Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl: a Game in Decline

Great empires wax and wane, and elements of their culture come and go among their people. Two things may have contributed to the decline of hnefatafl as a popular game. One is the passing of the Viking era, where settlers from Scandinavia integrated with the cultures of the lands they occupied, or were beaten back from them. The other is the coming of a more popular and enduring game from the east.

Chess replaced hnefatafl as the popular board game of choice by the end of the middle ages, at least at the highest cultural levels. Draughts, which had developed in continental Europe in the 12th century, was also popular, replacing Hnefatafl among those classes who could not afford the luxury of a chess set. During this time, Hnefatafl continued to linger, but was unusual enough to have become an historical curiosity.

One result of the game's demise by the end of the middle ages was that unlike chess, hnefatafl was no longer widely known by the time of the advent of the printing press.  So while the printing press helped to establish a standard for chess, hnefatafl was never standardised.  Chess in the middle ages had different rules from place to place, and only later did one game predominate.  Hnefatafl was localised in this manner till the end of its ancient popularity, and even after its revival no one standard has dominated.

Reproduction of tawlbwrdd illustration
 One post-mediaeval survival was in Wales, where the game of Tawlbwrdd was encountered by writer Robert ap Ifan.  In 1587 he wrote a description of the game, and drew a diagram of the empty board.  Though earlier Welsh games were played with 25 pieces on a 9x9 board, the later game had increased in size to 37 pieces on an 11x11 board.  This happens to be the most popular size today.  Robert ap Ifan's account gave a partial set of rules, most clearly describing the distribution of forces and the method of capture.

Diagram of the tablut board by Linnaeus
 A more complete account was given of a game in Lapland by a later writer.  This was none other than the botanist Linnaeus, whose method of classification of plants and animals is still used today.  As a young man, Linnaeus made a tour of Lapland to learn about its flora and fauna, and also about its people.  He left us a set of Latin rules for a game called Tablut, which depicted a Swedish king fighting off a horde of Muscovites, and also left drawings of the board and pieces. The rules are are lacking only a few particulars.  It is from these rules that most of our knowledge of the rules of hnefatafl comes, and when variants are reconstructed for which little evidence survives, rules are often borrowed from Linnaeus's account to fill in the gaps.

These two writers, while preserving hnefatafl for future generations, were ignorant of its heritage.  Robert ap Ifan mentions nothing about its being enshrined in the mediaeval laws of Wales, while Linnaeus had no idea that the game had travelled to Lapland from his own Swedish homeland centuries before.  And by the end of the eighteenth century, the hnefatafl seems to have been completely forgotten, existing only on the pages of various manuscripts spread around Europe's libraries.

Next: The Hnefatafl Revival


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