On Dice, Death, and Endings: The Whispering To The Old Gods of Chance and Fate


Knowing what the last two years have been like it is no wonder that while some folks are profoundly hopeful that “it’ll all be better” others are more reticent and one person who I know said that entering 2022 with any kind of hopeful composure was like thinking you have good odds in a game with loaded dice.

I don’t know which stance is correct and nor do I seek to adjudicate in the matter but it got me thinking about dice and chance and some of the matters close to culture making here at Primal Derma.

The Great Library of Alexandria by some estimates had nearly half a million scrolls and tablets documenting a massive section of the corpus of knowledge of the ancient world – spiritual and secular. There are some estimates that it was higher than that. And while there were other forces that were playing out, the lot of them were destroyed in a fire set by zealous Christians around the year 275 AD, who were deeply intolerant of non-Christian knowledge and commentary. For more on this I would urge you to read The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey. Stunning book that is really important, in my estimation, that shows how there is an origin to the intolerant Christianity that many of us blanche at and sorrow for.

It is incalculable to count what was lost in that leveling and in those fires. The knowledge and culture in them certainly but also the innumerable scrolls made of papyrus, the reed that grew in the muddy flats of the Nile.
Between that destruction in the second century AD and the advent of the printing press the biggest and most important library in the world was at The Sorbonne. It had between one and two thousand books. That isn’t a lot of books (you might have a bigger library in your home than the most important intellectual center in Europe in the Middle Ages) but all of those books were made primarily with parchment and vellum – the skin of animals, usually sheep, usually young. The best velum was from not yet born sheep.

Paper (the word paper comes from the word papyrus) was invented in the first century or so in China and found its way to what we would call the Middle East by the 11th century. But since there was almost no literacy in Europe, mass production of paper didn’t come until centuries later. Books were so prized and rare that the expensive method was not seen as an impediment.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to make vellum. The sheep that were slaughtered had a full life on a farm and were put down as winter came on and there wouldn’t have been enough food for them to make it through. Their flesh was eaten as meat and their skins were saved to make vellum.  It is a laborious process. Soaking, scraping and pulling the hair off, piercing the skins and stretching them with cord over a frame to change the nature of the fibers in the skin and then scraping and sanding as the skin dries.
And after doing that for a few days those of us who were working on this project started to see the cost of a book, or more precisely the cost of a book then. Animals had to die, in utero sheep were killed so that a book could be made. How many sheep were killed for the books just at the Sorbonne? Forget the smaller collections all over Europe.
But do you think the paper in our books comes from nowhere? Trees go down or went down and  were pulped.
Before those skins became only skins that we scraped and soaked and sanded, they were obviously attached to the bodies of the sheep and those sheep (and all sheep) have four astragalus bones at their ankles. The earliest dice came from the knuckle bones of sheep. That’s not like wool where you can have wool easily parted (relatively speaking) from a live sheep. A sheep and their knucklebones are only parted in death.
If you have ever played Yahtzee! or prayed for double sixes while playing Monopoly you are in lineage with old sheep herders who had the notion that somehow if you had to have business with the gods who governed fate by asking something of them or knowing what they might be whispering about you, you had to pay the price of being in the presence of an animal you killed or found dead – a cost nonetheless. Strange thing to wonder about it but it was certainly so.
And while dice no longer come from bones by and large they are made from plastic which is made from oil that was sucked out of the earth and that once was a tree or an animal that fell. Dice might still be made out of bones after all. Can we still whisper to the old gods? Can we know the ending that had to take place for us to be in the presence of randomizing presence of the dice?
Perhaps we might proceed with courtesy when we dabble with chance. That we are in the presence of a death. Chance is a kind of an ending after all.

People often write to me about their Primal Derma is a slightly different color or a different consistency. I don’t begrudge them! While I certainly strive for consistency I can’t control the fate of a cow who I never knew who grazed on a field of marigolds over clover one day or drank more or less water. These differences of fate and chance are only known because of endings and to recognize them is to be in part of their wake. But this isn’t a horror, but a humbling. An honest and fair account of how culture gets made. Reckoning with this web of consequence. Or at least attempting to.

So what is to come in the new year is indeed a roll of the dice and if fortune is a wished for thing, and properly it should be, maybe also include in your wishes that the hole that is made in the world to make your fortune is also there and might be tended to as well.
Perhaps those longings for good fortune of all kinds can also be soaked, stripped, shorn, and stretched and then be ready to be written upon and cherished well.

2 Comments

  1. Dina Crosta on April 12, 2022 at 7:00 am

    My cousin’s social media handle is “roll the bones”. This has given me a whole new meaning.

  2. Susan P Bachelder on October 23, 2022 at 11:18 pm

    Contrary to our desire for “events” of great magnitude, the library of Alexandria died the death of a thousand cuts. The drama of Caesar’s destruction by fire, now considered false; the Christian destruction, now considered false; and the destruction by Caliph Umar, now considered false point to the more insidious and mundane destruction of the library through casual theft, illicit sale, abandonment and neglect and the most dangerous, lack of interest. The number of texts that appeared on the market from the libraries of Istanbul and Europe during the Wars, is more the way of the world and the demise of the Alexandrian library was no exception. As Neil Young observed, “rust never sleeps”. The Alexandrian intellectual culture is kept secure by a small circle of intellectuals and scholars, who still protect the perrenia verba and the ancient wisdom teachings around the world. As a child of Weisers’ I am sure you know the way of manuscript transmission whether on vellum or online. thanks for a very interesting blog.

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