The Boardgame Mandala
1. Pretwa (traditional war game from
In the evolution of game diagrams and rules boardgames have come to mirror not only cultural aspects but also the transformations in the collective psyche. The boardgame portrays the collective psyche in the form of mandala shapes pertaining to the whole numbers, such as three and four. The symbolic values of the different geometries and numbers are recurrent themes in cultural history, and denote different stages in the progression of consciousness. In particular, the boardgame can be understood as an equivalent of the vessel in medieval alchemy.
Keywords: mandala, quaternity, trinitarian, Self, alchemy, sacred game, psychic structure, divination.
Ancient and medieval people viewed boardgames as doorways to the spiritual sphere. They notoriously carved them into temple walls and roofs. In the ancient temple at Kurna in Egypt (c. 1400 B.C.) there are more than 70 board games painstakingly carved into the roofing slabs, dating from different epochs in history. In Gloucester Cathedral many Fox and Geese boards (fig. 22) are incised on the stone seats. This cross-shaped diagram also occurs inside and on the outside walls of the cloisters of San Paolo, Rome. Boardgame patterns, especially nine-mens' Morris (see fig. 2), were often built into the walls of churches and monasteries (Murray, 1951, p.44 & p.102). In ancient India game diagrams were depicted in murals, built into roofing slabs and the floor of temples. In the game the devotee and the deity met, and boards and gaming pieces were often used in divination, as a means of consulting God (Vasantha, 2005).
2. Morris, nine-mens'
Different forms of Morris (Merels) patterns are common among the
chisellings on historical buildings and rocks at many places in the world.
Several types appear in the temple at Kurna. In Morris the goal is to get three
men in a row. By 1997, in a project that was prematurely discontinued,
researchers had documented over one thousand morris boards in an historical and
archaeological context. They also occur on vertical surfaces, as on a roman
marble slab that is part of the throne of Charlemagne, Aix-la-Chapelle
The boardgame Fanorona played an interesting part in the rituals in Madagascan culture. At the storming of the capital by the French in 1895, the Queen and people relied far more on the outcome of the official game that was being played by the ritual professionals for victory, than they did on their armed forces (Murray, 1951, p.88). While it consists of two conjoined Alquerque boards, the Fanorona board has unequal sides, and therefore the number two is present. Fanorona employed withdrawal capture, a unique move where an enemy man is taken by withdrawing from it. To this day, playing cards are similarly used for divination as well as for a great multitude of games. Alquerque is very important, probably deriving from the roman era. It is the forefather of many games, including checkers.
Games cannot formally be distinguished from the temple or the magic circle, that is, the mandala or the temenos (sacred, protected space). According to Pennick, the curves drawn out from the square grid, in the Indonesian game Surakarta, is similar to a description in a Norse saga of a grid drawn by a magician to call up spirits. Surakarta involves a board and a mode of play that relates it to protective designs which are found throughout Asia and as far away as northern Europe. The Surakarta plan also relates to a variant of labyrinth design found in France and England, for example, Saffron Walden, Essex (Pennick, 1998, p.217 & p.229).
5. Cows and Leopards
In this board from southern Asia triangular patterns have grown out of the
original Alquerque board (Parker, 2001, p.582).
Historian Johan Huizinga, who wrote a book on the culture of play, says that the game playing element was once extremely important, especially in Chinese civilization. In ancient China almost everything took the form of a ceremonial contest: the crossing of a river, the climbing of a mountain, cutting wood or picking flowers. These ritual contests were indispensable for the smooth running of the seasons, the ripening of crops, the prosperity of the whole year. Every victory represents the triumph of the good powers over the bad, and at the same time the salvation of the group that effects it. The agonistic principle is foundational in the development of Chinese civilization (Huizinga, 1971, pp.75-77). He notes:
The sacramental ball games, as played by the Maya and the Aztec, are well-known in religious history. An intermediate of spectator sports and boardgames is the living boardgame.
