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King's Table: Game of the Noble Scandinavians

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

Aside from rape, loot and pillage, what did the Vikings do to entertain themselves?

(signed) Dreading that Long Polar Winter

Gentle Reader:

The Vikings had a great many amusements, from very physical sports such as footracing, swimming, wrestling and skiing, to horse fighting, playing a game very like the Scottish sport of curling, and several board games. The most useful of these for the snow-bound will of course be the board games, so herewith I shall tell you more about them. Read on...

King's Table: Game of the Noble Scandinavians

Some men joust with spear and shield
And some men carol and sing good songs;
Some shoot with darts in the field
And some playen at chess among.
--- Ogier the Dane[1]

This little verse is a succinct catalogue of the noble virtues. Once expected of the candidate for knighthood, in the Current Middle Ages all peers and nobles are said to excel not only in their field of endeavor, but are also able to dance, entertain, and to play the noble game of chess. Even before the pageantry of the High Middle Ages however, this voice was heard:

I can play at tafl,
Nine skills I know,
Rarely forget I the runes,
I know of books and smithing,
I know how to slide on skis,
Shoot and row, well enough;
Each of two arts I know,
Harp-playing and speaking poetry.
--- Earl Rognvaldr Kali [2]

These were the accomplishments of the noble of Viking Age Scandinavia. Before the introduction of chess (O.N. skak-tafl) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Scandinavians sharpened their wits by playing a game known as tafl.[3] Tafl in Old Norse means "table," and by the end of the period referred to a variety of board games, such as chess (skak-tafl or "check-table"), backgammon (kvatru-tafl, introduced from the French as quatre), and fox-and- geese (ref-skak, "fox chess"). However, the term tafl was most commonly used to refer to a game known as hnefa-tafl or "King's Table."[4] Hnefatafl was known in Scandinavia before 400 A.D. and was carried by the Vikings to their colonies in Iceland, Greenland, Britain, Ireland and Wales. The Saxons had their own variant, derived from a common Germanic tafl-game, and this was apparently the only board game known to the Saxons prior to the introduction of chess.[5]

There are many references to hnefatafl in Old Norse literature, from sources ranging from the poems of the Poetic Edda to saga references such as Orkneyinga saga, the Greenland Lay of Atli, Hervarar saga, Friðþjofs saga and more. Most frequently these references are to the game pieces, hence we know that the gamesmen included a hnefi or "king" and hunns, meaning literally "knobs" and referring to the pawn-like men. (Old English has cyningstan or "king-stone" and taefelstanas or "tablemen").[6] The board itself is sometimes mentioned as tafl or tann-tafl[7] ("tooth-table," a tafl-board inlaid with walrus ivory).

The earliest mention of the game appears in Vôluspa 60:

"Then in the grass the golden taeflor ("table-men"),
the far-famed ones, will be found again,
which they had owned in older days."[8]

Rigsþula speaks of the noble child Earl learning to swim and play tafl.[9]

From Hervarar saga come two riddles in the riddle-game between Odinn and King Heidrek:

"Who are the maids that fight weaponless around their lord,
the brown ever sheltering and the fair ever attacking him?"

(ans: the pieces in hnefatafl),

and

"What is that beast all girdled with iron
which kills the flocks? It has eight horns but no head?"

(ans: the hnefi or king).[10]

We know that women also played hnefatafl from the reference in Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga in which Gunnlaug plays tafl with Helga Thorsteinsdatter, the granddaughter or Egil Skallagrimsson.[11] Friðþjofs saga ins fraeki has a game between Fridthof and Bjorn, where comments ostensibly made about the game are actually answers to King Helgi's man Hilding:

But as their troops seemed but few to them, they sent Hilding, their foster-father, to Fridthjof, and asked him to join the troops of the kings. Fridthof was sitting at tafl when Hilding came. He said: "Our kings send word to thee, and they would have thy fighting men for the war against King Hring, who wishes to fall upon their kingdom wrongfully and tyrannously." Fridthjof made no answer, but said to Bjorn, with whom he was playing, "That is a weak point, brother: But thou needest not change it. Rather will I move against the red piece to know if it is protected." Hilding spoke again: "King Helgi bade me tell thee, Fridthjof, that thou shouldst go on this raid, else thou wilt suffer hardship when they come back." Bjorn said, "Thou hast a choice of two moves, brother: two ways of saving it. Fridthjof said, "First it would be wise to move against this hnefi and that will be an easy choice." Hilding received no other answer to his errand. He went back quickly to the kings and told them of Fridthjof. They asked Hilding what sense he made of these words. Hilding said: "When he spoke of the weak point, he meant this raid of your; and when he said he would move with the fair piece, that must refer to your sister Ingebjorg. Therefore look to her well. And when I promised him hardship from you, Bjorn called that a choice, but Fridthjof said that the hnefi had first to be attacked, and by that he meant King Hring."[12]

Several things are lacking in these brief references: the arrangement of the board, initial placement of the playing pieces, and the rules of the game. Archaeology provides some additional clues. There have been numerous gravefinds of game pieces (Fig. 1).

