The History of Gambling: Ritual Beginnings

James R. CoffeyStarred Page By James R. Coffey, 21st May 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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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. From these ritual beginnings, gambling was born.

Casting lots

Initially involving the casting the lots–throwing a random handful of small objects such as pebbles, sticks, bones, shells, or nuts--the 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, including the interpretation of the patterns various natural objects made as they appeared in the environment.

Encouraging the “fates”

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.

Material gain

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

Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades casting lots

Some 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 invented gambling. 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.

Knuckle bones and gambling houses

Evidence indicates that 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 dice games, Indians are believed to have first employed the nuts of the “vibhitaka” tree. These nuts have 5 more or less semi-flat sides which make it possible to use them as dice. (These were eventually replaced by astragali and cubical dice).

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

Crickets, cocks, dogs and horses

In China, gambling followed closely the development of Chinese society, becoming an integral part of Chinese social activities 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.

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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Astragali, Casting Lots, Chinese Gambling, Dice, Gambling, Gambling And Betting, Gambling Houses, Gambling On Sacrifice, Gambling System, Gambling Systems, Knuckle Bones, Mahabharata, Ritual, Ritual Tools, Rituals, Thoth, Vibhitaka Tree

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author avatar James R. Coffey
I am founder and head writer for James R. Coffey Writing Services and Resource Center @ where I offer a variety of writing and research services including article composition, ghostwriting, editing...(more)

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author avatar James R. Coffey
21st May 2011 (#)

Sorry, Johnny!

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
21st May 2011 (#)

It totally makes sense that this is where it would come from. Thanks James.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
21st May 2011 (#)

Yes, and when you consider how ritualized the average gambler makes it, you can see how for many, gambling is like their religion.

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author avatar Tranquilpen
22nd May 2011 (#)

Hello James ditto Mark's comment. Great article my friend well worth the star.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
22nd May 2011 (#)


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author avatar Delicia Powers
22nd May 2011 (#)

Very interesting article, thanks James!

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author avatar James R. Coffey
22nd May 2011 (#)

Pleasure, as always, Delicia!

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