History of Hnefatafl (Tafl) ...and the Isle of Lewis Chess Set.
Vikings loved to play games of strategy like dice games and various board games. Game boards and playing pieces carved from walrus tusks, bone, wood, stone, or imported glass have been found in many graves of high-status men and women throughout the Viking world. The famous “shield maiden’s grave” of the Birka Warrior was not only outfitted with an array of deadly weapons and war horses but also a gaming set of exceptional quality.
At the Salme ship burial off Estonia's coast, the Viking leader interred with 40 battle-felled warriors had a king game piece in his mouth, signifying his dynastic rank. According to a medieval source, the cataclysmic war between Irish High King, Brian Boru, and the Viking King of Dublin, Sygtrygg Silkbeard, was kicked off by an argument at a chess game.
Chess-like games of strategy appear in numerous Icelandic sagas. The Eddic poem, Völuspá, describes the gods playing with golden game pieces – which somehow are one of the only things left when the world is renewed after Ragnarok. But these games were not just the way aristocrats passed their time – they were popular spectator events too.
The Grágás laws of the 13th century (designed to help Iceland transition into new Christian monarchal realities) expressly forbid spectators from gambling over such games.
Isle of Lewis Chess pieces
Of all the material evidence for the Vikings’ love of games, the most telling are the fantastic ivory chess pieces found near a beach in the Hebrides of Scotland. This region of Scotland had long been a Viking stronghold. On the Isle of Lewis (one of the 790+ islands in the Scottish archipelago) in 1831, there was a chance discovery of 92 ivory game pieces, including 78 individual and distinct hand-carved chessmen. So many pieces (almost four full sets) of artistically rendered walrus tusk ivory would have been a tremendous treasure to the king or chieftain who owned them. They are a treasure to us as well, because they offer so many clues about the culture of that time.
Entire books have been written about these Lewis Chessmen, as they have become known. But we will return to their story in a moment. First, let us take a quick look at the global heritage of the game of chess.
Chess over the Ages
Games involving boards, pieces, and strategy were widespread throughout human history, especially in Asia and Europe. However, most experts identify an ancient game from India called chaturanga as the earliest known chess precursor. Chaturanga had pieces with different properties and revolved around capturing a king. This game quickly spread to Persia and across the silk roads of the flourishing Arab world by the 9th century. The Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (of 1001 Arabian Nights fame), even gifted an ivory chess set to Emperor Charlemagne.
However, the magnificent pieces on display in Paris are almost certainly of Norman/Italian and from much later. Not friends of Charlemagne or his progeny, the Vikings most likely encountered chess (or the version in use then, called shatranj) through their contacts with the Byzantine Empire and through direct contact with Islamic ambassadors and merchants.
The Vikings of the Kievan Rus traded along the Volga and Dnieper Rivers with the fabled lands of the East in a trade network known as the Northern Arc. Through this arc, furs, honey, wax, slaves, weapons, exotic animals, whalebone, and walrus tusk ivory made their way east while silks, luxuries, and plenty of silver made their way west. Ideas also traveled on this route, including chess.
Viking Games of Strategy
The Vikings’ culture was built on self-empowerment, often via cunning and strength of arms. Norse families were expected to protect what they had and improve themselves at their enemies' expense. As Odin says in the Eddic poem, Harbarthsljoth, “A tree has only the sun and soil it can crowd other trees out of.”
While the Vikings considered death in battle to be glorious and one of the requirements for a place in Valhalla, they undoubtedly considered living and winning to be of more practical use. A careful study of Viking military history reveals they avoided meeting strength with strength whenever possible. Instead, they used feints, stratagems, mobility, and guile to outwit and outmaneuver their enemies. Refining these skills and passing them on to future generations was paramount. One way to do this was through storytelling, which the Vikings excelled at. Another was through strategy-based games.
By the time chess reached Scandinavia, Iceland, and the British Isles, the Vikings had already played board-based strategy games for generations. The literary and archeological records show a diverse array of such games. Unfortunately, little is known about most of them. One that has partially survived, at least in reconstructed form, is called hnefatafl.
Hnefatafl involves one side defending a king, which is placed in the center of the board. The playing pieces include the king's surrounding defenders while the opponent (with no king) has a larger 'army' and attacks from the four edges of the board. The number of pieces vary, according to the archeological record. Still, it is no surprise to most Viking enthusiasts that their favorite game would involve unfair odds.