Figure 1

Figure 2

One runestone from Ockelbo, Sweden, shows two men balancing a boardgame on their knees (Fig. 2), which reflects the saga references where arguments over the game frequently cause one or both players to leap to their feet, upsetting the tafl-board and scattering the pieces.[13] Fragments of actual game boards have been excavated as well. One board from the Gokstad ship has a 15 × 15 ruled board on one side for tafl, and what appears to be a nine-men-morris board (O.N. mylta, "mills") on the reverse side (Fig. 3).

Figure 1

A magnificent tafl board thought to have been manufactured on the Isle of Man was found in a crannog excavation in Ballinderry, West Meath, Ireland (Fig. 4).

Archaeologists had long recognized the similarities of these boards to those used for a surviving game, fox-and-geese, but this was not enough to reconstruct the Viking Age game. Further clues were provided by an English manuscript from King Aethelstan's court (c. 925 - 940 A.D.) which describes a game known as alea evangelii, which attempts to give the board and the arrangement of the pieces upon it scriptural significance as a harmony of the gospels.[14] Again, no rules for movement of the men are given, but the manuscript provides a diagram showing the initial arrangement of the game pieces (Fig. 5).

Figures 4 and 5

The final clue to reconstructing the rules of hnefatafl was provided in 1732 by Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, in his diary of his travels among the Lapps. In the entry for 20 July 1732, Linnaeus described a game known among the Lapps as tablut, which is a derivative of hnefatafl:

"The Tablut board is marked out with 9 × 9 squares, the central one being distinctive and known as Konakis or throne. Only the Swedish king can occupy this square. One player has eight blonde Swedes and their monarch; the other has sixteen dark Muscovites. The king is larger than the other pieces. The Muscovites are placed on the embroidered squares. (The board was made of reindeer skin ornamented with needlework as the Lapps had no cloth). [15]"

Tablut Board

Rules for Tablut

  1. All the pieces move orthagonally any number of vacant squares (the move of the rook in chess).

  2. A piece is captured and removed from the board when the opponent occupies both adjacent squares in a row or column. This is the custodian method of capture. A piece may move safely onto an empty square between two enemy pieces.

  3. The king is captured if all four squares around him are occupied by enemy pieces; or if he is surrounded on three sides by enemy pieces and on the fourth by the Konakis. When the king is captured the game is over and the Muscovites are victorious.

  4. The Swedes win if the king reaches any square on the periphery of the board. When there is a clear route for the king to a perimeter square the player must warn his opponent by saying "Raichi!" When there are two clear routes he must say "Tuichi!" This is the equivalent of a checkmate since it is impossible to block two directions in the same move."[15]

These are essentially the basic rules used in all forms of tafl.


Rules for Tafl-Games

  1. The king and his men are usually the dark pieces (according to the sagas but white in Tablut) and are always outnumbered by the attackers.

  2. The king may not assist in captures.

  3. Usually the king's side moves first.

  4. All moves are orthagonal (the move of the rook in chess).

  5. Pieces may not jump other pieces, nor occupy the same square.

  6. A piece is captured when the opponent moves a man to either side of it in either row or column (no diagonal captures) except for the king, which must be surrounded on all four sides by attackers in order to be captured.

  7. The king's side wins when the king escapes to the edge of the board. The attackers win by capturing the king.


Variants of Tafl

Tablut

Lappish game played on a 9 × 9 board (Fig. 6) using the rules given above. White king plus 8 white pieces (Swedes) and 16 dark pieces (Muscovites) are used.

                 
                 
                 
                 
                 
                 
                 
                 
                 

Tablut Layout

King (Swedes) = Tall Blue Hnefi (Blue Hnefi)
King's Men (Swedes) = Blue (Blue Hunn)
Attackers (Muscovites) = Gold (Gold Hunn)


Tawl-Bwrdd

Welsh variant, played on an 11 × 11 board which has the second, fourth and sixth columns shaded. Tawl-bwrdd is literally "throw board," as it was played using a single die (normally the rectangular "knucklebone" die with spots on four sides instead of our modern six-sided square dice). Each player rolls the die at the beginning of his turn: if an odd number is rolled, the player may move a piece, but if an even number results, the player must skip his turn. King and 12 king's men, 24 attackers (no colors given for the sides). Robert ap Ifan in 1587described tawl-bwrdd as follows:

The above board must be played with a king in the center and twelve men in the places next to him; and twenty-four lie inwait to capture him. These are placed, six in the center ofevery end of the board and in the six central places. Two players move the pieces, and if one belonging to the kingcomes between the attackers, he is dead and is thrown out of the play; and if one of the attackers comes between two of the king's men, the same."[16]


