medieval madness, in our History of Poker article. Although Romans did not publicly favour gambling and possibly saw the practice as disreputable, even barbaric, Romans introduced the modern idea of betting handicaps and betting against the house, the foundations of modern casino systems.
High-stakes for Hellenics
Less stuffy than their post-Etruscan counterparts, the Greeks loved a gamble. Their Gods were divine mortals, imperfect by nature and prone to the same range of wild emotions and whims as non-Olympians. When earth and sky were first divided, the three heads of Mt Olympus, all-father Zeus, Poseidon, formerly chieftain of Greece’s forests according to Graves and later Lord of tides, and Hades who, by drawing the shortest straw, became Prince of the Dead and king of all the under realms. Here we have an example of divine gambling in a culture’s origin story; having suchlike embedded into the cultural bedrock allows for less stringent tenets, like those Romans and later civilisations imposed.
In another well-known mythological incident, Poseidon competed against Athena for the patronage of Athens, which perhaps with kinder fates may have been called Poseidonia. Such a lofty prize required daring wagers from both participants. Like our modern day ‘rigged!’ contingent, Poseidon lost and in his runbad fury cursed fair Athens to never have enough water.
Various artefacts depict ancient revelry at games and feasting, and specifically the practice of betting on skill and change games, showing gambling was far from considered the exclusive practice of hoplites and ne’er-do-wells, and was instead considered a common and acceptable practice for every social crescent to enjoy, even the Gods.
Checkers was invented in ancient Greece, as was popular dispute-settler Heads & Tails. Along with democracy, drama, pathos, philosophy and trigonometry, Boris’ beloved Greeks supposedly invented dice during the siege of Troy, although Herodotus disputes this, claiming those were of Lydian origin. However dice came to be, we’re positive that Greeks would have been GGreeks given the chance.
Viva Las Vandals and their Barbarous Bets
The Celts didn’t write much down. Outside their Druidic caste who acted as both divine envoy and royal advisors, Celtic cultures were not widely literate. Although primary sources relating to Celtic peoples exist, we must consider authorial bias at a time when the literati of the day considered all un-Roman peoples barbarous and uncivilized. As such, it’s difficult to obtain information relating to customs outside religious and organisational affairs. However, we can say with confidence that Celts played games like Fidchell, an Irish strategy game reputedly 300 older than chess and equal in complexity; although whether these games were wagered upon with counters or pieces crafted specifically for the game remains a mystery. Like Ur in Babylon, mayhaps fearing to anger their fierce pantheon the tribes were dissuaded from gambling by the game’s presumed mystical qualities – indeed, it was reputed that a set board could play itself by the invisible and inalienable will of the Gods.
Hittite Hot Streak
Close to Irish hearts and their inherited fondness for all things equine, the once-mighty Hittite empire, which had existed alongside the prime classical cultures of dynastic Egypt and the fierce Assyrians which violently vied for control of the levant in the second Millennium BC, practiced gambling. Hittite kings and retinue members, and possibly even the average citizen, made wagers on the results of chariot races using wax betting tablets. Homer’s Odyssey gives historians the first written account of a chariot race in all its danger and pomp. However, formal rules for race lengths were not enshrined officially until Greece’s 33rd Olympiad.
Hold’em in the Halls of Hrothgar/Grendel goes to Gamble
Vikings loved to play games. If somehow a berserker could toss himself forward through time and arrive at this very moment, I’ve no doubt that with careful care and education, he might find himself a glad hand at God of War 3, provided he first promised no spoilers.
Viking warriors were so feared on the field of battle that their reputation as bloodthirsty blood-drinkers has permeated the centuries to become a modern archetype. While Nordic society has evolved from its raiding roots to a healthy and distinctly modern culture, they proudly enshrine the deeds of their ferocious forebears who, long before the merchant-navies and Elizabethan expansions, had crossed the great Atlantic gulf to the Americas and further north to Canada, where evidence of early settlement has been disinterred by those later adherents of Herodotus’ purpose.
Like the martial practices of their early reaving culture, the games the Vikings played were primarily physical, more like sporting contents or tests of endurance and manhood. Sets of hand carved gaming dice have been taken from the earth not only across Scandinavia, but also the raided coastal communities and riverports where the raiders eventually settled and integrated with extant communities. Even today in Ireland, a staggering portion of the population pool, especially in those areas which had grown around the river mouths which the viking’s slender navigation vessels could easily traverse, boasts some viking DNA.
Mia, a bluffing game involving both chance and skill, was a particular favourite. Mia means ‘Liar Dice’ suggesting from their canon the involvement of Loki. Mia, similar to Yahtzee, compelled players to roll certain numbers in sets to accrue points, with only the casting player able to see the result of his roll, allowing for an elaborate bluffing system, whereby a bluff could be called prior to the next toss resulting in the bluffer losing a life or, if found truthful, the accuser losing a life, and so on until someone goes home miserable and another purse-heavy.
Tafl, similar to Fidchell, was also played. Unlike Chess, where armies face each other in typical lines, Tafl begins with one player surrounded. The object of the advancing player is to capture the besieged King, while our surrounded monarch attempts to escape the ring of attackers.
I hope this brief dalliance with those things that came before and remained revered despite time’s cruel passage has given you some context for the origins of the wider gambling world we today inhabit. If you’re on GGPoker right now, gaze to the app and cast your mind back to those first tossed dice of Troy or Lydia and how they have continually tumbled from Mycenaean fingers to your own mouseclick. Of course, there’s countless periods we haven’t touched and if one were inclined might dare to discover how the Mayans made their money or how Jacobites hit the jackpot, but that’s another day’s thesis.
I leave you with this sage morsel from Mary Beard’s SPQR:
Caesar quoted in Greek two words from the Athenian comic playwright Menander: literally, in a phrase borrowed from gambling, ‘Let the dice be thrown.’ Despite the usual English translation – ‘The die is cast’, which again appears to hint at the irrevocable step being taken – Caesar’s Greek was much more an expression of uncertainty, a sense that everything now was in the lap of the gods. Let’s throw the dice in the air and see where they will fall! Who knows what will happen next?”
If you prefer your history within spitting distance, our Poker in the Past series might tickle your penchant for presence:
Until the next one,
Mike at GGPoker