Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl and Fox & Geese

Fox & geese set out for play.
Fox & geese set out for play.

Saturday, 14th February 2015

I've often found speculation of a close relationship between two games dear to the Vikings: hnefatafl, and fox & geese. If you don't know fox & geese, it's a two-player asymmetrical game played on the board nowadays used for solitaire. One fox faces thirteen geese. The geese try to trap the fox, while the fox tries to capture as many geese as possible.

Some people regard fox & geese as an ancestor to hnefatafl, the simpler hunt game being expanded into the more complex war game. Others regard it as a descendant. I want to look briefly at the history of the two games, and their relationships to other games that may help us understand if there really was any relationship between them.

We know that hnefatafl was played before the end of the first millennium, some people saying it started as early as A.D. 400; for reasons expressed elsewhere I believe that this figure is closer to A.D. 750. The earliest certain mention of fox & geese isn't till the late 15th century, when a game of one against thirteen was recorded in the accounts of the English King Edward IV.

Some refer to an earlier mention in the Saga of Grettir the Strong, saying "halatafl" is fox & geese. However, the quote from the saga says that halatafl was a type of hnefatafl, implying that the halatafl was a particular type of board with pegged pieces, one of those pieces being used to cause injury. Fox & geese was commonly known as "ref-skak" in Old Norse, "fox chess". This leaves the accounts of Edward IV as the earliest confirmed report.

There is a distinct parallel between fox & geese, and a Spanish game documented in 1283. In the Libro de los Juegos, the "Book of Games" commissioned by Alfonso X of Castile, an almost identical game to fox & geese is presented. The Spanish game is called Cercar la liebre, or "catch the hare", and is played on a square board of 25 playing spaces. This board, and in fact most of the rules of catch the hare and fox & geese, are the same as alquerque.

The suggestion that hnefatafl descended from fox & geese is unlikely; no mention of fox & geese pre-dates hnefatafl. Its common Old Norse name of "ref-skak" suggests that it postdates the 12th century arrival to Scandinavia of chess, whose name it adopted.

That it was a descendant of hnefatafl is also unlikely. Its rules are identical to that of catch the hare, only the board being different. Alquerque is the obvious ancestor game of catch the hare, and therefore of fox & geese too. Fox & geese cannot have taken anything from hnefatafl that wasn't already present in catch the hare.

So it seems to me that the two games are in fact unrelated. Their only resemblance is that they were asymmetrical, but this attribute was already present in other games related to fox & geese. The original element of fox & geese is its board, and it is indeed a mystery where that came from.

If you want to look into any of these other games in depth, then you can find more information on my other site "Cyningstan Traditional Board Games" - see the link elsewhere on this page.


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