The Value of Games In Ethnology

By Stewart Culin
Abstract of a paper in the Proceedings
Association For The Advancement of Science, 1894, Pages 355-358.

The comparative study of games is one that deserves a high place among our inquiries into the history and development of culture. Their origin belongs to the time preceding that of written records; and many games were not only the product of primitive conditions, but represent the means by which man endeavored to bring himself into communion with and to penetrate the secrets of the natural powers that surrounded him. Thus we find that many early games were sacred and divinatory, and unless we can trace them back to these conditions, we may he sure that we have not obtained the clew to their origin. They have not, like religions, been the object of a propaganda, and yet we find them distributed, comparatively unchanged in form, among the various races of the earth.

The question of their distribution is not less important than that of their origin. How far is their diffusion the result of migration and commerce, and how far that of independent development, the result of similar environment, or, above all, of the practical psychological unity of the entire human race?

The application of these inquiries finds nowhere a more significant field than in America. Among the varied evidence that has been brought forward to support the hypothesis of the Asiatic origin of the ancient Mexican civilization, no one can fail to be impressed with the resemblances between the Mexican game of Patolli and Pachisi, the familiar game of Hindostan. These resemblances - which, as I shall show, amount to identity - led Dr. Edward B. Tylor to regard Patolli as an adaptation of the Asian game, and form the most conclusive evidence, in the opinion of many scholars, that the higher culture of the New World had its source in Asia.

Keeping in mind the fact that games originated before the art of writing, it is not surprising that their origin has been regarded as obscure. They are referred to in the records of China and Japan, and are depicted upon the Egyptian monuments in forms that appear little less perfected than our own games of draughts and chess; and any appeal that we make to history or tradition is answered by a legend like that of Palmedes, or the story that playing cards were made for the amusement of an insane king. With a knowledge of their sacred and divinistic association, we need not concern ourselves with a search for the names of their inventors, or even attempt to fix too closely the age or the people among whom they first appeared. They were the expressions of instincts common to humanity, and their form was a matter of circumstances and necessity. Man has unconsciously recorded his own history, and of these unconscious records I believe that there are none, save language, of greater ethnological value.

Games may be divided, with reference to their origin, into three or four classes, - dramatic, sacred and divinistic, economic, and educational. Many games have existed in several of these classes, and have passed from one to another. Thus the sacred and divinatory games no longer exist as such among civilized races, although the majority of our indoor games, as chess, dice, draughts, dominos, and playing-cards, were derived from them. Suggestions of these early associations, however, survive among us, such as the use of dice and cards in fortune-telling. In Asia, where these amusements are to be found in less sophisticated forms, among races that are lower in culture, we approach nearer the original types, and find the same game existing as a simple amusemeant, and also performed at stated times for the purposes of divination.

In Korea, a common game of throwing staves, as we throw dice, becomes in the first month the popular method of fortune-telling This game, which the Koreans call by the to them meaningless name of Ute, I regard as the probable ancestor of all that large family of games which embraces chess, cards, and others I have mentioned. Mr. Cushing has pointed out that the staves were originally arrows. Dr. Brinton has identified the name Ute, and its associated terms, with the Tartar numerals; and to this Tartar system of arrow-casting belong half the games of the great continental areas of the Eastern Hemisphere.

The arrows become staves, as in Korea, or little blocks of wood with faces marked in black and white; coins, cowrie shells, knuckle-bones, or a rolling die with notched edges, long dice like the Indian pasa, and cubical dice. In Korea, the casts are recorded upon a circle, around which the players' "horses" go, according to the throws. This circle, by an easy transformation, becomes a cross with four arms, and this, arranged to form a square, the Hindoo chessboard.

Among man's early conceptions was that of the four cardinal-points, the east, the place of the sunrise, and the west, of the sunset. As he stood with his hands outstretched to the east and west, he faced the north or south. A color-symbol¬ism for these directions is almost universal. In the perfected games of Asia we find a four-fold division in which the prevailing color-symbolism of the direction occurs, a survival, it would seem, from the time when the games were sacred, and the players strove, as representatives of the four directions, to decide the gravest questions of fate. The counters, called "horses," which were used by the players in the Korean game, we soon find differentiated by colors, these colors being those of the four directions, which are reunited again in two colors in the Hindoo game of chess.

It will be discovered in the arrow-casting that the opposite faces of the substituted staves, distinguished by the colors white and black, were regarded as symbolizing day and night, light and darkness, the active or masculine and the passive or feminine principles of the universe. Numerical values were attributed to their combinations with the substitution of the knuckle-bone or rolling die for the staves or blocks, we find this symbolism extended. In China it is still cosmical: "Heaven," "Earth," "Man," and the “Harmony" that united them. In the Mohammedan East, it is sociological: the "Shah," the "Vezir," the" peasant," and the "slave." And here we may discover a clew to the differentiation of the pieces that has taken place in chess; for when it was still a dice game its five principal pieces were moved according to the numerical throws that corresponded with the numbers associated in the knuckle-bones with the four mentioned classes of society.

It was a short step from the knuckle-bone, with numerical equivalents for its throws, to the dotted die. Some time anterior to the twelfth century, the Chinese combined the throws in their favorite game with two cubical dice into twenty-one dominos. These, made successively of bone, wood, and paper, at last furnished the playing card. In tracing the natural history of games, it is interesting to observe the likeness of the existing games of Asia with those described by the Greek and Roman authors. It is clear that many of them had a similar origin; and we come to a realization of the vast intercommunication that must have taken place among mankind before the historic period. We discover, through linguistic evidence, that the Korean game with staves was borrowed from the Tartars; and by the same means we are able to trace the relations of its progeny from the Philippines to Great Britain, from Korea to the heart of Africa.

No stronger evidence of the Asiatic source of much of African culture can he presented than that found in the game of Mancala, the national game of Africa, existing among practically every tribe. It was a game of the Arabs, and has been dispersed with Arab influences from Egypt to the Cape. When we come to America, we find a remarkable correspondence with the games of the Old World. Mr. Tylor has noted that of Patolli; but it is only one among many, and I may add that Patolli not only resembles the Asian game, but it is identical with it, and that this identity is not only one of external form, but of origin and association as well. Mr. Cushing has pointed out that it is the product of sociological conditions which exist naturally in America, and that the game was born and developed in America, just as much else so puzzlingly like the culture of the Old World. Mr. Cushing has found it here in every stage of its development, not only in Old Mexico, but among practically every tribe on the Northern Continent, and also in the Southern.

Should we accept Mr. Tylor's hasty conclusion that the Mexican Patolli was imported from Asia, we must regard America as practically an extension of Asia. If, on the contrary, we are mindful of the story of its development in the New World, which Mr. Cushing has traced, step by step, always en rapport with the prevailing mythic conceptions and stage of culture, we discover only additional confirmation in its correspondence of that great truth to which all investigation seems to lead, namely, the psychological unity of man. Light is thrown by his narrative upon the protohistoric period of the Old World, of which we find a reminiscence in the sacred record, where Ezekiel relates that the King of Babylon stood with his divining arrows at the “parting of the ways."

Last update January 29, 2010