On the origins of chess (5/7)

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
7/8/2020 – After presenting the Indian, Chinese and Egyptian theories of the origins of chess, researcher Sergio Negri takes us through hypotheses based on myths, legends and the fictional world — many of which are better known than those based on historiographical data.

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See Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: India | Part 3: China | Part 4: Egypt

Part 5: Origin of chess in myths, legends and the fictional world

So far we have studied the most common theories about the origin of chess. For now, it can be concluded that only the Indian and Chinese versions remain unscathed, while those that consider Persia or Egypt to be the origin should be discarded. Let us advance in this chapter with other hypotheses that are also possible, albeit not necessarily supported by historiographical data.

French researchers Jaques Dextreit and Norbert Engel provide a taxonomy of the various explanations for the origin of chess. According to them, they correspond to the following casuistry: 

  1. The death of the father: Chess is then a therapeutic remedy
  2. Preparation for war: For the lessons learned from the game
  3. The substitution of war: Contributes to the channelling of aggressive impulses
  4. The possibility of distraction: Pure social entertainment
  5. The idea of intellectual combat: Thus contributing to mental training
  6. Allegory as a moral lesson: By appealing to the axiological field it provides a frame of reference for desired behaviour and conduct) 
  7. The myth of the Sorrowful Mother: A suffering woman who finds comfort in the game in the face of irreparable loss.

We have already seen that, although the origin of chess in India and China responded to cosmogonic and religious elements, the game was basically conceived as an image of a more earthly situation, one of warlike nature. On the other hand, in the context of myths, legends and fiction, the game was nourished with other types of stories, which powerfully enriched it, beyond its veracity or verisimilitude, since they linked it to relevant cultural events in different places and times, showing that chess has been always present during the development of human civilization.

AristotleThere are many and varied hypotheses. Plato, as we saw, went so far as to claim that the Egyptian god Thoth was the inventor of the game, but he also speculated that the inventor had been the wise Solomon, the son of King David, in Hebrew culture. In the same vein, the German historian Egbert Meissenburg suggests that the men of Elam, from whom the Semites are descended, are a possible source. The British James Cristie in 1801 proposed that they could have been the Scythians in spite of (or precisely because of?) being nomadic people. In Ancient Greece, it was also attributed to Palamedes[1] (the inventor of the alphabet and of dice), a primeval event that would have happened on the island of Crete during the siege of Troy (13th century BC); it was also considered that its creator had been the Achaean hero Diomede, within the framework of Greek mythology. Of these territories, the inventor was said to be Alexander the Great and even the philosopher Aristotle [pictured]. Hermes, the herald of the gods, was considered to be the inventor — he was the patron of athletes (and, in another coincidence related to chess, he was correlated with the Egyptian god Thot). And a Winchester monk, Alexander (Alexandri) Neckam, to whom the first written reference in England is attributed — a text from 1180 called De scaccis written in Latin —, imagined that Ulysses has been the inventor of chess. Neckman also invented a variant of the game in which the pawns occupied the first row while the major pieces occupied the second.

Based on all these theses, diverse but converging in the same geographical space, the possibility of a supposed origin of chess in the beautiful Hélade has been put forward. It is evident that the references correspond to the quintessential board game of ancient Greece, petteia. It is believed that Alexander the Great must have taken this game to the Orient in his excursion to India in the third century before Christ. Let us clarify that, due to its simplicity, although it could have been a civilizing contribution to the creation of a new pastime, petteia should not be considered in any way a prototype of chess.

PetteiaWhen we talk about petteia, we are not only talking about the game itself but also about a board on which other games were played, such as the so-called poleis (pollux for the Romans). Fragments of the board and some pieces were found in excavations in Troy. Although the exact rules of petteia are not known, it is believed that black and white stones were used on an 8x8 board. The aim was to capture or immobilize the opposing pieces, which were sixteen on each side and all of the same value. They moved orthogonally and were captured by being surrounded by rival stones, placed in both directions in direct continuity. The Roman game ludus latrunculorum was somewhat more complex because, besides pawns, it included a Dux (or leader) — this game is undoubtedly a heir of petteia. Many ancient writers refer to both games, from Plato to Oviedo. When translations from the original languages to the Romance languages were made in the Middle Ages, petteia and ludus latrunculorum were translated as chess (given its then growing popularity and reputation). This generated ambiguities, as the idea of a link between modern chess with an unlikely Greco-Roman background was reinforced.

