The Game of Senet and
Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs

A Book Proposal

Peter A. Piccione, Ph.D.

A study under preparation representing a revision, with updates and corrections, of the author's original doctoral dissertation,"The Historical Development of the Game of Senet and its Significance for Egyptian Religion" (University of Chicago, 1990).

© P. Piccione, 2020.
All rights reserved.
Table Of Contents and Acknowledgements. Introduction

This study brings together a large body of evidence from all periods of ancient Egyptian history in order to demonstrate the religious significance attached to the Egyptian board game, senet, and the religious ritual which was manifested in it. The scope and breadth of the evidence extend through more than three thousand years of Egyptian history, from the first clear evidence of the game in the Archaic Period (fourth millennium B.C.) to its last-known reference in a Greek astronomical treatise of the third century, A.D.


The senet game is characterized by its rectangular playing field of thirty squares arranged into a pattern of three adjoining parallel rows of ten squares each. A game of both strategy and luck, it was played by two persons who maneuvered their draughtsmen according to the throws of sticks or bones. The name "senet" derives from the ancient Egyptian zn.t, later sn.t or sni.t, meaning "passing," and it refers to the optimum movement of the draughtsmen across the game-squares. The full name of the game was zn.t n.t H'b, the "passing game." A reconstruction of much of the rules is possible through analysis of the archaeological, textual, and artistic evidence and by deciphering the later senet gaming ritual. As far as this study can determine, the actual play of the game was something of a combination of backgammon and pachisi with an added mechanism for mathematical scoring.

The Evidence

Thus far, more than 120 senet gameboards deriving from Egypt and Western Asia are known to exist in museums and collections around the world. They occur in three main types:

Often included with the boards were sets of wooden casting sticks or astragali (i.e., "knucklebones") which functioned as randomizing agents that governed the movements of the playing pieces. This study reliably reconstructs the specific use of these sticks and bones.

Recreational and Religious Dimensions

Through much of Egyptian history, the senet game had two usages: (1) secular and recreational, in which it was played for fun and enjoyment by two players; (2) sacred and spiritual, in which it was performed--probably by a single person (in the manner of solitaire)--for a religious purpose. The game probably--but not necessarily--started out as a recreational pastime. Then ultimately, the Egyptians added a religious dimension to it, and thereafter the two aspects co-existed side-by-side through Egyptian history.

Religious History

The textual evidence indicates that as early as the Old Kingdom (c. 2500 B.C.), senet developed (or first revealed) an intrinsically religious character and usage. However, archaeological and artistic evidence indicate that at an even earlier time, i.e., the Predynastic Period (fifth millennium B.C.), draughtsmen or playing-pieces--apart from any game or gameboard--probably were already assimilated to religious beliefs concerning the free passage of the ba in death and its ability to return to earth to receive offerings. The symbolism that attached to draughtsmen, as movers between heaven and earth, might have aided or reinforced the independent religious evolution of the senet game, especially since senet, likewise, came to symbolize the passage of the deceased's soul (ba) between heaven and earth and for the presentation of funerary offerings.

The earliest known positively identified senet gameboards were found in First Dynasty tombs at Abu Rawash (c. 3050 B.C.); however, given the existence of earlier board-fragments, the senet game probably existed already in the Predynastic Era. While the squares of most surviving senet boards are undecorated, many others contain a specific pattern of decoration whose evolution of design can be traced over the long span of Egyptian history. In the boards of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, this pattern consisted primarily of secular numbers and directional markers that affected the movements of the pieces. In the New Kingdom and later, the squares also contained religious symbols.

Bridge between Life and Death

On the walls of the mastabas of Hesy-re at Saqqara and Rahotep at Medum, dating to the Third and Fourth Dynasties, respectively, the senet gameboard was depicted in offering lists as part of the funerary possessions accompanying their owners in death. Later, according to scenes depicted on the walls of mastabas at Giza, Saqqara, Abu Sir, and Meir, the senet game was included among recreational activities conducted as part of Hathoric rituals and celebrations during the Egyptian funeral and the festival of the goddess Hathor. Whereas, in the Fifth Dynasty, the deceased was shown in these celebrations observing two living persons playing the game, in the Sixth Dynasty, he was, himself, represented playing senet against a living person. The gameboard itself was actually portrayed as a physical bridge connecting the space of the deceased to the space of the living. This new motif was part of a rare artistic genre developing at this time that depicted--for the first time in Egyptian art--direct physical contact between the living and the dead, and it indicates that the game had acquired an intrinsic religious meaning by the Sixth Dynasty. The trend in the Old Kingdom depictions of senet-playing is clear: initially, the game was portrayed merely as a secular entertainment functioning in a religious context; later, it was portrayed with an intrinsically religious meaning of its own, i.e., enabling contact between the living and the dead.

