Hnefatafl—the Strategic Board Game of the Vikings

By Sten Helmfrid

First published in:

About this book

Excerpt from the book:

Hnefatafl—the Strategic Board Game of the Vikings An overview of rules and variations of the game

A century ago, many experts on ancient Scandinavia were fascinated by a mysterious board game, called hnefatafl or tafl, which was often mentioned in the Sagas. Its reputation as intellectual pursuit was equal to that of chess today, and Norse no-blemen were often boasting about their skills in tafl-play.

In the early Middle Ages, when chess was introduced in Scandinavia, the noble game of the Vikings gradually became extinct and no explana-tion of the rules survived for the scientists in the19th century. One of the first persons who became devoted to solving the puzzle of hnefatafl was Willard Fiske, an American expert on languages. He collected a lot of material that was published in the book Chess in Iceland in 1905, but he finally abandoned the problem as insoluble.

The only conclusion he could make was that it was played between two groups of “maids” with a “hnefi” on one side. Hnefi is an Icelandic word and literally means fist, but since the hnefi had a role corre-sponding to the king in chess it is often translated as king. The word hnefatafl itself is a compilation of hnefa, genitive of hnefi, and tafl, which is the Old Norse word for board.