hist-games: Gwyddbwyll

Christian Joachim Hartmann lukian at Null.net
Wed Sep 17 10:19:44 PDT 1997

Lachlan Jones <boston at terrigal.net.au> wrote:
>Does anyone know of a Welsh game called gwyddbwyll? I was reading a legend
>from the Mabinogion,(the Dream of Rhonabwy) and it makes reference to a game
>played between King Arthur and Owein son of Uryen. The quote says, 'so the
>red-haired man brought them the gwyddbwyll set, whose men were gold and
>whose board was silver'.
>The legend makes no further attempt to explain the game, but it appears that
>it was a strategy game something like hnefatafl, or tawl-bwrdd, the known
>Welsh variant of that game. It certainly kept Arthur and Owein occupied,
>since Arthur's best troops were being attacked by Owein's ravens at the time
>they were  playing and Owein couldn't drag himself away!  

I havn't found a description of this game too, but my edition of "The dream
of Rhonabwy" gives further references which might be worth taking into account.
The remark to the word "Gwyddbwyll" read something like this:

  "The name of this game means 'wood-intelligence' and is etymologically
parallel to the Irish name of the game 'fidchell'. Gwyddbwyll is similar to
chess. Knowing this game is one of the twenty-four skills a young nobleman
is supposed to have. Therefor Gwyddbwyll is often mentioned in literature.
Cf. the automatical Gwyddbwyll game in 'Peredur'. In 'Breudwyt Maxen Wledic'
(The Dream of prince Maxen) the board is also of silver, but the men are of

This Irish game of 'fidchell' occupies a similar position in Irish sagas, as
'Gwyddbwyll' in the Welsh ones. Two tales I remember where it is played are:
"How Ronan had his son killed" (Book of Leinster)
"Fraechs wooing of Finnabir" (Book of Leinster, Yellow book of Lecan)

There is at least one even more interesting reference to the game, but I am
unable to find it at the moment.

(Note: The comparison of 'Gwyddbwyll' to chess is notorious. 'Fidchell' is
often translated as 'chess' and my source states that "Gwyddbwyll is similar
to chess" (supra). All this may be right if thinking of the social status of
chess and Gwyddbwyll/finchell in comparison, but the nature of the game is
definitely like hnefatafl!)
**       Christian Joachim Hartmann 
**       lukian at Null.net
**       christian.hartmann at uni-duesseldorf.de

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