Solomon's Sky : The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk

      © 2015 Peter Aleff
       Scroll 49


12.  The evolution of the Labyrinth Game towards Chess



12.1  A proposed capsule history of board games


If board games evolved to simulate the universes of their players as well as their lives, then the non-linear Chess knight’s move on the square Labyrinth gameboard marks an important step forward from the ancient single-path traditions of board games and players’ careers. In the virtual absence of early written or other tangible records, we have to supplement the few we have with some speculating about those ancient players' lives and the options reflected in their games. However, we can at least evaluate the plausibility of those speculations by comparing them with the traces those ancient origins left in surviving games and in how people used them.


The scenario we can piece together from these remnants is therefore mostly unprovable but it can at least claim to connect known dots and to fit the so far available evidence. The ubiquity of board games and the widespread similarities between some of the most popular ones suggest that board games come to us from deep prehistory. Indeed, some series of notches carved into ancient bones look like series of lunar phases but also resemble the paths on early pegboards. They support the idea that pegboards used as counting aids are likely to date back to the times when people first wanted to keep track of the big lights in the sky and needed better computing tools than fingers and pebbles and tally sticks.  
Curious sky gazers are inventive folks, so they made markers for suns and moons and moved them along a line of
holes in the ground or on a more portable pegboard. They moved those markers in parallel with the celestial racers as these overtook each other in the sky, and they noticed that the pegs repeated their paths in persistent patterns, but with enough seemingly random variations from cycle to cycle to make exact predictions difficult.
So, in the magical hope that
one set of unpredictable events might provide oracular clues to equally unpredictable others, some ancient peg pushers added dice to their pegboards. At first they tossed the most simple two-sided chips for yes-no decisions, then for more complex answers they threw four-sided astragal knucklebones or staves and occasional variations such as the tetrahedral dice found with the Sumerian board games in the Royal Graves of Ur. In later times, they also used the shapes of other Platonic solids as dice for different numbers of equal faces.


Among this profusion of shapes, “our” six-sided dice gradually became the most popular standard, but they have been around even longer than writing. According to the Wikipedia entry on dice consulted in early 2012,, the oldest so far known cubic dice were “excavated as part of a 5000-year-old backgammon set at the 'Burnt City', an archeological site in south-eastern Iran”.


People are a playful species. Every "what if?" simulation invites us to play with the open options, and as those ancient dice throwers moved their pegs according to the pip-up numbers to race against the pegs of their “what if”-explorer colleagues and opponents in the race, they happened to invent the board game. The suspense about the outcome of the race between those dice-driven pegs was incentive enough for that game to not only survive but also to spread widely at a time when watching those pegs compete and maybe betting on the winner was about the most lively entertainment that you could expect on long winter nights before affordable books and cave-TV.  And even now that we can pick among many other alternative entertainments, beyond the ancient arts of story-telling or grotto-dancing to the haunting sounds of stalactite xylophones, some of the early dice games that we mostly view as children’s play still remain popular also among adults.

By advancing their pegs to
match the number of marks facing up in each dice toss, those early players and soothsayers simulated the chance happenings along their path that they ascribed to unknowable external powers. These unforeseeable events beyond their control or even horizon seemed to affect everything in their otherwise stable and harmonious world, from the events in the sky to those in their own lives.


12.2  Linear paths for game pieces and people
Indeed, the gamepieces were also
the game players themselves in their tradition-ruled Stone-Age clans. Both moved along the equally branchless paths of their passage from birth to death in equally stable generational cycles, equally subject to random luck or its cursed lack, and to unpredictable external forces.  

Typical examples of those
first-generation race games are Backgammon which began its still successful career as Senet in pre-pyramid Egypt, the old and still popular Korean Nyout and Pachisi from India, or the amazingly similar Patolli that had impassioned the Aztecs since ancestral times. Add the Game of the Goose and/or Egyptian Snake which is the one with the oldest gameboards so far found, even older than that backgammon set with modern dice from the "Burnt City" in Iran. Still, the documented ages of about five or at most six millennia for the oldest archaeological finds of gameboards so far may be deceiving because those finds depend on the chance survivals of physical remains and on the good luck of the finders.


Non-physical traces of early board games, such as the striking similarities between the surviving versions of Pachisi and Patolli, have led to many conjectures about a common origin of both. That origin would have to be sought earlier than the last wave of migration to the Americas which may have taken place a dozen millennia or so ago, long before those oldest tangible finds. Moreover, some bones incised with what appear to be notations of the lunar phases in orderly rows of notches are twenty to thirty thousand years old, so there was plenty of time to develop those rows into pegboards and then gameboards before exporting the latter to America, as conjectured.
According to a myth the Greek philosopher Plato retells, the ancient Egyptians said their
moon god Thoth had brought them the board game, together with his arts of astronomy, computing, and writing. They meant that tracking the moon had led them to come up with the gameboard to simulate its moves and follow its phases, and that this ingenious computing tool then enabled them to develop those other closely related sciences and skills.
The early inventors of this divine gift
carefully oriented the gameboard to match the celestial path it imitated, as preserved in the rules of Backgammon which still state that its "inner court" must face the light. Then they replayed on its linear path how sun and moon, and the players themselves, would progress along it and be "reborn" at the end of their respective cycles. The gamepieces of this and many other ancient race games, such as Backgammon as well as the Game of the Goose, still "bear off" or are "born" at the end of their race, continuing to convey the still common hope that this desired event should also mark the ends of their own paths.

