"The die is cast." History and stories of a play device and symbol

By Lena Hennewig (Research assistant)

The die is a symbol of chance, luck or finality. Even in antiquity, the die and the immutability of its throwing results were familiar symbols:  Julius Caesar coined the phrase "The die is cast" ("Alea iacta est") on the war front.

Who has to do the dishes today? The caricature by Klaus Vonderwerth plays with the die as a symbol of chance and luck - or misfortune. Klaus Vonderwerth: Without title (Dice) (1970-1990), pen-and-ink drawing on cardboard, © Staatliche Bücher- und Kupferstichsammlung (State Collection of Books and Copper Engravings) Greiz (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Most of us know the die as a geometric body with six square side faces counting one to six eyes, twelve edges of equal length and eight corners. The eyes of the opposite sides add up to seven. But dice also come in round or as cuboids, with individual, game-dependent number of eyes, or even in animal shapes, giving the appearance of subverting the randomness and equal distribution of possible outcomes. But why were there different shapes? What developments has the die gone through? And what exciting stories and narratives are behind them? Let's follow in the footsteps of the die and the dice game together! 

Snail, fish or exotic insect? The shape of this die seems to bias the equal probability of the outcome of the throw. Die with animal base, bronze, length: 12.45 cm © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Collection of Classical Antiquities, National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

The unexplained origin of the die

Numerous myths surround the origins of the die. No one can say exactly where the die came from, from which precursors it developed, or even who invented it. The Indians claim to have invented the dice, but dice were also known and popular with the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks - their use was sometimes frowned upon and forbidden. 

This bronze die from the Byzantine Empire does not have the numbers of eyes from 1 to 6, which were also common at that time, but shows five sides with seven eyes and one side with five eyes. It was probably made for a special game, which, however, has not been handed down. Play die (1./8. Century), bronze, 1.4 x 1.4 x 1.4 cm © Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst (Sculpture Collection and Museum of Byzantine Art), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, for example, attributed the invention of the die to the Greek hero Palamedes at the time of the Trojan War, and the Greek historian Herodotus saw its origins among the Lydians, a people in what is now Turkey. The only thing that is certain is that the first precursors of the die were made of fruit stones and pebbles as early as 6,000 BC. Everything else is speculation. It is considered likely in archaeological research that dice were developed independently of each other at different times, in different places around the world.

Figures and dice made of animal bones

Early die-like objects were the so-called Astragali, small play objects made from the hock bones of cloven-hoofed animals such as sheep or goats. They were known in both Greek and Roman antiquity. 

Used as play figures or dice, even in ancient Pompeii: the so-called Astragali. The game of the Astragali, mural from Pompeii (before 79?) © Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte (German Documentation Centre for Art History) - Bildarchiv (Picture library) Photo Marburg Rights reserved – Free access

Astragali were used on the one hand for skill and throwing games, for example for the Five Stone Game, which is still known in some societies today. As depicted on the mural from Pompeii, it was mostly played by girls and young women. The aim of the game was to catch the Astragali thrown into the air with the back of their hand and then to pick up the fallen stones without dropping the ones already caught. The game is still played in England and Turkey, for example.

A game that is also still appreciated today in its basic features is Omilla. Here the Astragali are thrown into a circle, with the aim of pushing the small figurines of the other players out of the circle. Today we know a modified form of the Omilla game as the marble game, children still play it in the playground. 

Astragal (119 - 250 AD) Biomineral bone, 1.5 x 1.6 x 1.8 cm © Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

On the other hand, Astragali were also used to roll dice. Although they have six sides, like a common modern die, two of the sides, one curved and one pointed, they do not qualify as a reclining surface because of their composition. The remaining four surfaces – the “belly” with arch, the “back” with deep cavity, a side with a groove and a flat side – lay on the ground with varying probability. This, probability resulted in different numerical values which were assigned to the individual pages. 

Already very similar to today's dice: an ancient Egyptian playing die, found on the now flooded Nile island of Philae. Die (Astragal), limestone (material / stone); glazed (white), painted, 1.6 x 1.6 x 1.6 cm © Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

A pastime for the beautiful and rich

Archaeological finds also prove the use of dice by the ancient Egyptians, for example in the context of the board game "Senet". This was a game that the Egyptian upper class played with enthusiasm as early as around 3,000 BC. It was played in pairs with seven game pieces and dice or dice sticks. Numerous other dice games were known and popular in ancient Egypt.

The favourite game of the ancient Egyptians, clearly related to our board games of today - even at first glance. Senet game board of the Sennefer (18th Dynasty, ca. 1550 – 1292 BC) © Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin(CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)

“Senet" resembled a combination of "Mensch ärgere Dich nicht" (Ludo) and "Spiel des Lebens" (Game of Life): depending on the result of the dice, a piece was moved to a certain spot. Four of them were marked with hieroglyphics that brought either good or misfortune for the further course of the game and, in a figurative sense, for the further course of life. The winner was the first person to get from the "Birth" spot to the houses of the gods at the other end of the field. 

