Remembering Hnefatafl, the 1,000-year-old Viking board game murdered by chess
“It was the most prominent board game in Northern Europe for hundreds of years, so however it was played, it was engaging.”
“In the town of Birka, on an island in Lake Mälaren near Stockholm, Sweden, there lies a ninth-century burial site once described as “the ultimate Viking warrior grave.”
Among the artifacts excavated here were a sword, an ax, two spears, a knife, 25 arrows (the bow had probably rotted over the course of more than 1,000 years), two shields, and a pair of horses. But that wasn’t all the grave contained. On the lap of the deceased, archaeologists found a bag of dice and gaming pieces carved from bone. A board for the ancient Viking game hnefatafl had been propped up beside the body.
But this Viking wasn’t just a hobbyist. Academic games historian Eddie Duggan tells Inverse that the warrior in question — who was originally believed to be a “high-status male” but later discovered to have been biologically female through DNA analysis — was likely some sort of military commander.
“The gaming pieces are associated with strategy, implying the warrior would also have been a military leader or commander,” Duggan says. “So we have a female cavalry commander, dressed in her finery, along with her horses, her weapons, and her game board and gaming pieces, buried alongside fellow elite military commanders.”
Burying high-ranking members of the elite class with valuable artifacts was fairly standard practice across various ancient and medieval cultures. It isn’t surprising to learn that this particular warrior was interred with enough weaponry for a small army. What fewer people might know is what exactly the gaming board was for: a millennium-old Viking board game that was unceremoniously usurped by a hip new enterprise called “chess” in the 12th century.
In the end, chess and hnefatafl were simply too alike to co-exist.
“Chess certainly wiped out a lot of games,” says Martha Bayless, who has a Ph.D. in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic from Cambridge University. “Tafl was a war game, as is chess, so they fit into a similar space in culture. The other very popular early medieval game was a form of backgammon, which is a racing game, and that game continued strong all the way through, as we can see by the fact that people still play backgammon to this day. So it was in the realm of war games that tafl lost out to chess.”
As for now, the future of tafl is unclear. Technically speaking, we still don’t know the rules, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to show up anytime soon. Still, Bayless makes a convincing argument for the continued importance of hnefatafl.
“The last record of tafl being played as part of the long tradition, rather than part of a revival, was in 1889, among the Sámi,” says Bayless. “So recent, comparatively speaking. How I wish someone had asked those players what the rules were! I entertain a fantasy that it’s still played somewhere in an obscure family who don’t know the rest of us are looking for it. But whenever I inquire among anyone with connections to that area of the world, they shake their heads. So probably the long tradition — perhaps some 1,500 years of a very popular game — is really dead, and revivals are all we have.” (https://www.inverse.com/culture/viking-board-games-hnefatafl)