Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The 1811 Translation: by Smith or Troilius?

Diagram of the tablut board by Linnaeus
Diagram of the tablut board by Linnaeus

Saturday, 10th January 2015

One of the things I want to do with this web site is to try to dispel myths about hnefatafl. "Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it," as Jonathan Swift said, and there are plenty of falsehoods about hnefatafl, so this is a difficult task I set myself. But I hope to provide at least one place on the web where some of the myths can be overturned.

For today's post I want to delve into the depths of hnefatafl history. As far as the myths go, this one isn't a particularly damaging one. It's only of interest to true hnefatafl geeks, and those who like to leave no stone unturned. So if you just want play the game, you'll be forgiven for not wanting to follow me today.

In 1732, there was a journey well known to hnefatafl scholars, but since not everyone is a hnefatafl scholar, I'll summarise it here. The great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, before he became the great botanist Carl Linnaeus, made a journey to Lapland to learn about the flora, fauna, people and customs there. He kept a diary of what he encountered, mostly in Swedish, but with occasional passages in Latin. One of the things he encountered was tablut, a Saami version of our favourite game that was still being played there long after it had disappeared everywhere else - including most of Sweden. It was a novelty to Linnaeus, so he wrote down the rules in some detail.

After Linnaeus got home, this diary seems to have languished unnoticed and unpublished. After his death, his son sold it among his papers to English botanist James Edward Smith, who was what we'd now call a "fan" of Linnaeus and who founded the Linnaean Society in London. By 1811 Smith had got around to the Lapland diaries, and in that year published an English translation of them.

Within this translation, the entry on tablut attracted much attention from board game scholars. It was an interesting game, and by 1913 tablut had been identified as a member of the hnefatafl family of games, until that time a mysterious ghost of a game whose rules were unknown. But the translation was flawed, and resulted in a very one-sided unplayable version of the game for which Smith has been criticised in recent decades. The one-sidedness of his game has led to the proliferation of modern rules, where everyone has their own house rules to make tablut, and hnefatafl, a balanced game.

But more recently, some people have wondered if Smith was really to blame. Smith in his introduction said that "great was our disappointment to find the Lachesis Lapponica written in Swedish. [...] At length Mr. Charles Troilius, a young gentleman in the mercantile line, resident in London, undertook the task of translating it." So should these rules be credited to James Edward Smith or to Charles Troilius? I noticed some people have started crediting the latter.

But later in that same introduction comes the answer. Commenting that some of the work was in Latin, Smith continued "the translator, not being much acquainted with this language, found it necessary to leave blanks, giving a literal version only of what he was able to read." Near the end of the introduction, Smith says that he "found himself in the necessity of writing the whole over". So it appears that Smith himself is responsible for the tablut translation. Whether he is blameworthy in causing the subsequent confusion I'll leave for another day.

As I said at the beginning, this nice question is of interest to only a very few. It has no effect upon game-play or the broader history of the game. But I hope that those researching the game for themselves might find it useful and not fall into the trap of reproducing a recent and unnecessary error, as I nearly did!


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