The Game of Life

Senet (c. 1300 BC) – Royal Ontario Museum, Photo by cjverb (2016)

Today we’re rolling the dice with ancient Egyptian gamers, courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.  After a long day building pyramids or ruling the masses, the ancient Egyptians liked to kick back, drink beer and play Senet, a popular game of chance.  King Tut was a fan and had not one, but four game boards placed inside his tomb.  Senet includes four throwing sticks, anywhere from five to seven game pieces, and a board containing thirty squares.  There is some debate about the rules, but the object of the game is to move your pieces across the board in order to successfully navigate through the afterlife.

Egyptian Shabti – Michigan State University Museum, Photo by cjverb (2016)

The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife.  Given their short life span—most didn’t live past the age of forty—it is understandable.  Much time was spent on elaborate rituals and meticulous planning for the treacherous journey one’s soul must take through the afterlife.  Bodies were mummified to prevent rot so the soul could reunite with the body, and tombs were stuffed with all the necessary accoutrement to ensure a safe and well-fed passage.  Food, drink, amulets, weapons, shabti (statuettes), and the most important piece of baggage, the Book of the Dead were placed inside the tomb. The Book of the Dead reminds me of a video game cheats manual.  It provides all the necessary incantations and advice needed to elude evil spirits, defeat monsters, cajole the many gods and goddesses, and attain the next level of the afterlife.

Weighing of the Heart – Photo by Kathleen Pirro,

After passing through the many gates and battling the baddies, the afterlife culminates in the Hall of the Two Maats.  Like a contestant on American Idol, you must stand before a panel of forty-two judgey gods and perform. Instead of belting out a tune, you must renounce a laundry list of sins. If you slip up and forget a sin, or committed one or more of these sins, have no fear, your trusty Book of the Dead will provide immunity. Once you receive a thumbs up from all forty-two gods, you will proceed to the Weighing of the Heart.  Your heart is placed on one side of a scale and a feather is placed on the other.  If the scale fails to balance you lose and must endure a horrible second death.  The devourer, a monster with the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion, and the backend of a hippopotamus will swallow your poor, fateful heart. If the scale is balanced, you win! And depending on your social status, you will spend eternal life with what’s behind…

Curtain #1: A daily boat ride across the sky with Ra the sun god!

Curtain #2: An all expenses paid stay in the underworld with Egyptian god, Osiris!

Curtain #3:  A trip to the Field of Reeds where you’ll farm crops for all eternity!

If manual labor isn’t your post-life dream, no worries, have your tomb packed with shabti and you can delegate the work to them.

This wraps up our spin (pun intended!) through the Royal Ontario Museum. See you next week 🙂

Fun Gaming Fact:  You too can play Senet.  There are both online and board game versions. Here are a just two examples:  Senet online by Steam and Senet board game by Brookstone.


Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games Across Borders, (2016) Walter Crist, Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, Alex de Voogt

Australian, The Underworld and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt (2015)

BBC History Magazine, Guidebook to the Ancient Egyptian Afterlife (2010), Rob Attar, Journey to the Afterlife

NOVA Afterlife in Ancient Egypt (2006)

Royal Ontario Museum

Tour, King Tutankhamun Exhibit-Senet Game Board

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