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d12 of Divination, d4 of Sheep-Ankle

You know those ancient d20s they found in Roman and Greco-Egyptian excavations?

Roman! Click for article. Thanks to Justin Howe for alerting me to the existence of this wonder!


Ptolemaic! Click for article!

Well, this isn’t as cool as that, but I’ve just run across a reference (in Jim Baker’s The Cunning Man’s Handbook, which I posted about recently) to a Renaissance-era d12, and it was used for… divination, of course.

(Dice seem to have been used both in divination and gaming, and the line between the two gets fuzzy at certain times in history, of course… like how lots of people today read their horoscopes in the newspaper for fun, but don’t base decisions on what they say.)

That makes sense: 12 months of the year, 12 astrological houses.

Here’s the diagram (and some of the related material) from Baker’s book:

This appears in The Dodechedron of Fate, a 1613 translation of a 1556 French edition attributed to Jean de Meun–the co-author of the important French medieval poem Roman de la Rose, though bear in mind it’s one of those false attributions some common in old magical texts. (The translator’s name, “Sir W.B. Knight,” is also a pseudonym, according to Baker.)

The Dodechdedron of Fate is a book in yet another genre of books I didn’t exactly know existed, though I’d heard about them: books of fate.” We’ve all heard of The Book of Fate, of course, but this was once an actual genre of printed text sold commercially on the market. The Dodechedron his its special, distinguishing gadget right in the title: it uses a d12–a twelve-sided die–as a tool of divination. Of course, 17th century fortune tellers couldn’t just wander down to the local games supply store and pick up some Chessex dice, so the book contained instructions for how to make a d12.

While other cultures have used dice in divination (Tibetans use a d6, for example) twelve makes sense as a choice for European astrology since, after all, everything’s based on astrology, and, ultimately, on the twelve houses of the Zodiac. There are also twelve months in a year, so it all just makes sense.

Moreover, the die in the diagram above physically has one interesting property: the odd numbers are clustered together on one “side” and the even numbers on the other “side.” (This does not necessarily reflect a specific result being good or bad: there are negative results on even numbers, and negative ones on odd numbers.) Still, it’s interesting since neither of the d12 styles in my own sets of dice use this pattern:

All the Chessex dice I own use what seems to be an arbitrary pattern, grouping 1, 2, 4, 6, 5, and 10 to one side of the die, and the remaining numbers to the other side.
Meanwhile, my no-name crystal d12 uses a simple ascending number sequence, grouping 1-6 on one side, and 7-12 on the other.

The Dodechedron of Fate d12 design is interesting because the layout–all odds on one side, all evens on the other–seems to fit the spatial logic of a lot of fortune tables in other parts of Baker’s book: good things above, bad things below. Not that odd numbers are necessarily bad (lucky number 7? the holy association of the number 3?), but there’s a certain kind of symmetry in the system that seems to map onto notions of celestial harmony and symmetry that were massively popular prior to the Enlightenment, and which endured even after.

In any case, the book contained twelve houses (astrologically speaking) and twelve questions appropriate to each house; choosing a question, one would cross-reference a baffling chart indexing house-specific answers to the given questions, turn to the correct page, and find twelve answers to the question. Then the petitioner would would a d12 obtain a divinatory answer, in the form of a rhyming couplet. The book contained 144 pages of rhyming couplets, twelve to a page, for a total of 1728 in all. Here are a couple of examples, from page 122 of the text:

4. Be you not dismaide, but be you of good cheere,
Although it fall out a very bad yeere.

7. Death to all men is bitter and sower.
But unto the wicked it is a worse hower.

8 . Be not Jealous, nor misdoubt not thy wife,
For she shall be true all the daies of her life.

9. Take kitchin physicke for so he shall mend,
For the Doctor his drugges are to no end.

So it seems the d12 has an older history than I’d realized, too! (Though, see below: its history goes back to Ptolemaic Egypt, in fact.) Of course, Wikipedia knew about the divination thing (sort of), but I don’t think most people with d12s in that shoebox in their closet do, so I figured I’d share.

Oh, and since it’s short, there’s also a reference in the Baker book to the d4 of Sheep Ankles, which will speak for itself I suppose:

Dice were another randomizing device that like cards could be employed in divination. The Greeks and Romans used sheep anklebones as well as the more familiar cubic dice. In Latin, the four-sided anklebones were called Tali or Astragali and the standard six-sided dice, Tesserae… (129)

Here’s a page about how tali/astragali were used in gaming; these are the same bones still used in Mongolia sheep anklebone games:

The astragali/tali also seem to have given rise to the Western game known as jacks. They’re not much like modern d4, but actually seem to be a bit like d4 in a barrel-dice style, since (I’m guessing) the tali/astragali were effectively 4-sided mainly because the two “side” faces are rounded enough you mostly wouldn’t get them landing/staying on end. (Though the page above suggests it was also a convention in Roman gaming.)

What’s interesting about the astragali/tali is how they were common both as divination tools, and as toys or gampieces. There wasn’t this holy, absolute separation of play and divination when it comes to the sheep anklebones. Which is interesting in itself.

Baker also includes fun poem used for divination using a single d6, but I’ll let you dig that out of the text yourselves. (It’s on the same page as the bit about the tali, if I remember right.)

In any case, that’s your hit of polyhedral dice fun for the day, though for the curious, there’s more about the history of dice at this ambitious blog post, which notes that there were d12s at least as far back as Ptolemaic Egypt, and d8s back in the 1800s (“poker dice”). There’s also something about d10 being patented in the early 20th century, too…

I’ll be back tomorrow with the more amusing Korean d14 of Partying Hard, an amusing drinking-game relic from the Shilla Dynasty.

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