hist-games: Halatafl - digression on hnefatafl

Damian Walker damian at snigfarp.karoo.co.uk
Sun Nov 13 11:11:10 PST 2005

Quoting Huette von Ahrens's message of Yesterday:

> I have found that playing the smaller version is just
> as you say. They are very unfair.  But the largest
> version, which people seem to be calling "Alea
> Evangelii", is much fairer and is easy or
> hard, depending on the experience of the players.  

My first experience of the smallest version, on a 7x7 board with 13 
pieces, was with an evaluation version of Zillions of Games.  It was 
impossible for the attacking side to win.  In those rules, the king 
exits via the corner, may capture, and is captured on all four sides, as 
in the commercial variant The Viking Game.  I found that, in that 
variant, simply changing the method of capturing the king, so that he's 
captured as other pieces, seems to create a balanced game on the little 
board.  I've yet to find a satisfactory ruleset for 25 pieces on the 
same board, though.  That's too crowded and favours the attackers.

> I prefer the 19 square version, even if people call it
> the "Saxon version", just because a Saxon monk decided
> to use the game as an allegory for whatever point he
> was trying to make.  There are several fragments of
> the 19 square version found in archeological digs done
> in Scandinavia.  Why would the larger version then be
> exclusively "Saxon"?

I know only of the Vimose board (spelled Vimose by archaeologists, and
Wimose by board game historians, for some reason).  This was dated to AD
400, and is usually taken to be the earliest hnefatafl find.  I'm less
than certain that it's a hnefatafl board at all.  Parallels are drawn
with the alea evangelii, but that came five hundred years later, and I
know of no evidence for a game that size in the intervening years.  The
Vimose board also lacks the corner markings (the fixed men "for the
decoration of the playing table") of the alea evangelii.  We also know
its size in only one dimension, as only one and a half rows are left.  
Given that the finds in the Vimose bog were a war offering of booty
taken from Romanised Germans, the Vimose board is just as likely to be a
board for a large ludus latrunculorum as for hnefatafl.

Just a point of interest about the alea evangelii.  I wrote to the
people at Corpus Christi College library, Oxford, where the manuscript
source for this game is kept.  The archivist told me that the manuscript
is dated to 1140, some 200 years after the game it depicts.  The idea
that the manuscript is a Saxon one, contemporary with the game, seems to
have arisen in Bell's book "Board and Table Games from Many
Civilizations".  Murray before him, in "A History of Board-Games Other
Than Chess", didn't give a date for the manuscript, and it seems that
Bell assumed that it was contemporary with the game.  Historians
studying the manuscript have never considered it to date before the
eleventh century, but game scholars have copied Bell's assumption across
later books and a number of web sites.

This might seem like nit-picking, but it makes things a lot easier for
the reconstructionist.  One historian I know has tried to take
everything on the diagram literally, from the colours of the pieces
(nearly all black) to their slightly assymetrical placement, on the
basis that it was a "contemporary source".  But for a scribe copying
details of a 200 year-old game that had been forgotten at least a
century before his own time, some inaccuracies can be forgiven and, more
importantly, compensated for.

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

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