boardgames, English, Medieval, Old Norse

Runestone depicting hnefatafl – or another boardgame?

Rune stone at Ockelbo

Source: Wikipedia Sigurd Stones.

This Runestone is one of seven or eight stones that depict imagery from the legend of Sigurd the dragonslayer. One of the images on this stone shows two people playing Hnefatafl a board-game.


9 thoughts on “Runestone depicting hnefatafl – or another boardgame?”

  1. Hi Christel,
    Nice looking blog!

    Please could you tell me how you know they are playing hnefatafl and not another game such as halatafl? I’m currently working on a little tafl book…

    1. Hi Joanna,

      I am very interested in the book you are working on! Tell me more 🙂

      As for the board depicted: I must admit that it is only my assumption that this board was used for hnefatafl. As far as I know – and your comment made me realize this even more – boards were often used for more than one game, so this particular board could also have been used to play halatafl. However, Halatafl is, according to Fritzner [ searchterm: halatafl, text in Norwegian] a boardgame with pegs that were stuck in a board with holes, this is in accordance to the mention in Grettis Saga where Halatafl is mentioned and þorbjörn’s stepmother ran a gaming piece through his cheek, this would have been difficult with a more common flat gaming piece :-). No gaming pieces are shown on this stone, my assumption that they were playing Hnefatafl rather than Halatafl is based purely on the fact that Hnefatafl seems to be more commonly mentioned in texts.

      If you have a different theory, I would love to hear it!

      – Christel

  2. Hi Christel,
    Thank you for your reply – it is nice to talk to another woman who is interested in games.

    Regarding the Ockelbo stone, it seems to me that the picture shows a board more akin to halatafl because the photos I’ve seen of hnefatafl boards usually have special squares marked in the middles of the edges rather than the corners – other than the Alea Evangelii game, I am baffled as to why hnefatafl boards are so often depicted by modern reconstructionists as having highlighted corners. I think it must relate to the popular rules and have stuck from there. It was felt that the game was too imbalanced in favour of the King, so they made it so that rather than just getting to an edge he had to get to a corner. Other rules are that he must be able to make a legal move once there (in other words, get to an edge without being in check) or a move along the perimiter – my reading of Robert Ap Ifan’s account of tawlbwrdd). From the Ap Ifan account though it seems more appropriate to let the King be captured on two sides, albeit with some extra protocol to avoid silly oversights finishing a game early “watch your King!” or perhaps with the King be able to claim a kind of diplomatic immunity when parleying with the enemy. A rule I’ve played with here is that the King, but only the King, is allowed to finish his move safely in a custodian capture position, but only if he has gone in peace – i.e. not made a capture in the same turn.

    As for my book – I’m trying to work through the rules, boards and manuscripts in such a way that the people who recorded the games or made the boards are not assumed to be in error, just because modern reconstructionists can’t make the archeology fit their idea of how the game was played – that way is so very much the wrong way around.

    Rules that use a more conventional set-up:

    All of this stuff is regularly being updated as I play-test through various options… 🙂

    1. Hi Joanna,

      Very nice indeed to talk to another woman interested in these games!

      You gave me a new spark and I will check my sources this evening concerning the corners and the game board. I have some interesting articles about archeological findings (as that is not my expertise I wanted to read more about it). I completely agree with you that we should let the evidence talk instead of wanting to bend it to fit our own ideas. I’ll let you know what I find out!

    1. Hi Joanna,

      I’ve been reading a bit and the most striking thing I found was something I already realized when I clicked on your picture of the Ballinderry board; my initial reaction was: “But but but, that is the board I’ve always seen associated with the Irish Fidchell game!” You have no idea how often it is used to illustrate Fidchell in books about Celtic culture. Fidchell, however, is in my opinion not a variant of the Tafl family, as is shown in in the Irish ‘Eulogy of Colum Cille’, Amra Coluim Cille: Crimthann Nia Nar’s fidchell board had half its men of yellow gold and the other half of silver. Since all tafl games always have twice as many pieces on one side as on the other, plus a king, fidchell could not have been a tafl game.

      According to the markings on the board on the Ockelbo stone and the Ballinderry board I tend to agree with you this they seem remarkably similar and different from other boards that have been identified as hnefatafl boards. The markings also make this board less likely to be a Fichell board, little is known, but as is is a symmetrical game the markings do not make sense for this game.

      Do you have any more information regarding Halatafl?

  3. Hi Christel,
    I’m glad you see what I mean about the Ockelbo stone depiction – I thought it seemed like it might be more related to the Irish games of Brandubh and Fichell, too, or similar games possibly related to them. Yes I do have some information about Halatafl, I’ll go and look it up in my files…

    This links to information about all sorts of old board games and you can look in to families of games – I think Halatafl seems to be more closely related to draughts / checkers and similar games such as alquerque and dablot prejjesne

    it also seems to be related to fox and geese, or other similar hunt-themed games.

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