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.


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”

Lewis Chessmen may not be chessmen after all…

Who has not heard of the Lewis Chessmen? These 900-years-old, beautifully carved ivory gaming pieces even made an appearance in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as living chess pieces.

A recent study made my heart skip a beat as it argues that these gaming pieces were not used for Chess, as has been believed for centuries. Instead the set may have been used to play Hnefatafl, an ancient Viking board game.

Hnefatafl is played on a larger board than chess (ranging from 9×9 to 13×13) but was also  a warfare game that involved protecting a king. The pieces of each player, however, did probably not occupy two rows adjacent one side of the main playing area, as in chess. Alternatively the king was placed in the middle of the board with defenders surrounding it. Playing the game, may or may not have involved dice.  Unfortunately no complete set of pieces has been uncovered, nor were the rules ever properly recorded. We only have rules from derivative  boardgames such as Tawlbrwdd and Tablut.

The paper also raises doubts on the traditional assumption that the pieces were buried on Lewis by a passing Norwegian merchant. One of the authors, David Caldwell, tells BBC news:  “One of the main things I think we are saying in our research is that it is much more likely that the hoard is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through.” Caldwell hopes that their hypotheses will open up new conversation on the nature and origins of the artefacts.  Currently, the collection is divided between the National Museum of Scotland – who own 11 pieces – and the British Museum, who possess the other 82. For the first time in over 150 years the pieces are set to be reunited in Scotland in 2010.

“I would be very disappointed if we have written the last word on them,” said Caldwell, “what I hope we have done is opened up the debate and shown it is possible, even with something very well known, to discover new things.”

This is wonderful news, for me, as it significantly broadens my research. Caldwell seems to have succeeded, then!