boardgames · Celtic · English · Medieval · Old Norse

Has Hnefatafl been introduced in Ireland?

Considering the extensive and intense contact between the Vikings and the people of the British Isles, it is not unlikely that some form of the Old Norse hnefatafl game has been introduced in Ireland. As we’ve seen in my previous post, fidchell seems an unlikely candidate. In the case of Brandub, which means ‘raven black’, however, we do find evidence that it might be a variant of a tafl game.

Extensive evidence concerning hnefatafl can be found in a riddle contest in the Hervarar Saga. The saga has been preserved in six different manuscripts representing three strikingly different versions of the saga. The riddle episode combines riddles in verse with the solutions entirely in prose. According to Turville-Petre the riddles did not all come into existence at the same time as the story of the contest, he argues that the writer who composed the scene collected riddles that were circulating in verse before that time (Turville-Petre 1956: xiv).

Combining four different manuscripts – one from the 14th century called Hauksbók, one from the early 15th century (referred to as R and believed to be the most traditional), two older paper manuscripts from the 17th century (presumably indirect copies of Hauksbók) and a highly corrupt mid-seventeenth century manuscript referred to as U – the entire riddle episode can be recreated (Turville-Petre 1956: xvii-xviii).

The two riddles concerning hnefatafl contain the following information:

(56) Hverjar eru þaer brúðir, er um sinn drottin vápnlausan vega; inar jarpari hlífa um alla daga, en inar fegri fara? Heiðrekr konungr, hyggðu at gátu.

“(…) þat er hnettafl; inar dekkri verja hnefann, en hvítar sækja” (op. cit.: 43).

What women are they, warring together, before their weaponless king, day after day,  the dark guard him, but the fair go forth to attack? King Heiðrekr, solve this riddle!

“(…) this is hnefatafl, the darker ones defend the hnefi, but the white ones attack”.

(59) Hvat er þat dýrja, er drepr fé manna ok er járni kringt útan; horn hefir átta, en höfuð ekki, ok fylgja því margir mjök? (…) .

“Þat er húnn í hnettafli” (op. Cit.: 44-45).

What is that creature that kills men’s flocks and with iron all about it is bound; eight its horns are but head it has none: there are many that move at its side? (…)

“That is the húnn in hnefatafl.

Hauksbók adds to the solution of the second riddle: ‘It has the same name as a bear; it runs as soon as it is thrown.’ The word húnn apparently had two meanings, which is played upon here: ‘bear’s cub’ and possibly ‘die’ or a special piece in the game. The word horn could mean both ‘horn’ and ‘angle’ possibly describing specific places on the board (Tolkien 1960: 38-39, 88-89).

Tolkien also notes that different versions in different manuscripts differ in words and meaning concerning the sentence above (56). Hauksbók and U have vápnlausar meaning the maidens were weaponless instead of killing their weaponless king (Tolkien 1960: 36-38). Here I have used Turville-Petre’s transcription who consistently uses the R-manuscript where possible.

The answers to these riddles pose the question whether a die was used in hnefatafl or if two different games are mentioned in these riddles, which are both referred to as hnefatafl. The word húnn could possibly also simply refer to a specific, special, piece used in the game.

Looking closer at the evidence about brandub, we find an Irish poem from Acallam na Senorach mentioning brandub. This is a late Middle Irish text dated around the end of the twelfth century (Dillon 1970: ix). The poem mentions: “my famed brandub is in the mountain above Leitir Bhroin, five voiceless men of white silver and eight of red gold” (Stokes 1900: i ll. 3949-50). This shows that brandub was probably played with unequal amounts of pieces on either side and a king-piece.

Another poem, Abair riom a Éire ógh attributed to Maoil Eóin Mac Raith, gives another description. Taking into account the meter, language and style, this poem seems to belong to the court poetry from 1200-1640.

A golden branán with his band art thou with thy four provincials; thou, O king of Bregia, on yonder square and a man each side of thee.

The branán plays an important role in this game, as it is made of gold. The word branán  is a common epithet for chief.

Summarizing the evidence, we now know that brandub was played with one branán  and four ‘provincials’ on one side, these are the five white men mentioned in the Acallam na Senorach  poem, and eight red men on the other side. This is consistent with the tafl games.

Archeological evidence might tell us something about the origin of these games and whether they were introduced by the vikings.

In 1932 the Ballinderry gameboard was found. Research shows that this board was manufactured in Dublin and it dates from the 10th century. The board dates to the tenth century. As Dublin was founded by Vikings, the board’s origin implies that it is a Viking artefact. The board was however found in a crannog in Ballinderry. This shows that the board was used by native Irish people.

It is not entirely certain what game was played using this board, brandub is one of the possibilities. MacWhite points out that Brandub would fit perfectly on the Ballinderry board. He proposes that the men should be placed in the shape of an orthogonal cross. The corner cells could then be marked to indicate that men placed here would be safe from capture. In hnefatafl a piece is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides. Therefore a piece standing in the corner could not be captured (MacWhite 1946: 34).

If brandub was indeed played on the Ballinderry gaming board, it would prove that the Vikings took their games to Ireland and introduced them to the Irish people. Considering the layout of the board, it seems very likely.


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