Lotteries today are so commonplace that we simply always expect them to keep going, week after week; but when tracing back the early history, we see that a lot has happened to get us to the point where we can even play lotto online.
Where Does The Word Lottery Come from?
The etymology of the word ‘lottery’ reveals that its origins lie in the old German word hleut (‘lot’ in English), signifying part of a whole to be distributed. Lotteries first started in order to finance major government/state projects, thus distributing part of the money to the winner, and another part to these projects.
Early Origins of the Lottery
The earliest recorded form of lottery traces back to a game called Keno – which is still very popular in casinos – played during the Chinese Han Dynasty between 205 BC and 187 BC. It has even been said that funds from these lotteries were used to construct the Great Wall of China.
In Europe – more specifically, the Roman Empire—lotteries were first nothing but amusement for wealthy nobility’s dinner parties: each guest would receive a ticket to reveal a prize; everyone was guaranteed a gift of some sort. The first instance of tickets being sold to the public, however, was organized by the great emperor Augustus Caesar (27BC – 14AD): funds were used to restore the City of Rome, and winners were rewarded with prizes of unequal values.
In the 1400s in the Low Countries (a coastal region of northwestern Europe including Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), towns would hold lotteries not only to build fortifications, but also with the purpose to help the poor.
Things haven’t actually changed much since then except for much stricter organization and regulation, frequency (the SuperEnalotto, for example, holds three draws per week!), and the ability to play lotto online from a different country. However, a portion of the funds raised from ticket sales are still used by governments whether it be for education or other public works, and we all still stand that chance to become instant millionaires with just one ticket.
Origins of The Lottery (“Sortition” or “Lot”) in Greek Mythology and Greek Democracy of Ancient Athens
In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortition (drawing of lots – “lottery”) to determine who ruled over which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld. Also in Greek democracy, citizens self-selected themselves into an available pool and lots (lotteries) were used to choose magistracies. Similar practices where also used in Northern Italy and Venice – 12th to 18th century, Florence – 14th and 15th century, Switzerland between 1640 and 1837.