Knucklebones

    Tali is the Latin name for Knucklebones, which were called Astragaloi or Astragals by the Greeks. The Ancient Greeks originally made the pieces from the knucklebones of sheep or goats, like the ones shown below, but the Romans would also make them from brass, silver, gold, ivory, marble, wood, bone, bronze, glass, terracotta, and precious gems. When tossed, the tali would each fall on one of four sides and the most common form of the game resembled modern dice.

     
    At the left is shown the backside of a bronze mirror inscribed with an image of Venus playing Tali with Pan. This mirror dates from 350 BC and comes from Greece, where Venus was know as Aphrodite. In 350 BC players in both Greece and Rome likely still played with astragali, but more and more they changed to using dice.
     
      The four sides of the tali were sometimes inscribed with symbols, perhaps Roman numerals, and each had a different value of 1, 3, 4 or 6. Four tali were dropped from a moderate height over a gaming table or the ground.   

    There were variations on scoring. Numerical values did not have precedence over a Venus, the Vultures, or a Senio. Numerical values for the other possibilities would represent a simple variation.    

    In place of numerical values, the concept of pairs of numbers could take precedence, as it does in modern cards. Other rules could be agreed upon at the start of the game, in much the same way as is done at the beginning of a poker hand.

    Obviously the odds of any side coming up were not equal. Perhaps the "chian" throw (narrow convex) and the "coan" throw (narrow concave) tended to come up more frequently.
     

      The astragali shown on the left is made from onyx. The astragali on the right side is made from rock crystal. These are part of the Townley collection in the British Museum.
     
     
      The large astragali at right is made from agate, and comes from the Hamilton collection. The smaller astragali is made from glass and is said to be from Leucas, Arcanania. These are both from the British Museum. 
     
     
      The two astragali above left are made from glass. The third astragali is made from lead and comes from Camirus, Rhodes. The large astragali at the right is made from bronze, from the Hamilton collection. These are from the British Museum.
     

    It has been suggested by one modern source that the side facing down was the one counted, but this is most improbable. Given that three or four astragali were thrown, some deduction would be required to figure out what sides were facing down, since it would never be obvious. This wouldn't be much fun, of course, and for someone to pick up the astragali and verify the throw could lead to mortal violence if gambling were involved. In any event if the bottom side were counted then the top side would simply come to represent that value on sight, negating the idea of counting the bottom side. Like the later dice that replaced them, the tali were surely counted based on the side that came up, not down.

    Based on the scant descriptions of the scoring in Tali, it would appear that only Venus, Senio, Vultures, and Dogs were scored, and that all other results were simply ignored and replayed. That is, the only throws that counted were Venus, Senio, Vultures. Any other result and the tali would be throw again by the next player, presumably. The pot, if any, would remain until a winner was decided. Also, if a Senio was thrown by two or more players, it would be a draw and the next round would presumably begin again with the pot remaining. Scoring rules are provided below for the simple version without Senio scoring.

      SIMPLE SCORING RULES FOR TALI :
    (6,4,3,1) :Venus -- all four tali with different sides.
    (6,x,x,x) : Senio -- A single six & anything
    (6,6,6,6) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (4,4,4,4) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (3,3,3,3) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (1,1,1,1) : Dogs -- lowest of the Vultures 

    One problem with the simple scoring rules above is that it fails to explain why some tali had numbered sides, that is, why they were numbered with a 6, 4, 3, or 1 at all if these numbers had no meaning. The implication is that the numbers were totaled as part of the scoring. The scoring rules below are for a version in which the Senio throws only are scored according to numerical superiority.

