The Changing Shape of Fate: The Origins of Dice | Happy Piranha

The Changing Shape of Fate: The Origins of Dice - Where Did They Come From, Who Invented Them and Why Do We Like Them So Much?

Dice are an object scattered throughout history; from conveyors of divine fate, to relieving boredom around ancient campfires, to illicit gambling in shady corners of Inns, to tumbling across the plush green velvet of casino tables and now, more often than not, rolled intently during a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, or thrown infuriatingly over a ‘friendly’ family board game. 

Many an outcome has been decided by a roll of the dice - probably more than history would like to admit. As time’s gone by, they seem to have shifted from conveyors of fate to fine-tuned fairness - ‘Maths Rocks’ as the D&D crowd fondly refer to them. But where did dice come from and why do we seem to be so enamoured with them still?

Etymology of Dice

Die’, the singular form of ‘dice’, originates from the Old French  ‘dé’ and the Latin ‘datum’ which refers to "something which is given or played". Also from Old French are ‘deuce’, ‘trey’, ‘cater’, ‘cinque’ and ‘sice’ -  the numbers 2-6 which, while not common anymore, are still sometimes used by professional gamblers as names for respective numbered pips, along with ‘ace’ for 1, which comes from the Latin meaning ‘a unit’.

Fun fact: You've probably heard of the term ‘snake eyes’ (which refers to rolling two 1 pips on each die), which can be traced back as far as 1919 (according to the online etymology dictionary). Less known are the terms boxcars and midnight (two 6’s) - said to resemble a pair of carriages (boxcars) on a late night freight train.

The Origins of Dice

Early Examples of Dice

Dice date back to before recorded history, so their origin is rather blurry. Some early examples include:

  • In Ancient Egypt, before 3000 BC, in the game Senet, two flat throwsticks were used as dice to determine a player’s movement.
  • In Skara Brae, Scotland, bone dice were discovered dating back to 3100–2400 BC.
  • Terracotta dice dating from 2500–1900 BC were excavated from graves at Mohenjo-daro, an Indus Valley civilization in modern day Pakistan.
  • Dice games are mentioned in the ancient Indian Rigveda, Atharvaveda and Mahabharata (the first written record of dice) and in the list of games Buddha said he would not play.
  • The bible references ‘’casting lots’’ in some passages, alluding to dice type games being around when writing.
  • In Ancient Greece, in the game of knucklebones, the sides of the bone were given dice like values and 'Tali' ('astragaloi' in Greek) were the six-sided knucklebones used in games. Romans also made other versions fo these from different materials.

Old dice came in many shapes and sizes too:

  • Although illegal, the Romans loved a gamble and their dice came in two sizes: ‘Tali’ larger dice inscribed with 1,3,4 and 6 on each of the four sides and ‘Tesserae’, smaller dice numbered 1-6. 
  • In Ancient Egypt, 20 sided dice have been found dating back to the Ptolemaic period in the 2nd Century BC. 
  • Pyramidal dice were discovered with the Royal Game of Ur - one of the oldest complete board games dating 3rd millennium BCE. 
  • Six sided cubical dice (very similar to modern ones) dating to 600 BCE were found in Chinese excavations as well as in Egyptian tombs from 2000 BCE.  

So where do dice come from?

The Ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles apparently claimed that dice were invented by the hero Palamedes during the siege of Troy, whereas the Historian Herodotus asserted they were an invention of the Lydians. However, archaeological finds that pre-date these claims have since been found. It’s not the most unbelievable thing that the Ancient Greeks have ever made up though!

One common theory suggests that dice were an evolution from ancient fortune telling, where ‘knucklebones’ - the talus (ankle bone) of hoofed animals (goats, sheep, buffalo) were thrown in order to divine the outcomes of things. The ancestors of dice may well have been these magical devices, used for the casting of lots to discern and divine the future.

Who invented the first die we may not ever know, what we do know is that dice are ancient, widespread and have played a role (or roll - ‘badum tshhh’) in many a culture throughout history. 

How the dice of today has come to be however, could suggest how our view on chance, probability and their cousin fate have changed over time.

Dice of the divine, or dice by design?

While the knucklebones of the past varied greatly in shape and size and the throwing sticks of Ancient Egypt only had two sides, nowadays, the resurgence of Dungeons and Dragons has thrown polyhedral dice sets back into the limelight too. Still, the classic die we call to mind is the six sided cube, which has been through a lot of change too.

