Throwing dice to generate oracles in Roman times

My last post here looked at some examples of Roman 20-sided dice with numerals on them, almost certainly used to create oracles, to discover the future.  There is some literary evidence of this sort of practice, and I want to review it here.

In Pausanias’ Description of Greece 7.25.10, written in the 2nd century AD, we have an account of how a temple would use a random number generator, plus a list of oracular replies, to allow an enquiry of the god.  Here is the passage, which I take from F. Graf, “Rolling the dice for an answer” in S. I. Johnston & P. T. Struck, Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, Brill (2005), p.51-97; p.62.  Graf rightly observes that this approach cannot have been all that common, because Pausanias has to explain the procedure:

When one descends from Bura [in Achaea] towards the sea, there is the Buraikos river and a not large image of Herakles in a grotto; he too is called Buraikos, and he offers an oracle from a list (pinax) and from astragaloi. Whoever intends to consult the divinity, prays in front of the image, and after the prayer, he takes up four astragaloi (plenty of them are lying around Herakles) and rolls them on the table. For any combination of the astragaloi, the inscription in the list gives an easily accessible explanation of the combination.

astragali are literally knucklebones, perhaps with numbers inscribed on the sides, but no doubt dice could be and were used in the same way.  The astragalos was thrown, and a number from 1 to 6 produced.  Graf adds:

This description contains the two main elements that make this type of oracle function: astragaloi, and a list of answers.

Pausanias’ list is lost, but in the Anatolian inscriptions, we possess an entire set of them; we just have to add the several astragaloi that were thrown, the combination of which led to the answer.

The monuments referred to by Graf are the main subject of his excellent if rather dense paper.  They is a set of 17 “large and impressive” inscriptions on stone blocks, about six-foot tall and two-foot wide, in Lycia.  The ruins of Termessos contain a number of these texts.  The inscriptions consist of lists of answers, arranged in ascending order.  Graf gives one example.  The enquirer asks about a voyage that he is intending.  The priest throws the astragalos 5 times.  Here is one of the possible results:

Three “chians” and a six and the fifth a four: Sail wherever you wish; you will return full of joy, for you have found and accomplished everything that you are cherishing in your mind. Cypris likes you, the daughter of Zeus who likes to smile.

The “chios” is the technical term for throwing a “1” with an astragalos, so the text means that, if you throw three ones, a six, and a four, then this answer is the one.

Graf’s paper includes an appendix with a translation of the main text preserved on these inscriptions.  There are various resources around the web on astragalomancy.

So these two sources indicate the approach: throw the dice, or knucklebones, and look up the result in the tables of answers.  A table, perhaps of stone, with the knucklebones on it sat in front of the stones with the answers.

A further literary source for this is a scholion on Pindar, Pythian Odes, poem 4, line 337.[1]  Mopsus is “drawing lots” to find out the “will of heaven”.  Here is the text of the ode, for context:

But, when the flower of the seamen came down to the shore of Iolcus, Jason numbered them and praised them, every one; and, to aid him, Mopsus, after inquiring the will of heaven by noting the flight of birds and by drawing lots (κλάροισιν), right gladly gave the host the signal to set forth.

The scholia are at Perseus here.  As with Pausanias, this refers to a “holy table” in the temple, on which the astragali lay, ready to be used.  Graf again helpfully gives a translation of the key bits:

a. …καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἱεροῖς ἀστράγαλοι κεῖνται, οἷς διαμαντεύονται βάλλοντες αὐτούς.

there are astragaloi in the sanctuaries with which they take oracles by throwing them

b. κλάροισιν: ἰστέον ὅτι κλήροις τοπρὶν ἐμαντεύοντο, καὶ ἦσαν ἐπὶ τῶν ἱερῶν τραπεζῶν ἀστράγαλοι, οἷς ῥίπτοντες ἐμαντεύοντο.

… “there were astragaloi on the sacred tables with which they used to take oracles by throwing them”;

So this confirms the picture that we have already formed.

The inscriptions from Lycia make clear that several throws of the dice or knucklebones are combined in order to get the god’s answer.  The 20-sided Roman dice in the last post would look much more impressive than a few knucklebones, while providing the same function.  The large size and impressive appearance of these dice may be important.  Divination is a form of charlatanry, aimed at convincing the client of something that the diviner knows that he does not know.  So it is important for the diviner to appear impressive.  In the same way the use of 20-sided dice in modern Dungeons and Dragons is not just for convenience; the same end could be produced by several 6-sided ordinary dice. But using these unusual dice does give an air of something special and different.

This is not just my imagination.  The divination process could indeed be deliberately dressed up to be more complex than it needed to be, as is clear from the way that another ancient oracle handbook, the Sortes Astrampyschi is structured.  There the name of a deity is associated with the outcome, but by an unnecessarily complex series of dice throws.