      SENIO SCORING RULES FOR TALI :
    (6,4,3,1) :Venus -- all four tali with different sides.
    (6,6,6,4) : Senio -- A single six Total = 22
    (6,6,6,3) : Senio -- A single six Total = 21
    (6,6,4,4) : Senio -- A single six Total = 20
    (6,6,6,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 19
    (6,6,4,3) : Senio -- A single six Total = 19
    (6,6,6,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 19
    (6,6,3,3) : Senio -- A single six Total = 18
    (6,4,4,4) : Senio -- A single six Total = 18
    (6,6,4,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 17
    (6,4,4,3) : Senio -- A single six Total = 17
    (6,6,3,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 16
    (6,4,3,3) : Senio -- A single six Total = 16
    (6,4,4,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 14
    (6,3,3,3) : Senio -- A single six Total = 14
    (6,6,1,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 14
    (6,3,3,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 13
    (6,4,1,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 12
    (6,3,1,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 11
    (6,1,1,1) : Senio -- A single six Total = 9
    (6,6,6,6) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (4,4,4,4) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (3,3,3,3) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (1,1,1,1) : Dogs -- lowest of the Vultures 

    The extended scoring rules presented below are based on simple numerical superiority, except for Venus, Senio, Vultures, and Dogs (lowest of the Vultures). Also, the Senio rules presented above can be assumed to apply or not, as the players prefer. In the case of tying values, poker-like rules are assumed to prevail, that is, a triple beats a pair, but two pair beat a triple.

     

      EXTENDED SCORING RULES FOR TALI :
    (6,4,3,1) :Venus -- all four tali with different sides.
    (6,6,6,4) : Total = 22
    (6,6,6,3) : Total = 21
    (6,6,4,4) : Total = 20
    (6,6,6,1) : Total = 19 (high)
    (6,6,4,3) : Total = 19
    (6,6,3,3) : Total = 18
    (6,6,4,1) : Total = 17
    (6,6,3,1) : Total = 16
    (4,4,4,3) : Total = 15
    (6,6,1,1) : Total = 14 (high)
    (4,4,3,3) : Total = 14
    (4,4,4,1) : Total = 13
    (4,4,3,1) : Total = 12
    (4,3,3,1) : Total = 11
    (4,4,1,1) : Total = 10 (high)
    (3,3,3,1) : Total = 10
    (4,3,1,1) : Total = 9
    (3,3,1,1) : Total = 8
    (4,1,1,1) : Total = 7
    (3,1,1,1) : Total = 6
    (6,x,x,x) : Senio -- a single six and anything
    (6,6,6,6) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (4,4,4,4) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (3,3,3,3) : Vultures -- all four tali the same
    (1,1,1,1) : Dogs -- lowest of the Vultures 
     
       
    Surprisingly, only one ambiguity occurs with the above numerical precedents, at the value 14. In this case the highest pair (the sixes) is assumed to have numerical precedence over the other highest pair (of fours). It could also be assumed that descending numerical values decided the winners of each throw, although this wouldn't actually change the character of the game, being merely an inverted perspective. It could also be assumed, as one expert has, that the rules of Knucklebones can never be known to us, but such nihilism takes the game away altogether. Surely if sheperds could invent this game, we could too. Readers can decide for themselves which of the above versions they prefer to play.
     
      At right two girls play tali with astragali. This terracotta comes from the British Museum in London. In other such images the girls are typically shown with handfuls of astragali. 
     
    Astragalomancy is the use of dice or knucklebones for divination. The set of tali pictured below left were found at Pompeii while those on the right were found at Athens.
    In a variation played by the Emperor Augustus,in a letter quoted by Suetonius (Augustus 71,1ss) anyone throwing the Dogs (canis) or Senio put 4 coins in the pot, and the first player to throw a Venus would take all. Martial describes Ivory Knucklebones coming up as Venus in one of his epigrams as follows:

      "Cum steterit nullus vultu tibi talus eodem, munera me dices magna dedisse tibi."
      "When none of the knucklebones you throw stands with the same face as another you will say I have given you a great present."

    Cicero refers to the element of chance in throwing tali in his tract on Divination:

      "Quattor tali iacti casu Venerium efficiunt; num etiam centum Venerios, si quadringentos ieceris, casu futuros putas?"
      "Four tali are cast and a Venus results -- that is chance; but do you think it would be chance, too, if in one hundred casts you made a Venus one hundred Venus times?"

