The game of knucklebones

The two figures play a game similar to the modern game of ‘jacks’. It involved throwing the ‘knucklebones’ up in the air and catching as many as possible on one hand as they fell. Although knucklebone pieces were originally made from the knucklebones of sheep or goats, they were later crafted in a great variety of materials: brass, copper, silver, gold, glass, bone, ivory, marble, wood, stone, bronze, terracotta and precious gems.


Although it is obvious that they were game pieces, knucklebones were almost never discursively associated with gambling for money; instead, they seem to have been identified with sacrifice, with the Gods and fate, with the dead, and with the innocent game of children. According to Pausanias, there was a small shrine to Herakles in a grotto in Achaia in which “it was possible to get prophesies by means of tablet and astragaloi. For the one consulting the god prays in front of the image, and after a prayer he takes up four astragaloi – for they lie beside Herakles in abundance – and lets them go upon the table. And for every fall of the knucklebone, things inscribed on the tablet have a suitable exegesis of the
schema” (Paus. 7.25.10).

– Pentelitha: the simplest and perhaps most common form of this game, played by children, was comparable to the modern-day game of jackstones. The lexicographer Pollux describes the game as follows: “The knucklebones are thrown up into the air, and an attempt is made to catch them on the back of the hand. If you are only partially successful, you have to pick up the knucklebones, which have fallen to the ground, without letting fall those already on the hand . . . It is, above all, a woman’s game.”
Another variation of the game involved players throwing one or more of the pieces into a small dirt hole in the ground or into the opening of a small vessel. He or she with the best aim would win.

– Game of dices: no side of a knucklebone is alike. Each piece has four long sides and two short sides. Of the four longer sides, two are noticeably broader. One of the broader sides is concave, while the other is convex, just as one of the narrower sides is indented and the other is flat. Their corners are either rounded or pointed so that they are unable to stand on one end. Each side corresponds to a certain number of points:
The curved, small side is called “dog.” It counts for 1 point.
The wide, convex side is called the “belly.” It counts for 4 points.
The wide concave, side is called the “back.” It counts for 3 points.
The flat, small side is called “chios.” It counts for 6 points.

The knucklebones are used as dice. The side on the top indicates the number of points. Every player has ten objects for example, nuts, stones, or the knucklebones themselves, like earlier. These are a player’s stockpiles. The player begins each round with one object and places it as a stake in the middle. The youngest player begins. He rolls and remembers the number – the points from two knucklebones are added in this game – then it’s the other player turn. Whoever has the most points gets to keep the stakes. Then the round starts. A player has lost if he has used up his stockpiles, the game is over.
There is one special rule with the two knucklebones according to a traditional saying: the combination “dog” and “chios” counts for one point, not seven. That makes it the worst throw, but also statistically least frequent.

Or…Knucklebones are used as dice. The side on top indicates the number of points. Every player has ten objects for example, nuts, stones, or the knucklebones themselves, like earlier. These are a player’s stockpiles. Every player plays with two knucklebones. The youngest player starts. First one knucklebone is rolled, then the other. If the first knucklebone doesn’t give many points, the other one can be thrown against it so that it changes. Whoever has the highest number of total points wins and receives an object from the other player’s stockpile. But be careful: if the first knucklebone is a “chios” (six points) and the next one a “dog” (one point), then the entire roll doesn’t count.

(1,3,4,6) : Aphrodite– all four astragaloi 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

“There are in all thirthy-five throws of four astragaloi taken together, and of these some are named for Gods, others for Heroes, others for kings, still others for eminent men, and others for hetairai.” (Schol. ad Plato Lysis 206e)