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The Symbolism of Chess

Titus Burckhardt

Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 2. (Spring, 1969) © World Wisdom, Inc.

IT is known that the game of chess originated in India. It was passed on to the

medieval West through the intermediary of the Persians and the Arabs, a fact to which we
owe, for example, the expression "check-mate", (German: Schachmatt) which is derived
from the Persian shah: "king" and the Arabic mat: "he is dead". At the time of the
Renaissance some of the rules of the game were changed: the “queen”1 and the two
“bishops”2 were given a greater mobility, and thenceforth the game acquired a more
abstract and mathematical character; it departed from its concrete model strategy, without
however losing the essential features of its symbolism. In the original position of the
chessmen, the ancient strategic model remains obvious; one can recognize the two armies
ranged according to the battle order which was customary in the ancient East: the light
troops, represented by the pawns, form the first line ; the bulk of the army consists of the
heavy troops, the war chariots ("castles"), the knights ("cavalry") and the war elephants
("bishops"); the "king" with his "lady" or "counsellor" is positioned at the centre of his

The form of the chess-board corresponds to the "classical" type of Vāstu-mandala,
the diagram which also constitutes the basic layout of a temple or a city. It has been
pointed out3 that this diagram symbolizes existence conceived as a "field of action" of the
divine powers. The combat which takes place in the game of chess thus represents, in its
most universal meaning, the combat of the devas with the asuras, of the "gods" with the
"titans", or of the “angels”4 with the "demons", all other meanings of the game deriving
from this one.

The most ancient description of the game of chess which we possess appears in "The
Golden Prairies" by the Arab historian al-Mas‘ūdī, who lived in Bagdad in the 9th
century. Al-Mas‘ūdī attributes the invention—or codification—of the game to a Hindu
king "Balhit", a descendant of "Barahman". There is an obvious confusion here between a
caste, that of the Brahmins, and a dynasty; but that the game of chess has a brahmanic
origin is proved by the eminently sacerdotal character of the diagram of 8 x 8 squares
(ashtāpada). Further, the warlike symbolism of the game relates it to the Kshatriyas, the
caste of princes and nobles, as al-Mas‘ūdī indicates when he writes that the Hindus
considered the game of chess (shatranj, from the Sanscrit Chaturanga)5 as a "school of
government and defence". King Balhit is said to have composed a book on the game of
which "he made a sort of allegory of the heavenly bodies, such as the planets and the
twelve signs of the Zodiac, consecrating each piece to a star . . ." It may be recalled that
the Hindus recognize eight planets: the sun, the moon, the five planets visible to the
naked eye, and Rāhu, the "dark star" of the eclipses6; each of these "planets" rules one of
the eight directions of space. "The Indians", continues al- Mas‘ūdī, "give a mysterious
meaning to the redoubling, that is to say to the geometrical progression, effected on the
squares of the chess-board; they establish a relationship between the first cause, which

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