Puzzles and Games With a Sacred Touch?

In recent times, religion and the world of puzzles and games have crossed paths with sometimes surprising results.

The film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, a fairly puzzle-centric thriller, was widely denounced by members of the Catholic Church, and there was similar resistance, though less vocal, against the sequel film, Angels & Demons.

And, of course, in the 1980s, the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons was condemned as Satanic and dangerous to young minds.

I say that the above is strange because, for the most part, these seem to be anomalies or isolated incidents. There are numerous instances throughout history where puzzles and games were embraced by religion, even used as tools to teach aspects of religious beliefs.

For instance, in ancient Egypt, we’ve seen evidence of puzzly techniques used not just to secure the tomb of Tutankhamun, but also to disguise the language and rituals employed by elite members of their society. Puzzles were entrusted to keep their secrets well beyond the grave.

the seal on king tut's tomb

Plus one of the most ancient games in the historical record, Senet, seems to have evolved from being an enjoyable pastime into a spiritual tool.

You see, some Senet boards have religious iconography on them, believed to symbolize the journey into the afterlife. So gameplay — or the inclusion of the gameboard itself among the belongings of the deceased — represented that journey and the quest to learn more about it.

Some online articles have taken to referring to Senet as “the Rosicrucian board game of death,” which is a harsh misinterpretation.

There was also an afterlife connection with games for the Vikings.

According to Mark Hall, a curator at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, there have been 36 burials where board games of some description have been found in the graves around Northern Europe.

These grave sites grant intriguing insight into how the Vikings viewed board games as a learning tool. It’s believed that including a board game among the effects of the deceased signaled not only their skill and status as a warrior, but their preparedness for the afterlife itself. Heck, their win-loss records were even recorded for posterity!

Palindromes were believed to work as magical shields that protected those wearing the talismans bearing such clever wordplay.

Heck, even the shape of dice were influenced by changing religious views. Early dice games gave very little consideration to the shape or evenness of dice, because rolls were believed to be guided by Fate or some greater outside force, so the shape didn’t matter.

As religious beliefs evolved away from gods and greater forces intervening in such things, the general spirit of fairness in dice began to prevail, and the shape, balance, and pip distribution of dice became much more standardized.

And as for the Catholic Church, I certainly didn’t mean to make it look like I was picking on them in the introduction, because there are positive associations between the church and the world of puzzles and games as well.

And no, I’m not just talking about lighthearted products like BibleOpoly or the cottage industry of family-friendly games like Bible editions of Outburst, Scattergories, Apples to Apples, Scrabble, and Taboo.

Chess boards and other game boards have been found in houses formerly used by the Knights Templar, for instance.

There’s also the puzzly art of carmina figurata, poems wherein either the entire body of the poem or select parts form a shape or pattern. These works originated as religious tributes, poems where letters were colored red to stand out from the regular black lettering in order to draw attention to or highlight a certain religious figure.

tumblr_m6a31vnnxo1qggdq1

[“De laudibus sanctae Crucis” by Oliverus.
Image courtesy of WTF Art History.]

There would be hidden words or messages concealed in the text, some speaking of the religious icons at the center of the piece in glowing terms.

Do you have any favorite puzzles and games that have an element of religion to them, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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