A little while ago I wrote here about a Roman crystal twenty-sided dice in the Louvre, and about one ancient oracle book here, the Homeromanteion, which might have been used with it in order to predict the future. Since then I have come across some images of other ancient twenty-sided dice. As before, they seem to be used for sortilege, throwing the lots, a form of divination where the diviner predicts the future by throwing dice or other items producing a random result.
Three more such dice are in the possession in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. All of them have Greek numerals – letters used as numbers – on each of their 20 sides. It is not certain how old they are: they could be Ptolemaic or Roman. They were acquired in Egypt during the 1920s, and they all look very similar and perhaps came from the same source. The catalogue of the Museum here (with three images) adds, interestingly:
Nothing specific about the use of these polyhedra is preserved, so theories are built on clues provided by some variant examples. One unusual example uses Greek words, a few of which resemble those associated with throws of the astragals (knucklebones), and this has led to suggestions they were used for games. Another remarkable example discovered in Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt in the 1980s records an Egyptian god’s name in Demotic (the Egyptian script of these late periods) on each face. Divination – seeking advice about the unknown from the supernatural – seems to be the most likely purpose for the Dakhleh die: the polyhedron might have been thrown in order to determine a god who might assist the practitioner. Indeed, even the dice with simple letters might relate to divination: a Greek oracle book composed in in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. refers to throwing lots to obtain a number that would, through certain algorithms, lead to ready-prepared oracle questions and responses.
Here is an image of one of the museum’s 20-sided ancient dice, accession no 10.130.1158:
Another 20-sided dice, two inches high and made of glass, was sold at Christies in 2003. Their rather meagre auction page is here, and suggests that it is Roman and 2nd century AD. On what this is based is unclear.
The Met Museum catalogue mentioned a unique 20-sided dice, which has the name of a deity written in demotic on each face. This was found at the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt, and is now housed in the New Valley Museum at Kharga. This was published by M. Minas-Nerpel, “A Demotic Inscribed Icosahedron from Dakhleh Oasis”, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 93 (2007), 137-48, with photographs, who ascribes it to the 1st century AD. An amateur page has the images, a transcription, and the hieroglyphs explained here.
It is difficult to imagine that this was NOT used for divination.
There is some literary testimony on how such items were used. I will discuss this in my next post, here.