Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Growth and Spread of Hnefatafl

Norse adventurers began to set out from their homelands in the eighth century, on voyages of trade, pillage and settlement. The game of hnefatafl was by this time fully formed, and went with them over land and sea. Its enjoyment was not restricted to Scandinavians, as the game was adopted by other people who they came into contact with, such as Anglo-Saxons and Celts.

Pieces from Storhaug
 Among the earliest artefacts that appear to be hnefatafl is a set of conical glass playing pieces from Storhaug, in Norway.  A large, dark blue piece is accompanied by four smaller yellow pieces, and twelve small light blue pieces.  The five largest pieces all have a brown top to indicate that they may have belonged to the same side.  These numbers are not quite what we expect from a hnefatafl game, but do appear to be a single king piece, and a small force set against a large one. This shows the game was being played by the time the Vikings made their first raids abroad.

The hnefatafl board from Trondheim
 Many more artefacts from later centuries abound in Scandinavia.  Boards of 11x11, 13x13 and even 15x15 squares have been found, with the central playing space marked, and often with a symmetrical pattern arranged around it.  One magnificent example comes from Trondheim in Norway.  Dated to the twelfth century, it had eleven rows of eleven squares, of which two thirds survives.  There are also many sets of pieces found in Scandinavia, some complete or near-complete, like the Storhaug pieces having a king and a small force ranged against a larger one.  Finds of around 25 pieces indicate that 9x9 boards were popular in Scandinavia.

Line drawing of the Ballinderry board
 But the game found its way much further afield.  The British Isles furnish a number of examples of pieces and boards.  In Ireland, boards appear exclusively to have seven rows of seven playing spaces, like the magnificent example from Ballinderry.  The central square was marked, and in some boards the corners too.  This tallies with a game called Brandub that was mentioned in stories, one side having a king and four defenders, the other side eight attackers.  In Scotland there were boards of both seven and nine squares on a side, and mediaeval Welsh laws talk about a 25-piece game, most likely played on a 9x9 board.  In England there were much larger games; a fragment of a 15x15 board survives in York, and a mediaeval manuscript talks about a tenth-century hnefatafl game at King Athelstan's court played on a board of 19x19 playing spaces!

Hnefatafl was taken even further than this, both east and west.  It has been found in Poland and Ukraine, and one Icelandic saga talks about it being played in Constantinople.  The game was played in Iceland itself, and was taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland and Newfoundland, and possibly even to mainland Canada.

Hnefatafl was popular in these places, and perhaps others, throughout the mediaeval period.  But the game's heyday wasn't to last.  A fashionable new game from the east was spreading across Europe, and would eventually displace hnefatafl on gaming tables across the continent.

Next: Hnefatafl: a Game in Decline


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