Tawl-bwrdd Setup

King = Tall Blue Hnefi (Blue Hnefi)
King's men = Blue (Blue Hunn)
Attacker's men = Gold (Gold Hunn)

Shaded Rows are shown in blue: ( Shaded Row )
                     
                     
                     
                     
                     
                     
                     
                     
                     
                     
                     

Hnefa-Tafl

Hnefatafl was known simply as tafl until the introduction of chess necessitated differentiation between the two types of board games. Played on a 13 × 13 board. Period sources (notably Hervarar saga) suggest that the king and his men were the dark pieces while the attackers were white.



Hnefatafl Layout

King = Tall Blue Hnefi (Blue Hnefi)
King's men = Blue (Blue Hunn)
Attacker's men = Gold (Gold Hunn)
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         
                         

Alea Evangelii:

Alea Evangelii is the form of tafl played in Saxon England and documented in the C.C.C. Oxon.122 manuscript. The largest of the tafl games, with a 19 × 19 board (Fig. 5). Some commentators suggest that this arrangement represents a sea-battle, with a king ship defended by 24 white ships and a fleet of 48 dark attackers. Only the king ship may occupy the konakis (central square) OR pass over it.



Alea Evangelii

King = Tall Blue Hnefi (Blue Hnefi)
King's men = Blue (Blue Hunn)
Attacker's men = Gold (Gold Hunn)
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     
                                     

Strategy for Playing Tafl-Games

None of the sources have much in the way of information regarding strategy. The king's forces usually possess a slight advantage, despite being outnumbered. Tactically, the defender (king's men) must arrange for the king to escape to the edge of the board. Therefore, the defender should try to capture as many attackers as possible to clear an escape route, while not trying too hard to protect his own men since they, too, can block the king's escape. The attacker's object is not only to prevent the king's escape, but also to capture him. The best way to do this is to avoid making captures early in the game, instead scattering the attackers to block possible escape routes.[17]

Making Your Own Playing Set

Construction of a tafl board can be as simple as taking a ruler and pen and lining off squares on a piece of cardboard: this is an excellent suggestion for a first board, as it gives one a chance to try playing the game a few times before investing time,money, and energy into producing a more elaborate board.[18] Period boards were apparently made of wood and could be painted, carved, or even inlaid with ivory (see Figs. 3 & 4). One board had holes drilled for men equipped with pegs (Fig. 4). Simple game pieces can be made using pente stones or checkers, with a large contrasting piece used for the king. Other suggestions include using chessmen, marbles, polished rocks from a lapidary or even paper counters. Period game pieces were carved in wood or ivory, made of glass, ceramics or gemstones, or even small rocks used for a game drawn in the dirt and then discarded at the end of play (Fig. 1).

Tafl was played on the intersections (as in Pente or Go), not on the squares, however most people I've played with in the Current Middle Ages have a difficult time with the board laid out this way. I recommend making the boards anachronistically and playing in the squares (as in chess/checkers/etc) rather than using the more authentic intersection layout: more people will play with you! Tafl in all its variants is a simple game to learn, yet requiring skill, tactics and sharp wits to master. To steal a line from Lady Leidrun, games are perfect for enlivening coring courts, whiling away the time between courses at bad feasts, and a great way to meet new friends, interest newcomers in S.C.A. activities, and to show one's noble potential.[19] Make a board and try it!


FIGURES

(Fig. 1) Several playing pieces, including:

  • (A) a carved wooden hnefi [see Jacqueline Simpson's Everyday Life in the Viking Age. (NY; Dorset. 1967) p. 166]

  • (B) an ivory chessman from the Isle of Lewis set [available in a reproduction set from The Museum Store now. See KRG Pendleson's The Vikings (NY; Windward. 1980) p. 38, other sources also have good illos of this set]

  • (C) lampworked glass playing pieces in blue and green glass including a detailed hnefi made in two colors of glass from Birka, Sweden [see David M. Wilson's The Vikings and Their Origins. (NY; A & W Visual Library. 1980) p. 55]

  • (D) stylized bone and jet pieces from England [see H.J.R. Murray's A History of Board Games p60, and R.C. Bell's Board & Table Games vol. I p. 80]

  • (E) tablut pieces very similar to modern stylized chessmen, the Swedish king resembles a king, the Swedish hunns pawns, and the Muscovites like bent rooks [see RC Bell's Board & Table Games vol. I p. 78]

  • (F) dice and game counters from Hedeby [see Bertil Almgren's The Viking aka "The Ugly Viking Book" (NY; Crescent. 1975) p. 62]

(Fig. 2) Two men playing tafl with a gaming board balanced on their knees, detail from Ockelbo rune stone, Sweden [see Jacqueline Simpson's Everyday Life (cited above) p. 169]

(Fig. 3) Remnant of playing board from Gokstad ship with 15 × 15 tafl board on one side & nine-man-morris on the other [see HJR Murray's A History of Boardgames Other than Chess.. (NY; Hacker. 1978) p. 58. Many other sources show this also]

(Fig. 4) Ballinderry game board [see HJR Murray's History of Board Games p. 59 pictured in several other sources also]

(Fig. 5) Alea Evangelii diagram from C.C.C. Oxon.122, frontispiece in J. Armitage Robinson's The Times of St. Dunstan (Oxford; Clarendon. 1923) frontispiece.]

