Wanting to write a scene where two characters play senet, I did research to get a feel for, not just the game, but also the deeper significance it had for ancient Egyptians.

Keep in mind that the game developed over time, and since my shorts are set “at the beginning of time”, and the game played by the gods themselves, I didn’t use a lot of the symbolism for their version of the game.

I also didn’t end up writing out a whole game, as I’d first imagined (don’t want things to get boring, now do we?) but if you were wondering what the game they were playing was and how it worked, these research notes will shed some light on it.

What is senet?

Znt as it was known in ancient Egyptian, was a racing board game for leisure in everyday life, which also had a funerary side.

It was present in the wall decoration of tombs and was part of the funerary equipment.

According to inscriptions, the deceased played against death and once he or she achieved the end of the board, they also reached eternal life.

Sennedjem depicted playing senet with no adversar, from his tomb in Deir el-Medina. Dynasty XIX. Photo: www.osirisnet.net

Znt’ means “passing” and is rich in symbolism.

Senet is a simple racing game, where your goal is to pass the other player and be the first one to get all your pawns off the board.

The board was commonly made of wood or stone and was formed by thirty squares arranged in three rows of ten.

The House of Rebirth, also known as the House of Second Life or Repeating Life, is a lucky house that grants you another throw (repeating life).

The five last houses in senet can be seen to symbolise the journey to the afterlife.

The decoration of the five last squares of the board depicts the ultimate steps in the funerary dimension until the resurrection.

House of Beauty (#26)

This is the prelude to the afterlife and is also known as the House of Happiness.

Senet board from the reign of Tutmosis III. Metropolitan Museum of Art (01.4.1a). Photo: www.metmuseum.org

It used to be thought that the symbol of nfr was a lute. Today, Egyptologists consider the most likely representation of this to be of the heart and trachea (the marking of the lower part of the sign following the form of a sheep’s heart).

The hieroglyph is translated as “perfect, complete” (with the extended meanings of “good, pleasant, well, beautiful”).

Waters of Chaos (#27)

Square #27 typically has the hieroglyph for water mww (three ripples of water), the Waters of Chaos come directly after the House of Happiness.

Senet board from the reign of Tutmosis III. Metropolitan Museum of Art (01.4.1a). Photo: www.metmuseum.org

It is accepted that this was viewed as a negative square because the player has to remove their piece backwards – in the case of the rules outlined here, back to the deck, and not back to the House of Rebirth, as in many contemporary rules (because it doesn’t make sense to get a good turn from landing on an penalty square).

The waters of primordial chaos were something that threatened the world at all times, but the gods (most notably Ra) protected the world from being destroyed by the unordered universe.

The Three Judges (#28)

This square was related to divinity and I’ve also heard it called The Three Truths.

In some cases, the boards are only inscribed with the number three, three lines, or later the decoration could be the standard hieroglyphic depiction of a grouping of three ba-birds that signifies “souls of the deceased”.

The three divinities of square 28 could refer to the first moments of Zep Tepi and the first of the gods.

There are some examples that make mention of the “Souls of Heliopolis” which assisted the pharaoh in his ascension to the sky. In chapter 115 of the Book of the Dead it reads: “I know the Powers of Heliopolis; they are Ra, Shu and Tefnut”.

This could be interpreted as the player taking their first step into being recreated for the afterlife.

The Two Mourners (#29)

Square #29 always shows a dual depiction of some kind; two judges, two sisters, two lines (duality was a very important concept to the Ancient Egyptians, but that’s a whole other conversation).

My favourite is when it portrays “the two sisters” Isis and Nephthys and can be interpreted as the mourning ritual that was typical in ancient Egypt.

Fagment of a senet board . 980 – 838 BC. Square 28 mentions the “souls of Heliopois”; square 29 shows the two professional mourners. Arizona State Museum (ASM 12496). Photo: www.researchgate.net

On a fragment of a senet board in the Arizona State Museum, the last three squares are decorated with a lot of detail. On the board, the two goddesses are wearing the Red Crown representing Lower Egypt, and the White Crown representing Upper Egypt.

They are standing on a htp-hieroglyph which roughly translates as “to be satisfied, at peace”. It also refers to an offering ritually presented to a deity or a deceased person, hence it also takes on the meaning of “be pleased, be gracious, be at peace” as well as symbolises occupying a throne and resting in a tomb.

Isis is also holding an ankh, the sign of life, indicating that it directly related this scene to a revivifying act.

