The Symbolism of Chess
It is known that the game of chess originated in India. It was passed on to the medieval West through the intermediary of the Persians and the Arabs, a fact to which we owe, for example, the expression "check-mate", (German: Schachmatt) which is derived from the Persianshah: "king" and the Arabic mat: "he is dead". At the time of the Renaissance some of the rules of the game were changed: the “queen”and the two “bishops” were given a greater mobility, and thenceforth the game acquired a more abstract and mathematical character; it departed from its concrete model strategy, without however losing the essential features of its symbolism. In the original position of the chessmen, the ancient strategic model remains obvious; one can recognize the two armies ranged according to the battle order which was customary in the ancient East: the light troops, represented by the pawns, form the first line ; the bulk of the army consists of the heavy troops, the war chariots ("castles"), the knights ("cavalry") and the war elephants ("bishops"); the "king" with his "lady" or "counsellor" is positioned at the centre of his troops. The form of the chess-board corresponds to the "classical" type of Vāstu-mandala, the diagram which also constitutes the basic layout of a temple or a city. It has been pointed out that this diagram symbolizes existence conceived as a "field of action" of the divine powers. The combat which takes place in the game of chess thus represents, in its most universal meaning, the combat of the devas with the asuras, of the "gods" with the "titans", or of the “angels” with the "demons", all other meanings of the game deriving from this one. The most ancient description of the game of chess which we possess appears in "The Golden Prairies" by the Arab historian al-Mas‘ūdī, who lived in Bagdad in the 9th century. Al-Mas‘ūdī attributes the invention—or codification—of the game to a Hindu king "Balhit", a descendant of "Barahman". There is an obvious confusion here between a caste, that of the Brahmins, and a dynasty; but that the game of chess has a brahmanic origin is proved by the eminently sacerdotal character of the diagram of 8 x 8 squares (ashtāpada). Further, the warlike symbolism of the game relates it to the Kshatriyas, the caste of princes and nobles, as al-Mas‘ūdī indicates when he writes that the Hindus considered the game of chess (shatranj, from the Sanscrit Chaturanga) as a "school of government and defence". King Balhit is said to have composed a book on the game of which "he made a sort of allegory of the heavenly bodies, such as the planets and the twelve signs of the Zodiac, consecrating each piece to a star . . ." It may be recalled that the Hindus recognize eight planets: the sun, the moon, the five planets visible to the naked eye, and Rāhu, the "dark star" of the eclipses; each of these "planets" rules one of the eight directions of space. "The Indians", continues al- Mas‘ūdī, "give a mysterious meaning to the redoubling, that is to say to the geometrical progression, effected on the squares of the chess-board; they establish a relationship between the first cause, which dominates all the spheres and in which everything finds its end, and the sum of the squares of the chess-board . . ." Here the author is probably confusing the cyclical symbolism implied in the ashteipada and the famous legend according to which the inventor of the game asked the monarch to fill the squares of his chess-board with grains of corn, by placing one grain on the first, two on the following, four on the third, and so on up to the sixty-fourth square, which gives the sum of 18,446,744,973,709,551,661 grains. The cyclical symbolism of the chess-board resides in the fact that it expresses the unfolding of space according to the quaternary and octonary of the principal directions (4 x 4 x 4 = 8 x 8), and that it synthesizes, in crystalline form, the two great complementary...
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