Ancient d20s

If you’re a role-playing gamer, you probably recognize the profile of a twenty-sided die, or d20, right away: the collection of triangles making up a bumpy sphere by which we invoke the capricious god of random numbers. This shape (technically known as an “icosahedron”) has been in use a lot longer than Dungeons & Dragons has been around. Here’s an example from Roman-period Egypt which has the names of Egyptian gods marked on its faces in demotic, an Egyptian script.

161103dakhleh
Dakhleh die showing “Isis” face via Martina Minas-Nerpel, “ A Demotic Inscribed Icosahedron from Dakhleh Oasis,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 93 (2007), 137-48 (Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt, currently Valley Museum, Kharga, Egypt; 1st c. CE; limestone)

Here’s another example from Egypt. This one has Greek letters on each of its faces.

Icosahedron via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Egypt, currently Metropolitan Museum; 2nd c. BCE - 4th c. CE; serpentine)
Icosahedron via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Egypt, currently Metropolitan Museum; 2nd c. BCE – 4th c. CE; serpentine)

It’s possible that these dice were used for some kind of game, but more likely they were used for divination. The die with the names of gods may have been used to determine which god a person should pray to for help. The Greek letters probably corresponded to a list of pre-written oracular responses: ask your question, roll the die, and consult the table for the answer, sort of like the ancient version of a magic 8-ball.

Some might say the uses of the twenty-sided die haven’t changed much in a couple thousand years.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

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