(Fig. 6) Tablut board from Linnaeus' drawing in Lachesis Lapponica [see RC Bell's Board & Table Games vol. I p. 77 (London: Oxford UP. 1969)]


NOTES

  1. A.R. Hope Moncrieff. "Ogier the Dane," in Romance and Legend of Chivalry. (NY; Bell. 1913) p. 257.

  2. E.V. Gordon, ed. "A Gentleman's Accomplishments," in An Introduction to Old Norse. (Oxford; Clarendon. 2nd ed. 1957) p. 155. [All translations from the O.N. are my own.]

  3. Richard Eales. Chess: the History of a Game. (NY; Facts on File. 1985) p. 50.

  4. Richard Cleasby & Gudbrand Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. (Oxford; Clarendon. 2nd ed. 1957) [See definitions for each O.N. term.]

  5. H.J.R. Murray. A History of Boardgames Other than Chess. (NY; Hacker. 1978) p. 56.

  6. Ibid. p. 60.

  7. H.J.R. Murray. A History of Chess. (Oxford; Clarendon. 1913) p. 144.

  8. Lee Hollander, trans. The Poetic Edda. (Austin; U of Texas P. 1962) p. 12.

  9. Murray. Board Games. p. 60.

  10. Ibid. pp. 60-61.

  11. Gwyn Jones, trans. "Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga," in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. (NY; Oxford UP. 1961) pp. 171-217.

  12. Margaret Schlauch, trans. "The Saga of Fridthjof the Bold," in Medieval Narrative. (NY; Prentice-Hall. 1934) pp. 8-9.

  13. Murray. History of Chess. 444.

  14. J. Armitage Robinson. The Times of St. Dunstan. (Oxford; Clarendon. 1923) pp. 69-71, 171-181 and frontispiece.

  15. R.C. Bell. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations I. (London; Oxford UP. 1960). pp. 77-78.

  16. R.C. Bell. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations II. (London: Oxford UP. 1969) p. 44.

  17. Anne Harrington. "Hnefatafl: the Viking Game of Strategy," Northways (Winter 1990) pp. 29-30.

  18. Suggestion from Lady Leidrun Leidulfsdottir's class on medieval games at Candlemas, Bryn Gwlad, 6 February 1993, A.S. XXVII.

  19. Ibid.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Almgren, Bertil, et al. The Viking. New York: Crescent. 1975.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Bell, Robert Charles. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations Volume I. London; Oxford University Press. 1960.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Bell, Robert Charles. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations Volume II. London: Oxford University Press. 1969.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Cleasby, Richard & Guðbrandr Vígfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford; Clarendon. 2nd ed. 1957.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Eales, Richard. Chess: the History of a Game. New York: Facts on File. 1985.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Gordon, E.V. ed. "A Gentleman's Accomplishments," in An Introduction to Old Norse. Oxford; Clarendon. 2nd ed. 1957. p. 155.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Harrington, Anne. "Hnefatafl: the Viking Game of Strategy," Northways (Winter 1990) pp. 29-30.

  • Hollander, Lee M. trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin; University of Texas Press. 1962.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Jones, Gwyn, trans. "Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga," in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. New York: Oxford University Press. 1961) pp. 171-217.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Margaret Schlauch, trans. "The Saga of Fridthjof the Bold," in Medieval Narrative. New York: Prentice-Hall. 1934. pp. 8-9.

  • Moncrieff, A.R. Hope, ed. "Ogier the Dane," in Romance and Legend of Chivalry. New York: Bell. 1913.

  • Murray, H.J.R. A History of Boardgames Other than Chess. New York: Hacker. 1978.

  • Murray, H.J.R.. A History of Chess. Oxford; Clarendon. 1913.

  • Pendleson, K.R.G. The Vikings New York: Windward. 1980.

  • Robinson, J. Armitage. The Times of St. Dunstan. Oxford: Clarendon. 1923.

  • Simpson, Jacqueline. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. New York: Dorset. 1967.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

  • Wilson,David M. The Vikings and Their Origins. New York: A & W Visual Library. 1980.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com  Buy this book from Amazon.com

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