hist-games: Alchemical games

Mats Winther mwi9 at swipnet.se
Mon Feb 13 10:59:25 PST 2006

I have noted certain striking similarities between our occupation with
board games/puzzles and the central notions of medieval alchemy. The focal
point in alchemy was the 'Vas Hermeticum', the alembic, or the alchemical
retort, which are all different names for the alchemist's vessel where the
'warring elements' were subjected to heat and underwent "circular
distillation". In our gaming business the board, as such, is the
equivalent of the hermetic vessel, while in it the warring elements are
added and sealed off from the outside world. In alchemical manuscripts
this is depicted as the coniunction of 'Sol et Luna', 'Rex and Regina',
winged and wingless dragon. The latter bite each other's tail, forming a
circle, symbolic of the process. The same idea is also portrayed as the
'Uroboros', the tail-biting serpent.

The circular distillation implies that 'dissolutio' (the forming of
vapour)  follows upon 'coagulatio' (the forming of substances on the
bottom of the retort) in a circular motion. I came to think about this
mythologem when I studied the chess variant Bario, which uses this "recycle"
concept. However, the cyclic motion is, in itself, a more general symbol.
It implies the maintenance of a transformative process in a substance that
 from the beginning lay inert. The goal of the process was the appearance
of a 'spiritual substance', i.e., the alchemist's gold, or the 'red
elixir' (et al.). From the chaos, the 'prima materia', of crude material
substances, will arise a refined spirit, the 'Spiritus Mercurius', the
Stone of the Philosophers, which had wonder-working properties.

So, my point is that, unconsciously, we follow the alchemists' procedure
when we tend to get obsessed by the transformations in our vessels, that
is, our board games. This is essentially the same as the alchemist's
laborations with his chemicals. We are in fact  trying to synthesize the
most holy substance from our games. I think that involved in this work is
a phantasy of "The Perfect Game." Clearly, the board game represents a
spiritual mystery, a vessel in which the spirit is captive, and this is
where our fascination stems from.


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