Hnefatafl belongs to a whole family of games collectively known as tafl (“table” games). Other variations include tablut, tawlbwrdd, brandubh, ard rí, and alea evangelii. These games all have different rules and pieces, but the same basic gist. The underlying concept inspired the outdoor game of kubb. Today, many versions of these games are colloquially called “Viking chess.”
Chess was eagerly embraced, probably because the various pieces' unique qualities added new dimensions and almost endless strategic possibilities to explore. Still called shetranj on the continent, the Vikings called it skáktafl. Their word for checkmate (mát) quickly started showing up in the sagas. The Vikings did not abandon their other games, though. One passage in the Króka-Refs saga describes this manifold interest. The character Bárðr brings gifts from Greenland to the king of Norway, including a board in which both hnefatafl and chess could be played interchangeably (possibly by turning the board over).
The Lewis Chessmen
If the Norwegian king in Króka-Refs saga were lucky, he might have set his reversible game board with pieces like the Lewis Chessmen. Though found in 1831, these pieces are dated to the 12th century.
Similar ivory chess pieces were found in a bog near Clonard, County Meath in Ireland. Today, only one of those pieces remains – the Meath Queen, which is on display in the National Museum in Dublin. The Meath Queen has her palm on her cheek just like the Isle of Lewis version. The similarities (and differences) between the Lewis and Clonard chessmen (found in Scotland and Ireland respectively) offer a glimpse into the quality of Viking craftsmanship and the breadth of their trade in high-end luxury goods.
The Lewis chessmen are made from walrus tusks, which had to be harvested from these massive aquatic beasts all the way in Greenland or perhaps other areas far to the north. They were then carved by very skilled artists. One scholar has hypothesized the controversial theory the chessmen were the work of Margret the Adroit, “the most skilled ivory carver in all Iceland” mentioned in the Saga of Bishop Pall. Later analysis suggests they may be the work of up to five different masters. These finished (and some semi-finished) works of art were then traded across Viking networks, braving cold waves and hostile raiders. We do not know if the Isle of Lewis was their intended destination, to adorn the treasure horde of some powerful but now-nameless Sea King. Or perhaps somehow this priceless treasure had come to rest there through misfortune. In fact, even the story of how they were discovered contains its share of mystery.
The Lewis Chessmen are not just remarkable for their backstory, though. Each one (except for the pawns, which are just shapes) shows tremendous personality. The Queens are probably the most detailed, with empathic faces, brooding postures, and gestures that show just how Viking queens were involved in their people's rule. The Kings, too, portray a lot of character. In particular, one King has long braided hair that Ragnar Lothbrok would have sported on today's television shows. At the same time, another of the Kings looks overweight, melancholy, and a little overwhelmed. The back of the Queen's throne (as seen here) shows a proliferation of folio motifs and zoomorphic ornamentation which is typical of Scandinavian artifacts from that same time period (specifically from Norway).
The Bishops are present in their ecclesiastical finery with their croziers and secret hand signs, showing the powerful political role the Church held in that age. The little hats that they wear (known as mitres) are facing forward instead of side-to-side which tells us that these pieces must have been made after the year 1150, which is approximately when the church made that change.
The Knights ride warhorses and carry their long lances in a strange flex-wrist grip. The warriors wear long hauberks of mail or sometimes what appear to be padded jackets standard of the later Gallowglass from this region. Their helmets are conical, sometimes with backs or cheekpieces. Their shields are kite-shaped or close to the Norman inverted teardrop design, denoting these are meant to be a royal retinue of warriors from the late Viking Age.
Some of the warriors have mad eyes and bite their shields in a clear display of the berserker's rage as described in the sagas. These berserkers are often used as rooks in re-creations since the Lewis Chessmen include no castles or chariots as other chess sets. It seems fitting that the berserkers would make the long, sweeping moves in defense of their king, just as they once did in history.
The Lewis Chessmen are on display at both the British Museum in London and the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh, where they draw thousands of visitors a year. Most people have seen them and not realized it, though. Their images have been used in countless book covers, displays, and film – including the first Harry Potter movie. In the early 1800's, a written description of these artifacts tells us that some of the original pieces were a dark but vivid red, believed to have been stained by soaking the ivory tusk in ox blood. This color has since completely faded and today all of the pieces appear as a natural ivory color.
Beyond their pop culture impact or the draw of their antiquity, the Lewis Chessmen are powerful communicators of a bygone age. Each time you look at one closely, you will see something a little different. To play chess with them seems to make the game slow down and somehow seem more personal, more real, as if one can clearly feel the continuity with the past.
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