Later in the Middle Kingdom, a textual parallel to the Old Kingdom senet scenes was recorded in Coffin Text Spell 405 (CT 405). Here senet-playing was described as a means for the dead to communicate with the living. The context of senet-playing here in CT 405 was very similar to the Hathoric context of the game in the earlier Old Kingdom mastabas, where, likewise, the deceased played with the living. In addition, Coffin Text Spell 1019 associated the mobility of the deceased in the necropolis with a god's movement across a senet board. Hence in the Middle Kingdom, senet was associated with the themes of communication with the dead and also the free movement and passage of the ba.

Passage of the Ba

The ba was the soul of an individual, i.e., his/her spiritual essence, specifically comprising the identity and the force of the personality. It was depicted often as a human-headed bird. The free movement of the ba was very important in Egyptian religion. The Egyptians believed that every day the ba of the deceased flew up to heaven from the tomb to fly along with Ra, and at night it returned to the tomb, where it reunited with the mummy. It was the nightly joining of the ba and corpse that kept the mummy spiritually alive. However, if the ba was impeded in any manner in its daily flights to heaven and its union with the mummy, then the mummy would die, and the spirit of the deceased would be annihilated. The result was total and unequivocal spiritual death. Because the enemies of Ra were always thought to be setting traps to capture or ensnare the ba as it flew back and forth, the ba required magical spells and spiritual aid to protect it from such harm.

Senet and the Book of the Dead

In the late Twelfth Dynasty (after c. 1900 B.C.), the senet game became associated with a rare Theban variation of Coffin Text Spell 335 (CT 335). The ritual of this spell permitted the deceased to achieve spiritual rebirth in the afterlife through the mobility of his ba, i.e., enabling the ba to pass freely between heaven and earth. In the early Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 B.C.), this variation of CT 335 was reformulated as Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead (BD 17), and senet was regularly associated with that spell. By the Nineteenth Dynasty, scenes of senet-playing were included regularly among the vignettes of BD 17. According to the text of BD 17, the ritual it embodied was useful to both the dead and the living, and among its purposes was to provide the ba with the ability to move freely from the tomb to heaven and back, as well as to enable the spell's performer to play senet. BD 17 marked the first clear link between the senet game and an actual senet-gaming ritual. The purpose of this senet ritual was to facilitate the passage of the ba of the celebrant, either living or dead. I.e., the spell of BD 17 and the senet gaming ritual could be performed by any knowledgeable person, dead or alive.

At the same time that senet first appeared in the text of BD 17, the decoration in the final five squares of the senet boards began to evolve from purely secular designs (numbers and directional markers) to religious symbols related to the process of spiritual resurrection and renewal in the afterlife.

Senet Gaming Ritual and the Solar Cycle

At the same time as these developments in the late Seventeenth or early Eighteenth Dynasty, the Egyptians also associated to the senet ritual the related notion of netherworld journey, or perhaps they devised a second ritual embodying this journey, specifically. The netherworld was the underground realm of the dead. According to Egyptian belief, every day at sunset, the sun-god, Ra, descended into the earth, and he sailed or traveled through a series of caverns from west to east. Here he met other gods and the souls of the blessed dead. He brought them light and apportioned offerings to them. He renewed his own life by joining in one body with Osiris for an hour. He fought off chaos, and at dawn he arose out of the ground in the east as the new-born sun at dawn. Also in the netherworld, newly dead persons were judged by Osiris. If they were found guilty of sin in their lives, they underwent excruciating tortures (burnings, maimings, degradations, etc.), until their souls were finally annihilated. However, those found innocent of sin were permitted to rise out of the netherworld with Ra. They united to the sun god and became one with him achieving eternal life as the god himself. The details of the mysterious netherworld journey were recorded on the walls of Egyptian tombs as guidebooks, maps, and magical tokens to protect the tomb-owner in death. These compositions include: the Book of Am-Duat ("What is in the Netherworld"), the Book of Gates, and the Book of Night, the Book of Caverns, and others.

The senet gaming ritual recreated the netherworld passage (sni.t) for the player-performer. The Egyptians probably also incorporated the ritual into the mysterious rites of initiation of the Egyptian priesthood, since initiation rites also enacted some form of the netherworld journey for the initiates. The earliest surviving example of the recitation of this gaming ritual is found in a hieroglyphic text of the Twentieth Dynasty (c. 1180 B.C.), the so-called "great game-text." This game-text, which currently exists in three copies, describes the passage of the player across the senet board in terms of the voyage of the deceased through the netherworld and his justification and deification at the end. Many of the themes in the great game-text are related to those found in the Book of Am-Duat, the Book of Gates, and the Book of Night.

