16 December 2008

Sports & Entertainment: Viking Board Games

By Michelle Styles

It is very tempting to think of the Vikings as always out raiding or fighting. However, the Vikings had many leisure activities including playing musical instruments, reciting of sagas, composing poetry and playing board games. Many grave sites include some evidence of game playing. With boards or counters being found in a number of graves across the entire Viking world.

The board games were important as they helped to teach strategy, a skill that many Viking warriors would have needed when deploying their men. They are not the sort of game where you simply followed a path, but pitted one opponent against another. From the sagas we know that women also played the games and so they were not simply a male preserve. Board games were often a place where men and women could pit their wits against each other.

Chess is a late 11-12 century addition to Viking board games. The famous Lewis chessmen which were discovered on the Island of Lewis in 1831 date from the early 12 century and are thought to be a lost Viking hoard. Uig, the place where they were discovered is windswept white sand and things rapidly become buried or hidden as I know from nearly losing a shoe on the beach. They are not sure if the chessmen were owned by a Viking, or if they were part of a Viking trader's stock.

The 93 pieces are divided between the Scottish National museum and the British museum and are considered to be part of Britain's great treasures. They are made from whale's teeth and show little sign of use. It is possible to buy replica sets. The rooks have berserker type fury on their faces and the queen simply looks glum.

In Old Norse chess was called skak-tafl and took the Viking world by storm, rapidly displacing other perhaps more pagan board games.

Prior to the introduction of chess, tafl referred to hnefatafl or king's board/table. No one is quite sure how it was played but there have been many guesses based on a variety of clues and riddles left in the sagas and the incomplete boards that have been found. The hnefa is thought to refer to the king piece who is surrounded by eight maidens. Scholars are not sure if dice were used in the game or not. Thud, a game from Terry Pratchett's disc world owes something to tafl, and perhaps gives the most flavour of what it could be like to play.

Other games in the Viking period included a variation on fox and geese (a complex game where one player has one piece and the other tries to surround him) and nine men morris.

However the games were played, they were a popular pastime and required a great deal of intellectual thought and a knowledge of the rules.