The Mogul emperors of India had the courtyard of their palaces laid out as cross-shaped Pachisi boards, upon which slave girls acted as pieces (Pennick, 1998, p.205f). Ludo is a modern version of Pachisi. It is a race game in which the men must circumambulate the board before they are allowed to enter the center, as symbolic of the holy place. This position can also be understood as the Self, the archetype of wholeness and the regulating centre of the psyche. A very similar game, Patolli, was popular in Aztec civilization. Concerning the quaternity and the ritual of circumambulation, Daryl Sharp says:
In Tablut the centre is still holy, but the goal is to enclose the absolute piece initially positioned on the centre square.
7. Tablut (Hnefatafl, Tafl)
In Völuspa, the prophetic text of the Norse, it is told that the gods will one day recover the golden tafl game, which had been lost at the dawn of the current era.
Shall the golden tables | stand mid the grass,
Which the gods had owned | in the days of old
Tafl (Hnefatafl, Tablut) was immensely popular in Scandinavia during the Viking era (Bell, 1979, p.77f). The game's Gaelic descendants, namely the British Gwyddbwyll and the Irish Fidhchell, figure in many stories in the Celtic tradition. The corner squares were regarded as the four Otherworldly cities to which the Tuatha de Danaan arrive, a godlike people around which many heroic stories revolve. On the gaming board, which also represented the land, the centre is regarded as sacred and called Tara, the seat of High Kings. As the mystical fifth dimension it represented the Otherworld itself, which was always proximate, overlying reality. The holy corner and middle squares can be accessed only by the king, which was an absolute piece (Matthews, 1996, pp.9-10).
8. Alea Evangelii
In 10th century England Tablut evolved into Alea Evangelii (The
Evangelical game). It was viewed as an allegory of the Evangelists. The king,
initially positioned in the middle, was called primarius vir, and
symbolized the unity of the Trinity (Murray, 1951, p.61).
Games as Preoccupations of Gods and Spirits
In a book on Chinese Chess from 1632 by Jin-zhen Zhu, named The Secret Inside the Orange, it is said that the title of the book was derived from a legend:
In her essay on the dreams of Descartes, M-L von Franz discusses the round
fruit as a rotundum and a symbol of the Self as something that has
grown naturally, the result of a quiet process of ripening. It is a symbol of a
new conscious order which ripens in the darkness of natural creation (von
Franz, 1998, p.142ff). Comparatively, in the alchemical rotundum
(receptacle) were enclosed the warring elements, often symbolized by two
dragons, while a slow process transformed them into gold.
9. Wall drawing from a tomb at Benihassan, c.2000 B.C.
(After Bell 1979, Dover Publications, Inc.)
According to M-L von Franz, at the base of existence there is a spiritual objective order, expressed in the seemingly abstract and impersonal order of numbers. The spirits of the dead, according to many people's beliefs, concern themselves with this inexorable objective order behind all existence. One common mythologem pictures them literally "killing time" in the Beyond at number games. In many an Egyptian burial chamber the deceased is portrayed playing a halma-type board game. Besides this square game, a round "snake game" is also found among Egyptian artifacts. Horus and Set were said to have competed in this snake game once against each other. Similar boards have been found in the Sumerian tombs of Ur (2500 B.C.). Also in China, inside tombs of the Han period (207B.C. - A.D.220), pictures or figures of the dead have been uncovered which portray their occupation with various forms of boardgames (von Franz, 1974, pp.293-96). von Franz says:
In playing their boardgames, the dead occupy themselves with the primal
ordering of existence, in which all things lie in their natural order, beyond
the realm of the wishes and desires haunting our ego. The natural order is the
grounds for the widespread use of boardgames for divinatory purposes. Numbers
and boardgames provide a way of circumventing the shortsightedness of the ego,
thus opening the doorway to the spiritual sphere where the intricate weave of
objective order is continually begotten. Today, however, numbers and boardgames
tend to be viewed only in their quantitative aspect, as an intellectual
capability of the subjective consciousness.
Evolution of Boardgames
The works of game historians can help us draw a picture of how the evolution of boardgames relates to developments in consciousness and culture. When a boardgame "migrates" to a new culture the game rules are altered correspondingly. In Persia the Shah was worshipped almost as a God. In this country also emerged the rule of the absolute piece, which cannot be lost without losing the game. The Chinese emperor spent his whole life within the confines of the palace walls, and so the ruler of the Chinese chessboard came to be confined within its palace of 3x3 squares.
