Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Literary Sources

This page contains a list of contemporary literary sources. It does not include works of modern times, even those that shed light upon the game, such as the excellent books by H. J. R. Murray and D. Parlett (see the bibliography for those).

Tawlbwrdd in the 16th Century

Tawlbwrdd in the 16th Century
While chess and draughts had displaced tafl in most other places, in 1587 Robert ap Ifan wrote a description of a game called tawlbwrdd, which was still played in Wales at that time. He also drew the empty board.

The description of the game tells us how many pieces were in the game, and gives a vague idea of where they started. It neglects to say how they move, and the conditions of victory are unclear, but the document does describe capture and supplies enough detail for us to recognise this as a variant of hnefatafl.

Linnaeus Observes Tablut

Linnaeus Observes Tablut
The last historical instance of tafl was recorded by Linnaeus in 1732, while he was on a tour of Lapland. He left us a set of 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 tafl comes, and when variants are reconstructed for which little evidence survives, rules are often borrowed from Linnaeus's account to fill in the gaps.

Ancient Laws of Wales

Laws originally formulated by Hywel Dda contained references to hnefatafl under its Welsh name of tawlbwrdd. This document provides a valuation of the forces on the king's tawlbort. Enough information is given that calculations show a king and eight men against sixteen. The extant laws date from about 1250.

Bown a Hamtwn

This Welsh translation of an English romance contains a reference to tawlbwrdd.

Corpus Christi College MS. 122

Corpus Christi College MS. 122
A manuscript kept at the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, contains a diagram showing the initial layout of a tenth century game, and the accompanying text is an allegory relating the board set-up to the gospels. Nothing is said of the rules of play apart from a cryptic list of seven things one needs to know in order to master it.

Dimetian Code

R. C. Bell quotes this as giving a list of values for boards of different materials. The value of the king's board coincides in value with the forces described in detail, so it is unclear whether these values are for the boards or the pieces.

Fornaldur Sogur

According to Murray, an Icelandic saga which in one place describes how, during a raid on Northumbria, Hvitserkr and Sugurd were playing hnefatafl when a messenger from king Aella arrived.

Fridthjof's Saga

One passage in this Icelandic saga focuses on a game between Fridthjof and Bjorn. Hilding arrives during the game, asking for Fridthjof's help in a raid against king Hring. Fridthjof does not answer him directly, but exchanges comments with Bjorn about the game. These comments are interpreted by Hilding as replies to his questions.

Greenland Lay of Atli

H. J. R. Murray quotes the words "the hnefi is often beaten when the hunns are taken", but Sten Helmfrid says the original is not "hunns" but "qvistir", and doubts that the passage refers to hnefatafl at all. However, the following exerpt and translation suggest hnefatafl is being used as an analogy:

Atlamál in Grœnlenzko (The Greenland Lay of Atli), stanza 70, complete: Kostom drepr kvenna/ karla ofríki --/ í kné gengr hnefi,/ ef kvistir þverra;/ tré tekr at hníga,/ ef høggr tág undan./ Nú máttu einn, Atli,/ ollo hér ráða. Translation: Women's choice is killed/ by the greater power of men --/ the king-piece surrenders/ if the ranks are thinned;/ a tree begins to fall/ if the root is cut from under it./ Now you alone, Atli,/ are sole master here. (U. Dronke)

Gretti's Saga

One scene describes an argument between Thorbjorn and his stepmother, in which a game piece is run through Thorbjorn's cheek. The phrase "he was playing hnefatafl, it was a large halatafl" suggests that a halatafl was a type of gaming board on which hnefatafl was played.

Herverar Saga

The Herverar saga contains a couple of riddles that refer to hnefatafl, one of which refers to the pieces as maids fighting around their lord, the brown sheltering him and the fair attacking him. The other, more cryptic one, refers to the hnefi as chasing the flocks, and having eight horns but no head.

Kroka-Refs Saga

An elaborate gaming board is described in this saga, on one side containing a chess board and another containing a hnefatafl board. It was sent from Greenland to King Harald Hadrada.

Raven Song

This contains a single sentence probably of relevance to hnefatafl: "They are well cared for, the warriors who move the hunns in Harald's court."

The Lay of Rig

This Eddic poem, about the god Rig's wanderings, mentions the Jarl's children learning to swim and play tafl, in verse 41.

"Tafl Emk Orr at Efla"

In an untitled poem, Earl Rognvald of Orkney enumerates his talents, one of which is that he is "strong at tafl-play"

Volospa

The Volospa tells of the beginning and end of the world. It tells how the gods played tafl when the world was young. Later, after Ragnarok, the Anses find the gods' golden taeflor in the grass.

