The Early Medieval Chess Of The Norsemen – Hnefatafl

The Hnefatafl was a strategy board game similar to contemporary Chess that was invented and played by the Norsemen in the time of the Viking Age.

From native Scandinavia, the Norsemen brought the hnefatafl to their overseas colonies, most notably in the North Atlantic ones (i.e. the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland) but also in modern day Ireland, Scotland, and England. Similar games also existed in the Celtic-speaking world prior to the apparition of the hnefatafl.

Reconstructed Hnefatafl game pieces. Image source: www.imgur.com

Reconstructed Hnefatafl game pieces. Image source: www.imgur.com

This game enjoyed considerable notoriety during the Viking Age, an era often dominated by internal or external military conflicts. It should be mentioned that the game was brought to Garðaríki (modern day Russia) as well.

The name of the game can be translated from Old Norse (via modern Icelandic) as ‘fist table’, with ‘hnef’ meaning ‘fist’ and ‘tafl’ meaning ‘board’ or ‘table’. Alternatively, it is also known as ‘King’s Table’. In medieval times, it was mentioned in such sagas as those of Frithiof’sthe Earls of Orkney, and of Hervör and Heidrek.

Nowadays, the basic rules of this medieval strategic game are rather obscure. Even though the old Norse sagas mention the fact that the Norsemen were quite keen on playing strategy games such as hnefatafl, these sources lack sufficient documentation with respect to the rules of the respective game. Yet, some of the sagas ascribe the possibility of throwing the dice.

What remains known, however, is that two prospective players would engage in a test of intelligence, skill, and strategy similar to that of the contemporary chess. One player would start the game with more pieces than the other in order to conquer the king’s castle. The other player who had the king on his behalf would have a significantly reduced number of pieces.

From archaeological research, it results that the game must have been played on either 13×13 or 11×11 boards. It is known that it became obsolete after the 12th century, when chess has been already introduced to Scandinavia.

Probably 11x11 Hnefatafl board game. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Probably 11×11 Hnefatafl board game. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

It is equally important to note that, among the grave offerings unearthed through extensive archaeological discoveries in the passing of time, such recreational games as hnefatafl were also given to the defunct Norsemen for their other world journey.

Documentation sources and external links:


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