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Atenaha, the Seed Game that even the deities played

15 June 2014 Comments Leave a comment

So, you are a man and had a busy day behind you. Not something as demanding as trailing along with your peers on a hunting expedition – such enterprise could take days – but just a regular daily activity, clearing a new field at the demand of your Clan Mothers, or chopping firewood, or working on a construction of a new longhouse. Enough activity to make you tired physically but not mentally; not enough to make you sneak into your longhouse’s compartment to catch a good nap on one of the lower banks.

As the Father Sun would be rolling down, progressing toward his resting place, you might get start enjoying this well deserved rest, engaging in throwing games with your equally tired but restless peers. After all, you all have already completed your chores, washed in the nearby stream and ate the warmed meal prepared by the women of your family in the morning. So it might be the time to have some idle fun.

Atenaha – a seed game – required little accessories and not much preparation or skill. Like dice it was a game of luck, mainly, to pass an idle afternoon. With blanket, folded and thoroughly smoothed, acting like a game-board, eight small wooden, or carved out of elk horn, disks, burned or blackened on one side each, and a pile of seeds or beans, forty in amount , you and your friends were set to go.

The first player would grab the stones, shake them thoroughly, then throw, making sure none slipped between his palms while mixing them vigorously (such misfortune could see the player losing his round no matter what his throw brought).

The array of the dice upon the blanket would determine the players’ achievement per round. If the stones spread out displaying their blackened sides, all eight of them, you would whoop with joy and earn twenty points, sweeping twenty seeds/beans out of the central pot and into your private stockpiles. This was the luckiest throw.

Still, if your discs would spread on the blanket all displaying their unpainted sides, you would probably not be heard complaining. Ten points such throw would earn you is not likely to see you desperate.

Seven painted/unpainted sides would give you four points, and six would still see you collecting two seeds out of the pot. Nothing to boast about, but not the total failure, either. Any less than that – five painted as opposed to three unpainted, or the other way around, and so on – would earn you nothing, but the loss of your round. Not the end of the world, but you might still get thoroughly angered.

So at this stage the players would be fully engaged, enjoying themselves, most probably ignoring the ominous glances of the passing-by ever-busy Clans Mothers – the elderly women who ran the council of each longhouse and who were bound to frown on such idle pastime. Yet, the players would be too busy for that now, using one hand to throw, and the other to hide their winnings. In many versions of the game a lucky throw would earn the participants another round ahead of his peers.

And so the game would continue until the pot with the seeds empties. By this point some would have hoarded high piles of beans, while the others would sport smaller heaps, or nothing at all. A player without earnings could continue but usually not for long.

Because at this point the game changes.

If before each earned point was compensated out of the central pot of seeds, now it would have to come out of the piles owed by the fellow players. So if you had nothing left but it was your turn to throw and you were lucky enough to earn a point or two, you would be off for a passable re-start.

But if it was someone else’s turn, you would be very likely kicked out of the game the moment your companion earned even the minimal amount of points, because everyone was required to cache in. For example, a throw of all-whites – worthy of ten points as you remember – would require the remaining players, say three of them, to give the lucky winner each three or four seeds. If you have nothing to give, you were out. But the game would go on. Also if you had two seeds instead of the required three, out you would go as well, bankrupted, with what you had left behind divided between the rest of the players.

This is the point when the game turns into a race against one another, with the ultimate victor being the person who remained in possession of all seeds.

The end of the game.

Time to collect the bets, if anything was wagered against the victory, to go home and store your newly acquired goods. Or to engage in a new round of game. Like anywhere else around the globe, the People of the Longhouse (the Iroquois) were fond of gambling.

An excerpt from “The Peacekeeper”, The Peacemaker Series, book #4.

Are you going to fall asleep on us, you vigorous player?”

His companions’ laughter made Hainteroh concentrate.

“Didn’t notice it was my turn.” Collecting the marked stones, he smoothed the surface of the folded blanket, making sure it was ready for his throw.

“Of course you didn’t notice. When one is staring into thin air the way you were, one is prone to missing the goings-on. What were you dreaming about?”

“Nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Their renewed laughter did not make him angry, not like it would have only a few seasons earlier, in his previous life, when unimportant things had mattered. Back then he would have challenged anyone who dared to laugh or tease him, especially in front of his peers. Today he just shrugged, shaking the stones briefly, throwing them over the smooth surface, watching the marks, his heartbeat not quickening. The outcome of the game did not matter either, any more than their amusement with his wandering attention did.

“Your throw.” Indifferently, he pushed the stones toward the man to his left, collecting the dry seeds out of a large bowl, the four seeds that his throw had earned him.

“Don’t you care if you win or lose?” asked one of the others, a tall man with a spectacular scar running down his left cheek. “You will fall asleep on us for real in the end.”

Hainteroh shrugged. “No, I don’t.”

“What do you care about?”

“Other things.”

“Like what?”

He stifled a yawn. “Important things.”

The stones landed upon the folded blanket again, some rolling outside it, some slowing among the wrinkles. Two painted, six unpainted. The man beside him cursed. His stack of seeds was meager, and the addition of only two more did nothing to encourage his spirit.

“So what are the important things you do care about?” insisted the man with the scar.

Hainteroh fixed his gaze on the rolling pebbles, the throw of a youth to his left forceful, making the stones scatter outside the blanket.

“Same as yours.”

“How do you know what I deem important?” The man was watching him, challenging, not about to give up.

“I don’t.” He shrugged again, not feeling threatened. “For myself, I want to kill as many of the filthy lowlifes from across the Great Sparkling Water as I can.” He met his interrogator’s gaze. “I want to burn down their towns and villages and make them suffer for real.” Shrugging again, he narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you want that, too?”

The youth’s curse distracted them as the stones came to a halt, displaying five painted against three unpainted sides. No seeds were to be collected for such a throw.

“Bad turn.” The fourth player grabbed the throwing stones. “But it’s your fault. You don’t toss the poor stones with such violence. One needs to give them proper time to mix between your palms, to feel your warmth. That will reassure them, make them feel calm and unthreatened. Then they will roll and try to do their best for you.” As they listened to the pleasantly monotonous rustling, the man grinned in a slightly condescending manner. “As for the enemy from across our Sparkling Water, you all may need to gather your patience and hold onto your temper as best you can.” A glance shot at Hainteroh was openly amused. “Which won’t be easy for some of you, young hotheads that you are.”

“What do you mean?” He didn’t watch the pebbles as they spread upon the blanket, in a neat pattern, as though prearranged, but the gasps of the others told him the throw was good, maybe too good.

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