Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egyptian games: Children's games, toys, board games
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Ball game
Ball game
Hockey
Line drawings after pictures at Beni Hassan
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Play

Children's games

Girls fighting, Excerpt from a picture in 'Ancient Egypt' by Lionel Casson     Egyptians enjoyed the good life and playing was part of it. Children and adults are often depicted involved in games. Typically boys' games were rougher than those of the girls, but the latter were not above fighting and hair pulling, like the pair in the picture on the right fighting during the corn harvest

Excerpt from a wall painting in the tomb of Menna at Thebes.
Source: L. Casson, Ancient Egypt

    The way boys play doesn't seem to have changed much over the millennia. Whenever the number of boys was sufficient, they would form two opposing teams. One game seems to have been played as follows: Every boy held fast to the one standing in front of him, while the leaders stood opposite each other, trying to wrestle the opponent to the ground, while those behind cheered them on.

    Infractions of the rules were often punished with violence against the offender: kicking and punching, sometimes even tying him up and flogging him with sticks.

    Among the depictions of daily life in the tomb of Ptahhotep at Saqqara there are pictures of boys playing a variety of games. The rules are not always evident and our own knowledge of similar games we used to play may lead us astray.

Games
J. E. Quibell et al., Egyptian Research Account 1896 The Tomb of Ptahhetep, Plate 33

    The two boys on the right seem to be aiming their stakes at a target lying on the ground. To their left another twosome are stting in the lotus position, holding their toes in their hands. The aim of this exercise escapes us, unless it is a competition to see who can sit there longest or who can upset the other by pushing. The boy below carrying two toddlers on his back as if they were carrying baskets is apparently playing the role of a donkey. Beside them are two boys engaged in what looks like a combination of tug-of-war and wrestling. The game beside this may be a game still played in Lower Egypt today. Two boys sit opposite each other with their arms stretched out forming an obstacle over which the other children have to jump. The jumper has to announce when he is about to jump and the two sitting boys try to catch his legs making him fall.

Games
J. E. Quibell et al., Egyptian Research Account 1896 The Tomb of Ptahhetep, Plate 33

    On the right a boy is balancing on the shoulders of three of his comrades, while beside them, under the inscription Go round 4 times a number of boys try to revolve around two boys serving as axle. The game beside this one bears the inscription Look, you have kicked me (?). My sides are tired. and I have caught you, which suggests a somewhat rough game.

Ball game, Beni Hassan

    Racing, whether on their knees or carrying another child on their backs, and other activities including running and catching each other, have always found favour with children, as have feats of dexterity, strength and balance: Boys and girls wrestled or sat piggyback on somebody else trying not to fall off.

    Some games, like the one the girls are playing in the picture on the right, were played with implements, and balls were the most popular among these.
Linenball With rubber unknown, balls were made of a leather skin filled with chaff, dry papyrus reeds tied tightly together, string or rags. Boys again preferred team sports (like the hockey like game in the left margin), while girls apparently went in for games which were less fiercely competitive.

Tipcat and spinning tops     Marble games are very ancient. A white and a black stone marble and three little stones forming an arch seem to have been used in one such game which may have been played like a sort of mini-skittles.

    Short pieces of wood dating to the Middle Kingdom with tapered ends have been found, which let Petrie to propose that they may have been used in a game similar to Tipcat, in which such a piece of wood is struck at one end to make it spring up and is then knocked away while still in the air.[7] [8] The wooden tops the children played with, had at times a groove for wrapping the string of a whip around them with which they could be made to spin.[22]

Rag doll, stuffed with papyrus and rags
Rag doll, stuffed with papyrus and rags

Toys

    The oldest toys ever found in Egypt, little toy boats carved from wood, came from a child's tomb dating to the Predynastic Period. From the same period baked clay animals and rattles have been discovered. Not having any depictions of children playing with such artifacts, we cannot be completely certain that they were placed in the tomb as toys rather than for some religious purpose. Above all what we would consider to be dolls could have had magical significance.
Toy cat with movable mandible and bronze teeth; (Source: Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad)     Lovely toys were made by the ancient Egyptians from wood [5], bone, ivory, ceramics and stone. Little children played with dolls of Nubians, dolls with jointed limbs [4], toy animals, spinning tops and mechanical toys like crocodiles with moving jaws and Jumping Jacks. At el Lisht a toy made up of three carved ivory dancers was found. The figures were set in an ivory stand and could be made to spin by pulling strings [17].
Clay toys     But not everybody could afford intricate and expensive toys. Clay which was readily available, was formed into dolls [2], toy animals [1] and other play things [3].