In Ancient Egypt, the Legend of Osiris was so important that it was integrated into the solar theology. As a result, Isis and Nephthys, the two mourners of Osiris, became an essential part of some solar iconography, so both from the New Kingdom were depicted flanking the solar disk in its daily rebirth.

It also had an effect in the holy conception of geography in Ancient Egypt. If the rising sun occupied the east and the sunset the west, the two mourning goddesses had to be also located somewhere, so they had to have also a geographical assignation: north and south. At that point, the titles of the two goddesses are quite explicit. In ancient Egypt, Isis was “The One of the South” and Nephthys “The One of the North”.

María Rosa Valdesogo, In Ancient Egypt, Isis was the South and Nephthys the North

Out of all the people following a body throughout the funerary procession in ancient Egypt, the two most important ones would have been the two female moirologists impersonating the goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

The mourning ritual performed by the two professional mourners in the role of Isis and Nephthys, based on the Osirian myth, took place at funerals and granted the final resurrection of the deceased into the afterlife.

Eye of Horus (#30)

This was the final resurrection.

Once Isis and Nephthys had restored all vital functions to Osiris, he was revived as the King of the Underworld, making Horus, his son and heir, the King of Egypt.

The last square being dedicated to Horus rather than Osiris can be seen as Horus being conceived and ascending the throne was the ultimate proof that Osiris was revived and descended to the Underworld.

Once you reach square #30, the only thing left is for the pawns to “be resurrected into the afterlife”, meaning that the player who first gets their pawns off the board, wins.

The (alternate) rules of senet

I’ve always loved senet, but since we don’t have any surviving written record, knowing the exact rules is anyone’s guess and there are many modern variations out there.

While doing research for The Birth of Egypt, I came across the alternative method of playing senet devised by Anthony Valentino that he based on his personal experience, research and interpretation of ancient Egyptian sources.

The game starts with five pawns per player in the first row (squares 1-10). This is the row acts as the "deck" and serves to hold the pieces awaiting the start of their journey. 

Any placement is acceptable (the modern alternate placement is irrelevant when using these rules to play).

The direction of play reverses with each row, like a snake or river flowing.

Five throwing sticks (lots) are used, most commonly three short and three long throwing sticks would have been used (or three sticks and two knucklebones).

You can also use a die, throwing a six is the same as throwing all sticks black side up, and your forfeit your turn.

a) When using five throwing sticks of equal length, each throw may be used to move a single pawn.

b) When using three short sticks and two long sticks (or somehow marked as "long" and "short" if you don't have different length sticks - for instance painting the "white" side in two different colours), each throw may be used to move a single pawn the total number OR the split result divided between two pawns.

How split results with different length sticks are grouped: when you wish to split a result, you must group short sticks with short and long sticks with long. You cannot mix short and long results when splitting, you can only use short and long stick results together as one total.

If (even when splitting) only one set of results would give a legal move, a pawn may be moved that number of squares and the other result is forfeited. 

The five throwing sticks (lots) are cast. 

The number of white (or lighter colour) faces that are up equals the number of squares the player gets to move. 

If all lots face down (all black sides facing up), the player loses a turn. 

Only one pawn may occupy a square at a time. 

A pawn may capture an unprotected opposing pawn by landing on its square. Captured pawns return to the deck row and must be “reborn”. 

A pawn is “reborn” by re-entering the board as it did initially, entering the board on square 11 (from the deck squares 1-10). 

Pawns on the marked squares (houses), and pawns that are in squares adjacent to one or more pawns of the same team, are protected from capture. 

Squares 11-14 – The initial squares of the playing track. 

A pawn must land directly on the House of Rebirth (square #15) before proceeding further. 

Square 15House of Rebirth. Pawns must land directly on this house before proceeding further. The player who lands on this house gets another turn. 

Square 26House of Happiness. Pawns landing here get an extra turn. A player can bear off the board from this house. 

Square 27Waters of Chaos. Pawns landing here are removed from the board and sent back to the deck to await being “reborn” (not back to the House of Rebirth as in many modern standard rules). 

Squares 28-30 – These are marked so that a result three, a two, or a one must be cast to bear off the board. 

Players must always make a legal move when they can. A player who has no legal move after a cast loses his turn. 

The first player to bear all his pawns off the board wins.
Senet board from the reign of Tutmosis III. Metropolitan Museum of Art (01.4.1a). Photo: www.metmuseum.org