A Game For Snakes

July 16th is World Snake Day! To celebrate this serpentine day, I want to explore one of my favourite childhood games – Snakes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders is a board game which features squares numbered 1 to100. Played by two or more players, each player rolls a dice in turn and travels along the numbered squares. Some of the squares have the bottom of ladders which help you move up (to the top of the ladder), while other squares feature the heads of snakes which send you back down (to the tail of the snake). The snakes and ladders vary in length, so you can rise and fall vast or small amounts depending on where you land. The first player to reach the final square is the winner!

Snakes and Ladders is the English version of an ancient Indian game. There are a number of names and variations of the Indian game such as Gyan Chauper, Leela, Mokshapat and Moksha Patam. The games were originally used to impart moral and karmic lessons to children. The ladders represent a virtue which allows you to rise while the snakes represent a vice which causes you to fall. In the Indian version there are more snakes than ladders, probably because it’s easier to fall victim to vice than to be virtuous. 🙂

When the game came to England, a few changes were made. The number of snakes was reduced so there were equal numbers of snakes and ladders. The karmic lessons of the original were also replaced with moral lessons relevant to the Victorian era of the time. Eventually the moral lessons were left out or replaced by cartoon pictures that had no real link to virtues or vices.

The American version is called Chutes and Ladders. In a move that would make Saint Patrick proud, Chutes and Ladders has driven all the snakes off the board and replaced them with chutes. Interestingly, most of these versions still retain the moral lessons of the original games.

When I think of playing Snakes and Ladders as a child, I can’t remember any moral lessons being imparted. All I remember is my desperate desire to win and to avoid the snake boldly waiting at the top, ready to turn my impending victory into defeat! I actually loved the drawings of the snakes, with their cute tongues poking out, but I was annoyed that it was a punishment to land on them.

Snakes are one of the oldest, richest and most widespread mythological symbols. While they are seen as symbols of negativity in some cultures, they are more often associated with positive traits such as creativity, fertility, healing, rebirth, sexuality and wisdom. I’m glad Snakes and Ladders didn’t teach me to see snakes solely as a symbol of negativity.

Happy World Snake Day!