Pet animals

Boy holding hoopoe     Children love playing with animals, little Egyptians were no exception. One animal seems to have attracted their attention more than others, if the rather frequent depictions are anything to go by: the hoopoe, a colourful little bird, is often shown being carried about, generally held, somewhat brutally, by its wings.

Boy holding hoopoe.
Ludwig Keimer, Quelques remarques sur la huppe (Upupa epops) dans l'Égypte ancienne, BIFAO 30 (1931), pl.III

    Throwing stones at targets is a time-honoured practice among boys. Given the unsentimental attitude of Egyptians towards wildlife these targets were often animals, no doubt sometimes in the hope of capturing them as pets or for the cooking pot, or chasing them away as they did with birds from fruit bearing trees, but certainly at times just for the sport's sake.

Board games

Game of the Snake, From the collection of the Louvre, Paris, Source: 'Les merveilles du Louvre', Edition Hachette     Board games were popular with Egyptians of all ages and all social classes though depictions show practically only adults playing them.
    A favourite during the Old Kingdom was Mehen (MdC transliteration mHn), the game of the snake [13] which was played on a one-legged table. The board bore the picture of a coiled snake, either carved or inlaid. The body of the snake was divided into squares. Up to six players used three lions, three lionesses, white and red spheres, which were ranged in a box when the game was over. Like all other ancient Egyptian games, its rules are unknown. More than a dozen sets of this game were found in first dynasty tombs, two of them with beautifully carved ivory lions and lionesses. With them other objects were found: some like little ivory houses with pointed roofs, some looking like todays' chess king and rook. Other pieces were cylindrical, with a little sphere on top.
    In the sixth dynasty mastaba of Kaiemankh at Giza there are depictions of Mehen with subtitles,[21] which suggest that it was played with deliberation, a game of skill rather than one of pure luck:
Taking of the Mehen board.
Place (lit. send) (it)!
Play!
Nefertari playing Senet
Queen Nefertari playing Senet
Excerpt
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
Senet game table of Tutankhamen     Senet (MdC transliteration zn.t) was a game for two with five to seven pieces per player. It seems to have been a game of skill and chance, perhaps akin to backgammon and was widely played by people of all social classes.
    It is an ancient game dating to the prehistoric period and shown in numerous paintings. The picture in the left margin for instance shows Queen Nefertari playing Senet. The elaborately carved game table on the right was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (18th Dynasty). Most Senet boards were simpler affairs: slabs of limestone with lines carved into them [16] or simple pieces of wood.
    The Senet board had thirty squares [10] which were traversed boustrophedonically along an S-shaped pathway. The two players placed their pieces alternatingly on the first ten, if the game was played with five pieces each, or fourteen squares of the board. They were advanced according to the results of throws of little sticks, knuckle bones or more rarely of a teetotum. The aim seems to have been to move all one's pieces to the last square of the board and remove them. The twenty-sixth square was often called nefer (i.e. good, beautiful - seemingly a "lucky" square), but the following one was some kind of an obstacle which had to be leapt over.
    According to the Yuya papyrus the game, which since the 18th dynasty at least was imbued with religious significance, [19] was even played in the afterlife:
Begin of the raising and glorifying, of the coming forth by day and the descent into the afterworld, of the glorification in the West, the existence in the following of Osiris, the satisfaction with the food of Wennefer, the coming forth by day and the assumption of any shape into which the deceased may want to change himself, of the playing Senet, of the sitting in the Hall as living ba by NN (i.e. the deceased) justified, lord of reverence after he has landed (i.e. died).
pKairo CG 51189 (pJuja), Tb 017
After a transliteration and German translation by B. Backes (ed.) [20]
Die     The Game of twenty squares (possibly called aseb by the Egyptians) is sometimes found on the reverse side of the Senet board and was played with the same pieces. An ancient game dating from Old Kingdom times it survived, unlike the Mehen, into to the Late Period. The oldest extant boards were made during the 17th dynasty.
    Unlike the descriptions accompanying depictions of Senet there is no information as to the rules of Twenty Squares. Most boards had a few special squares, marked with rosettes or inscriptions such as ankh nefer (good life), hesty merty (you're praised and loved), Amen or heb sed (The Thirty Year festival, this inscription was found on a board found in Tutankhamen's tomb) and the like.

