Did the Wise Men Play Games?


This article was written for the Games for Educators December newsletter, you can see it HERE

Maybe.  The Biblical Magi, or Three Kings, were said to have visited Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh shortly after the reign of “King” Herod the Great, who ruled from 37-4 BC.  They are said to have come “from the east” and it’s disputed whether that means that they were Babylonians, Persians or from Yemen, but that’s all basically the same general area when we’re talking about games at that time.

So regardless of your religious believes and if the Magi were kings, astronomers, astrologers, sorcerers or just plain wise men, games had already been in existence for centuries and there’s a decent chance Melchior, Casper, Balthasar played them.

A recent article on the Discovery News site (see HERE) based on another article published in the journal Antiquity, sums up gaming history in the following way:  board games most likely originated in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent at around 3500 BC and spread to other regions in the Mediterranean and then Europe via the Roman Empire who had that area under it’s control at the time.  India and China also had board games very early on, but their creation dates are unknown.

The article points to two very early examples of board games, one being The Royal Game of Ur (sometimes called “The Game of Twenty Squares” see right) which was unearthed in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq which date back to the First dynasty of Ur, approximately 26th century BC.  The other game is Senet, which is from predynastic Egypt and has 30 squares (versus 20 in Ur) and is dated to approximately 3100 BC.

Now, by the time the Magi were to have lived, Augustus (Octavious) was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which had spread to include Gaul (France) and the majority of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Judea and the city of Jerusalem.  And games had followed “on the coattails of the Roman conquest.”

Games started as a pastime for the elite and wealthy, which makes sense, as they were the ones who had the leisure time to spare.  But as years passed, games were played by men of many castes and, as I mentioned earlier, we don’t know if the Magi were kings, astronomers or something else entirely, but they definitely weren’t apart of the lowest caste of society as they were trekking around with gifts of gold, frankincense (a perfume/incense) and myrrh (an anointing or embalming oil).

So if the Magi were playing games, what kind of games were they playing?  According to Bruce Whitehill, founder of the Association of Game & Puzzle Collectors, many early games are race games or games of conquest “required the strategic capture or entrapment of an opponent’s pieces, or the positioning of your own.”  While that may sound a bit like checkers or chess, they weren’t “invented” for a couple more centuries.

Games at that time were passed from generation to generation and city to city and during their journeys got changed or modified to appeal to the new users.  Which makes it surprising that there are games still played today in a form almost identical to how they were played at the time of the Magi.  What are they?  Mancala and Backgammon

So this hectic holiday season, regardless of what you’re celebrating, sit back and enjoy some games with friends and family.  It’s what mankind’s been doing for centuries!  Have a wonderful holiday and a happy new year!

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