Wednesday, December 15, 2004


The word "hazard" has an interesting origin - it ultimately comes from Arabic 'al-zahr,' or 'the dice.' The story goes that dice were introduced to Arabs in the Holy Land by the Crusaders, who used them to make sadistic wagers that the Moslem inhabitants of Jerusalem couldn't understand or win. Hence, a very negative connotation is said to be associated with this introduction of dice to that culture and their language.

This is an appealing story, but it is simplistic and a bit misleading. As I'm trying to demonstrate in this first set of posts, dice in their current form have been prevalent since the 1st century AD, and Platonic solid ludic objects (a post for tomorrow) since long before. The Umayyads and pre-Umayyad tribes had dice in many of the lands they inhabited, including Egypt. To English, "hazard" arrives via French and Spanish, the first European language it is attested, as azar, in the 10th century or before. It is likely that the Arabic-speaking Moors actually were responsible for the reintroduction of gaming interests to the Iberian peninsula, and not the other way around, and that it was this side of the Mediterranean that gave rise to the hazardous connotation of dice. Arabic philosophers and mathematicians loved their games, and rather than a dire meaning, I rather think that the usage of the object for the concept is an affectionate, and even self-deprecating one.

Above is one of my favorite dice on the globe, a beautiful blue-glass polyhedrum found in northern Egypt in the 1920s (so it is said), dating from the late Ptolemaic or early Roman period, probably early 1st century, before polyhedral dice (thought because of the above object and two others like it in the Louvre to have been primarily used for divination, though that may need a re-evaluation) were eclipsed by ubiquitous legionnaire cubic dice of six sides and conventional pips, used for everyday gambling purposes. [Aside: one likes to imagine the early 1st century centurions rolling modern six-siders for the clothes of Christ, and that was certainly the common portrayal in late medieval art of the West, but they likely threw knucklebones, sticks, or pottery shards].

In any event, this die acquired recent notoriety for being listed in a Christie's auction catalogue - December 11, 2003. It attracted little attention and was estimated because of its prodigious size, color, quality, and inscriptions at between $4000 and $6000. By the end of the auction day, it sold for $17,925. Among the small community of international early dice collectors and scholars, it is thought of as a graal, but also an annoyance, since it drew much general attention to this type of objects and raised even unprovenienced artifact prices considerably.

It is a remarkable object - the twenty sides (this form is called an icosahedron) have twenty signs, thought to be original to the manufacture of the form, which can be identified generally as Greek and Greek-influenced zodiacal symbols. Since the detailed auction photographs are not public domain (and won't likely ever be), and the object itself has disappeared into a private collection (we assume one without a representative blog), it is difficult to put together a full analysis. Knowing that other solids of this rough size, shape, and age were used for weighing and philosophical appreciation, I don't personally put it beyond possibility that this is an exagium recarved with symbols at a later date when divination was more in vogue. Out of an archaeological context, it may be impossible to tell. In the absence of context, though, because of the quality and expensive color of the glass fabric, I will stay in the camp of those who think it is a complete, original object used for divination or recreation after the more structured, historically documented rituals of northern Egypt died out in the late BC.


Blogger Michael Wallace said...

I love that particular divination Die. It has some peculiar aura to it, but as you say, hiding away in some personal little vault where nothing more is being down to reveal it's true identity


11:37 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home