Board game, Middle Kingdom     A game which is called Hounds and Jackals [14] nowadays, may be the original 'Game of the Goose' or 'Snakes and Ladders'. The oldest board found dates from the First Intermediate Period [15]. It was seemingly played with five pieces per player, one using five hound-like, the other five jackal-like pieces.

A roughly made, Middle Kingdom game board of clay has 29 holes along two paths, some of which were marked and others connected by lines was found by Petrie.
On mouseover a photograph of the board is displayed.
Source of the photo: Petrie Museum website [9]

    Game pieces which had been given geometrically simple forms like cones or spools [11], became more elaborate [12]. Influenced by the militaristic mood of the New Kingdom they were sometimes shaped as archers or bound prisoners of war. Merneptah is depicted playing with jackal shaped pieces. From the Hellenist period onwards game pieces were called "dogs" in Egypt.

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Picture sources:
[  ] Girls fighting: Lionel Casson, Ancient Egypt, excerpt
[  ] Nefertari playing Senet: Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
[  ] Toy cat: adapted from Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad, rororo Verlag
[  ] Mehen board: Adapted from Les merveilles du Louvre, Hachette
[  ] Senet board: Adapted from Lionel Casson, Ancient Egypt
[  ] Die, Roman Period: Petrie Museum website
 
Footnotes:
Game board, Source: Petrie Museum website [15] Genevieve Ward Swenson of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York City, kindly sent me this email: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its collection a 12th-Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) game board with ten game pieces - five hounds and five jackals. The museum dates the piece to the reign of Amenemhet IV (r. 1814-1805 BCE) and calls it the game of 'Hounds and Jackals.' It is referenced on page 24 of Jaromir Malek's Egyptian Art (Phaidon, 2000)..

The 'Hounds and Jackals' board on the right is even older, dating from the 9th dynasty.
Source: Petrie Museum website [14]

[17] What looks to us like a toy, may, in fact, not have been one. A doll may have been involved in magical spells, a mechanical toy like a servant grinding flour [18] may have been a kind of ushebti. Similarly caution is recommended when trying to understand board and other games, some of which seem to have had metaphysical connotations.
[20] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pKairo CG 51189 (pJuja) => Tb 017
[21] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Gisa => West Field (PM III, 47-179) => Grabkomplex des Kaiemankh (G 4561) => Mastaba => Opferkammer => Westwand => Festszene

-[12] Games found at Ballas by J.E.Quibel and W.M.Flinders Petrie
 
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Offsite Links(Opening a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.
 
-[1] Mud toys made by children: Crocodile (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[2] Standing clay toy human figure with pinched face and impressed necklace (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[3] Mud toys made by children; disc, with central prick and one circle of pricks on both sides (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[4] Wooden doll (less face) that once had jointed legs (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[5] Upper part of wooden doll (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[6] Blue faience doll (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[7] Stick for playing tipcat (Middle Kingdom), Petrie Museum
-[8] Wooden tipcats (Middle Kingdom), Petrie Museum
-[9] Pottery game-board, Petrie Museum
-[10] Limestone senet-board, Petrie Museum
-[11] Playing piece (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[13] Limestone 'serpent-game' board (Archaic Period), Petrie Museum
-[14] Wooden gaming board for "Hounds and Jackals" (9th dynasty), Petrie Museum, UC31384
-[16] Limestone Senet board (12th dynasty), Petrie Museum
-[18] A selection of ancient Egyptian toys (Mark T. Rigby)
-[19] The Game of Senet and Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs by Peter A. Piccione
-[22] A Middle Kingdom wooden top from el Lahun
-Toys and games in ancient Egypt by Dorothy L. Eady
-Los juegos y los juguetes by Manuel Crenes
-A selection of ancient Egyptian games (Mark T. Rigby)
-Ancient Egyptian 'Mehen'
-On-Line Egyptian Games
- Games and videos about ancient Egypt: Senet, Hounds and Jackals, Mehen etc.
-Computer games based on ancient Egyptian game boards
-Senet, the Game of Passing by Rhonda K. Hageman

 

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© July 2000
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Ancient Egyptian Toys and Games