At the heart of symbolism

Chess, the union of white and black


Chess game

Black over white, white over black

In the old times, games were not simple entertainment as today. They took on a sacred character, of which chess still preserves some traces nowadays.

The origin of the game is lost in the mists of times. Indian, Chinese, Persian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Arabic and Greek texts refer to the game, but neither Homer nor Herodotus and nor Plato succeeded in discovering its origin.

A number of hypotheses were formulated on chess origins and none of them has been verified so far. Nevertheless, a thing is certain, the game is old and comes from the East; it was introduced in Europe by the Arabs during the Crusades.

The name of the game notably finds its origin in the works of Thomas Hyle on the eastern games, which were summarized in his book, entitled De Ludis Orientalus (1694), where he quotes the following extract drawn out of a Persian treatise:

“Satrangh is the name of the plant that looks like a man and that is given in Arabic to mandrake… It is where the name of this so well known and spread game is coming from for, indeed, you can see wooden pieces that are human figures, so that the game was called satrangh, mandragores, the Arabic pronunciation of which is shatrang-j.”

The used form shatrang-j or shatrengh became xatrang or xatreng in Old Portuguese. Al shatrang could correspond to the Portuguese escaques, which became scacco in Italian, eschas and eschec in French and xaque in Spanish.

It can be said that chess is foremost the game of men before being the game of kings. Now, man (microcosm) partakes of the world (macrocosm) at three levels:

  • He is in relation with the celestial world through the spirit;
  • He is linked to the terrestrial world through the body;
  • He is related to the intermediary world through the soul or psyche.

Man consequently represents the being able to maintain the link between Heaven and Earth, light and obscurity, white and black or, according to the Chinese tradition, yang and yin. In the old times, chess helped men, in particular the king, to become conscious of their role in the world. Incidentally, Lewis Carroll made reference to the same idea in “Alice in Wonderland”.

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