Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Not A Game of Thrones?

The king: on his throne or in his castle?
The king: on his throne or in his castle?

Monday, 19th August 2013

It's common for the central square in hnefatafl to be called the "throne". It seems natural, given that the king starts the game there, and that in many variations only the king is entitled to sit there. Analogies of a king escaping his burning hall in a raid add to the analogy of this central space being the king's rightful seat - albeit one that he's leaving behind. For some time it didn't occur to me that this might not be what the Vikings called it.

When I first encountered the translation of Linnaeus' tablut rules by J. E. Smith, I was surprised to see the square being referred to as the "castle". So many renderings of the tablut rules use the term "throne" as it if were there in the original rules. Reference to Linnaeus' Latin gives "arx", which is translated as "citadel" "fortress" or "castle".

A bit of further research shows that the term appears to originate in 1969 with R. C. Bell, in "Board and Table Games 2", available nowadays as the second half of the book "Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations". H. J. R. Murray, through whose book "A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess" Bell obtained his information, eschews even the fanciful name of "castle" and merely calls it the central square or central cell.

The castle is a much older term. It predates Linnaeus. The poem "Abair riom a Eire ogh" compares the central square in brandub to "Tara's castle, delightful hill", while the alea evangelii manuscript refers to "city and citadel" among the seven skills of the game.

But castle or throne, does it really matter? Not really, except for those occasions when a modern scholar tries to extrapolate unwritten rules from the theme. An interesting question that arises is that of scale. When looking to the theme for inspiration, it is often assumed that each piece is an individual warrior. Discussion goes on about whether the king should be as strong and active as other pieces based on Norse society and custom, potentially influencing decisions on house or tournament rules.

But an alternative is that each piece represents a band of soldiers, as would fit a plain with a castle in the middle and possibly other castles in the far corners, as "Abair riom a Eire ogh" goes on to suggest. In this case the king piece would represent a band of soldiers led by the king, while other pieces are bands led by lesser nobles. Such a band would be as active as the others, perhaps stronger when within the safety of the castle.

I don't particularly think that retro-fitted detailed themes like this should inform decisions about game-play; the example above and the confusion between thrones and castles shows how shifting and uncertain the precise theme of the game is.


Yes, I think you are right. I used to assume that the Sami word Konokis meant "throne", but I just checked a word list for the Lule Sami language ( ), and it gives "gånågis" (å is same as German o) as the translation for king. So there is no trace of a throne in the description.

Jonas - 08:37, 20/08/2013

Thanks for the reminder Jonas. Sten Helmfrid ( mentions that it probably refers to the king too, I should have remembered that for this post.

Damian Walker - 08:50, 20/08/2013

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