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THE ICELANDIC SAGA HERVÖR AND HEIDREK is regarded as a key influence on classic early-20th century works in the genre, the 13th-century tale features dwarves, a tragic curse, a magical sword, and, perhaps most recognizable of all to fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a fateful contest of riddles.
The story’s subsequent riddles illustrate countless facets of life during the Viking Age—most notably riddle 13, which provides rare insight into an intriguing Nordic pastime.
For centuries, Heidrek’s answer to this riddle has fascinated archaeologists and historians alike. “This is the game of hnefatafl,” he says, “the darker ones guard the king, but the white ones attack.”
Ubiquitous among Nordic settlements during the early Middle Ages, Vikings played the game on a checkered wooden tablet similar to the modern-day chess board. Once a relative mystery to researchers, archaeologists now believe it held immense symbolic and religious significance.
Over the past 150 years, excavators have unearthed large quantities of gaming material from Viking boat burials. Dating from the 7th to the 11th centuries, most of it consists of checker-like pieces constructed from glass, whale bone, or amber. These pieces range from ordinary discs to ornate figurines and are usually uniform in shape and size, save for one prominent king piece, known as the hnefi.
...until the early 20th century, few scholars differentiated hnefatafl from other contemporary board games. Early published editions of the Sagas relied upon wildly disparate translations of medieval Icelandic texts, which also confused the matter. Because the oldest extant copies of these documents often refer to the game as “tafl”—a Germanic word denoting “board” or “table”—translators regularly mistook references to it for generic allusions to chess.
Chess...dates to sixth-century India, and its origins are possibly even older. By the Viking Age, it had also reached Europe. Both hnefatafl and chess were played side by side. It is not always clear from early sources which game is being referred to, but double-sided boards are known with one side suitable for one game and the other for the other game.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that historians realized the games shared little in common beyond a checkered board and a prominent “king.”
Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, encountered a game called tablut during a 1732 trip to Lapland, at which time he jotted down its basic rules. After comparing these rules to the game mentioned in the Sagas, it was hypothesized that “it is extremely probable that tablut is identical with the old hnefatafl.”
Tablut pit an offensive player against a defensive opponent. The latter placed a king piece in the central square of a checkered board and surrounded it with defenders. This player attempted to win the game by maneuvering the king to one of the four corners of the board. The game’s rules awarded the opposing player a superior number of pieces, which were placed in formation around the king’s defense. This player won by occupying all four squares around the king. All pieces in the game moved horizontally and vertically, like the rook in chess.
hnefatafl seems to have meant much more to the Vikings than its offshoots did to their neighbors and descendants. This is evidenced not only by its inclusion in boat burials, but also by where Vikings placed the material within these graves. The majority were placed mid-ship, but it depended on the size of the boat and the nature of the deceased. The symbolism inherent in this placement had less to do with where in the boat than where in relation to the body.
In many cases, Vikings placed a hnefatafl board on or near the deceased’s lap. Others seem to have placed gaming pieces on top of the grave itself.
Vikings may have seen this placement as “a means of assisting the transformation of the deceased into the afterlife or ancestral state.” These same Vikings, they added, might also have anticipated “future games, perhaps imagining a lordly lifestyle of gaming, feasting, and fighting in the next world.”
"In life, strategic thinking and fighting ability were fundamental to success on the gaming board and such success accentuated the status of a warrior; placing the gaming kit in the grave served to remember or commemorate that status and skill and to make it available for the deceased in the afterlife.”