Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl's Mysterious Origins

Board games have been played for thousands of years.  The ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians were avid players of board games.  There were board games at Troy long before its fabled war with the Greeks.  Miniature races, battles and hunts were invented and reinvented everywhere from Spain to China, from Hawaii to continental America.

The earliest games with a resemblance to hnefatafl appeared in ancient Greece and Rome.  The Greek game Petteia ("pebbles") shared with hnefatafl the method of capturing a piece by surrounding it by two enemies; it probably had similar rules of movement too.  The Roman game of Ludus Latrunculorum ("the game of little soldiers") was similar, and some sets even introduced a special piece on each side.  A game like Ludus Latruculorum was still played in tenth century Iran, while Petteia-like games survived everywhere from tenth-century Ireland to nineteenth-century Egypt.

Two of the boards from Vimose, showing one side of each.
 One artefact shows how these games could have found their way to Scandinavia.  In about AD400 a fragment of a gaming board was thrown into a bog in Vimose, Denmark, as part of a war booty offering to the gods. It was eighteen squares along one side, but we don't know whether it was square or oblong.  It was once thought to be a hnefatafl board by those who had no access to it, but the reverse side has markings for the Roman game Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum ("the game of twelve lines", a relative of backgammon), so it's likely that the grid pattern was for Ludus Latrunculorum.  Other similar boards were found at Vimose, and another, found at Leuna in Germany, was accompanied by 29 black and 30 white pieces.

Segment from one of the Golden Horns of Gallehus
 Another artefact from Denmark also highlights the presence of board games.  In about AD500 a pair of golden drinking horns was made by Hlewagastir, son of Holte, for some unknown purpose. They were found in Gallehus, near the German border in Denmark. They were richly decorated, and among the engraved scenes were two men playing a board game. It may be tafl, but at this early date the evidence is lacking.

Assuming the presence of Ludus Latrunculorum in Scandinavia and its similarity to Hnefatafl are not mere coincidence, it is unknown when one game was adapted into the other.  In order to date the invention of Hnefatafl one needs to find a board or a set of pieces that are unmistakably meant for the game: a square board with a marked central playing space, or an unequal set of pieces with a distinguished king piece belonging to the smaller side would be good indicators.  And so far there has been no such evidence from before the eighth century.

Next: The Growth and Spread of Hnefatafl


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