The die as a glimpse into the future

In the game "Senet", the die had a spiritual, religious significance in addition to its pure entertainment value. From the numerous references to birth, life and death, to the position of the sun and the decan stars, to the constellation Orion and thus to Osiris, the god of the dead, conclusions were drawn about one's own future and further path in life. The players thus took on the divine role and decided the fate, life and death of their game characters. 

Queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II, also played Senet - and was probably also aware of the game's fortune-telling qualities. Queen Nefertari playing a board game © SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (German Photographic Library) /Aufsberg, Lala Rights reserved - Free access

Likewise, people in Roman and Greek antiquity used dice for the purpose of fortune-telling - and even today, the dice oracle is a popular means, albeit not taken entirely seriously by most, of looking into the future or letting a higher power make one's own decisions.

What Galileo has to do with the die

The equilateral nature of the cube and thus the equal distribution of the throwing results did not play a role in people's minds until the Renaissance. The concept of chance and probability had not yet been developed and it was believed that a superior (divine) power decides which side of the die is on top. Because of his omnipotence, a god did not have to fear the influence of an unevenly constructed die on the outcome of the throw. 

Dice in central perspective, print, 6.6 x 12.5 cm, © SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

It was only in the Renaissance that scholars such as Galileo Galilei and Blaise Pascal dealt with chance and probability. Partly this was done by keeping them busy with games and dice. It didn't take long for chance and probability to become entrenched in the collective consciousness of human society as well, so that today we believe in luck or misfortune when we throw dice, if at all - and of course only play with regular hexahedrons and other equally distributed dice. 

Forbidden Hobby

Incidentally, in the Roman Empire it was strictly forbidden to use Astragali and dice for money gambling. Nevertheless, it was a popular pastime, if not an addiction, of many Romans. Quite a few are said to have lost their livelihoods through excessive gambling. Only during the Saturnalia, a harvest festival celebrated in December in honour of Saturn, was the game of dice for money permitted in ancient Rome - and was practiced extensively.

Every year a boisterous festival known for its alcohol consumption and dice games. Antoine-François Callet: Winter / The Saturnalia, oil on canvas 322 x 319 cm © Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte - Bildarchiv Foto Marburg Rights reserved - Free access

Until the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, the game of dice was widespread and popular in society - and yet was often frowned upon as a vice. Numerous ecclesiastical as well as secular rulers issued bans. 

Was the devil the inventor of the die, after all?

One possible reason for the ban on the dice in Christian societies is the myth that the devil himself invented the gambling device. Franz Semrau refers to the French-language Essay collection of Achille Jubinal when he draws the following conclusions: The four soldiers who crucified Jesus learned from the devil how to make a die. After the crucifixion, they took Jesus' clothes and divided them among themselves. Only the undergarment they did not want to divide into four parts, but decided to draw lots for the future owner. The die was used for this purpose. 

The devil, however, not only revealed the method of making a die, but also the meaning of its numbers: "The 1 is to mock God the Father; the 2 is to mock God the Father and the Son; the 3 is to mock the Holy Trinity; the 4 for the four evangelists; the 5 for the five wounds, the 6 for the whole heavenly court" (Semrau (1909), p. 24).

As references to the Passion of Christ: Castelli, Carlo Ludovico: Angel with Dices (1704/1714), ceiling painting © Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History), Photo: Nehrdich, Rolf Werner (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The scene of the parting of Jesus' garment has been, for centuries, an integral part of the depiction of the Arma Christi, the instruments of suffering related to Christ's crucifixion. The best known from this context are probably the cross and the crown of thorns, but also the dice, for example in the hands of angels, refer to Christian imagery. 

It is hard to imagine a children's room without the die: Fairy tale building block puzzle (1940s), wood, 27 x 28 cm © Museumsberg (Museum Hill) Flensburg (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE)

And today?

One thing has remained the same, since the die and its predecessors were invented thousands of years ago: It is played gladly and frequently in almost every household. Every child has probably played with a building block puzzle or a dice tower, every adult has - voluntarily or involuntarily - taken part in a game of Ludo, Yahtzee or Backgammon. The laws have changed: The game of dice for money has gone from being a frowned-upon vice to a state-licensed pastime for many, and not just in the posh casino.

Only the question of who invented the die remains unclear. 







Semrau, Franz: Würfel und Würfelspiele im alten Frankreich, Halle a. S., 1909, online verfügbar unter: https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/item/Z2JVFX7OR2S6VSKJ7UCELH7SZBSZ6MY2