10. Byzantine chess
Chess in medieval Byzantium took on the round shape, perhaps having to do
with a worldview that is theocratic, and focused on spirit, which is circular
(Bell, 1979, p.61f). This variant of the chessboard has been revived in recent
years, a yearly tournament being held at Lincoln castle, England.
From the prototype of Chaturanga, Europeans have increased the powers of the pieces, whereas the Chinese and East Asians have decreased the powers of several pieces. When the game migrated from the Arabic world to Europe it encountered a world where woman not seldom held the highest office, either as a reigning queen, consors regni (co-ruler), or as temporary ruler in her capacity of mother to the juvenile king. Interestingly, during a period in the 980s, Western Europe had a majority of female rulers (Yalom, 2004, p.26). The relatively high status of women in Europe had its ground in the pagan era. Accordingly, in medieval times the Virgin Mary came to play quite an important role in the church's teachings.
For obvious reasons, then, this was the place and time when the powerful Queen first appeared on the chessboard, when the weak Fers (General) was ousted from its elevated position beside the king (Yalom, 2004, ch.11).
Mirrors of Psychic Structure
Boardgames employ diverse mandala structures, including quadratic, circular, cross-shaped, and triangular. These shapes correspond to the different shapes of mandala paintings in religious practice (and also the work of patients in therapy). In Gala, from medieval Europe, the four central squares are regarded as holy, and special rules apply to them (Pennick 1998, pp.217-21; Glonnegger, 1988, pp.186-7). When pieces enter the central cross, the movement capability is altered into a mirror-image of the outside movement.
Medieval dwellers would undoubtedly have associated the different areas with regions of the sacred and the profane. The quaternity is also reflected in the four absolute pieces, the Galas, initially positioned in the corners. If this game is compared with Tablut (fig. 7), a further differentiation has occurred in that there are now four different piece types and the rules are more complex. This change probably mirrors corresponding changes in consciousness.
12. Demala Diviyan Keliya
Leopard games from Asia represent hunt games, similar to Fox and
Geese, but adapted to triangular boards (Parker, 2001, pp.581-83; Murray, 1951,
pp.106-7). As is typical of hunt games the "holy piece" ("Tiger")
cannot be captured. In the more advanced variants there are three such pieces.
The object of the white player is to enclose the red stones so they cannot
move. Here the white player has only begun to place his pieces, which are 15
The triangular boards emphasize the number three. Arguably, the threesome of absolute pieces would be symbolically equivalent to the primarius vir, the unity of the Trinity, in Alea Evangelii (fig. 8). This game represents a trinitarian counterpart of the quaternarian Gala (fig. 11). In alchemical terms and in analytical psychology the number three promotes the emancipation and expansion of consciousness. Viewed as a masculine number it relates to the fatherly principle, e.g. scientific understanding, societal mores and orderliness. However, it could also signify the chtonic, underworldly, trinity. Emphasis on the number three could portray the ideal of consciousness. Alternatively, it follows the principle of compensation and points at the requirement of conscious or spiritual emancipation. The unconscious exerts a power of compensation, consonant with the necessities and laws of man's inner life (Jacobi, 1973, p.10).
The number four, according to C.G. Jung, stands for the concretization of the spirit as it is cast in the subjective mould. It represents the integration of the advancing consciousness with the unconscious and instinctual roots of man. As such the quaternity expresses a directionality of wholeness. The significance of numbers, and concepts of the the trinitarian and the quaternarian, are treated in von Franz (1974), Jung (1980), Lindorff (2004).
In the popular game of Pulijdam two arms have grown out of the central triangle, creating a structure more similar to a cross. (In this image the 15 white pieces have not yet been dropped.) The migration from three to four indicates perhaps a higher consciousness that has grown stale, but now preparing to be reintegrated in life. This theme is common in dreams and myths. In medieval alchemy it is represented by the Axiom of Maria wherein "one becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth." Jung used the axiom of Maria as a metaphor for the whole process of individuation. One is the original state of unconscious wholeness; two signifies the conflict between opposites; three points to a potential resolution; the third is the transcendent function; and the one as the fourth is a transformed state of consciousness, relatively whole and at peace. (The transcendent function supports the union of consciousness and the unconscious.) (Sharp, 1991).
