The Universe of Discourse

Sun, 31 Mar 2019


Yesterday I mentioned the rook:

Wikipedia also tells me that the rook is also named from the sound it makes.

This is the “rook” that is a sort of crow, C. frugilegus. It is not related to the rooks in chess. That word is from Arabic (and earlier, Persian) rukh, which means a chariot. Before the game came to Europe, the rooks were chariots. Europeans didn't use chariots, so when they adopted the game, they changed the chariots to castles. (Similarly the elephants turned into bishops.)

Okay, I've known all this for years, but today I had another thought. Why were there chariots in the Persian form of the game? The Persians didn't use chariots either. Chariots had been obsolete since the end of the Bronze Age, thousands of years, and chess is nothing like that old.

The earliest forerunner of chess was played in India. But I confirmed with Wikipedia that it didn't overlap with chariots:

Chess is believed to have originated in Eastern India, c. 280–550, in the Gupta Empire, where its early form in the 6th century was known as chaturaṅga (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग), literally four divisions [of the military] – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.

Were the Guptas still using chariots in the 6th century? (And if so, why?) I think they weren't, but I'm not sure. Were the chariots intentionally anachronistic, even at the time the game was invented, recalling a time of ancient heroes?

[ Addendum 20200204: Consider the way modern video games, recalling a time of ancient heroes, often involve sword fighting or archery. ]

[ Addendum 20211231: Wikipedia raises the same point: “The first substantial argument that chaturanga is much older than [the 6th century] is the fact that the chariot is the most powerful piece on the board, although chariots appear to have been obsolete in warfare for at least five or six centuries. The counter-argument is that they remained prominent in literature. ]

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