In 1944, a Chicago resident, Louis Cohn, confessed that it was not Mrs. O’Leary’s milk cow that started the Great Chicago Fire of 1891, but that he had excitedly knocked over a lantern during a winning streak while shooting craps….
Beautifully crafted dice games were among the treasures recovered from the tomb of Egypt’s King Tutankhamon. ( circa 1347-1339 BC )….
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.
It is claimed that dice were used during the Trojan War to keep spirits up between battles and missions….
During Christ’s crucifixion, it has been noted that Roman soldiers tossed dice for his garments while standing guard… When Caesar made the critical decision to take his victorious army across the Rubicon against the edict of Rome, he retorted: “Tacta alea est.” (The die is cast)….
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.