Mehen – an Ancient Egyptian Multiplayer Game

by Vincent on March 23, 2011

Remember Snakes & Ladders? Well, the ancient Egyptian game Mehen is nothing like that, though it does involve a snake.

Mehen was played very early in Egypt’s history. Evidence for the game has been found dating from the Predynastic Period to the Old Kingdom (about 2613-2160 BC) when it died out. There are some later depictions of the game being played in the Saite Period (about 685-525 BC) though these are considered remnants of an Old Kingdom art revival.

The game board is in the shape of the coiled snake, Mehen. The body of the snake was sometimes divided into segments to create the individual game spaces, like the board pictured above. The first space was often shaped to resemble the head of a bird, and the last space was the snake’s head in the center of the board.

There were two different types of game pieces: feline figures and round balls. Peter Piccione, who has extensively researched ancient Egyptian games and written a paper on Mehen describes the pieces used to play the game:

Representations in the tomb of Hesyre and various other mastabas reveal that 2-6 people played at any one time (probably forming 2 teams of 1-3 players ea.) Gaming pieces included: 6 sets of marbles (6 per player) and 2 sets of feline draughtsmen (3 couchant lions and 3 couchant lionesses), probably 1 set for each team.

The exact rules are unknown but it is thought that up to six players could play, making Mehen the only multi-player game known in ancient Egypt. Each player competes with the other to be the first to move each of their marbles from the tail of the snake to the center of the board.

It is not clear how the feline pieces were use in the game.  They are quite large at about 7 cm in length and would require large space on the board if they were be used in the same way as the marbles. Their worn underside indicates that were used in the game somehow.

The item above was found in a tomb in the Merneit valley cemetery at Abydos.  It is very worn and is not easy to tell it was once a beautiful figure of a crouching lion. Much of the detail is lost and the front paws have broken off but some features can still be made out.

More detailed examples of feline game pieces can be seen on the right. These black and white images are from the book Abydos volume 2 (1902) by Petrie, W. M. Flinders.  They were also excavated from a tomb in Abydos and date to the First Dynasty. Petrie points out that items 26 and 28 have collars indicating that they were tamed.

Like Senet, the game had also had strong mythological or religious associations. The game is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts and later in the Coffin Texts.

The literal translation of the word ‘mehen’ is “coil” and is used in reference to the goddess Mehen, or ‘Coiled One’. The function of Mehen was to protect the sun god Ra during his journey through the darkness. Mehen was literally his nocturnal bodyguard and her coils around the sun are represented by the spiral of the game board.

In the seventh hour of the night the deceased makes his way to the hidden abode of Osiris under the cloak of the serpent Mehen.

Perhaps Mehen isn’t so different from Snake & Ladders after all. In fact, if you mashed Senet and Mehen together maybe Snakes & Ladders is what you’d end up with.

You can play Mehen on your computer by downloading and installing the free Mehen game by clicking on the image below:

If you prefer a more authentic Mehen game board you can purchase one from the Talking Pyramids Games Store.

Purchase a Mehen game board

More information:
Mehen board and pieces in the British Museum online collection database
Feline game piece in the British Museum online collection database
Abydos II (1902), by Flinders Petrie
Comments on Mehen by Peter Piccione
Mehen, God of the Boardgames, by Benedikt Rothöhler

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