14. Bear game
The Bear game (Bear hunt) is still known among elderly people in Piemonte, Italy, where it is found among rock carvings (Depaulis, 1999). In this hunt game, which functions finely, three hunters are following a bear, trying to enclose it. Men follow the lines and must stop on the intersections. Bear games probably derive from the roman era. Functional sandstone boards from the third century have been found in Augst, Switzerland (Schädler, 2002). The recovered games are more demanding.
15. Hare game
European hare games, deriving from medieval times, seem to portray the
archetypal conflict between three and four, as in the Christian Trinity vs. the
adversary, or a trinitarian consciousness contra the inferior function.
The inferior function (fourth function) is the least differentiated of the four
psychological functions (thinking, feeling, intuition, sensation) and
practically identical with the dark side of the human personality (Sharp, 1991).
This type of game seems to have had the alternative name of The Devil among the tailors (Glonnegger, 1988, p.151). They vary in design and size, but seem uniformly to be three against one in theme. This one (fig. 15) is a small variant from around 1300, found in Riga, Latvia (Caune, 1993). It was revived in the 19th century as the Soldiers' Game (Schuh, 1968, pp.239-44). The light stones can only move downwards or sideways and must try to surround the dark stone, which is victorious if it avoids being surrounded and reaches the apex. The dark stone can be dropped on any empty square in the first move or, alternatively, it can be positioned on a standard initial square. There are no captures. This type of game is almost ritual in character, while it aims at enclosing the elusive and ambivalent fourth principle.
Haretavl is a circular hare game from Fyn, Denmark (Michaelsen, 1998). The game seems to combine the alchemical motto of the squaring of the circle with the traditional hare game principle, namely the enclosement of the mercurial element (see below) symbolized by the singular piece. In traditional mandala design, circle and square together combine heaven and earth, thus representing the total world. This geometric combination is common also in morris mandalas. The rules of this particular variant seem to have been different, however.
17. Roman wheel pattern
Wheel patterns occur frequently at historical roman sites. They are
often placed at an entrance or a threshold, and sometimes on vertical surfaces,
probably as protective charms. Wheel patterns are common in Ephesus, known in
antiquity for its sacred shrines. Earlier these were thought to be merels game
boards, but it seems like the topology is proper only for bear games. This
particular pattern is a mechanical win, however, but it could have been
attractive to ancient man anyway.
Wheel patterns were probably bear games originally, but certain of them became stylized and less functional. They work as protective charms and tend to be ritualistic in character. The fact that the game is functional means that there is a spirit trapped in the diagram, i.e. an idea of three hunters capturing the elusive fourth "bear spirit." To me, it invokes the idea of a "game of transcendency," or a mandala proper. Even if humans won't play on it, the spirits will, using spiritual rules.
Interestingly, the theme of the bear hunt is known as the "Cosmic Hunt" among anthropologists. Over the whole of the Eurasian continent and the two Americas this myth returns in different forms, but always revolving around three hunters following foremostly a bear, or an elk. The hunters are the three stars in the handle of the Big Dipper (Berezkin, 2005).
18. Jeux des gendarmes et du voleur
Policemen and thief is a bear game from Sologne, France (Depaulis, 1999). I think the 'thief', as the fourth piece, symbolizes Mercurius, god of the unconscious. I have the feeling that C.G. Jung would have delighted in a mandala-shaped boardgame where wholeness is created by a trinity of pieces enveloping a fourth piece, thereby attaining a quaternity.
19. Round bear game
This diagram derives from Didyma, Turkey, where it is clumsily depicted in
the temple of Apollo (Depaulis, 1999). It functions as a bear game, but we
don't know if it was ever used as such. There are also quadratic and
rectangular forms of bear games.
