A Shell Game

A Shell Game

Pentecost 121

It is a game that historically dates back to ancient Greece although written record of it only dates back to the sixteenth century in England.  Natives have been seen playing the game with dried peas and walnut shells while Regency England used larger shells or broken cups and sewing thimbles.  Known as thimblerig in nineteenth century traveling fairs but common in metropolitan areas such as New York City or Stockholm where street corner games today use something as insignificant as a bottle cap, it continues to be a challenge many cannot resist.

The shell game is simple.  Three identical objects are placed in front of a bystander.  Under one of these identical objects, a smaller object is placed.  Once the smaller object is placed under one of the three identical objects so that it cannot be seen, the objects are shuffled without ever leaving the playing surface.  The smaller object remains under the larger object during the time it is shuffled.  Since the three larger objects are all identical, the bystander has a difficult time in knowing where the smaller object under the larger identical object is.  The challenge is correctly identify which larger object contains the smaller object with just one guess.

The reality of the shell game is not one’s powers of observation but the legality and honesty of the one presenting the game.  Known as “confidence tricksters”, these game owners will often employ sleight of hand to move or hide the play during the shuffling.  Another fraudulent aspect of such games is convincing potential players they are legitimate by allowing a player to win before causing them to lose.  This is so prevalent that the term “shell game” now is used to signify any fraudulent confident scheme whose purpose is to defraud or present untruths.  While some tourist areas have casinos with similar games played for money, most metropolitan areas and governments consider the shell game a “short con”, a brief exercise whose sole purpose is to perpetrate an untruth.

The Dhola Epic is popular in northwestern India and it also has a shell game of sorts.  Telling the story of the Navargarh kingdom in a total of fifty episodes, this epic is sung at nightly village festivals.  A king, Pratham, has a wife, Manjha, who becomes pregnant from a grain of rice.  The king’s other wives convince him this child will be born a son, a son who will one day kill him and so the king orders a servant to kill Manjha in the woods. The servant cannot kill the woman, however, and instead takes Pratham the eye of a deer as proof of the alleged murder.  Manjha delivers a baby who is indeed a son and both Manjha and her son Nal are taken in by a merchant and provided food and boarding.

One day, so goes the Dhola myth, the merchant and his sons are taken prisoner by Pratham who is angry they cannot provide most cowrie shells.  Cowries are marine animals and their shell resembles an egg with a flattened side and a long crack or opening down the curved side.  Cowrie shells have their own myths attached and were used as money by many ancient cultures.  Nal promises the king Pratham more shells to gain the merchant’s release.  He meets, in his search for more shells, a demon king’s daughter named Motini.  Nal gambles with Motini and secures a promise of marriage from her.  To protect Nal from her father, Motini turns him into a fly and he then is able to destroy the magic duck that gave her father his evil power.

Nal returns home but the merchant’s sons fall in love with Motini and throw Nal into the ocean so that they might have her.  They then offer Motini to the king in place of the cowrie shells.  Motini refuses to marry the king until her true love’s story is told.  During the “Nal Purana” or the story of Nal, an old man appears.  He is discovered to be the disguised Nal who tells his own tale.  Pratham realizes Nal is his son and the two are reunited, allows the return of Manjha, and Nal and Motini are married.  They have a son named Dhola who then has his own chapter or several in this myth regarding conflicts with the god Indra.  Fear not; Dhola’s story also has a happily ever after with another daughter’s hand obtained in marriage.

At the heart of the India mythology about Dhola as well as the shell game of traveling shows and street corner con artists is a question of ego. Pratham doubted himself and so was taken in by the other wives telling him Manjha’s son could overpower him and usurp him on the throne via murder.  The player approached by the con artist doesn’t want to seem like he/she cannot find the hidden object and so they take the bet of the three shells.

What kind of shell game do we play with our own lives?  Ask a person if they have a secret and the quickness of their response will most likely, if the answer is no, tell the true story.  The quicker the response the more likely the negative response is not true.  We all have secrets of one degree or another.  That is perfectly normal and absolutely within our right.  It becomes a problem when we try to pretend we are something we are not and usually the purpose of such does not start out as malicious.

This is not about to become a lesson in how we present ourselves to the world.  The truth is that we all wear masks of one type of another.  For some it is simply make-up, hair color, or perhaps a toupee.  For others, it is hiding behind a hat, heavy clothing, or simply living as a recluse.

What is important is recognizing when people make us unwilling participants in a shell game.  Political debates are quite popular and covered by the media.  What is not part of these debates, often, is truth.  Recently, within the past week, one such debate was held in the United State of America by the republican political party.  All of the candidates used statistics in their speeches and yet, few used accurate or even correct facts.

It is easy and permissible to shout “Shame on them!” but really, the onus for verifying and participating in such is on us.  We need to take on responsibility as Nal did in the India myth.  All too often we fail to do so.  Many religious pundits employ the same methods, using sensationalism to sell their point rather than accurate quoting of the sacred texts and stories.  Before we point a finger at them and hold them accountable which we certainly should do, we must first hold ourselves accountable.  Before we criticize another for their presentation of themselves and their actions, we need to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves.

Each shell game is but half of the picture.  It uses half of a larger object to hide the whole smaller object.  We need to make sure that we follow the example of Motini in showing her love for Nal and tell our complete story.  That does not mean we have to stop strangers on the street and divulge our secrets to all.  It does mean we must live truthfully, though, and not perpetrate a fictitious version of ourselves.  An honest character is, after all, the most valuable currency for living.


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