The Alchemy of Chess

Posted on June 15, 2010

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“The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the Universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature and the player on the other side is hidden from us” – Thomas Huxley

There is a wonderful story of an elder priest, who used the game of chess to teach a valuable lesson in spiritual transformation. The game of chess is set up as a battle between two kingdoms, one white, the other one black. Each kingdom is made up of two categories of soldiers; (1) what we might call the basic field soldiers, and (2) the high ranking officers, the highest of which are the queen and king.

The basic field soldiers are called pawns. They are the front line fighters. They move one square at a time, and only in the forward direction. As a result of their simplicity, when opposing pawns face off, they can easily spend an entire game blocked by one another. Then there are the high ranking officers, who can perform a variety of more complex movements. The bishops, for example, move back and forth across the entire length of the board diagonally. Likewise, the rook moves across the length of the board in any of the four cardinal directions. And, whereas the bishop and rook can neither change direction nor jump over another piece, the knight does both – even if only four squares at a time.

Ultimately, however, the most dynamic piece in chess is the queen. She can move any number of squares in the cardinal directions or diagonally, making the entire board accessible to her at just about any given moment of the game. Metaphysically, the pawns represent ordinary human souls on the front line of life itself. As such, we often find ourselves stuck in head to head battles of ego, personality and control. The high ranking officers represent the òrìsà (divinities). They are able to move from heaven to earth and back effortlessly.

The queen represents the goddess, epitomized by Òsún. She is the brilliant element of dynamic change, the culmination of all divine powers. Most importantly, the alchemy of chess is realized in the pawn. Only the pawn is blessed with the promise, that if it manages to complete the journey across the board, it can become any other piece, even a queen.

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Posted in: Mythology