Ancient Egyptian 'Mehen' -- The Forbidden Game of the Snake

The Splash Screen

It begins 4000 years ago with a desperate attempt to infiltrate an evil cult, and ends with a mummy crumbling to dust on the banks of the Nile . . .

It is about a young priest, brave, and strong, killed by Nubian mercenaries almost within sight of the boundary stele of ancient Egypt, and the will to complete a mission gone awry despite death and the vastness of time.

It is about powerful and magical lion amulets, a hapless astrogeologist, a golden papyrus tube hidden deep in the Sudan, greed, rescue, and resurrection . . .

but for all of this, it is your chance to play an ancient, forbidden game and learn about the people who played it so long ago . . .

The Destroying Arm of Mehen But will you prove 'Beloved of Re' or die under the claws and teeth of his 'Destroying Arm'?

 

Senet, '20-Squares', and 'Hounds & Jackals' are the most famous ancient Egyptian games. But there is another game -- Mehen , the Game of the Snake -- that was also played in the Old Kingdom period and Pre-Dynastic period, perhaps as early as 3000 B.C. or even earlier. We know that the game gained religious significance because it is mentioned in the Coffin and Pyramid Texts. Some 14 or so of these coiled, spiral, boards have been found, but no one really knows how it was played.

‘Mehen’, which means ‘coiled one’ or as a verb, ‘to coil’, in ancient Egyptian was played on a spiral game board – most often explicitly in the form of a snake – with varying numbers of slots(playing squares), six sets of differently colored marbles (the playing pieces, with six marbles to a set), and six special playing pieces in the form of a dangerous, predatory animal – most often lions (but sometimes dogs or even hippos). It is the only multi-player ancient Egyptian board game known – the others were contests between two players (or teams), while Mehen could accommodate as many as six contestants. Strangely, it also seems to have ceased being played in ancient Egypt from just after 2000 BC. (during the early Middle Kingdom) – a very strange situation. Why? Why would the ancient Egyptians abandon their only multi-player board game? One possible clue: Mehen was also the name of the serpent god of the ancient Egyptian Sun Cult -- and this double meaning points to the reason I’ve added ‘Forbidden’ to this game’s description and a possible reason for its fall from favor as a recognized game in the ancient Egyptian empire.

The Sun Cult envisioned the god Mehen as a huge serpent who wrapped the Sun God Re in its coils when he set in the west and protected him on his journey, on the river of night, from the evil forces of the underworld. But at some point, perhaps even before the Old Kingdom, the game and the god became intertwined. The game became more than just a simple pastime, and began to take on religious aspects – so much so that the game became deliberately confused (syncretized, is the proper term) with the serpent deity in texts and thought. In fact, to quote Tim Kendall, “it is not possible to know (with the evidence we have) if this deity was inspired by the game itself, or whether the game was inspired by an already existing mythology.”

Now this taking on of a religious aspect would have been a natural thing and not in and of itself dangerous – this also happened with the game of Senet, which in spite of this, or maybe because of it, survived until the very end of Egyptian civilization. But by the early Middle Kingdom the ‘cuts’ used on the snake's back of the Mehen board to mark, to separate, the playing squares would have been seen to ‘kill’ the snake – which would have been a very threatening and evil thing. Tim Kendall writes: “Mehen’s role was essential, for if Re were not protected from these enemies, he might not rise in the morning, which would result in the cessation of all life. In Egyptian belief, ‘life’ applied not only to the living but also to the dead, who were believed to travel with the sun and to rise, reborn, with him at dawn.”

From that time forth, the game apparently ceased to be played (possibly banned and forbidden) and the god Mehen became associated with another, more well-known, Egyptian game -- Senet -- and the game of Mehen became lost in the mists of time . . .

or was it?

In the 1920s, anthropologists, explorers, and adventurers found a curious, spiral based, game being played by Baggara Arabs of the Sudan -- The Hyena Game (You can see the rules for this game in The Rules section of the help file). Tim Kendall writes: " In all essential details the "Hyena Game" seems to have been identical to Mehen. It was played on a spiraling track, employed stick dice of precisely the kind known from Archaic Egyptian contexts, and had two types of pieces, one representing a predatory animal. The only difference would seem to be that the ancient Egyptians allotted six counters to each player rather than only one.*"

Well, there you have it! Mehen was played formally in ancient Egypt since before at least 2700 BC up until perhaps a little after 2000 BC., and probably elsewhere even later, in the form of crude boards pecked in the stones of Cyprus and in fleeting, hastily scratched-out boards in the sands of the deep, trackless deserts surrounding Egyptian and Nubia -- and possibly . . . just possibly . . . preserved down through the long ages, as a faint echo of the mighty Egyptian empire, by Arab nomads and Bedu.

Now this ancient Egyptian game, forbidden, distant, but not ever entirely lost, is here again in the present, recreated through the magic of electrons and phosphorus, for you to play. Welcome to a game of the most ancient of Egyptians -- the shadowy 'Scorpion King', Imhotep, Menes, Cheops, and now you!

* Not everyone believes this of course, but many Egyptologists do (See Peter Piccone's comments in the ANE Digest).

Looking for 'Ancient Egypt' on the Web? Any of the following are great starting points:

Download Mehen.zip now (1.05 Meg)

Interested in just the rules and history of the game?  Then download just the Windows Help file if you'd like.

Note: This program requires VBRUN300.DLL to exist on your system.

Part of the playing board

 

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