The Alchemical Vessel
The focal point in alchemy was the vas hermeticum, the alembic, or the alchemical retort - all different names for the alchemist's flask where the warring elements were subjected to heat and underwent circular distillation (circumambulation). From the chaos, the prima materia of crude material substances, would arise the spiritual Stone of the Philosophers, which had wonder-working properties. The boardgame is the equivalent of the hermetic vessel; in it, the warring elements are added and sealed off from the outside world. The 16th century alchemist Gerhard Dorn says: "Our vessel ... should be made according to true geometrical proportion and measure, and by a kind of squaring of the circle" (Theat. Chem. I, 1659). Jung (1980) says:
In my understanding, the Chinese game of Sixteen rebels reflects upon the alchemical quintessential element represented by the holy stone in the centre (Winther, 2005). While it employs intervention capture (capture by stepping between two pieces), this game is believed to be quite old.
20. Sixteen rebels
The board looks like a flask, where the elusive spiritus mercurialis,
a most holy spirit, is held captive. In keeping with the Chinese preference for
the number five, the four-cornered Alquerque board was complemented with an
extra structure to introduce the number five. When a triangle emerges out of a
square, it seems to signify spirit over matter, possibly compensating an
earthbound attitude. As in all hunt games the dark stone, which cannot be
captured, must be surrounded by the light stones.
A notorious problem in alchemy was the evaporative nature of the spirit Mercurius. He is the prototype of the fairytale's spirit in the bottle, who would take any chance to escape from his prison. In Sixteen rebels, the red stone is victorious if it can reach the apex of the upper triangle. This is the same situation as in the Hare game (fig. 15). In the mean time, the forces of consciousness (alternatively, the principle of spirit), represented by the light stones, will encroach upon the red stone. In Sixteen rebels, several white stones must be sacrificed on the way. Such a sacrificial theme coincides with a well-known psychological fact; attempts at assimilating the unconscious self are usually accompanied by a deterioration in the primary function of consciousness (von Franz, 1974, p.93). The game can also be said to express the demonic force in conflict with the celestial spirit, as the archetypal tug of war underlying all psychic phenomena.
Players in their gaming activity follow the alchemical procedure when they become absorbed by the transformations in their vessel, which is the gaming board. This is similar to the alchemist's labourings with his chemicals. The player is seemingly trying to synthesize the most holy substance from the game. Involved in this work is a phantasy of the perfect game, such as the creations of the 19th century chessmaster Adolf Anderssen, whose creations have been named "The Immortal Game," and "The Evergreen Game."
21. Egyptian Siga
Siga (Seega) is depicted among the original chisellings at Kurna (Parker, 2001, p.603; Murray, 1951, pp.54-5). Possibly it was played by the Old Kingdom pharaos. The archaic interception capture bears witness to its antiquity. In order to make a capture one must surround an enemy piece with two of one's own. The capture method of the short leap, as in modern checkers, is of later date. In Siga the men ("dogs") are not positioned in a battle line. Before play begins stones are dropped one by one on the board. To me, this relates the image of a less organized psychic structure. In ancient times, spirits of the unconscious existed everywhere around. They had not yet been located in a particular region called the unconscious. Similarly, demons and gods were still circulating among humans and had not yet been permanently relegated to a heavenly region and a demonic underworld.
22. Fox and Geese
Fox and Geese (originally named Fox and Hounds) was obsessively played by the medievals (Murray, 1951, p.102f). In this we see a more orderly setup. The game originated with 13 men (Geese), trying to surround the lonely Fox, initially positioned in the centre of the cross-shaped board. A medieval alchemist would probably have understood the red Fox as the elusive Mercurius. A Christian complentative would perhaps see it as the Christ. In terms of Jungian psychology the Christ is also a symbol of the Self. The light-coloured Geese can then be understood as the celestial forces, or more prosaically, the combined forces of consciousness, attempting to enclose the precious divinity. Again, the interpretation of the central piece as the divine entity finds it counterpart in Alea Evangelii (fig. 8). Also here the goal is to surround the primarius vir as the manifest symbol of the godhead.
23. Fifteen geese
Fox and Geese underwent an interesting development. Historically the number of Geese increased, first to 15, and then to 17. But this also implied that their movement was restricted, while on the contrary the Fox retained its free movement. With 15 Geese backward movement is prohibited, and with 17 Geese also diagonal movement is prohibited.
