Jacks and Knucklebones


Jacks used to be a popular children’s game.  It’s considered old-fashioned today because you don’t play it on your phone, but it regains some of its popularity when the kids are stuck in the cabin during a storm and there’s no signal available.

Long ago, though, jacks and knucklebones, its predecessor, were very important indeed.


A modern jacks set includes a rubber ball and several (sometimes five but usually ten) six-sided metal pieces, each with four round ends and two pointed ends.  Typically the players sit on the floor.  The first to play drops the pieces on the floor.  Starting with “onesies,” the player tosses the ball in the air and scoops up one jack before the ball takes its second bounce, then moves on to the next until all the pieces are retrieved.  If not, the player loses his or her turn and another player starts.  Once the “onesies” round is complete, the player moves to “twosies,” and onward all the way to “tensies,” which usually marks the end of the game.

Like solitaire, jacks can be played alone, which gives the player a chance to practice.  It’s all in the hand-eye coordination.  A good player can move from one-bounce to no-bounce games, catch pieces on the back of the hand when necessary, and switch dominant hands.

But like so many bits of modern culture, it provides a link to our ancient past, when “throwing the bones” meant far more than playing a game.



The game of Knucklebones, also known as Astragaloi, Tali, Kuglelach, Five Stones, and other names, has been around for thousands of years and played all over the world, including Africa, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.  Usually, the bones used were ankle bones of sheep, goats, or pigs because they had four distinct sides.  Once the meat was scraped off, the bones were set out so ants or other insects could devour all the scraps.  Then the bones were cleaned and polished, and sometimes dyed.


A set of knucklebones and a board to play on was included in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s grave goods (1323 BC). The game is mentioned in both The Iliad and The Odyssey (800 BC).  A Greek vase from 350 BC shows a nymph and a satyr playing the game.  A painting in Pompeii shows two goddesses playing (before 79 AD).  A Roman statue (pictured) features a young woman playing astragaloi. A painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder includes a couple of girls playing knucklebones (1560) – Detail shown below.


Throwing the Bones:  Divination

But the use of knucklebones is part of an even older tradition still in use today: divination – predicting the future or seeking answers to questions.  Divination is based on the idea that all things in the universe are connected and nothing happens by chance.  Therefore, the particular arrangement of the bones on a board as they fell is meaningful. As with Tarot cards, the reading depends on the bones, their values, and their relative positions where they fell.


If the charms used in the divination are quite different physically, such as a red stone, a weasel jawbone, an eagle talon, and a piece of fur, each piece may be assigned a specific meaning, emotion, or connection.  However, if the pieces are all the same, they need to have different aspects or facets.  In the case of the knucklebones, each bone has four very distinct faces. (See photo.)  In some cases, the faces were further delineated with markings, usually indicating numbers or values.

Women sometimes threw knucklebones to find out who whether the man they liked felt the same about them, along the same lines as pulling the petals off a daisy while saying “He loves me, he loves me not.” In ancient Greece, unmarried women who played Knucklebones were thought to be placing themselves in the hands of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who would choose a suitable mate.


In some Mongolian villages, throwing the bones was associated with fertility, destruction of evil spirits, and the promotion of life.  Knucklebones were often given to children as protective magic.  The game is still popular in Mongolia and Nepal (pictured).




Later, some bones were filed down but the markings remained, and knucklebones morphed into dice.  But the sense of destiny riding on the throw of the dice remained.  When Julius Caesar and his armies crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy in 49 BC, beginning a civil war with the Republic, he used the expression “The die is cast.”  In other words, the single die was rolled and the choice was made – perhaps by fate – and now cannot be reversed.

It’s not clear when or how the “throwing of the bones” morphed from divination to game.  Perhaps several uses existed side by side.  In the hands of a shaman, the bones became an instrument of divination, just as a deck of cards or dice might today.  In the hands of a gambler, they became the heart of a game ruled by luck, the more powerful and capricious cousin of chance.  In the hands of children, they became the central part of a contest based on skill.

