1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Knucklebones

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27726991911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 15 — Knucklebones

KNUCKLEBONES (Hucklebones, Dibs, Jackstones, Chuck-stones, Five-stones), a game of very ancient origin, played with five small objects, originally the knucklebones of a sheep, which are thrown up and caught in various ways. Modern “knucklebones” consist of six points, or knobs, proceeding from a common base, and are usually of metal. The winner is he who first completes successfully a prescribed series of throws, which, while of the same general character, differ widely in detail. The simplest consists in tossing up one stone, the jack, and picking up one or more from the table while it is in the air; and so on until all five stones have been picked up. Another consists in tossing up first one stone, then two, then three and so on, and catching them on the back of the hand. Different throws have received distinctive names, such as “riding the elephant,” “peas in the pod,” and “horses in the stable.”

The origin of knucklebones is closely connected with that of dice, of which it is probably a primitive form, and is doubtless Asiatic. Sophocles, in a fragment, ascribed the invention of draughts and knucklebones (astragaloi) to Palamedes, who taught them to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones, and the Palamedes tradition, as flattering to the national pride, was generally accepted throughout Greece, as is indicated by numerous literary and plastic evidences. Thus Pausanias (Corinth xx.) mentions a temple of Fortune in which Palamedes made an offering of his newly invented game. According to a still more ancient tradition, Zeus, perceiving that Ganymede longed for his playmates upon Mount Ida, gave him Eros for a companion and golden dibs with which to play, and even condescended sometimes to join in the game (Apollonius). It is significant, however, that both Herodotus and Plato ascribe to the game a foreign origin. Plato (Phaedrus) names the Egyptian god Theuth as its inventor, while Herodotus relates that the Lydians, during a period of famine in the days of King Atys, originated this game and indeed almost all other games except chess. There were two methods of playing in ancient times. The first, and probably the primitive method, consisted in tossing up and catching the bones on the back of the hand, very much as the game is played to-day. In the Museum of Naples may be seen a painting excavated at Pompeii, which represents the goddesses Latona, Niobe, Phoebe, Aglaia and Hileaera, the last two being engaged in playing at Knucklebones (see Greek Art, fig. 42). According to an epigram of Asclepiodotus, astragals were given as prizes to school-children, and we are reminded of Plutarch’s anecdote of the youthful Alcibiades, who, when a teamster threatened to drive over some of his knucklebones that had fallen into the wagon-ruts, boldly threw himself in front of the advancing team. This simple form of the game was generally played only by women and children, and was called pentalitha or five-stones. There were several varieties of it besides the usual toss and catch, one being called tropa, or hole-game, the object having been to toss the bones into a hole in the earth. Another was the simple and primitive game of “odd or even.”

The second, probably derivative, form of the game was one of pure chance, the stones being thrown upon a table, either with the hand or from a cup, and the values of the sides upon which they fell counted. In this game the shape of the pastern-bones used for astralagoi, as well as for the tali of the Romans, with whom knucklebones was also popular, determined the manner of counting. The pastern-bone of a sheep, goat or calf has, besides two rounded ends upon which it cannot stand, two broad and two narrow sides, one of each pair being concave and one convex. The convex narrow side, called chios or “the dog” counted 1; the convex broad side 3; the concave broad side 4; and the concave narrow side 6. Four astragals were used and 35 different scores were possible at a single throw, many receiving distinctive names such as Aphrodite, Midas, Solon, Alexander, and, among the Romans, Venus, King, Vulture, &c. The highest throw in Greece, counting 40, was the Euripides, and was probably a combination throw, since more than four sixes could not be thrown at one time. The lowest throw, both in Greece and Rome, was the Dog.

See Cassell’s Book of Sports and Pastimes (London, 1896); Games and Songs of American Children, by W. W. Newell (1893); and The Young Folks’ Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports (New York, 1899), for the modern children’s game. For the history see Les Jeux des Anciens, by L. Becq de Fouquières (Paris, 1869); Das Knochelspiel der Alten, by Bolle (Wismar, 1886); Die Spiele der Griechen und Römer, by W. Richter (Leipzig, 1887).