Dice have a history as old as the history of man. Dice in various forms are the oldest gambling instruments known. Artifacts of dice games have been found in the tombs of ancient Sumeria and Egypt. Dice were notoriously popular in later Greek and Roman times. The majority were made of bone (like the one shown below) or ivory. Others were made of bronze, agate, onyx, jet, alabaster, marble, rock crystal, amber, porcelain, and other materials. Etruscan dice found near Rome and made about 900 B.C. are similar to the dice of today, with the opposite faces adding up to seven: 1:6, 2:5, 3:4. Similar dice have been found in Britain in the prehistoric earthworks of Maiden Castle.
Sophocles claimed that dice were invented in Greece by Palamedes, who taught the game to the soldiers at the siege of Troy 3,000 years ago.
Herodotus attributed the invention of dice to the Lydians, who gambled as a diversion from the great famine in the days of King Atys.
In reality, dice had existed for thousands of years before Troy was founded and before the Lydians had a king.
Man’s very earliest written records mention dice and dice games… and crooked dice, as well. Archeological evidence points to the fact that dice games were played by both peasants and pharaohs in ancient Egypt. King Rameses III (c. 1182-1151 B.C.) had himself portrayed on the high gate of the temple of Medinet Haboo playing a dice game with two ladies of his harem. Ancient Egyptian religious writings mention dice games that are played by the spirits of the departed in the underworld.
Primitive tribes all over the globe have gambled with dice of many curious shapes and markings. The American Indian, the Aztec and Maya, the South Sea Islander, the Eskimo, the Africans… all played dice games, whether using plum and peach stones, pebbles, seeds, bones, deer horn, pottery, walnut shells, beaver teeth, or seashells.
Indeed, gambling has not been confined to any one nation or period in time. Tacitus wrote of the Germani in A.D. 99:
“They practise dice play, at which one will naturally wonder, soberly, and quite as if it were a serious business, with such hardihood in winning and losing, that, when they have nothing more left, they stake their freedom, and their person on the last cast of the die. The loser resigns himself voluntarily to servitude, and even if he is younger and stronger than his adversary, he allows himself to be bound and sold. Thus great is their staunchness in an affair so bad: they themselves call it ‘Keeping their word’.”
The most likely originator of dice is the witch doctor. Before developing into gambling implements, dice were magical devices which primitive man used to divine the future. Not only dice, but most other modern gaming implements have been traced back to primeval man’s practice of divination by arrows. (most notably by Stewart Culin, formerly director of the Brooklyn Museum, in his book Chess and Playing Cards, 1897).
Primitive dice dealt with the realms of good and bad luck. When the prehistoric priest or witch-doctor threw the sacred arrows (sticks, reeds and straws were also used) upon the ground and recited his magical spells, he read the future and foretold what good or bad fortune would attend the tribe.
Marco Polo described a variation of this process with a surprising result…
“…when the two great hosts were pitched on the plains of Tanduc… Chinghis Kaan one day summoned before him his astrologers… and desired them to let him know which of the two hosts would gain the battle – his own or Prester John’s… they got a cane and split it length-wise, and laid one-half on this side and one-half on that, allowing no one to touch the pieces.”
“And one piece of cane they called Chinghis Kaan and the other piece, Prester John. And then they said, “Now, mark; and you shall see the event of the battle and who shall have the best of it…”
“And to! whilst all were beholding the cane that bore the name of Chinghis Kaan, without being touched by anybody, advanced to the other… and got on top of it.”
The divinatory throwing of sticks is the casting of the lots of Biblical mention, and many ancient writers refer to the bundles of sacred tamarisk twigs used by the Magi of Chaldea and Babylonia, the divining rods of Assyria and the similar baresma of the Parsis of India.
The game of Jackstraws can be traced back to this divination by throwing sticks, and the fact that kwai, the name of the jade sceptres carried by the nobles of ancient China, is written with a character which, combined with the radical for “hand”, stands for kwa meaning “to divine with straws”, hints at the divining rod origin of the king’s sceptre. The magician’s wand would also be product of this line of evolution.
In other cultures, divining sticks were shorter and thicker and bore a greater resemblance to modern dice. Among the African tribes of Mashonaland, they are common among all the Abantu races and closely bound up with their occult belief in witchcraft. On the evening of the new moon, the village witch-doctor will go around, tossing each man a set of dollasses in the air, and by the way they turn up he will divine the fortune of the individual for the month to come.”
The Livingstones who noted similar customs among the Zambesi referred to the diviner as a dice doctor. He also functioned as a detective since another use for his dice was that of discovering thieves ( see authentic African dollasses).
Gradually these primitive fortune telling devices began to be used as fortune gaining devices. The mystical significance of the numbers was lost and the throw determined winning scores and decided the out-come of wagers. The liturgical rites became games.
As the arrow used in divination began, instead, to be used in gambling, three general types of games evolved: guessing games, games of chance and games of skill. In the guessing games, the arrow shaft became an ornamented gambling stick marked to denote rank which, in Korea, evolved into a deck of slim strips of oiled paper cards whose backs still bore an arrow feather design that indicates their origin.
Later Chinese cards of the same shape, called “stick cards”, bear figures whose resemblance to those on our present court cards is remarkable.
The world’s oldest known playing card found in Chinese Turkestan is of this type and is dated at the eleventh century. They were introduced into Europe from China in the thirteenth century. “Even the ancestry of the book in Eastern Asia”, Culin says, “may be traced to the bundle of engraved or painted arrow-derived slips used in divination.”
In many of the early games such as the Korean Nyout, the Egyptian Tab and the ancient Pachisi (Parcheesi) of India, the throw of the dice controlled the moves of counters upon a marked playing surface as in the Backgammon of today. Later, when the dice and the element of chance was omitted, the game of pure skill developed and the counters became the men of Checkers, Chess, the Chinese Wei-Kei and the Japanese Go.
But before any of these developments, the dice were tossed alone in games that were pure gambling. If we can judge by the American Indian, primitive man and woman (she was often even more addicted to the practice than he) was an inveterate gambler.
The close association of gambling and the military man is also noted even that early. Edwin T. Denig in a report on the Indian tribes of the Upper Missouri said that…
“Most of the leisure time, either by night or by day, among all these nations is devoted to gambling… every day and night in the soldier’s lodge not occupied by business matters presents gambling in various ways all the time; also in many private lodges the song of hand gambling and the rattle of the bowl dice are heard. Women are as much addicted to the practice as men, though not being in possession of much property their losses are not so distressing.”
The most common method of play among the Indians was to toss the gaming disks of fruit stone, animal bone, wood or shell in a basket. The basket was raised a little, the stones tossed, and the basket brought smartly down to the ground. The combinations of sides which lie uppermost after the throw determined the count.
In the Cheyenne basket game five plum stones were used marked on one side only, three with crosses and the other two with a symbol representing the foot of a bear.
Two blanks, two bears and one cross counted nothing; one blank, two bears, and two crosses counted one point, etc.
The thrower who tossed two bears and three crosses won the game and the jackpot.
The dice shark’s sleight of hand is no recent invention, either. In a game played with dice of beaver teeth by the Twana tribe of Washington, one die with a string around its middle counted as high score when this die was up and the others down. “They sometimes learn very expertly to throw the one with the string differently from the others, by arranging them in the hand so they can hold this one, which they know by feeling, a trifle longer than the others.”