Accès libre

Board Games in Ancient Fiction: Egypt, Iran, Greece

À propos de cet article


Board games are often used as a plot motif in modern genre fiction, especially in detective and adventure stories. In these types of narrative, a well-known pattern of storytelling or literary structure (e.g., the treasure hunt, the detection of serial crimes, the iniatory course, or the medieval tale collection) is reworked and adapted to the rules and phases of a board game such as chess, jeu de l’oie, or the tarot card pack. This literary practice is very ancient and may be traced back to a number of novelistic compositions of the ancient Near East, dating from the 1st millennium BC to late antiquity. In the Demotic Egyptian Tale of Setne Khaemwaset, from the Saite period, the protagonist Setne plays a board game (probably senet) with the mummy of a long dead and buried magician, in order to gain a powerful book of spells. The widespread Near-Eastern story-pattern of the magical competition is here superimposed on the procedure of a celebrated Egyptian game. In a late Hellenistic Greek novella inspired by the Odyssey (Apion of Alexandria, FGrH 616 F36) Penelope’s suitors play an elaborate game of marbles (petteia) in order to determine which one of them will marry the queen. This is a playful rewriting of the famous bow contest of the Homeric epic. A Sasanian novelistic work, the Wizārišn ī čatrang, adapts the age-old legend of the riddle contest of kings; the riddles are replaced with board games (chess and backgammon), which the opponents invent and propose to each other as difficult puzzles for solution. In all these texts the board game becomes a central symbol of the transformative and innovative power of literary narrative.