Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl: Younger than Chess?

Vimose board fragment
Vimose board fragment

Tuesday, 3rd September 2013

On almost every other site, and in many books, about hnefatafl, you'll read that the game has been played since AD 400. Some people even say the game had already been played long before then. But you don't see me push that claim on here. Why is that?

The evidence usually cited is the Vimose board, dated to AD 400. This is 18 squares wide, and is often linked with the board depicted in the alea evangelii manuscript. So great an authority as H. J. R. Murray was convinced that the board and the manuscript depicted the same game, so it's not surprising that the date of AD 400 is given a lot of credence.

But I was never really convinced. Only a row and a half of squares survive, so the number of rows was always assumed. As I studied the alea evangelii more closely, I also noticed crucial differences: the fixed men in the corners of the alea evangelii are absent from the Vimose board; I can't believe that fixed men would have been allowed to obscure part of the playing area for no reason, but whatever their purpose was, they weren't serving it on the Vimose board.

If the Vimose board isn't for alea evangelii then that isn't to say it's not for some other form of hnefatafl. But what other evidence is there? We know it's a hnefatafl board because hnefatafl was played by Scandinavians at about this time. How do we know it was played? Because we have this board! The usual logic is circular.

I joined the growing number of sceptics when I found a copy of Paul Du Chaillu's The Viking Age, published in 1889. This explains a lot about the context of the find. The gaming board was one of a large number of objects deposited in the bog, probably as a war booty offering, not a burial as some say. Most if not all of the objects are of Roman origin, not Scandinavian. They were probably taken from Romans by Germans.

This suggests that the Vimose board might be for ludus latrunculorum, still played by the Romans in around AD 400, as described in the Saturnalia of Macrobius. Recently I've seen more descriptions and pictures of Vimose artefacts, and found that there were three boards, some of them having markings for ludus duodecim scriptorum on the other side. This seems to demolish the one piece of evidence that hnefatafl was played as early as AD 400.

The next piece of evidence is the Golden Horn of Gallehus, dating to about AD 550. The board game it depicts is square, but doesn't really bear any strict resemblance to hnefatafl. If the circles around the board edge are taken as pieces, then it doesn't look like any other game we know of either, except for the Tibetan game of ming mang, a highly unlikely identification.

The earliest find I know of that suggests hnefatafl is the set of 71 gaming pieces from Salmo in Estonia, part of a hasty multiple burial that seems to be the result of a raid gone wrong. One of the pieces alone is specially marked as if to distinguish it from the others. It dates to AD 750, and until I learn of any earlier unambiguous finds I'll settle on the conservative opinion that hnefatafl was played by the eighth century.


A little off topic, but a possible Proto-Brannumh/Tafl game is the Stanway board found in Essex (The Druid of Colchester) it is a Ludus board but has a marker in the middle, suggestion that two equal forces are attempting to capture a central counter (they often leave this out in reconstructions) it could be the origin of both Talf and Fiodhcheall.

John McMahon - 16:45, 21/06/2014

I've seen a reconstruction of the Stanway board with two "special" pieces, as if each side had twelve soldiers and a king. My own reconstruction of the game at follows this interpretation (albeit reduced to an 8x8 board), though ideas about this board and latrunculi continue to fluctuate.

Interestingly, there are a few Scandinavian games with a single king among two contending sides. Hnefatafl is one, sahkku is another board game from Lapland, and Kubb, an outdoor skittle game, is another.

Damian Walker - 17:05, 21/06/2014

I often wondered if it was true that Fiodhcheall was played on brannamh boards then was there a hybrid between the two, Buanfach possibly? The only information we know about Fiodhcheall is that it was equal forces against each other which was captured by custodial arrest, also that it is very similar to modern chess. The pieces are always silver against gold, unlike Bran-dubh which is always white against Red. We call Fiodhcheall in Latin Scacharum Ludus

John McMahon - 20:19, 22/06/2014

I was curious if you knew anything about the supposed tafl game found in the excavation of Eadgils' Mound at Uppsala. I was researching the historical context of Beowulf recently and the wiki page mentions that Eadgil's mound supported some of the historical components of the epic and then it said in an oft copied line:

"When Eadgils' mound was excavated in 1874, the finds supported Beowulf and the sagas. They showed that a powerful man was buried in a large barrow, c 575, on a bear skin with two dogs and rich grave offerings. These remains include a Frankish sword adorned with gold and garnets and a tafl game with Roman pawns of ivory."

The statement about Roman pawns led me to think of Ludus but this would have been a little late at a century after the last Roman emporer and during the rule of the Ostrogoths in the nearest part of what was left of the Roman Empire and a bit far north since Uppsala was the heart of the Norse world and also pre-viking.

If it was an actual Tafl game and not just named generically this would predate the Estonian find by almost two centuries placing it roughly in the late 6th century. However if it was Ludus it could add additional context to when Ludus would have arrived in the north and started its possible transformation into Tafl.

Unfortunately I cannot find any information beyond that line that really says anything more about the alleged Tafl game.

Tuireann - 15:16, 13/09/2016

I think I followed the same train when I first saw the "tafl game" mentioned on Wikipedia and came to a similar dead end. The full details will be in an archaeological report, but even if it's been digitised it would be in Swedish and so it has eluded my searches so far. But I'll keep trying periodically.

Damian Walker - 18:47, 13/09/2016

I managed to find a Swedish PDF on the dating of artifacts from the barrow excavations with a section on the gaming pieces. I sent a link to a copy of the PDF and my translation of the game pieces section to the email at the bottom of this page. It is less than enlighting so I will continue searching but I thought you might find it interesting.

Tuireann - 23:22, 13/09/2016

I also found the original notes and photographs of the artifacts excavated at both Östhögen and Västhögen. Sent you an email with the link and information.

Tuireann - 15:24, 14/09/2016

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