hist-games: Halatafl - digression on hnefatafl

Damian Walker damian at snigfarp.karoo.co.uk
Thu Nov 10 23:21:42 PST 2005

Quoting Jane & Mark Waks's message of Wednesday:

> As for the unequal strength of the opponents, that's also a matter of 
> common wisdom more than certainty. Most interpretations of Hnefetafl are 
> pretty deeply unequal, but again the evidence for those rules is weak at 
> best -- the earliest concrete rules date to the 17th century, and it's 
> unclear how close they are to the Viking version of the game.

I think the evidence for unequal strength in hnefatafl is a bit stronger 
than you suggest here.

There are earlier sources than Linnaeus which, while they don't tell us
enough to play a game, are pretty clear about the proportion of forces.  
Robert ap Ifan clearly tells of a king and twelve men against
twenty-four, and earlier Welsh sources cost up a game with a king and
eight men on one side, giving the other side a budget for sixteen men of
the same value.  An Early Irish source describes a game with five men
versus eight, the five being a king (branan) and four men.

Archaeological evidence also suggests the approximate proportion of
pieces for a game apparently of the same family.  Many of the grave
finds at Birka appear to have a king with several men of one colour,
pattern or size, and a larger force differentiated from them.  Ratios of
1:8:17 in grave 750, and 1:6:20 in grave 624 are the best known
examples, but games with 1:5:14 (grave 523) and 1:6:10 (grave 986) have
also been found there.  The find at Gunnarshaug has 1:4:11 and at Scar
the ratio is 1:8:13.

All the archaeological finds are subject to interpretation, and may be
incomplete, but taken together with the literary sources, they present a 
pretty compelling case that our reconstructions of hnefatafl are 
accurate in regard to the relative strength of the opponents.

Damian - http://damian.snigfarp.karoo.net/

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