Petteia, due to its characteristics, is usually compared with the Greek political model. All pieces are the same, which demonstrated the ideal of absence of hierarchies in the Athenian society (women were not included in that egalitarian scheme). The need to capture while acting together infers the possibility of building a democracy in which everyone contributes to a common end. Note that Aristotle, in his great work Politics, when assuring that man was born to live in a city, compares those who have no family, laws or home to “an isolated piece of the game of...”; and the phrase, according to different translations, can be completed with “chequers”, “backgammon” or even “chess”, when it is known that the original reference alluded to petteia (in the original Greek the author writes “pettoi”). In any case, in the Greek game, each element can only exist in relation to the others, and the worst thing that could happen to an individual was to be alienated from the whole. Therefore, it perfectly reflects the society in which it was practiced.

In the Middle Ages, various speculations were presented on this subject: the influential Lombard monk Jacobus de Cessolis, for example, conceived that the Chaldean philosopher Xerxes had been the inventor of the game, claiming that he did so in the sixth century B.C., to try to calm the ferocious Babylonian king Evil-Marduk with it. Following that philological trail, as an alternative it is also given the homonymous Persian king, Xerxes, who ruled in those same times. The highly educated Byzantine princess Anna Comnena, for her part, attributed it to the Assyrians[2] (to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra who ruled in the third century of the Christian era?). For his part, the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer presented the alternative of Attalus III, who was king of Pergamum in the second century BC.

Geoffrey Chaucher

Geoffrey Chaucer

An Arab manuscript entitled Nuzhat al-arbab al-'aqulfi'sh-shatranj al manqul (“The delight of intelligence, a description of chess”) by Abu Zakariya Yahya ben Ibrahim al-Hakim, which provides other hypotheses about possible creators of the game, comes from this same era: Shem or Jafet, children of Noah, in his Ark; King Lud of Lydia (son of Shem); and even Adam (the pastime would serve as consolation for Abel’s death). A variation, which also arises from Biblical and Koranic traditions, is that it would have arisen in the time of the prophet Idris (Enoch, son of Cain, for Christians), to whom it is supposed that the science of numbers was revealed for the first time. In a similar vein, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra in the 12th century attributed it to Moses.

Murray, the quintessential chess historian, while listing many of the available hypotheses, mentions a Burmese legend which considers that chess was invented by a Burmese queen. From much earlier times, it had been said that the birthplace of the game was the island of Sri Lanka, ascribing it to the myth that portrays the confrontation between the god Rama and Rāvana (about which we talked about at the beginning of this work) — one of the first defenders of this theory was Murray’s compatriot, Captain Hiram Cox.

Another British researcher, Ken Whyld,[3] reasonably affirms that, since the borders of the Indian subcontinent have always been quite mobile, the territories usually considered as those in which occurred the appearance of chaturanga could correspond to regions of Khuzestan (in present-day Iran) or of Baluchistan (in Pakistan). In that sense, within the framework of the theory that is based on a cultural syncretism — which will be discussed in the next chapter — when considering the places of the Silk Road where various games could have converged contributing to the first variant of proto-chess, it is interesting to note that they are geographically located in territories of those other countries, or even Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, all very close to the domains of ancient Indian kings.

Fabricius indicated that the inventor of the game had been the Persian astronomer Schatrenschar, the same one who could count the stars one by one.[4] Harry Bird, the British player and scholar, takes up this idea, although he also adds that the inventors could have been the Saracens, confusing the role of diffuser with that of creator. Bird also gives other possibilities: that of the brothers Lido and Tirreno in the kingdom of Lydia (the one that lasted until the 6th century B.C.); that the Scythians bequeathed it to Palamedes, the ingenious hero of Greek mythology; and he raises the case of Semiramis (Sammuramat), who, according to the myth, was queen of Assyria in the 22nd century B.C. — and to whom is owed the foundation or, at least, the glory and embellishment of Babylon.

