7 Mar 2009

Symbolisms behind the Egyptian Sinat game

I have to admit to my shame that I'm probably more infatuated with my own Sinat game than my readers. I just love puzzles, especially when they have a long history behind them, and it's fun to make things for yourself. I'm a tinkerer afterall; that's my nature.

At any rate, one thing I learned while programming this Ancient Egyptian game this month was the funerary connotations associated with it. Sinat literally means "passing" but this can mean various things. It can be interpreted as the game of passing pawns, of course, but passing is often also a euphemism for death in many cultures.[1] That is, the passing of the deceased to the afterlife.

In the above picture, we can see the literal image of Queen Nefertari playing Sinat but what lurks underneath this tomb mural is the metaphor and wordplay of a deceased woman casually "passing" to her afterlife. The picture of this game here is in a manner of speaking a meaningful hieroglyph in its own right signifying the queen's posthumous journey.

There's also the matter of the winding boustrophedon path of the pawns along the three rows of the board (at least, according to Timothy Kendall's rules). This winding path is yet again an otherworldly symbolism and is related to the reason why ancient inscriptions in Etruria and in the Aegean area were sometimes written in a boustrophedon or spiral pattern. This magical pattern is, oddly enough, an abstract representation of the "bowels of the earth" and a reference to both the divinatory practice of extispicy and an ancient conception of the journey of the sun under the horizon during the course of the night[2].

As you can see then, a game with such a long history behind it is sometimes more than just a game. Ancient religious murals aren't what they seem either. Similarly in the modernday, we often use chess as a metaphor of a battle of wits, although I have yet to hear someone say that someone was "checkmated" as a circumlocution for "dead".

[1] For example, Latin obīre (mortem) "to pass through (death)". I've also suggested on my blog in Paleoglot: Death and euphemisms in Etruria that Etruscan lupu is in reality not literally "dead" but "passed on".
[2] Pinch, Egyptian Mythology (2004), p.127: "In enigmatic scenes in New Kingdom royal tombs, the nocturnal sun has to pass through the body of the crocodile Penwenti, who symbolizes the primeval waters, in order to be reborn. Greek and Roman writers recorded a bizarre Egyptian belief that ichneumons (a type of mongoose) killed crocodiles by running down their throats and gnawing their way out through the bowels. This may be a misunderstanding of the mythical conflict between the sun god Ra in the form of an ichneumon and Apophis in the form of a crocodile or a snake." (see link).


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