One copy of the great game-text is written on papyrus (pTurin 1.775), and it is accompanied by illustrations of several gameboards, incuding two full-size senet boards. The gameboards show evidence of specific folding patterns in the fabric of the papyrus. These folding routines actually point to the cultic or ritualistic use of the senet game, and they are useful for understanding the ancient gaming ritual.

Importantly, in the minds of the Egyptians, this senet gaming ritual could be performed by both the living and the dead. Through this senet ritual, the player was able to effect a successful passage through the netherworld to achieve spiritual renewal and union with the sun-god, Ra, in this world and the next. Here senet functioned specifically in the solar cycle of spiritual renewal and resurrection through identification with the sun god. The dead could perform this ritual as a magical act to protect themselves on the netherworld journey and ensure union with Ra. The living person could perform this ritual probably to ensure a safe passage after he ultimately died. However, he also performed it to experience the netherworld journey without having to die first, in order to unite with Ra while still alive and achieve a living apotheosis with the creator-god. Thus, the senet gaming ritual was a mystical rite for the ancient Egyptians. The text of the ritual also intimates that rites of initiation were associated with the senet process, the exact nature of which is unclear. However, in general, rites of religious initiation in ancient Egypt were quite mystical with the purpose of uniting--at least temporarily--the living initiate with the divine.

The great game-text was associated with special senet gameboards on which all thirty squares contained religious designs. These designs consisted of Egyptian deities and religious concepts, and they are mentioned in detail in the great game-text. The evidence indicates that these fully decorated boards and, in particular, slab-style senet boards of the New Kingdom, were meant specifically for use in the senet gaming ritual, as well as, perhaps, for any normal recreational usage.

Senet and the Lunar Cycle

In a parallel but related development in the New Kingdom, apparently the squares of the senet board were also associated with the lunar calendar (i.e., the holidays of the lunar month). The Egyptians connected the monthly lunar cycle with the death and resurrection of the god Osiris and his union with the sun-god, Ra, in the full moon. So, the spiritual renewal which senet afforded here pertained to union with Osiris and Osirian resurrection. Senet's association with the lunar calendar culminated in Greek and Roman times (fourth century B.C. onward) with the full identification of the thirty squares with the 29½ days (av.) of the synodical month. As the senet game developed a significance for the lunar month, then, as the Greeks later recorded, the thirty-square gameboard ultimately evolved into an astronomical device to plot the phases of the moon.

Location of the Senet Ritual

All the religious texts related to senet and the scenes of senet-playing on the walls of tombs, as well as the rubric of BD 17, are specific that ideally the senet gaming ritual was performed in or near the tomb, either in a sH-pavilion (apparently erected in the tomb courtyard), or inside the tomb itself. In general, the Egyptians believed that the line between life and death was fairly thin, and the dead and the living could communicate with each other, especially in the tomb. Egyptians frequently wrote letters to dead relatives, which they left inside the tombs for the dead to read, and they could expect the dead to reply, usually in dreams. The Egyptians could incubate dreams, i.e., sleep inside the tombs with the hope that the dead would speak to them there. The senet game apparently had a similar function, although the details are unknown. Quite a few senet boards are found inside and around tombs, where they are carved as graffiti in the floors, and certainly, these were played by living visitors to the tombs. In one example at Beni Hasan, a senet board is actually carved within a few feet of a senet scene depicted on the wall. Given the nature and location of the senet ritual, there is nothing to indicate that in addition to any recreational play, these graffito-boards could not have been used by visitors to communicate with the dead or to perform some version of the senet ritual.

Naming the Opponent

Analysis of the gameboards, texts, and representations related to the senet game indicates that the play of the game could enable contact between the living and the dead, and it facilitated the passage of the ba and its ability to move through the realms of life and death without obstruction. Depending on the circumstances in which the ritual occurred, the participants could vary. The texts indicate that both the living and the dead played senet and performed the gaming ritual. For purposes of communication and to promote the motility of their ba, the living played with the ba's of other dead or with their own living ba. Commensurately, the dead played with the living. However, for the specific purpose of enacting the netherworld passage to effect union with Ra, the opponent in the senet ritual was understood as an inimical unnamed spiritual enemy who was assimilated to the enemies of Ra, and who was eventually destroyed at the end of the game--denied union and eternal life with or as the sun god.


The religious use of the senet game reflects Egyptian notions about the unity of recreational activity and religious ritual. In the Egyptian mind, there was no clear distinction between these two notions, the sacred and the profane. Such activities as sporting events, competitions, and games played a significant role in public ritual activity in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians regularly staged sporting events and games as part of serious religious celebrations and festival worship without diminishing any spiritual meaning or the excitement associated with athletics and games. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that as a means of recreation, senet could facilitate re-creation and spiritual renewal.

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