Many of these hypotheses, although in their formulation are usually based on historical facts, due to their essential characteristics, are obviously far from the truth, so they can only be considered in the field of the mythical or legendary. Some may even be considered unsound, as they are not anchored in episodes that have any certain degree of historical plausibility — this is the case of theories that assume a Celtic or Amerindian origin.

A Celtic origin is fundamentally associated with the existence of boards and sets of pieces that were bequeathed by King Cathair (Cahir) Mor “The Great” when he died in the year 153 of the Christian era; but, strictly speaking, these boards and sets correspond to a game called fidchell (gwyddbwyll). Bird, who contemplates this possibility, is very enthusiastic in presenting the theory that the Araucanians invented the game, surely confusing in this case chess with taptana, a very simple game practiced by the American Indians.

Hermes TrismegistusThere is room even for the bizarre: some authors have gone so far as to argue that the Atlanteans were the inventors of chess, or civilizations from outer space. Following the occult tradition of Hermes Trismegistus [pictured], an esoteric line was drawn that links the game to Freemasonry[5] (the floors of their headquarters adopt chess drawings that represent, in the contrast of black and white, the connection between the spiritual and physical worlds) and to the lost continent of Atlantis. In fact, the Spanish theosophist Roso de Luna, in the book De gentes del otro mundo, imagines that chess is an invention of the Atlanteans. Even more curious is the affirmation of the Mexican poet Eduardo Elizalde who, in De Buda a Fischer y Spassky, goes so far as to put forward the hypothesis that places the game’s origin in outer space. In his words: “Other higher gods, non earthly gods, gods from other galaxies and systems taught the Chinese, Hindu and Western divinities how to play chess”.

The most frequent of the stories about the origin of chess, one that continues to be very popular until today, is a fictitious one. The conception of the game is attributed to a sage, who may be the Indian Sissa, the Persian Bozorgmehr or the Arab Bourzin, according to each culture. It is said that the game was submitted to the consideration of the respective sovereign who, very satisfied with the proposal, promises the author the reward he wants. He asks “nothing more” than a grain of cereal (wheat or rice, according to the different versions) for the first square, two for the second, four for the third and so on, until completing the sixty-four square grid. The mathematicians of the kingdom verified that this “modest” request could not be satisfied, given its magnitude. There are several possible endings, with their respective morals, ranging from the mention that the king orders the execution of the creator of chess, when he feels mocked; to the renunciation of the reward by the sage, who states that his only purpose was to serve his master so, in proof of recognition, is anointed as the main royal advisor.

The Argentine writer Abelardo Castillo, passionate about the game, enunciates many of the possible theories about the origin of chess: Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, Etruscan, Assyrian or Chaldean, Trojan, Persian... He mentions the crazy theory of an extraterrestrial source and also the myths of the Sorrowful Mother and of Lanka, as well as the conception attributed to the goddess Caissa. He culminates his story by associating the discovery of America and chess, by reproducing the legend that says that Isabella I of Castile defeated King Ferdinand in a game of chess, in order to get a special recognition that will give her the opportunity to present him with Columbus’ plan to travel to the Indies, which, according to the legend, was thus approved.

CaissaFirst under the name of Scacchis, the goddess Caissa first appears as a creation of the Italian Marco Girolamo Vida, who includes her in Scacchia Ludus, a poem published in 1527.[6] The English philologist, writer and historian William Jones takes up the subject in 1763, in another poem, also written in Latin, in which he specifically mentions Caissa — in it, the goddess or muse of chess is courted by the Greek god of war Ares (Mars in Roman mythology) who, when rejected, seeks the help of the god of athletes, Hermes (Mercury), who invents chess in order for Ares to offer the game as a gift, thus finally seducing the goddess.