    Cicero says later in the same book:

      "Nothing is so uncertain as a cast of tali and yet there is no one who plays often who does not sometimes make a Venus and occasionally twice or thrice in a row."

    Knucklebones continued to be played right up to Medieval European times, and Renaissance/Medieval/Celtic re-enactor groups can be found who play this game today at festivals. The Flemish humanist Erasmus devoted an entire colloquy to knucklebones. The knucklebones of sheep were found in many graves, especially of children, throughout European Kurgan sites. The Uzbeg nomads of southern Russia used to call it the Ashik-game (after ashik, the word for the anklebones of sheep) and played it after the manner of European dicing, with four anklebones or astragali. The upper part of the bone they called tava, the lower altchi, and the two sides were called yantarap. The player took all four bones in the palm of his hand, threw them up and got half of the stake wagered, if two tava or two altchi turned up; or the whole stake, if all four tava or altchi showed.
    Above and below are shown several images of the famous Sotades astragalos, a vase in the shape of an astragalos. This remarkably beautiful example is from Greece, about 460 BCE, and measures approximately 6"x4". The images on them shown one male figure and several female figures.
    The three female figures above are said to be walking and being welcomed towards a "cave" by the male figure.It is unclear what mythological tale is being represented here. Is this possibly Ulysses being welcomed by the women on Nauticaa? Could it represent the Eleusinian Mysteries? It has been suggested that these floating girls personified the winds, but there are too many. Perhaps the old man is Hesiod. According to myth, Hesiod was visited by the Muses while he tended his sheep on Mount Helicon. Alas, there were nine Muses (some say more) and even if we add the Three Graces (who would have been nude) the number falls short. One of the girls holds a branch over the head of another -- olive branches and oak branches had mythical significance, but this was probably a laurel branch. Laurel was sacred to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and holding a branch over someone's head would signify purification. Laurel branches were used in processions at Delphi.
 

      The Sotades astragalos is on display at the British Museum in London. Many thanks to Richard Kemp for providing these wonderful images.
    Like most Roman and Greek games, tali was first played in Ancient Egypt. The oldest astragali have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, such as the examples shown in the first two photos below. The third photo shows astragali from Ancient Greece made from colored glass or other materials. These examples come from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

    At left are some tali made by Michael Paull, sheep.tali@sbcglobal.net, who may be contacted for more information.


    PENTELITHA

      The picture below is a painting on marble from Herculaneum from the archaeological museum in Naples. It shows another type of game played with tali that was presumably called Pentelitha, which means "five stones." The name seems dubious, however, since the girls in this and other images appear to be playing with four astragali, not five, and astragali are not called "litha" elsewhere that we know of. Although the name may be a misnomer, the game was played by tossing the tali in the air and catching them on the back of the hand. The scoring rules for this game have not been reconstructed but it was perhaps scored similarly to regular knucklebones.
       

      On the red-figured Attic vase at right is shown two women playing the same game as above. This terracotta vase dates from about 425-400 BCE. This type of vase has a cap and it was known as a Pyxis. The finial on the cap is in the shape of an astragali. On the back of this pyxis is shown another image of two girls playing with astragali and an image of two girls playing a ball game, part of which can be seen in the image below (see Roman Ball Games for an alternate view of this pyxis). This pyxis is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


    TROPA

      Another game variation involved throwing the dice into the narrow neck of a glass jar, such as the one shown at left. Players would compete in this game and it clearly involved skill as well as chance. Three dice were tossed, or perhaps four astragali, and only the number of tali that entered the jar would count. 

    Martial mentions, in one of his epigrams:

      "...what time December, idling amid alluring hazard, rings on this side and on that with risky fritillis, and tropa sports with the licentious tali."

    Martial makes reference in another epigram of the fact that dicing was regarded as more expensive a game to play than knucklebones:

      "You have never substituted the die for the alluring tali, but your sole stake has been a few nuts."
     

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