An ancient game known as “hnefatafl” held immense symbolic and religious significance.
THE ICELANDIC SAGA HERVÖR AND HEIDREK abounds with tropes instantly familiar to modern fantasy fans. 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 contest begins in the saga’s closing chapters when Heidrek, King of the Goths, summons to court his enemy, Gestumblindi. Fearing execution, the latter resorts to desperate measures: He seeks help from Odin, the most powerful and notoriously capricious Viking god. Seemingly content with Gestumblindi’s subsequent sacrifice, Odin agrees to transform himself into a doppelgänger and take the man’s place at court. Rather than submit himself to the judgment of Heidrek’s council, the disguised god convinces the king to settle the matter through a game of wits.
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. “What women are they,” asks Odin as Gestumblindi, “warring together before their defenseless king; day after day the dark guard him, but the fair go forth to attack?” 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.”
Heidrek’s reference, here, is one of several in the Icelandic sagas to an ancient board game known as hnefatafl (pronounced “neffa-tafel”). 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. The archaeologist Mark Hall recently chronicled the contents of 36 burials containing such pieces in a 2016 article for The European Journal of Archaeology. This material, he says, indicates the game was much more than a frivolous way to kill time between raids. “Its presence in these burials suggests it was an aspect of everyday life that was desirable to see continued,” he says, as well as “a significant element that helped define the status of the deceased.”