Chess (pages 4 and 5)
"Here and there in the ancient literature we encounter legends of wise and mysterious games that were conceived and played by scholars, monks, or the courtiers of cultured princes. These might take the form of chess games in which the pieces and squares had secret meanings in addition to their usual functions."
~ Herman Hesse
Often, conjectured history achieves a sort of sentience and a will of its own. Like a virus it infects and propagates replacing what needs experience to verify with "well everyone knows that". What identities compose this "everyone"? I have yet to meet one. History has a high degree of indeterminacy, this keeps it interesting, and keeps historical writers in business. Each discreet event can have thousands of possible interpretations, in many cases each just as "true" as the last. What really happened no one will ever know. This keeps the past just as plastic and changeable as the future.
Many esoteric orders decided to keep many of their initiatory practices and their 'secret teachings' hidden (or occult if-you-will). This for a variety of reasons. Many secrets were slowly leaked to members as they climbed the initiatory ladder. Each rung on the ladder confronted the candidate with programming that required assimilation before the next rung could be tried. This not only allowed the order greater control over the life and mind of the candidate, but could also (perhaps conveniently) frame itself as 'knowledge descending only when the initiate is ready'. The vessel must prove its worth for higher 'truth'. Another prominent reason for secrecy involved societal taboos. Many techniques and ideas involving this 'higher truth' ran contrary to publicly and governmentally instituted notions of normality in times when resistance in such a capacity usually resulted in lengthy torture and death.
"Before I was enlightened a mountain was just a mountain.
When I was enlightened, a mountain wasn't a mountain anymore.
After I was enlightened, a mountain's just a mountain again."
~Unattributed mangling of a Zen adage
These teachings were often embedded in a combination of pictorial symbolism and simple to sophisticated coding so they could hide in plain sight. Interestingly many orders utilized great economy with their use of symbols: as the candidate climbs the rungs the symbols gradually change in their meaning as they accrue further attribution and shed now unnecessary intellectual disguise. One of my favorites of this conflux of code and symbol comes from the Freemasons who have a small book of passphrases with dashes in place of every third letter or so. The letters filled in, and thus the passphrases spoken, change depending on the grade you hold in the order, but the booklet remains the same. Some evidence (though not much) indicates that the tarot functioned in a similar manner both in ancient Egypt (where it allegedly, and dubiously hails from) and in medeval Europe.
Unlike the Masons, attempting to suss out wether a common game intentionally housed a depth of initiatory symbolism or later had it applied to its pieces degenerates into something quite similar to attempting to determine if a chicken laid the first egg, or if the first egg simply appeared. Historically tarot cards were used to play various card games. Some evidence indicates that different games were played by commoners than were played by the ruling elite. Were the games different during intiation? Historical evidence also indicates that these games predated tarot's use as a divinatory instrument as did folk magic involving various cardsI admit to feeling some romance at the thought of a sophisticated initiatory entity hiding in plain sight at every tavern and pub in medeval Italy. I will write about the sordid history of tarot at a later date, or possibly dates considering how much information exists.
Chess has existed in some form or another (although quite close to its modern variation) for many centuries. Its simple pieces and complex interactions on a constrained, almost claustrophobic, field of play have come to symbolize many things. Inner alchemical transformation and trial by fire, success after the first emergency. Occult glosses in the shapes a piece makes as it crosses, or does not cross, the board. The unification of duality in its alternating black and white struggle. The sheer forces of nature, and human deception. Most importantly though each game tells a story not only about how our brain interacts with the brain of our opponent, but through the risks we take and the gambits we utilize it also tell much about the way we live. With some reflection each piece can symbolize some part of our internal processes.
Some dubious scholarship indicates that chess comes from the old (5000 BCE (?) old) Persian game Asha which, in legend, was created by Zarathustra for a king who had suffered aristocratic ennui having won wars, acquired riches, etc. The game bears little resemblance to the chess of today having pieces that represent the primal elements and some occult virtues. Zarathustra taught the game to the king and in its teaching, initiated the king into the knowledge of the secrets of the universe. The king, pleased, told Zarathustra he could fulfill anyone's desires and "what would you want?" Zarathustra asked for one grain of wheat on the first chess sqaure, 2 on the second, this squared on the 3rd and so on. The king was shocked that he could not fulfill this and thus learned humility. Asha was allegedly used as an initiatory game in Zoroastrian magic ever since. Do you believe this?
More, reliable, scholarship indicates that the game evolved from the Indian game Chaturanga. In Sanskrit, Chaturanga can refer to the English '4'. If each competitor in modern chess has a 'hand' of pieces they play with, then Chaturanga consisted of 4 such hands. Each hand had a rook (elephant rider), bishop, king, queen, and 4 pawns. Dice were also used indicating the game had a much higher degree of chance than today. Little evidence exists suggesting that Chaturanga was used in any initiatory capacity. The game bounced back and forth between the middle east, india and europe for several hundred years, evolving slowly into the game we know today. Do you believe this?
In the past 7 months I have taught 11 children to play chess. Of those 11, 4 have taught others. I just finished running a 4 week chess tournament which I designed to reward playing almost as much as winning games. At the end the top two children had played almost 40 games each, both of them only attending the program 4 days a week. Several of them got their parents to buy chess sets so they can practice at home. One even held a family tournament with the same structure as the one I set up. If you try to tell a child that the bishop's movement represents the primordial fiery triangle and the primordial watery triangle, immediately their eyes will glaze over. If you ask them why they like chess, many say that they "just do" or "I don't know." Ask any adult "Is chess good for kids?" (demon is) and they will say "Yes." ask them why and you get an incomplete answer about it helping their brains, or teaching thinking skills. Many games go without a winner. Yet they continue to play day after day.
It takes a long time to get good at chess. The way you play the game today should in no way resemble the way you play it next year or the year after. The game initiates the candidate by altering their neural pathways, sharpening their critical and combinatronic thinking. The simplicity of the figures and board mean that no additional symbols need application for resonance. I conjecture that the relationship between the game and any change to the internal process happens mostly unconsciously and automatically. If everything appears the same after enlightenment anyway, why conflate something so simply elegant when you can just relax and let it wash over you?