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.


Celtic and Old Norse boardgames vs the omnipresent Chess

In both Celtic and Old Norse texts board-games are mentioned and described.In translations all these different games, the Irish fidchell, the Welsh tawlbwrdd, the Old Norse hnefatafl or other tafl games, are often identified as chess. In the case of fidchell this preoccupation with presumably chess already started in the 15th century, as is shown by a gloss incorporated in the text of a 15th century MS. of Cath Maige Tuired:

But if fidchell was invented at the time of the Trojan war, it had not reached Ireland yet, for the battle of Mag Tuired and the destruction of Troy occurred at the same time (Gray 1982: 40-41)

The glossator sees fidchell as a foreign game that has been brought to Ireland, this in accordance with a thirteenth century work by Guido de Colomna ‘Historia Troiana’ where chess was described as being a Trojan invention (Murray 1913: 501).

Nowadays it has, however, been established that these board-games are not necessarily the same as or descended from chess. In fact many of these games predate the introduction of chess in Europe (in the early 9th century, chess probably reached the British Isles by the 12th century) by a few hundred years (Thomsen 2002: 102). The glossator’s error can be explained by people’s natural need to relate unknown phenomena, such as board-games, to things they do know.

As chess was presumably the most popular and well-known board-game in the 15th century, it is only natural for the glossator to equate fidchell to it. Jan Assmann’s theory of cultural memory confirms this, as he argues that the view of a man’s past is influenced by his need of identity and security. He claims that writing functions as a medium of memory and that therefore one may speak of a cultural memory. This memory soon becomes vast and diverse. Man sees himself in relation to the cultural memory and that it shapes his identity. Accordingly, history may be said to be governed not so much by the search for “the truth” as by people’s need of a past (Assmann 2006: 6-7, 87, 179). This should be held in mind during research, earlier research on these board-games, in my opinion, shows a lack of this awareness.

Most of previous research focuses on only one game or sometimes even a single game board (cf. Rundkvist 2008). Other research tends to disregard evidence. R.C. Bell in his volumes on board and table games, for example, concludes that fidchell was probably just a variant of brandub or the tafl games (Bell 1969: 43-46). This shows, in my opinion, a lack of in depth analysis of the source material and a tendency to speculate and generalise.

The evidence found in the Irish ‘Eulogy of Colum Cille’, Amra Coluim Cille illustrates this, as it contradicts the equation with the tafl games. Amra Coluim Cille was composed in 597. In this eulogy we are told that Crimthann Nia Nar’s fidchell board had half its men of yellow gold and the other half of silver:

Fidchell Crimthan Niad Náir., nis-beir mac bec dia lethláim
leth a fairni d’or buidi. in leth aili d’findruine
oenfer dia fairinn namma. dos-cicher 5 secht lánamna.

The draughtboard (sic) of Crimthann Nár’s champion, a small boy carries it not in one hand. Half its set of yellow gold, the other half of white bronze: one man only of its set will purchase seven couples (of slaves). (Stokes 1899: 282-283)

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. Stokes’ translation of draughts illustrates that an equation with the tafl games is not called for here, his translation also suggests that we do not know enough of this game to connect it to any game known to us modern people. Eoin MacWhite already showed in his pioneering ‘Early Irish Boardgames’ that, although the pieces probably were captured in the same way as in hnefatafl, fidchell cannot have been an asymmetrical game (MacWhite 1940: 35).

The preoccupation with chess unfortunately also still remains. Allesandro Sanvito makes desperate attempts to link the amount and arrangement of the pieces in the Welsh game tawlbwrdd to a form of unorthodox chess, even though he also establishes that tawlbwrdd is not derived from or in any way related to chess (Sanvito 2002: 22). This seems highly contradictory and illustrates (and exemplifies) the focus on chess that is still evident in modern research of these board-games. Therefore I feel further, unbiased, research should be done.

During my research I will analyse what we are able to find out about these games and their function in society through analysing Old Norse, early Irish and Welsh texts and by analysing archeological finds in the Celtic and Scandinavian countries connected to gaming boards and gaming pieces. I aim to view these board-games in a different light: I want to construct their own history and determine their role and function from a critical and unbiased starting point.

Alea evangelii

The gameboard depicted in the eleventh century Irish manuscript CCC Oxford MS. 122 is probably a variant of Hnefatafl. The board shown is eighteen-by-eighteen cells. Hnefatafl is a game that originated in Scandinavia, in the game two players battle for domination. The parties are of unequal size. On a board of this side, Hnefatafl would have been played with 72 pieces: one side with forty-eight men and the other with twenty-four men plus a king or hnefi. The Hnefi starts at the center and tries to reach the edge of the board, the opponent tries to capture the king by surrounding him with four pieces.

