Astragali: the ancestors of dice

A much-beloved pastime among the Greeks and Romans was playing with astragali, the small bones found in the lower limbs of goats and rams, particularly when there was a wager involved. This game was enjoyed by all, from children to adults, and even women. It was customary to carry the knucklebones, and one could often find them stored in a leather bag attached to a belt.

What is it?

The game is very similar to our dice game, as it involves throwing four “astragali” onto the ground and observing their positions.

There are four faces:
pronum, the convex side, worth 4 points;
supinum, the concave side, worth 3 points;
planum, the straight side, worth 1 point;
tortuosum, the side with the recess, worth a whopping 6 points.

The objective is, of course, to obtain the highest possible score. Some throws are special, such as the “strike of Venus”, in which each astragalus lands on a different face, or the “dog’s throw”, in which each astragalus lands on planum, achieving the lowest possible score.

Astragali as a tool of divination

The astragali were often used as divination tools, much like dice or coins are today. They were thrown into the air, and one would attempt to interpret the result: a positive outcome in the case of special throws like the “strike of Venus,” or a negative one in the event of many “planum” sides showing up, resulting in a low score.

This was a common and quick method of immediately interpreting the will of the gods. This act of throwing bones to observe their position remained popular for a long time.

Reading the Bones

This practice is a form of cleromancy practiced by hoodoo practitioners. It’s a popular form of magic among the African American population in the Southern United States, and it has a strong syncretic character due to the presence of African, European, and Native American elements.

In this form of divination, the ritual component plays a crucial role. It’s not just a method for predicting fate, but rather a language for communicating with protective and natural spirits.

In this type of cleromancy, other objects (keys, small fetishes, small mirrors) are also thrown along with the bones to make it easier to read the spirits’ indications.

Astragali in Basilicata

This type of game/divination was also practiced in Basilicata, as evidenced by the presence of astragali with the inscription “Venus” – “Venere” preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Maratea.

Have you ever been there?

Here’s the link with all the information about the museum:

Archaeological Museum of Maratea
Via Sotto il Campanile Maggiore – Palazzo De Lieto
tel (+39) 0973 877676

Here is the link for more info on the Museum:


Scroll to top