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Norse-games-art - 7/29/96


Board games played by the Norse.


NOTE: See also the files: games-msg, games-SCA-msg, games-cards-msg, golf-msg, sports-msg, Norse-msg, child-gam-msg, chd-actvites-msg, toys-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.


Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: Gunnora.Hallakarva at f555.n387.z1.fidonet.org (Gunnora Hallakarva)

Date: 25 Jul 94 19:00:00 -0500

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Viking Board Games

Organization: Fidonet: Cygnus I.I.N./San Antonio, TX/HST+V32T+VFC/210-641-2063


[NOTE: The following is an article prepared for The Bear

Necessities, the newsletter of the barony of Bjornsborg, Ansteorra.

The Viking Answer Lady is Lady Gunnora Hallakarva, an

eighth-century Finn who will tell you more than you ever wanted to

know about pigs if you let her.  Her alter ego, Christie Ward, is

a historian interested in Iron Age Scandinavia (but still has a day

job as well).]



Dear Viking Answer Lady:

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

     entertain themselves?

     --- 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

     herwith 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, Fridthjofs 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 Voluspa 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]

Rigsthula 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]

Fridthjofs 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).

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 x 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).  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).


     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 x 9 squares, the central

     one being distinctive and known as Konakis or throne. Only

     the Swedish king can occupy this square.  One player gas 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).  Rules: 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

     "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.



     (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


     (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 x 9 board (fig 6) using

the rules given above.  White king plus 8 white pieces (Swedes)

and 16 dark pieces (Muscovites) are used.


                         . . . M M M . . .

                         . . . . M . . . .

                         . . . . S . . . .

                         M . . . S . . . M    K = King (white)

Tablut setup:            M M S S K S S M M    S = Swede (white)

                         M . . . S . . . M    M = Muscovite (black)

                         . . . . S . . . .

                         . . . . M . . . .

                         . . . M M M . . .


Tawl-bwrdd: Welsh variant, played on an 11 x 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 1587

described 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 in

     wait to capture him.  These are placed, six in the center of

     every end of the board and in the six central places. Two

     players move the pieces, and if one belonging to the king

     comes 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)


                         . . . . A A A . . . .

                         . . . . A . A . . . .   (---) = shaded row

                         . . . . . A . . . . .   (...) = normal row

                         - - - - - D - - - - -

                         A A . . D D D . . A A

Tawl-brwdd setup:        A - A D D K D D A - A    K = king

                         A A . . D D D . . A A    D = defender

                         - - - - - D - - - - -    A = attacker

                         . . . . . A . . . . .

                         . . . . A . A . . . .

                         . . . . A A A . . . .


Hnefa-tafl: known  simply as tafl until the introduction of chess

necessitated differentiation between the two types of board games.

Played on a 13 x 13 board.  Period sources (notably

Hervarar saga) suggest that the king and his men were the dark

pieces while the attackers were white, hence brown king plus 12

brown men and 24 white attackers are used.


                    . . . . W W W W W . . . .

                    . . . . . . W . . . . . .

                    . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                    . . . . . . B . . . . . .

                    W . . . . . B . . . . . W

                    W . . . . . B . . . . . W    K = brown king

Hnefatafl setup:    W W . B B B K B B B . W W    B = brown defender

                    W . . . . . B . . . . . W    W = white attacker

                    W . . . . . B . . . . . W

                    . . . . . . B . . . . . .

                    . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                    . . . . . . W . . . . . .

                    . . . . W W W W W . . . .


Alea Evangelii: this 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 x 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



                    . . B . . B . . . . . . . B . . B . .

                    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                    B . . . . B . . . . . . . B . . . . B

                    . . . . . . . B . B . B . . . . . . .

                    . . . . . . B . W . W . B . . . . . .

                    B . B . . B . . . . . . . B . . B . B

                    . . . . B . . . . W . . . . B . . . .

                    . . . B . . . . W . W . . . . B . . .

                    . . . . W . . W . W . W . . W . . . . K = king

Alea Evangelii:     . . . B . . W . W K W . W . . B . . . W = defender

                    . . . . W . . W . W . W . . W . . . . B = attacker

                    . . . B . . . . W . W . . . . B . . .

                    . . . . B . . . . W . . . . B . . . .

                    B . B . . B . . . . . . . B . . B . B

                    . . . . . . B . W . W . B . . . . . .

                    . . . . . . . B . B . B . . . . . . .

                    B . . . . B . . . . . . . B . . . . B

                    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                    . . B . . B . . . . . . . B . . B . .


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!