24. Seventeen geese
The development seems to mirror an increase in the powers of consciousness, and in spiritual discipline, which coincides with the era. Increased in number, the Geese could no longer retreat. Consciousness was not allowed to regress, but must relentlessly press forward to achieve its goal. This goal-oriented attitude coincides with the continual strengthening of consciousness, but also the advanced methods of contemplation in Catholic mysticism, occurring during the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, up to the Age of Enlightenment.
In the latter era emerged the final version of this game, now commonly
known as Asalto (in some countries Foxes and Sheep). Now the light
pieces were radically increased to 24, and the lonely Fox became two in number.
This is how the setup is typically represented although 20 light pieces would
make a more balanced game (Bell, 1979, vol.II: p.46; Glonnegger, 1988, p.190).
It is a radical increase. Consciousness has again broadened, and with the two foxes the number two has appeared, signifying a stronger division between conscious and unconscious. von Franz (1974) says: "Whenever a latent unconscious content pushes up into consciousness, it appears first as a twofold oneness" (p.93). Consciousness, it seems, has now obtained the two auxiliary psychic functions implied by the two arms, which were only little occupied in the initial version of the game. An auxiliary function is a helpful second or third function (thinking, feeling, intuition, or sensation) that has a codetermining influence on consciousness (Sharp, 1991). Notably, in Asalto, unlike in Fox and Geese and similar hunt games, the goal is no longer to attain the holy stone positioned in the centre. The mission is not anymore aimed at realizing the Self by direct means, in the way of medieval Christian mystics, or Asian spiritual techniques.
How can we explain these changes? The stronger light of consciousness had brought with it a marked division in the psyche, and the naive wholeness of medieval man was lost. As a consequence the Self definitely split into a lighter and a shadier part. The ambivalent Fox disunited and became two. In religious history a corresponding development occurred in the division of the ambivalent Old Testamental God into a light aspect and a dark adversary. This occurrence anticipated the corresponding development in the psyche of the individual. The change in collective consciousness is reflected in the new rules of the game. The task of the Geese (Soldiers) is to occupy the "fort" or the "castle," which is the nethermost square of the board. I think it signifies the unconscious (or divine) realm, including the fourth unconscious function. Although the rules still admit to winning by enclosing the holy pieces, this is practically impossible. The fort consists of nine squares, a number which is significant, in itself. von Franz (1997) has shown that in fairytales "the number nine is found in the symbolism of hell, the underworld and the realm of the dead" (p.135).
To the mythic consciousness, such a symbol portrays the battle between demons and gods, as in Hindu mythology. The agonistic mythologem is archetypal. The conflict motif portrays the psychic economy of unconscious integration. The remarkable phenomenon of consciousness is a product of this ongoing battle. The two guardian stones, as two Sphinxes guarding the gate, must try to ward off the forces of light. When the nether square, the fort, is filled with light stones, the unconscious fourth function will be conquered and the goal obtained. von Franz (1974) says:
Historically, it's as if the unconscious function, because of a contrast effect, appears in company with an emancipation of consciousness. The last evolution of the game coincides with our modern view of the spiritual path, namely to view the unconscious as a psychic region, and then to grapple with the forces of the unconscious, before we can attain the wholeness when all the four functions of the psyche are integrated.
The modern game Stratego is likely the descendant of the French
L'Attaque by Mademoiselle Hermance Edan, who filed a
patent for this game in 1908. Concurrently with the rise of psychoanalysis and
the new notion of the unconscious, the pieces opposing the conscious forces are
turned away and effectively become unconscious to the player of the red pieces.
The physical pieces are illustrated as soldiers of different rank, decided by
their number. Low number stands for high rank. The player does not know what
rank the enemy pieces have, and whether in confronting them he is going to lose
or win a piece. The unconscious, as it were, is differentiated into several
piece types, mirroring the increased knowledge of unconscious entities and
complexes. The absolute piece, which must be protected at any cost, is retained
in the form of the Flag ('Stratego', 2009).
The boardgame represents a spiritual mystery, a vessel in which the spirit is captive. It is a dynamic form of mandala, an image of psychic wholeness. In its impersonal numerical aspect it represents a hole through which the Beyond can break in. The transformations in the collective psyche are mirrored in the evolution of diagrams and rules.
See also examples of coloured boardgame images here.
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© Mats Winther 2007 (article revised 2009), text and images by me (except fig. 9).