Gods Playing Games

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I recently re-watched the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, one of the best cinematic retellings of a Greek myth and a film that contains some of the finest work of master animator Ray Harryhausen.  Among the film’s conceits is the image of the gods literally playing games with mortal life: Jason’s adventures are revealed to be largely controlled by a boardgame that Zeus and Hera are playing against each other – Hera supports Jason in his quest, while Zeus seeks to derail the quest by placing various obstacles in their path.

The idea that the doings of human heroes, and even whole nations, are ultimately nothing more than a game between deities is one that has been picked up many times in 20th century fiction.  Most closely echoing the film, Tom Holt’s novel Ye Gods features the Olympians moving mortal heroes about in a Dungeons and Dragons-like adventure game, scoring points against each other as their heroes slay monsters and overcome obstacles.  Several of the books in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series likewise feature human adventures as the gods’ boardgame – the hapless wizard Rincewind is depicted as the favourite playing-piece of the green-eyed goddess known only as The Lady (worshipped principally in casinoes and by people with no other hope – don’t say her name, or she’ll desert you).  One of the eeriest versions of this trope can be found in Roger Zelazny’s short story The Game of Blood and Dust, in which all of human history serves as the gameboard of two enigmatic beings known only as Blood and Dust.  The trope has become a very popular one in a variety of media, from comic books to video games, as inevitably chronicled by TVTropes.

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Terry Pratchett’s gods eye the gameboard (painting by Paul Kidby)

This image is certainly a brilliant commentary on the ways in which the classical gods are shown interacting with mortals.  The image of one god seeking to aid a hero while another tries to hinder him – Zeus promotes his son Heracles, while his wife Hera seeks constantly to torment him;  Athena tries her best to bring Odysseus home, while Poseidon works to make his journey as long and painful as possible.  The apex of this sort of two-way conflict can perhaps be found in the Iliad.  The two sides are each favoured by a different group of deities – the Greeks by Athena and Hera and Poseidon, the Trojans by, among others, Ares, Aphrodite and Apollo – and these two teams of gods encourage whole armies of heroes to fight each other in order to satisfy their pride and resentment.  The image of the divine boardgame also chimes well with the profound gulf that was seen as existing between the priorities of mortals and gods in the ancient world.  In the Iliad, for example, the Trojan War, which leads to the deaths of thousands of mortals and the destruction of an entire civilization, is reflected on Olympus simply as a family squabble among the gods, apparently largely forgotten by the time of the Odyssey, only  ten years later.

This led me to wonder whether the image of the cosmic board game is something that appears in Ancient Greek thought itself.   While the Greeks and Romans did not have games quite as sophisticated as those depicted by Holt, Pratchett, or Zelazny, they certainly did have boardgames.  The Greeks played pessoi (also pronounced pettoi, literally meaning “pebbles”) a game apparently something like checkers (or draughts, for those raised in the UK), which is mentioned as early as Homer and represented in Greek art.  The Romans had a similar game called the ludus lactrunculum – “game of bandits”, which featured white and black pieces seeking to surround each other.

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A black-figure vase showing Achilles and Ajax playing pessoi

References to the gods playing boardgames, however, prove surprisingly hard to discover.  It is true that international affairs can be likened to games – for example, in Euripides’ Suppliant Women, a herald from Thebes, on hearing that the Athenians are a democracy rather than a monarchy, rejoices that “you have given us the first move, as in pessoi;  for the city I come from is not ruled by a mob, but is under a single man.”  Likewise, in a fragment the same playwright’s lost Erechtheus, the movements of tribes from territory to territory are said to resemble the moves of pieces across the gameboard (quoted in Lycurgus 1.100).  Aristotle draws on a similar metaphor when, in his Politics, he likens a human being without a society to a single piece on a gameboard – not good for much of anything on its own (Politics 1253a).  But in all of these examples, the gods are conspicuously absent.  Mortals are both the pieces and the players,

Divinity is linked to boardgames in Plato’s Laws.  In describing the actions of the benevolent creator of the universe, Pessoi is used to illustrate the mechanics of reincarnation:

Since the soul is always being placed in bodies, now into one, now into another, it undergoes all sorts of changes, from this life to that, and there is nothing left for the Gameplayer to do but to move the character than becomes better into a better place, and the one that becomes worse into a worse one (Laws 10.903d).  

While here we do have a deity imagined as gameplayer, this is a very different image from those presented in the modern versions of the image.  In the modern treatments, the image of humans as the gods’ gamepieces usually serves to indicate their indifference to humanity as they treat mortals’ tribulations simply a source of amusement.  In Plato’s account, however, the divine player is deeply attentive to humans as individuals:  the god moves the pieces not for amusement or personal advantage, but in order to place them where they most deserve to be.

When we leave the beaten track of more familiar authors, however, things begin to get a bit more interesting.  The enigmatic philosopher Heraclitus is said to have declared that “eternity is a child playing, playing boardgames” (fragment 52).  The famous obscurity of Heraclitus’ style, and the lack of context for this fragment make it hard to know exactly what it means, but it does seem to have the implications of arbitrariness and lack of seriousness that the modern visions of the divine boardgame imply.  It is at the other end of antiquity, however, that we find the most interesting passages.  Interestingly, it is Jewish and Christian writers who most embrace the image of supernatural powers playing games with the world.  The first-century CE Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, for example, says that “nothing is more unstable than Fortune, who moves people like game-pieces up and down” (Life of Moses 1.31).  As a monotheist, Philo almost certainly intends this to be taken as a purely metaphorical depiction, but it does get us a lot closer to the image of game-playing gods.  Christian writers also seem to have embraced the metaphor:  Gregory of Nanzianzus writes in a letter, “let it be others that envy and time and chance move like gamepieces (petteuetō) and throw about and play with,” while he and his correspondent remain firm in their faith.  Again, the players here are not gods but metaphorical personifications, but the vision of human affairs as cosmic boardgame is very definitely present.

These writers come closer to the modern vision, but they still lack one crucial element:  that of competition.  In all the examples, the metaphor of boardgames is invoked primarily to emphasize the frequent and sometimes arbitrary movement of the pieces.  In none of the examples I’ve found do we ever see two gods or teams of gods playing games against each other for the fate of the world.  That image, based, I suppose, on the mythical rivalries between gods over mortal heroes or communities, seems to have been the brainchild of Beverly Cross and Jan Read, the scriptwriters of Jason and the Argonauts.

That is, as far as I know.  There’s obviously an awful lot of time between late antiquity and 1963, after all, and it’s entirely possible that the metaphor of the divine boardgame was used at least once in that span.  Also, of course, the Greeks and Romans are far from the only civilizations who had both gods and boardgames.  It’s quite that the image of gods using mortals as gamepieces may crop up in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec, or Indian mythology, just to name a few.  If anyone knows, please do let me know.

While the search for its origins in antiquity has proved disappointing, the image of gods playing games with mortal lives is clearly an effective one, and one that, given the popularity of both board and computer strategy games, I suspect will be with us for quite some time.

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