The History of Gambling: Ritual Beginnings
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The History of Gambling: Ritual Beginnings

The roots of gambling and gambling tools can be traced back thousands of years to religious ceremonies conducted by many pre-historic societies. Wide-spread cultural evidence indicates that early man created many rituals specifically to foretell the future or explain what was beyond mortal comprehension.

The roots of gambling can be traced back thousands of years to religious ceremonies conducted by many pre-historic societies. Wide-spread cultural evidence indicates that early man created many rituals specifically to foretell the future or explain what was beyond mortal comprehension.

Initially involving the casting of lots–throwing a random handful of small objects such as pebbles, sticks, bones, shells, or nuts--the end results were then counted to ascertain an “odd” or “even” number; even generally equated with a positive outcome, odd a negative one. Over time this process became more complex, also including the interpretation of the patterns various natural objects made as they appeared in the environment.

As societies developed, the next step in the evolution of this type of ritual came to include animal sacrifices to encourage the “fates” or gods to deliver favorable help. The act of making personal sacrifices turned those involved from mere observers into active players of the process.  Evidence suggests that members of a group would wager their own sacrificial possessions--animals, food, or crafted objects--against the outcome of formal sacrifices. 

Eventually, chance-based procedures expanded into every day life, developing into a separate activity which factored into decision-making for such things as deciding who would get a prized portion of a kill, or perhaps even decide who would mate with the more desirable women. The final step in the evolution toward pure gambling occurred when people decided to gamble stakes for material gain only.

Anthropologists suggest that in some cultures, gambling may have mimicked the perceived behavior of the mythological gods, with some ancient cultures crediting their celestial heroes with the invention of gambling. The Egyptians, for example, believed the god Thoth, the divine physician, inventor of writing, and supreme judge, invented gambling.

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Similarly, according to Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades cast lots to claim parts of the Universe--Zeus winning the heavens, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.  Later Greeks decided the mythological hero Palamedes created games of chance to entertain Greek troops during the Trojan War, and was also thought to have invented dice.

Reliefs dated to the 4th Century BCE depict gambling scenes with men and women throwing dice; one showing a dice game between Eros, Aphrodite, and a young man.  Perhaps the best known artwork related to dice portrays the Greek heroes Ajax and Achilles playing dice during the Trojan War. This, of course, led to betting on sporting contests including the Olympic Games and other common competitions like wrestling, boxing, running, and disc throwing.

Palamedes Dice

Evidence indicates that East Indian culture adopted gambling as early as 2000 BCE, with the plot of the great Indian epic Mahabharata--dated to 1500 BCE--beginning with a dice match.  Unlike Middle Easterners who initially used astragali (knuckle bones) for such games, Indians are believed to have first employed the nuts of the “vibhitaka” tree. These nuts have 5 or more semi-flat sides, which make it possible to use them like dice.  (These were eventually replaced by astragali and cubical dice).

In addition to dice games, Indians also initiated gambling that involved animals–particularly cock and ram fights--with the establishment of gambling houses supervised by a State official who assured orderly gambling, while collecting a percentage of each win for the King.

In China, gambling closely followed the development of Chinese society, becoming integral to Chinese social life by 1000 BCE. Gambling dens were common features of Chinese towns and villages where popular forms of gambling involved betting on animal fights and races, cricket and cock fights, as well as dog and horse races attracting huge number of gamblers. By the 5th Century BCE, board games also grew in popularity.

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*Be sure to see Part Two of this series, The History of Gambling: Tools and Games


A History of Gambling, Leo Markun

Something for Nothing: A History of Gambling, Alice Fleming

Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling, David G. Schwartz

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Comments (4)

This is very interesting. I had no idea gambling went back this far.

Excellent analysis, well written and illustrated..Thanks James

Thanks, Sandy and Abdel-moniem for your comments! I hope you'll check out part two, Tools and Games as well.

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Gambling has been around since years. It is even mentioned in hindu religion and there have been many problems due to gambling and it is advised that people should not do gambling.