Ivory Lions Board Game Pieces of Mehen
These six board game pieces were associated with a game called ‘Mehen’ coil, because it was played on a circular limestone board that took the form of a coiled snake, its skin divided into squares. Three playing pieces represent recumbent lions, and three recumbent lionesses.
The game of the snake, or Mehen, was a board game played by the ancient Egyptians from at least Dynasties 3-6. Earliest evidence for the game comes from the Predynastic Period (Naqada II phase, 3600 – 3200 BC) and it is the leading contender for the accolade of ‘oldest board game in the world’.
The general form of the board is a spiral track based on a coiled snake with the head at the centre and the tail on the edge. The most important evidence for Mehen is within a painting of three board games found by James Quibell in the tomb of Hesy-Ra, a 3rd Dynasty high official, c. 2650 BC.
Depicted on a wall scene in his tomb is a large Mehen board together with marbles and lion and lioness game pieces. While a board has never been found with its playing pieces, there are several archaeological finds of lion and lioness figurines with small limestone balls and this is generally accepted as typical equipment for the game.
The Fitzwilliam Museum has two such lions and the Manchester Museum holds a collection of marbles found by Petrie with five lions in a tomb from 1st Dynasty.
It is not known how the game was played but certain aspects have been deduced. Evidence for the game has been found almost entirely in funerary contexts and it has been suggested that it represents the final journey of a dead king into the afterlife.
The board depicts the serpent god Mehen encircling the sun god Re, protecting him against enemies during his nightly journey through the underworld. Mehen’s coils therefore also represent a pathway to reach Re and Mehen was almost certainly a race game in which marbles or other game pieces representing deceased kings were moved from the tail to the head of the snake.
It seems likely that lion and lioness pieces were enemies that attacked enroute and were to be repelled. When a piece reached the middle of the board, the king represented by it would have been understood to have been reborn into the afterlife to reside there for eternity, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of heaven or nirvana.
Early Dynastic Period, 1st Dynasty, ca. 3100-2890 BC. From Qift ‘Coptos’. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 44918 A-F