L'Estoire des Engles

Geoffrey Gaimar's L'Estoire des Engles contains an early substitution of chess for hnefatafl in literature. Written in the twelfth century, it contains the passage "Orgar iuout a vn esches, Vn giu kil aprist des Daneis", or in English, "Ordgar was playing at chess, A game which he learnt from the Danes".

Chess reached Scandinavia later than it reached England, so it is more likely that Ordgar had learnt hnefatafl from the Danes. Chess arrived in England in the eleventh century, so it would have been well known to Gaimar. In this extract he has done something we are used to seeing from many later scholars: substituting the familiar chess in place of the unfamiliar hnefatafl.

Abair riom a Eire ogh

An Irish poem attributed to Maoil Eoin Mac Raith throws much light on the game of brandub, as shown by the translated extract:

"The centre of the plain of Fal is Tara's castle, delightful hill; out in the exact centre of the plain, like a mark on a parti-coloured brannumh board. Advance thither, it will be a profitable step: leap up on that square, which is fitting for the branan, the board is fittingly thine. I would draw thy attention, o white of tooth, to the noble squares proper for the branan (Tara, Cashel, Croghan, Naas, Oileach), let them be occupied by thee. A golden branan with his band art thou with thy four provincials; thou, O king of Bregia, on yonder square and a man on each side of thee."

The Colloquy of the Ancients

In Gaelic, "Acallam na Senorach", a collection of stories about the Irish Heroic Age, brandub is briefly mentioned and implied to be an asymmetric game: "My famed brandub is in the mountain above Leitir Bhroin, five voiceless men of white silver and eight of red gold."

Comments

Notice in the poem 'Abair riom a Eire ogh' that it suggests all the squares, not necessarily one - 'let THEM be occupied by you', possibly alluding to a home-run style of play. the 3 'cities' are the inauguration sites of the Celtic kings, the central area is the area of sacred kingship, the mythic high-king. Why is the four areas of the board so emphasized in the Irish Bran-dubh and the Christian veneered Alea with the four gospels (Tetramorph), and what role/influence did Fiodh-cheall play if any, it seems to have being played on the same board but with even numbers.

John McMahon - 21:29, 09/06/2014

The home-run is an interesting theory. The main problem I can see is from a game-play point of view: the quest of the king would be well-near impossible unless the attackers' abilities were seriously reduced.

Damian Walker - 05:01, 10/06/2014

Maybe this is Buanbach/bac played on the Bran-dubh (Brannuimh)board and is a variation. A suggestion is that it was played similar to Ashtāpada or historical Chaturanga which was played on the Ashtāpada board, similar to the smaller Brandubh board. The game represented the forces of light and darkness in a Christian context, Brandubh itself may be named for the mythical king Brandubh MacEchtach ('black raven') in a battle against Áed MacAinmuirech (Aodh, fire-light), symbolically the forces of light and darkness in pre-Christian times. interestingly Buan-bach means 'sustained/lasting blocks/handicap/hindrance' or 'impeded/prevented-victory'. This is just a guess and suggestion, but the rules are unknown.

John McMahon - 02:42, 11/06/2014

An over-looked point, Irish Brandubh is played on the line, like xiang qi, and generally not on the square like the other games. A possible Tafl descendant is a German Medieval game known as Gala, played with chess pieces on a Tafl board, the rules are reversed - the king/s must go into the center and start in the four corners. The king cannot capture on the 'meridian' lines until he leaves them, could this have being taken from movements in Tafl?

John McMahon - 01:05, 19/06/2014

Yes, brandub and the Scottish 7x7 games were generally played on points or lines, though "Abair riom a Eire ogh" mentions squares, if the translation is precise. I used to make boards resembling the Downpatrick pattern, and use squares now only for aesthetic reasons.

I'm not sure of any connection between gala and hnefatafl, though it's a while since I looked at the rules for gala. I do know that some have doubted the authenticity of gala, but the chances of its taking rules from hnefatafl wouldn't be reduced by its being a modern game.

Damian Walker - 05:09, 19/06/2014

That is true about the squares, many feel here that Fiodh-cheall/Fithcheall was played on the same board, a game descended from Ludus latrunculorum, if true then Brandubh may have borrowed its line-play from pre-existing Fiodhcheall. Line play is uncommon outside Ireland/Scotland, Alea also shows the Irish preference for line-play. Hence if Fiodhcheall had 8x8 lines, the same pieces could be put directly onto the squares to make Brandubh, or played on the lines for Fiodhcheall. This could be why the board mentioned is played on the square rather than on the line.

John McMahon - 11:34, 19/06/2014

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