Wednesday, October 20, 2004

On Dice

I have been wondering about the relationship between one of our favorite games—yes, you guessed it, backgammon—and our attitude towards life generally. Is there a connection? More broadly, in what sense are we to understand the significance of what various cultures settle on as favorite pastimes and to what extend then can we argue that cultures are affected by those choices?

An average Iranian, I think, plays more backgammon than reads the Koran in any meaningful way. It is both fun, and entertaining. Once you learn the game, there are series of moves that are formulaic. Depending on your mood, and your personality, you either play recklessly and offensive or rather conservatively and defensive.

Then a lot hinges on the roll of the dice. There is no reason to feel you should always get what you hope for in a roll. But again, there is no conceivable reasons why should not. It is pure chance, isn’t it?

And chance is the word we hear a lot around these parts. Your opponent always wins because of his luck. And if you don’t always get what you wish for in a game, or in the game of life, then it is obviously your bad luck as well!

Dice have had an interesting history around these parts. Dice have broken kingdoms, split families, helped punish treasonous eunuchs and even helped save the Jews. I don’t know what it is about the stuff, really. But when you read the ancient accounts, it is a lot easier to stomach consequences than when one has to contend, in real life, with the nauseating chatter of some dice player.

More later. But today I wanted to point out some interesting stories involving dice.

Let’s start with another one of our many intriguing queens, the cunning, ruthless, and “naturally implacable and savage in anger and revenge,” Parysatis. Queen Parysatis, according to Plutarch, is an ingenious woman and an excellent player in dice. Her plot to punish Masabates for cutting off the hand and head of Cyrus involves a nice game of dice against King Artaxerxes.

The Jewish festival of Purim as well has a lot to do with dice. Merdecai and Esther, said to be buried in Hamadan, were in danger along with the rest of the Jewish community as a result of the enmity of Haman. The day of their destruction was chosen by throwing dice. Read the full account of their deliverance here.

And of course, the magnificent Indian Epic of Mahabharata records the events of the battle between two great families which is a consequence of a game of dice that brings much destruction. Some of the more memorable dice-centered episodes here, here, here, here, here, here.

My all time favorite, of course, is the ancient moving hymn Dice in Rig Veda:

1. SPRUNG from tall trees on windy heights, these rollers transport me as they turn upon the table.
Dearer to me the die that never slumbers than the deep draught of Mujavan's own Soma.
2 She never vexed me nor was angry with me, but to my friends and me was ever gracious.
For the die's sake, whose single point is final, mine own devoted wife I alienated.
3 My wife holds me aloof, her mother hates me: the wretched man finds none to give him comfort.
As of a costly horse grown old and feeble, I find not any profit of the gamester.
4 Others caress the wife of him whose riches the die hath coveted, that rapid courser:
Of him speak father, mother, brothers saying, We know him not: bind him and take him with you.
5 When I resolve to play with these no longer, my friends depart from me and leave me lonely.
When the brown dice, thrown on the board, have rattled, like a fond girl I seek the place of meeting.
6 The gamester seeks the gambling-house, and wonders, his body all afire, Shall I be lucky?
Still do the dice extend his eager longing, staking his gains against his adversary.
7 Dice, verily, are armed with goads and driving-hooks, deceiving and tormenting, causing gievous woe.
They give frail gifts and then destroy the man who wins, thickly anointed with the player's fairest good.
8 Merrily sports their troop, the three-and-fifty, like Savitar the God whose ways are faithful.
They bend not even to the mighty's anger: the King himself pays homage and reveres them.
9 Downward they roll, and then spring quickly upward, and, handless, force the man with hands to serve them.
Cast on the board, like lumps of magic charcoal, though cold themselves they burn the heart to ashes.
10 The gambler's wife is left forlorn and wretched: the mother mourns the son who wanders homeless.
In constant fear, in debt, and seeking riches, he goes by night unto the home of others.
11 Sad is the gambler when he sees a matron, another's wife, and his well-ordered dwelling.
He yokes the brown steeds in the early morning, and when the fire is cold sinks down an outcast.
12 To the great captain of your mighty army, who hath become the host's imperial leader,
To him I show my ten extended fingers: I speak the truth. No wealth am I withholding.
13 Play not with dice: no, cultivate thy corn-land. Enjoy the gain, and deem that wealth sufficient.
There are thy cattle there thy wife, O gambler. So this good Savitar himself hath told me.
14 Make me your friend: show us some little mercy. Assail us not with your terrific fierceness.
Appeased be your malignity and anger, and let the brown dice snare some other captive.

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