In the 7th century, Norwegians on the west coast of Norway exported game pieces made of whalebone to the royal court at Uppsala in East Sweden. Likely, the game they played was a version of Hnefetafl
Hnefatafl, or Nefatavl, is an old Viking game that was rediscovered in the 19th century. It appears the Vikings brought the game with them on their voyages, e.g. to England, where several parts of the game have been found. The game had its heyday in Northern Europe from the 7th century until the 11th century, when it was supplanted by chess. After that, the game continued to be played in less exalted circles. The last time Nefatavl is known to have been played in the Nordics was in 1732 when the famous naturalist Carl von Linné saw the game played while he was visiting the Lapps in Northern Sweden. He called the game for Tablut or Swedes & Muscovites in his description.
The name – hnefatafl – is usually believed to refer to the board of the “fist” or the game of the “fist”. Sometimes spelled with a “k” (knefatafl), we may ask: is the word related to knes, knjaz or kuningaz, that is “king”? More probably, though, it is that the word derives from the Old Norse verb “knefa”, to determine. Perhaps the game is a game teaching the players to “determine” strategic matters in a military fight?
The game probably took its origin from the Roman game, Latrones, short for Ludus Latruncolorum – the game of brigands or “little soldiers” (hence perhaps: the “game of knaves”). Adopted by Germanic mercenaries in the Roman army, the game is known to have been played in Roman Iron Age Scandinavia. Finds from Viemose at Fyn in Denmark (c. 200) and Ytre Fosse in Western Norway (c. 300–400) document how this forerunner for Hnefnatafl was played among the elite.
This elite character is documented by numerous archaeological finds, such as the imported game pieces made of whalebone and found in the royal graves at Uppsala or the game pieces excavated in the very early ship burials at Saaremaa from ca. 750. Another fascinating find is the game pieces with which the female warrior was buried at Birka (grave 581). Until 2017 identified as an elite warrior’s grave, DNA redefined the remains as female. The gaming pieces were found in her lap. Another example of a rich female buried with gaming pieces is grave 523 at Birka. However, most game pieces seem to appear in male burial assemblages also consisting of horses and weapons. The buried persons seem to have been not just dressed up like warriors but also expected to be well-versed in military wisdom, war games and strategies. Another feature is the link between boat burials and gaming pieces, as described by Hall (2016), who has listed 36 such examples covering the period from AD 600–1000. Often, the game pieces were made of whale bones, which appears to have been a luxury export article, in which the Norwegians at the West Coast excelled.
As with chess, it takes time to learn to play the game. One explanation (Whittaker 2006) for the elite character of the game is the role it might play as a symbol of conspicuous leisure. More pertinent, perhaps, is the element of negotiating and communicative skills involved in playing the game. By adding gaming pieces to the burial assemblages, the relational and diplomatic element of dealing with the Gods in the rites des passages of the Norse people become very visible. This understanding seems to be well correlated with the year-long and prolonged funerals, which elite ship burials seem to have been part of. Such games may even have been part of the ritualised performance involved in the often long-drawn rites connected with boat burials. It has been suggested that actual games were played while the graves remained open.
In this connection, it is worth considering how children were taught the Viking warrior ethos. Recent studies (Raffield 2017) have explored the enculturation during Viking Age childhood by examining the archaeological and literary evidence. By wielding toy weapons and playing strategic board games, children were early on enculturated into militarism and hegemonic masculinity, which by all accounts fed the hegemony of the Viking Warrior. While the toy weapons were modelled on full-sized, functional weapons, hnefatafl taught children how to negotiate while conducting martial activities. Perhaps the fluidity of the rules and the settings, which by all accounts characterised the game, is a spill-over from a now forgotten phase of any game, which may have commenced with a preliminary discussion of the settings, any particular rules and more.
