Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Fithcheall and Gwyddbwyll: Hnefatafl or Not?

Layout often proposed for fithcheall.
Layout often proposed for fithcheall.

Saturday, 17th January 2015

Many web sites about hnefatafl feature an Irish game, fithcheall (also spelt fidchell or ficheall), and a related Welsh game called gwyddbwyll. Not only do they identify these games as hnefatafl variants, but they often give precise board layouts. Tafl, the e-book by Jesse Robinson, goes so far as to give full sets of rules for them. But not everyone thinks that these games belong in the hnefatafl family.

In scholarly books and papers there is more controversy. R. C. Bell in his 1969 book Board and Table Games 2 identified fithcheall as a tafl game, leaving its rules as a puzzle for the reader. Ranged against him is one of his sources, H. J. R. Murray, who thought that the game was more like the ludus latrunculorum of the Romans. D. Parlett agrees with Murray, but gives some attention to sources that support Bell's reasoning.

Both games are often mentioned in the literature of their respective cultures, but as is so often the case with games in that era, nobody wrote down the rules. The attention was always (quite rightly) on the context of the game, and on the people playing it. Welsh sources like the Mabinogion described a wonderful gwyddbwyll game that played itself, and Irish sources have some amusing stories about cheating at fithcheall. But the scholarship of Eoin MacWhite, in his 1945 article Early Irish Board Games, managed to pick out some hard information from many of the stories.

Irish stories tell us by dialogues and similes three interesting facts. One, that captures in fithcheall were made by surrounding a piece with two enemies. Two, that pieces moved probably in rook fashion. These two facts could make fithcheall a hnefatafl or a latrunculi game. But the third interesting fact, which comes up more than once, is that the two sides had equal numbers of pieces. This would identify fithcheall firmly as a game of the latrunculi type.

Murray also notes that by A.D. 1000 in Ireland, fithcheall gradually gave way to brandub as the board game of choice to introduce into a story. In Wales there was a similar trend: gwyddbwyll was mentioned less, and tawlbwrdd more, in these contexts. Both of the later games can be identified positively as hnefatafl variants, so in each country the evidence supports what was probably an old Roman game being supplanted by a new game introduced by the Vikings. In both countries these new games would eventually be replaced by an Indian game introduced by the Normans.

On the basis of this evidence, I'd therefore be inclined to exclude fithcheall and gwyddbwyll from the hnefatafl family of games. Their precise rules will probably remain a mystery, but if I were to reconstruct them I'd follow Murray and take latrunculi as a basis.


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