Jones’ work begins like this: “Of armies on the chequer’d field array’d,/And guiltless war in pleasing form display’d;/When two bold kings contend with vain alarms,/In ivory this, and that in ebon arms;/Sing, sportive maids, that haunt the sacred hill/Of Pindus, and the fam’d Pierian rill…”,[7] where one of the mentioned “sportive maids” was precisely the beautiful Caissa. Later it is indicated that the god of athletes designs a board with squares of gold and silver, in which he conceives a game called “Cassa”, designed in honor of the cherished nymph. Mars returns with that discovery to the forest, he presents it to his beloved who, from that moment, sees the courtier with better eyes; in fact she postulates that “he was less hateful than before”. The inevitable game takes place and, once checkmate appears, it is presented in perfect rhyming verses: “No place remains: he sees the certain fate, / And yields his throne to ruin, and Checkmate”. Thus, Caissa irremediably falls into the arms of her suitor. Chess had made it possible.

[Image of Caissa by Italian painter Domenico Maria Fratto (1669-1763)]

Based on this work, several stories were generated later on, in which the nymph turned into a deity. The one that is most commonly known states that she was a young and attractive goddess who made predictions. Concerned about how the wars of the future would be, she decided to create a game, a less cruel affair in which, in order to win, intelligence and courage were necessary. After doing so, she decided to hide it, so that it could not be destroyed, and since she did not know what would be a good place to hide it, she decided to choose a random place on Earth. She threw it into the air and it fell in India, from where it would later spread to the whole world. Therefore, the English sources, from where the story comes from, strengthen the thesis of the Indian origin of chess.

Let’s finish this chapter by remembering the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig[8], to whom we owe the extraordinary The Royal Game. This prolific author, after ensuring that we are in the presence of the “only game that belongs to all nations and all eras”, asks a suggestive question: “No one knows what god brought it down to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind?” Another writer, the Argentine Ernesto Sabato, stated that “man did not invent chess, but discovered it”,[9] making a very interesting distinction that speaks of the perennial depth of the game. Whether it is an invention or a discovery, there will always be a starting point. There was a time when chess was invented, by the action of a person or deity, according to the various hypotheses analyzed in this chapter — myths, legends and fiction stories that, corresponding to different cultures and circumstances, were formulated at different times. And if Sabato was right in the end, in the sense that we should admit that it is a discovery of man, there would also be a specific time and place in which some of our congeners would have had the privilege of having been amazed, for the first time, by the magnitude of the beauty of the game that was offered to them, a game which was as subtle as powerfully metaphorical.

See Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: India | Part 3: China | Part 4: Egypt

Notes and references

[1] Source: An Enquiry into the ancient Greek game supposed to have been invented by Palamedes, at https://books.google.com.ar/books?id=jftdAAAACAAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=es&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[2] Comnena tells a story in which the assassination of the Emperor was planned to take place when “... he occasionally played chess with one of his relatives (this game was invented by the luxurious Assyrians, and brought from there to us), so these men, with the conspiratorial weapons in their hands, tried to pass through the royal room and reach the Emperor in his longing for murder ... ”. A version of this book can be seen at http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/alexiad_dawes.pdf.

[3] Information on this author can be found at http://www.kwabc.org/.

[4] Source: Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 5, No. 32, June, 1860, at http://www.dominiopublico.gov.br/download/texto/gu009486.pdf.

[5] On the connection of chess with Masonry, it is possible to consult the work of Fanthorpe et al. cited at the bibliography.

[6] The poetry of Vida, in Latin and in English, can be consulted at http://www.edochess.ca/batgirl/Ludus.html.

[8] On the extensive literary work of this author, analyzed from a chess perspective, you can consult a work authored by me: “Stefan Zweig, una vida de novela, una novela de ajedrez” (“Stefan Zweig, a life of novel, a novel of chess”), at http://ajedrez12.com/2016/11/28/stefan-zweig-una-vida-de-novela-una-novela-de-ajedrez/.

[9] When Sabato, taking chess as a point of reference, distinguishes the actions of invention and discovery, he assures: “It could be said that when chess was invented, all the games were potentially given: over the centuries, players would discover pre-existing games, such as in a jungle. But taking a step back, it could be said that man did not invent chess, but discovered it. Considering the Universe as given, all creations and inventions of man would be like matches in this Great Chess Game, discoveries in a Great Jungle. But taking another step back, it could be said that perhaps the Universe has not been created but discovered in a Jungle of Possible Universes, a difficult, dark, sublime jungle in which only a God can venture”.

Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.