Since it's impossible to transmit the artwork, you may find the

illustrations I used in a variety of works:


(Fig 1) Several playing pieces, including

       - a carved wooden hnefi  [see Jacqueline Simpson's Everyday


         Life in the Viking Age. (NY; Dorset. 1967) 166]

       - 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) 38, other

         sources also have good illos of this set]

       - 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) 55]

       - stylized bone and jet pieces from England [see HJR

   Murray's  A History of Board Games p60, and RC Bell's

Board & Table Games vol I p80, see full citation of both

         in notes below]

       - 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 p78]

       - dice and game counters from Hedeby [see Bertil Almgren's The

         Viking aka "The Ugly Viking Book" (NY; Crescent. 1975) 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) p169]

(Fig 3) Remnant of playing board from Gokstad ship with 15 x 15 tafl

        board on one side & nine-man-morris on the other [see HJR Murray's

        History of Board Games p58 (cited below in notes) many other

        sources show this also]

(Fig 4) Ballinderry game board [see HJR Murray's History of Board Games

        p59 (cited below) 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 (cited below)]

(Fig 6) Tablut board from Linnaeus' drawing in Lachesis Lapponica [see

        RC Bell's Board & Table Games vol I p77 (cited below in notes)]




(1) A.R. Hope Moncrieff. "Ogier the Dane," in Romance and Legend

of Chivalry. (NY; Bell. 1913) 257.


(2) E.V. Gordon, ed. "A Gentleman's Accomplishments," in An

Introduction to Old Norse. (Oxford; Clarendon. 2nd ed. 1957) 155.

[All translations from the O.N. are my own.]


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

File. 1985) 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) 56.


(6) Ibid. 60.


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



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

1962) 12.


(9) Murray. Board Games. 60.


(10) Ibid. 60-61.


(11) Gwyn Jones, trans. "Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga," in Eirik the

Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. (NY; Oxford UP. 1961) 171-217.


(12) Margaret Schlauch, trans. "The Saga of Fridthjof the Bold,"

in Medieval Narrative. (NY; Prentice-Hall. 1934) 8-9.


(13) Murray. History of Chess. 444.


(14) J. Armitage Robinson. The Times of St. Dunstan. (Oxford;

Clarendon. 1923) 69-71, 171-181 and frontispiece.


(15) R.C. Bell. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations I.

(London; Oxford UP. 1960). 77-78.


(16) R.C. Bell. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations II.

(London: Oxford UP. 1969) 44.


(17) Anne Harrington. "Hnefatafl: the Viking Game of Strategy,"

Northways (Winter 1990) 29-30.


(18) Suggestion from Lady Leidrun Leidulfsdottir's class on

medieval games at Candlemas, Bryn Gwlad, 6 February 1993, A.S.



(19) Ibid.


Fidonet:  Gunnora Hallakarva 1:387/555

Internet: Gunnora.Hallakarva at f555.n387.z1.fidonet.org



Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

From: ddfr at quads.uchicago.edu (david director friedman)

Subject: Re: Viking Board Games (Part 3 - The End)

Organization: University of Chicago

Date: Wed, 27 Jul 1994 04:51:13 GMT


Gunnora gives a fascinating summary of what is known about Hneftafl,

including Linnaeus' description of the rules for Tablut. She then



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



     (2)  The king may not assist in captures.

     (3)  Usually the king's side moves first.

... "


Neither of these is in the quote nor, I think, any of the other bits

of evidence she mentions. Is there some reason to believe these were

part of the rules in period, or is she simply describing conventions

she has observed among modern players?





From: aj at wg.icl.co.uk (Tony Jebson)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Viking Board Games

Date: 28 Jul 1994 02:28:00 -0500

Organization: UTexas Mail-to-News Gateway


Nice article! A piece of information that may be useful: Hnefatafl sets are

sold commercially in the UK under the name "The Viking Game". I can't at

the moment remember who make it, but I'll try to find out.




--- Tony Jebson     --- International Computers Limited (ICL)

--- +44 625 617193  --- +44 61 223 1301 ext 3099 (work)

--- aj at wg.icl.co.uk ---



Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

From: ojid.wbst845 at xerox.com (Orilee Ireland-Delfs)

Subject: Re: Viking Board Games

Organization: Xerox Corporation, Webster NY

Date: Fri, 29 Jul 1994 13:26:35 GMT


I believe the company called Past Times, which has a distributorship in the States as well as the UK has a very nice set of Hneftafl, with figures that look like carved bone or ivory.  I cannot honestly say how much it costs, since I bought one for my husband a couple of years ago.





From: kathy.duffy at buckys.com (Kathy Duffy)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject:  Re: Viking Board Games

Date: Sun, 31 Jul 1994 03:58:00 GMT

Organization: Bucky's BBS (609)861-1131 * Dennisville, NJ


A>Nice article! A piece of information that may be useful: Hnefatafl sets are

>sold commercially in the UK under the name "The Viking Game". I can't at

>the moment remember who make it, but I'll try to find out.


I got mine at the British Museum and they do allow mail orders.



<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org