Herodotus, the fifth century B.C. Greek “Father of History,” attributed the invention of dice to the Lydians, who gambled as a way to get their minds off the great famine in the reign of King Atys. Herodotus’s contemporary, the Greek playwright Sophocles, said that dice were invented in his country by Palamedes, who taught the game to the soldiers at the siege of Troy in about the year 1,000 B.C.
However, archaeological evidence shows that dice existed long before the time of the Greek, the Trojans, or the Lydians.
Both peasants and their rulers in ancient Egypt played some version of dice games. The Pharaoh Rameses III, who lived in the 12th century B.C., arranged for himself to be portrayed on the high gate of the temple of Medinet Haboo playing a dice game with two of the women of his household. Ancient Egyptian religious writings note that the spirits of the dead in the underworld played dice games.
And dice were not limited to the so-called classical civilizations. Members of cultures from around the world have gambled with dice featuring unusual shapes and markings. Native Americans, Aztecs, Mayas, Polynesians, Eskimos, and sub-Saharan Africans employed plum stones, peach pits, pebbles, seeds, bones, deer horn, pottery, walnut shells, beaver teeth, and seashells to play dice games.
Sometimes, the Stakes Were High
Although dice games are often for fun or for money, sometimes the stakes are even higher. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing of the German tribes at the end of the first century A.D., said that when the players run out of money, they sometimes would stake their personal freedom, so that the winner could sell the loser into slavery.
Before they became gambling pieces, dice were most likely magical devices which primitive cultures used to determine the future. In this task, they joined sacred arrows, sticks, and straws that were thrown on the ground.
The Bible and Genghis Khan
The Bible mentions the casting of the lots; other ancient texts refer to the bundles of sacred tamarisk twigs used by the Magi of Chaldea and Babylonia, the divining rods employed in ancient Assyria, and the baresma used by the Parsis of India. Marco Polo says that Genghis Khan was said to have used astrologers who threw pieces of cane to determine the outcome of an impending battle.
The modern game of jackstraws may have its roots in this practice of divination by throwing sticks.