A rather interesting study looked at a large variety of cubic dice throughout history and noted a couple things.

  • Old dice weren’t always symmetrical or ‘fair’ - they were often ‘crooked dice’
  • The location of the pips/numbers on the six sided die changed

Could this reflect a changing view on fate, chance and probability?

Crooked and perfect dice

Generally speaking, dice fall into three categories

  • Perfect dice: The precision made, sharp edged dice used in casinos.
  • Imperfect dice: Round edged dice, often machine made, used for other social games
  • Crooked dice: those that are uneven or have been tampered with, sometimes for the purpose of cheating. 

Mathematically speaking, crooked dice fall on certain sides disproportionately more than others: Non cuboidal dice are more likely to fall on a larger side, bevelled or convex edges will cause the die to roll off of the edges and sides. Weighted (or loaded) dice, and dice with duplicated sides are also used by cheats and swindlers, but that’s another topic! 

Crooked dice have been unearthed in Ancient Egypt and Asia, prehistoric South American and Viking graves and in Ancient Rome to name a few places.

Naturally, one might think that:

  • Well, cheating is an ancient practice, there’s no surprise there right?
  • Maybe they didn’t have the tools to make dice as precise?

But what about if older civilizations didn’t see chance the same way we did? What if it was fate they thought propelled their imperfect dice?

Probability wasn’t always a thing - the weather didn’t used to be a percentage chance of rain delivered by a man in a suit, but the tears of god, Odin’s rage or a result of meddling with the philandering of Zeus.

Until the 16th Century, where Galileo and his peers began to explore the ideas of randomness and probability, dice games may not have been thought of mathematically. Instead, the way dice fell may have been seen as the result of divinity, fate or a supernatural order. 

In her book Roman Artifacts and Society, the archaeologist Ellen Swift states that “Dice potentially played an important role in conceptualising divine action in the world”.  

While it’s evident some Romans probably used irregular dice to help rolls go in their favour, maybe the shape of dice wasn’t a concern, if they thought that ultimately fate determined the outcome?

How dice have changed

As the aforementioned study notes, the following changes occurred in the dice they looked at throughout history:

  •  During Roman times, six sided dice were arranged in the ‘sevens’ formation, with 1 and 6, 3 and 4 and 5 and 2 on opposite sides, each adding to 7.
  • After the collapse of the Roman Empire, during the Dark Ages, dice became rather rare.
  • When they returned (around 1100 AD), dice had a different arrangement, called Primes, where 1 and 2, 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 are opposites, all adding to a different prime number.
  • On reappearing in the middle ages, dice tended to be smaller (easier to hide from religious overseers?) and, unlike the hodge podge of materials and shapes that the roman dice came in, were more uniform in shape.
  • Progressing to 13th century Europe, dice games were written about more systematically.
  • In the Renaissance (15th -16th century), dice became less regular in size and pip (number) style, but more standard in configuration and symmetry. They reverted to the sevens arrangement too (an attempt to balance the distributions of the larger and smaller numbers maybe?).
  • In the 17th century Galileo wrote about why, in a three dice game, 10 appears more than 9. 

The Changing Shape of Fate, Chance and Probability

As the aforementioned study suggests, the increasing emphasis on symmetry in dice may have been spurred by increasing awareness of mathematics and probability during the Renaissance.

Maybe, this change coincided with our shift in the way we think about the world too; as, with our increase in knowledge and the prevailing of the scientific principal, humanity no longer sees ourselves as vehicles, driven by divinity along the pre-destined road of fate, but drivers of our own destiny, worming our way along the spaghetti junction of life, in a world of chance, randomness and probability?  

  • Now, when we roll a die, we’re less likely to think of the outcome as fate, rather a matter of luck and probability.
  • Dice are no longer conveyors of fate, but carefully crafted ‘maths rocks’.

That said, there’s still something so satisfying about rolling a set of dice. Why?

Aside from the precious gem-like feel in your hands, the many captivating varieties on offer nowadays and the satisfying clikedy-clack sound as dice hit together, maybe it’s that human urge to surrender to lady luck - or probability - or fate (if that’s your inclination) once in a while - and let something else take the driving seat for a bit?

What’s clear though, is in a fleeting world that’s far from fair, us humans just can’t resist a roll of the dice. The idea of fate is sometimes more of an attractive one than the reality of randomness and probability too.

Just be careful not to turn into the dice man, if you’ve read that book you’ll know it didn’t go too well.



What we read before reading this:

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