12.3  Branchings of the initially linear paths

Once they had figured out the
general behavior of those big lights, the ancient sky watchers began to puzzle about the planets. Long before any traces of this planet watching turn up in the written records of astronomical observations, they made these mysterious "Wanderers" their new gods because planets can go sideways, and even backwards. More importantly, the planets seemed at first to have the power of leaving their straight path at will, unlike the sun and moon who obeyed by then rather rigid rules.

As in the sky, so on earth. The
planet-observing civilizations of the early and middle Bronze Ages were already complex enough to offer their members, at least theoretically, more options and varieties of roles than the linear path of traditional tribal life, or than the equally predictable courses of sun and moon. Popular tales began to offer trail-blazing and encouraging examples of upward mobility beyond the standard prescribed track, such as these well known examples of spectacular careers:

  •       Sargon of Akkad’s (2334 to 2279 BCE) legend had him set adrift as a newborn baby in a reed basket and rescued by a “drawer of water” who raised him as his gardener. But Sargon usurped the king’s throne and created the first empire as well as a relatively long-lived dynasty, and he became a much admired role model for many later Mesopotamian rulers;

  •      The biblical Joseph was sold into slavery and thrown into jail but became pharaoh’s most trusted and powerful advisor;

  •       Amenhotep son of Hapu rose from being the son of a military scribe to become pharaoh Amenhotep III’s (about 1386 to 1349 BCE) right hand do-all; his talents and/or reputation were so outstanding that he was later even honored as a god;

  •       The biblical Moses started life floating in a reed basket, Sargon-style, and became the leader of his people on an epic journey; and

  •       The biblical David started out as shepherd to then become the most powerful king in his region.

The often far-flung trading networks of the Bronze Age also made it easier for people to travel beyond their home horizon. Reflecting these greater freedoms of motion above and below, both socially and geographically, the formerly single-file game-path opened up into a second-generation playing field where at least some pieces could move in other directions. This led to the two-dimensional board of the Labyrinth game and apparent precursor of Chess.

12.4  The Chess Knight’s move and early Chess

The square Labyrinth gameboard marks an
early stage of this opening up the path.  Its series of fast-track Chess knight’s jumps and major advance from field 42 to 56, as well as its many forward-propelling “Goose Arrows” and the setback from the “Tartarus” maze simulate these newer opportunities as well as pitfalls. This stage, as preserved on the sky board reconstructed from the Phaistos Disk, appears still tentative because it still prescribes on the gameboard itself the only few shortcuts that the pieces are now allowed to follow.


This Labyrinth game may have begun to further evolve towards chess when a special gamepiece replicated those excursions beyond the unicursal linear path and executed those knight’s jumps as marked on the board. The next step would have been that this piece then acquired the power to make that move on its own, even without those marks along its path. Once this special move had been transferred from the board to that special jumping piece, the creation of that first “knight” would soon have led to its visual differentiation from the other pieces, and then to further additions and distinctions among the previously uniform pieces and their powers.


This development wound up producing the different Chess figures with each one’s characteristic move, and a narrative to explain what their groups represented, such as the typical branches of an ancient Indian army. The rich combination of these many individual pieces and moves also gave them the power to pursue a more demanding goal than running a dice-driven race along always the same linear path.


The Chess knight’s move we encountered on that board is so unique that historians of Chess say this otherwise unattested move marks a game as a member of the Chess family. That family is said to have started with Chaturanga, an early four-player form of Chess played with dice which we discussed above as a representation of the ancient Indian armies with pawns or foot-soldiers, chariots, horsemen, elephants, and kings.


This move exists in no other game. Moreover, among all the pieces in Chaturanga and in its offspring or sibling, the now more popular two-player Chess, as well as in all their known local or temporary variants, only the knight or horse kept its move unchanged. To find this unique move of Chess knight’s jumps, the telltale DNA of the Chess family, already on the labyrinth board from more than two millennia before the first surviving mentions of Chess suggests therefore that the game played on this board was an ancestor of Chess and may require rewriting the early history of that game.


12.5  Planets on the Chess board

Chess knight’s move also fits neatly into a system of moves based on those of the planets which appear to have served as their models. Once the astronomers began to understand the motions of each major planet, the different game figures began to imitate those motions, each one emulating its own heavenly body. And like the complicated dance of the planets, the once simple luni-solar race forward turned now into a complex ballet performed by four major and one minor type of pieces controlled by each player in four-player Chaturanga, and with twice as many of each per player in two-player Chess.