Today, the game of jacks exists, like so many other pieces of our culture, as a remnant of a past we’ve almost, but not quite, forgotten.


Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alea iacta est,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alea_iacta_est

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers, “Category: Obi and Diloggun Divination” http://readersandrootworkers.org/wiki/Category:Obi_and_Diloggun_Divination

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (Bonereaders), “Category: Throwing the Bones and Reading Other Natural Curios,” http://readsersandrootwrokers.org/wiki/Category:Throwing_the_Bones_and_Reading_Other_Natural_Curios

Collinger, Zachary.  “How to Play Jacks,” Grandparents.com. http://www.grandparents.com/grandkids/activities-games-and-crafts/jacks

DeGrossi Mazzorin, Jacopo and Claudia Minniti, “Ancient use of the knuckle-bone for rituals and gaming piece,” Anthropozoologica, published by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, 2013, reprinted in BioOne,   http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.5252/az2013n2a13

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part I) September 2016, https://loadingplayertwo.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/dice-divination-playing-with-knucklebones-part-1/

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part 2)” February, 2016, https://loadingplayertwo.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/knucklebones-part-2/

“Dice and Jacks,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?w=CribNxumT4Y

Good, Alexandra.  “Knucklebones,” Archaeology of Daily Life.

Howard, Dorothy, “The Game of ‘Knucklebones’ in Australia,” Western Folklore (1958), reprinted in Australian Children’s Folklore Newsletter, November 1996.

“Item SH 990058  Knucklebones – Sheep, Aboriginal Children’s Play Project, circa 1945-1960” Australiab Children’s Folklore Collection, Museums Victoria Collections, http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1805550

“Jacks,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/jacks

“Jacks,” The National Toy Hall of Fame, http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/jacks

“Knucklebones,” Board Game Geek, http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/11726/knucklebones

“Knucklebones.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knucklebones

“Knucklebones and Other Animal Deposits in the ‘Cruz del Negro’ Necropolis: Possible Phoenician Funerary Rituals in SW Spain,” Anthropozoologica, published by Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, reprinted in BioOne, http;//www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.5252/as2013n2a10.

“Knucklebones: Playing with Bones,” Ancient Games.  Henssen Palaeo Werkstatt.  http://palaeowerkstatt.de/en_spiel.php

“Kugelach (aka Five Stones) Yehuda: Life Intersects Games, 01 September 2008, http://jergames.blogspot.com/2008/09/kugelach-aka-five-stones.html

“Mesopotamia Architecture, Music, Games and Pets,” Facts and Details, http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub363/item1518.html

Pegg, Carole, Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2001.

“Rollin’ Bones: The History of Dice,” Neatorama, 18 August 2014, http://www.eatorama.com/2014/08/18/Rollin-Bones-The-History-of-Dice/

“Tallus bone,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talus_bone

“The die is cast,” Wiktionary, the free dictionary, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/the_die_is_cast

Thorn, John. “Bruegel and Me,” from the column “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, 28 December 2006, https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/bruegel-and-me-f5sec7a5a27d6#.qworj8v15

“Toys and Games,” History Lives, a division of the Cooperman Fife and Drum Co., http://www.historylives.com/toysandgames.htm

Wiener, Noah.  “Ancient Games: Bronze Age tokens uncovered in Turkey are world’s oldest game pieces” Biblical Archaeology, 19 August 2013, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures-daily-life-and-practice/ancinet-games/


Bruegel, Pieter the Elder, “Children’s Games,” (detail), Google Art Project Version 2, Photo Gallery

Five Stone in Nepal, photo by Eli Shany

Jacks, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Knucklebones – Sheep, Museum Victoria, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>

Roman statue of girl playing knucklebones, photo by Sarah Joy

Woman Playing Knucklebones, painting by Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Baltimore Museum of Art, the Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid+45015764