In the Middle Ages, games often combined both the playful and the didactic and the variant of Hnefatafl we find in the manuscript is a good example of an attemt by the church to link the game to the church. The accompanying texts shows the game in a scriptural context, involving the four gospels (the corners), God and the Ten Commandments. The text opens with the following incipit:

Alea Evangelii [the Game, or Playing-board of the Gospel], which Dubinsi bishop of Bangor brought away from the king of the English, that is, from the house of Adelstan king of the English; depicted by a certain Frank and a Roman sage, that is, Israel. If any one would know this game (aleam) fully, before all the must and lessons of this teaching (hujus disciplinae documenta) he thoroughly know (scire animo) these seven: to wit, dukes counts, defenders and attackers, city and citadel, and nine steps (gradus) twice over.

The text continues with an explanation of the seventy-two pieces, or men, the game was played with, and why they appear at particular spots on the 324-square board. The primary man signifies “the unity of the Trinity,” each side of the board represents one of the four Evangelists, and the sixty-seven remaining pieces stand for the total mentions of the Evangelists in the four gospels.

Hnefatafl – bordspel van de Vikingen



Een bordspel van de Vikingen

In deze donkere dagen is het gezellig om ’s avonds samen een spelletje te doen. Dit is geen modern fenomeen, ook in de Vikingtijd werden er al bordspelen gespeeld. Een van de oudste en bekendste spellen is Hnefatafl ‘Koningstafel’, een aan het schaakspel verwant spel. In de Oudnoordse literatuur en daarbuiten kunnen we meer over Hnefatafl te weten komen.

11x11 hnefatafl speelbord

Hnefatafl wordt als eerst genoemd in het Eddalied Voluspá, oftewel ‘Het visioen van de zieneres’. In een van de laatste verzen staat te lezen: “Dan worden de wonderlijke speelstukken (tæflor) van goud in het gras weer gevonden, die de Asen ooit in oertijd bezaten.” Een ander gedicht uit de Edda, Rígsþula, ‘Konings register’, gaat over de oorsprong van de standen in de maatschappij. Hierin wordt het spelen van tafl genoemd als een van de negen vaardigheden die een edelman diende te hebben. Naast het spelen van Tafl moest hij de runen beheersen, kunnen lezen, smeden, skiën, jagen, roeien, harpspelen en gedichten voordragen.

Rond de 11e eeuw werd het schaakspel skak-tafl in Scandinavië geïntroduceerd, dit nam het oude taflspel niet over, maar was een van de vele bordspelen die gespeeld werden. Dit maakt het in saga’s soms moeilijk om het juiste spel aan het woord tafl te koppelen. De term tafl werd echter het meest gebruikt om hnefatafl ‘koningstafel’ aan te duiden. Het spel is met de Vikingen heel Europa doorgereisd, van Ierland tot Oekraïne. De spelregels zijn helaas niet in de Oudnoordse mythologie beschreven, maar omdat dit spel wijdverbreid was, zijn ze wel te achterhalen.

Continue reading “Hnefatafl – bordspel van de Vikingen”

Games Britannia

Games Britannia @ BBC 4

Episode 1 – Dicing with Destiny

Three-part series presented by historian Benjamin Woolley about popular games in Britain from the Iron Age to the Information Age, in which he unravels how an apparently trivial pursuit is a rich and entertaining source of cultural and social history.
In part one, Woolley investigates how the instinct to play games is both as universal and elemental as language itself and takes us from 1st-century Britain to the Victorian era.

Ancient and medieval games weren’t just fun, they were fundamental, and often imbued with prophetic significance. By the late Middle Ages this spiritual element in games began to be lost as gaming became increasingly associated with gambling. Dice and card games abounded, but a moral backlash in Victorian times transformed games into moral educational tools.

This was also the era in which Britain established the world’s first commercial games industry, with such classics as the Staunton Chess Set, Ludo and Snakes and Ladders leading the way, all adaptations of original games from other countries.

In the case of Snakes and Ladders, what once represented a Hindu journey to enlightenment was transformed into a popular but banal family favourite, and Woolley sees this as the perfect analogy for how the sacred energy which once imbued games had become gradually drained away by commercialisation.

Games Britannia website