Impressive-seeming objects from Egypt, used to communicate with the gods, immediately reminds us of the magical papyri.  It may be asked whether there is any connection.

A collection of papyrus books, some in demotic, some in Greek, containing magic spells and rituals was uncovered somehow at Luxor in the 1820s and passed into the hands of an Armenian adventurer calling himself Jean d’Anastasi.  No doubt the books came from the tomb of some Graeco-Egyptian priest.  Egypt was famous in antiquity for its magicians.  The existence of dice, also in both languages, combined with our literary testimony above, suggests that the 20-sided dice were not made for games of chance, but rather for use as tools in  ancient magical procedures, such as divination.

We do not possess any oracle book that expects the use of one or more 20-sided dice.  But we have seen at the Anatolian temple an example where the oracles needed to combine one or more dice to get a wider range of results.  Twenty-sided dice are another way to achieve the same end.

Other books of divination using lots or random numbers also exist.  In his 1913 book, Greek divination; a study of its methods and principles, (online here) W. Halliday discusses a great number of them, running into the middle ages.  I won’t go into any of these here.

It is interesting to reflect that these oracular books, and these 20-sided dice, may have been part of the professional equipment of a temple, or possibly the toolkit of an ancient magician.

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  1. [1]In the Loeb this is p.218-9 – find it at Loebolus here.

Some more Roman polyhedral dice

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:

20-sided dice. Metropolitan Museum, inv. 10.130.1158 (300 BC-400 AD), serpentinite.  Height: 3.2 x L: 3.8 x W: 3.4 cm.

The other two dice are very similar.  One is also made of serpentinite, the other of faience, are here: 10.130.1159 and 10.130.1157.

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.

Ancient 20-sided dice sold at Christies in 2003. 5.2 cm high.

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.

Ancient 20-sided dice from the Dakhla Oasis, with demotic name of a god on each face.

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.

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A Roman rock-crystal icosahedron (20-sided dice) in the Louvre

Here’s a pretty image that floats around the web:

It’s ancient, and an icosahedron – a 20-sided dice.[1] The Musée du Louvre twitter account (@MuseeLouvre) posted further images of what is plainly the same item (click to enlarge).

The inventory number seems to be MNC882.[2]  It is a pity that the Louvre is not as advanced as the British Museum in placing its collections online.

The Louvre account tells us that it is 1cm high, rock crystal – “en cristal de roche” – and Roman empire period.

Each face has a Latin letter on it, and also the corresponding Roman numeral.  The ten lateral faces bear the letters A to K, and the numerals 1 to 10.  The upper five triangles bear the letters L to P and the numbers 11 to 15.  The lower five triangles bear the letters Q to V, and the numbers 16-20.[3]

The inscriptions on the Louvre rock-crystal icosahedron.

This item is by no means unique.  A considerable number of polyhedral dice have been recovered from all over the Roman empire.  The majority are inscribed with Greek or Latin numbers or letters.

One unique example was an icosahedron – 20 sided dice – found in Egypt, which had the name of a different Egyptian god on each side.[4]

What were these things used for?  Obviously they were intended to be thrown, and to give a random result.  But what then?

One often-heard explanation is that they were used in conjunction with divination handbooks.  There is a 2nd/3rd century Greek oracle book, the Homeromanteion, preserved in three papyri, which refers to throwing lots to obtain a number, which can be used to look up ready-prepared oracle questions and answers.[5]  It is amusing to discover a website that allows the reader to throw the three dice and looks up the answer!  It’s at http://www.homeromanteion.com/.

 Likewise an inscription at Olympus gives another such a set of prophecies, one per letter/number of the Greek alphabet.  (There is an online version of it here.)  The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an icosahedron from Egypt, either Ptolemaic or Roman, with Greek numbers (online here).

But of course we cannot know for sure precisely what our dice was used for.

For those who wish to know more about ancient dice, there is a wonderful bibliography in this forum thread “Random Facets from the History of Dice” at boardgamegeek.com (!)

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  1. [1]Strictly we should say “die”, plural “dice” in English, but I have never ever heard anybody refer to a single die as anything but “throw the dice”.
  2. [2]Listed at a website called Réunion des Musées Nationaux here, giving the date only as “Roman Empire”.  This seems to be the source of our original photograph.
  3. [3]This description and illustration from Minas-Nerpel; another transcription appears in F. N. David, Games, Gods, and Gambling: A History of Probability and Statistical Ideas, (1998) p.12.  Google Books Preview.
  4. [4]Martina Minas-Nerpel, “A demotic inscribed icosahedron from Dakleh oasis”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 93 (2007), 137-148.  Online at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/160449173.pdf.
  5. [5]More information here.