This deliberating element of the games is hinted at in the Völuspa. Here, in the early morning of the newly created world, the Aasir play with golden pieces on a vast plain in the midst of the new landscape enacting a foreplay to the later disruption. Unfortunately, the giants steal the gaming pieces, and not until after Ragnarök, when the rejuvenated world reappears, do the Aesir find the opportunity to pick up the game by finding the lost gaming pieces in the grass—perhaps leading to a new circle of discord, diplomacy and even disruption. With Teichert (2014), we should note the inherent violence and conflict that any game involves.
Finally, the game offers insight into the social structure of Viking Society. As opposed to Chess, the gaming pieces of the two teams are equal in status. Apart from the different colours, they appear equal to each other. Not so with the hnefa-piece, also called the king. This piece looks different but has no right to move differently from his folc, hird or huns. He appears to play the role of “first among equals”. This set-up mimics the society as described in the saga-tradition with the dróttinn defending his position against rivals, but also being attacked for his lack of intent to live up to the “rules” of the game as a gold- and ringbearer. This explains why the “king’s” aim is trying to flee justice and escape to a safe corner or quadrant.
Hnefatafl is a tactical game for two players. Each player has his role. One player must capture the king, while the other should aim to bring the king to safety in one of the board’s four corners. The game mimics an attack on a castle where the king is residing on his kunakis. If the attackers succeed in capturing him, they win. The king, on the other hand, tries to reach a sanctuary. The game differs from chess and other board games in that the defender – white – and the attacker – black – have different numbers of pieces, called huns, different starting positions and different aims. Also, the size of the board differs. The common version is 11 x 11 squares and matches the one found at Trondheim. However, other versions with 13 x 13 have been documented archaeologically at Gokstad (c. 900) and 15 x 15 at York. Archaeological finds indicate that the game occasionally involved dice.
For black, the starting position is at the centre square of the board, surrounded by his 12 guards, while the 24 attackers are located at the centre of the sides of the board. The main movement of the pieces is vertically and horizontally. A piece may be moved as few or many squares as wished for – like a rock in chess – although never past another piece and never diagonally. An opponent’s piece is taken when it becomes sandwiched between two aligned pieces or next to one of the four “forbidden” squares in the corners. The rules do not vary according to the board size, but the balance between the numbers of game pieces has to be ca. 1:2.
Likely, the most authentic version of the game was published in 2010 by Ashton, who translated the Latin text of Linné into proper English. Most modern versions take their departure from these rules.
Linnaeus’ Game of Tablut and its Relationship to the Ancient Viking Game Hnefatafl.
By John c. Ashton (2010)
The Heroic Age 2010, Vol 13.
Board Games in Boat Burials: Play in the Performance of Migration and Viking Age Mortuary Practice
By Mark A. Hall (2016)
In: European Journal of Archaeology 19 (3) 2016, 439–455
Whalebone Gaming Pieces: Aspects of Marine Mammal Exploitation in Vendel and Viking Age Scandinavia
By Andreas Hennius (2018), Rudolf Gustavsson, John Ljungkvist and Luke Spindler
European Journal of Archaeology (2018) Vol 21, no. 4
Playing Vikings. Militarism, Hegemonic Masculinities, and Childhood Enculturation in Viking Age Scandinavia
By Ben Raffield (2019)
Current Anthropology (2019) Vol 60, No 6, pp 813-835
Sport und Spiel bei den Germanen. Nordeuropa von der römischen Kaiserzeit bis zum Mittelalter
Ed. by Matthias Teichert (2013)
Series: Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde vol 88
De Gruyter 2013.
Game-Boards and Gaming-Pieces in Funerary Contexts in the Northern European Iron Age
By Helène Whittaker (2006)
Nordlit (2006) pp 103–112
From Dróttinn to King. The Role of Hnefatafl as a Descriptor of Late Iron Age Scandinavian Culture
By Justin J. L. Kimball (2013)
Lund Archaeological Review 19 (2013), pp. 61–76.