The gambling gods

Cheating the Devil is a common folkloric motifSource: Flickr

The bedrock of every culture is its folklore. Folktales contain the echoes of ancient beliefs that still connect with modern feelings and values.

Considering how basic gambling is to human society, it’s no surprise that the folklore of people from all around the world – people separated from each other in time and space – is full of stories about gambling. The ancient gods are reflected in the mobile casinos of today … To celebrate this incredible cultural continuity, here are four stories from the gambling folklore of old.

Zeus takes a chance

The Greeks believed we are slaves to luck and fate, but that didn’t stop them from trying to defeat fate by gambling. Considering that the Greeks believed gambling was invented by the gods, it’s no surprise that Greek folklore has many stories about gambling. One of the most famous concerns how Zeus came to rule Olympus as king of the gods. As it turns out, it wasn’t his thunderbolts, his eagle or his sex appeal that tipped the balance – it was pure, blind chance. Zeus and his brothers Poseidon and Hades cast lots to see who would rule what part of the universe. Poseidon got the sea, Hades got the underworld, and Zeus won the heavens. Poseidon would lose another bet later on in prehistory when he took a bet with Athena, goddess of wisdom and strength, to see who would become patron of the city of Athens. Poseidon got the short end of the stick and spitefully cursed Athens, which is why it’s always been so dry since then.

Unbeatable opponent

The Navajo people have a story about a trickster deity called Noqoìlpi. This character’s name literally means “the one who beats people at games” — not someone you would want to play a round of cards with! When he came down from the heavens, he immediately started daring people to compete against him in various games. Being a deity with an all-powerful magical talisman, he had what you might call an unfair advantage and easily wiped the floor with them all. First, he took their property, then he came for their wives, and eventually he forced them to surrender their freedom. These unhappy slaves appealed to another somewhat nobler deity, Qastcèyalçi, who eventually defeated Noqoìlpi. In the end, the trickster lost the shirt on his back, so to speak. The moral is whatever you make of it, but sportsmanship and knowing are certainly part of the equation.

Dicing with the moon

In ancient Egypt, the ibis-headed Thoth was god of writing, magic and the mental arts – gambling being one of them. One story goes that he used his arts to help the goddess Nut. She wanted to have a child but the jealous sun god Ra had forbidden her to have children on any day of the year. Ra was afraid that she’d give birth to a new god who might oust him from the throne. Thoth agreed to help Nut and challenged the moon to a game of dice. The conditions were that whenever Thoth won, he’d get to keep a bit of moonlight. Being the god of magic, Thoth had a certain charisma when it came to dice, and pretty soon he’d collected enough moonshine to have light for five days. That was long enough for Nut to deliver the next generation of gods. The myth also accounts for how the Egyptians went from a year of 360 days to a year to 365.

Playing dice in the ancient worldSource: Wikipedia

Cheating the Devil

In the Middle Ages, gambling was a way for people to pass the time and have fun when few other options were available. In folklore a common motif was the Devil’s bargain. Typically this involved an ordinary person staking their soul for a magical reward. The conditions of the bet were always impossible, but somehow the Devil was always cheated! Take the story of Master Gerhard, for example.  The Old Cathedral in Master Gerhard’s city was due for replacement.

Master Gerhard, an architect, was given a year to design a new plan. He started with a will but kept running into problems. He started doubting his abilities and got depressed. Walking sadly along the river one day, he reached the great rock called the Devil’s Stone – and fell asleep. He awoke to see a stranger standing before him in the outfit of an architect. The stranger drew a plan of a cathedral in the sand with his stick.

Master Gerhard realized it was perfect and asked the stranger what he wanted in exchange for the plan. The stranger said: “I’ll help you build the cathedral but after three years you must give me yourself, your wife and your child. But if I haven’t finished the building when the first rooster crows at the end of the last night of the third year, I’ll let you go.” Master Gerhard thought it was impossible to build such a huge building in three years and agreed. The pace of construction, however, was uncannily fast – even demonic, with the speeded up sound of hammers, shovels and picks going on night and day.

Master Gerhard’s wife was concerned and got the story out of him. Smarter than her husband, the wife figured a way out. In the market one day, her son pointed out a magnificent cockerel and mimicked its crow. This gave her an idea. She practiced crowing at home until all the cockerels of the neighbourhood answered her. When the last night of the third year came, as the last stone was being hoisted to the top of the cathedral, she let loose a mighty crow and all the roosters answered. The demonic cathedral collapsed and Master Gerhard’s family was saved – although the cathedral was only completed centuries later.

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