The pieces ostentatiously represented the different elements in Indian armies as Alexander the Great had encountered them: the kings and counselors whom those armies protected, the foot soldiers or pawns out in front, and behind them the battle elephants, horse-mounted “knights” before knighthood, and the chariots which fell soon out of fashion in the real world but persist in Chaturanga to this day.


Yet on another level, these pieces were also celestial bodies, and their motions show clearly which of these bodies each figure was meant to mirror:

  • Majestic Jupiter was the King of the gods and of the game, single-stepping then as now, the slowest in both realms. Since kings don't like rivals on their side, his duplicate counterpart in two-player chess was only a vizier and even more hobbled than the king until later players souped up that vizier piece and transformed it into today's speedy and powerful Queen.

  • The red "war" planet Mars has the longest retrograde motion and deviates least from the straight ecliptic path, with a maximum inclination of only one and a half degrees. It moved over the gameboard as a four-wheeled and hard-to-turn war chariot, already then with the straight strides of today's Rook but initially of limited length.

  • Venus veers three and a half degrees sideways, and when passing before the sun it disappears in the glare and thus seems to jump over the middle of its path from Morning Bringer to Evening Star. The Knight or his Horse which represented that planet on the Chess board jumped one field straight plus one slanted sideways without touching down in the middle. This is the same Knight’s move our horse-shaped Chess Knight still performs, and it is the same characteristic move we find already in the circuit of the falcon-and-serpent pair of signs around the north pole on the Labyrinth board derived from the Phaistos Disk.

  • Mercury stays out of sight for even more of its voyage, and when visible near its extremes, it strays up to seven degrees sideways, twice as far as Venus does. The elephant imitated this behavior by jumping two fields slanted sideways, in the same diagonal direction as today's Bishop but without the continuity and length of its modern move.

  • In addition to these planet pieces, the sun and the moon kept plodding along their linear path as they had always done, always forward and never back, and they were still reborn when they managed to reach the end of their line. But now they were just Pawns, and like the mostly demystified sun gods and moon goddesses of old, they had little power until that rebirth transformed them into one of the planet-like pieces.

The fortunes of war were and are notoriously hard to predict, and initially this was also true for the motions of the four most visible planets. To reproduce this uncertainty on the gameboard, some players used dice to determine which piece would move next. Their reliance on this randomness may have been a carry-over from the older race games but lingered on for many centuries. It is attested not only from ancient Persia but occasionally also from medieval Europe where astronomical prediction also long remained a hit-or-miss affair.


However, as the astronomers tried to analyze the convoluted choreography of the planets and to predict their pirouettes, so the Chess players tried to analyze and predict the equally tangled steps of their gamepieces. As the former figured out the rules that govern the planets, the latter ditched the dice and relied on logic alone to determine the time and direction of their moves.


12.6  Chess as mirror of the world

When the planets, too, were shown to follow rules and lost their status as independent actors, the four
planetary gods ceded their scepters to two starkly opposing forces of light and night, deemed good against evil, and the four colorful gameboard armies of Chaturanga merged into the two black and white opponents of today's Chess. The excess Kings became viziers and were later replaced by at first equally small-stepping Queens.

The Queens, and the ex-chariots which had in the West morphed into Bishops, gained their present unlimited and
continuous strides shortly before Copernicus placed the planets on their present continuous orbits -- and shortly before a queen assisted by bishops sent the ships of Columbus & Crowds across oceans in continuous journeys.  

Indeed, as the race games had done before, Chess also once
paralleled the lives of its players in remarkable detail. Many writers have marveled at how well that game imitates the feudal caste societies of kings and knights and pawns where people and gamepieces start from pre-ordained positions and move in pre-assigned ways.
Even the
strategies needed for mastery in Chess match that pre-programmed society's bias for precedent over creative thinking, where quotes from Aristotle et al. often outweighed direct observation: good Chess players do not only analyze the board at hand but construct their moves with the help of memorized archives from eminent games past.

That is what cognition researchers determined when they tried to investigate how people solve problems. They picked the
thinking process of Chess players as their study model for complex decision-making and found that great players cram their head with a memorized library of opening sequences and up to 50,000 "chunks" of other pre-analyzed Chessboard situations. Then those champions relate each new gamepiece constellation before them to some similar board configuration from the literature stored in their brain for which someone has already worked out the winning moves.

The researchers concluded that creativity in solving problems is generally just easy access to a
mental library that contains many of the solutions. In other words, to come up with new ideas, you mostly recycle old ones.

Guess again. That
archival approach may work for Chess and the canon-quoting contests of its scholasticist world, or for predicting the punctual passage of planets from prior plottings. But archives fail by definition when you venture beyond pre-mapped turf to explore the as yet undescribed, the still mysterious.

By now, the
planetary perturbations have yielded their last and slightest wobbles to advances in theoretical physics and to number-crunching computers. At the same time, major Chess masters now lose matches to those machines. The planetary ballet and its game have no persistent puzzles left, not much room for inspiration or intuition, and no metaphors for the mysteries of our modern world .


It is time for the ever evolving ancient game to reflect the Quantumworld, and you can discover in Appendix 2 a plug for the Quantumgame which does.