Hneftafl—A Mysterious Scandinavian Board Game From The Early Middle Ages


Hneftafl (also spelled hnettafl or hnefatafl) was a popular board game that is believed to have originated in Scandinavia or possibly in the northern Germanic lands. Although modern hneftafl games are being sold by nostalgic producers, it likely took a lot of guesswork and improvisation on the part of these companies, for there is very little surviving information on how the authentic hneftafl game was played.

What we do know about the game mainly comes from remnants of the player pieces found in burial mounds and a few brief descriptions of the game found in medieval literature, such as the Icelandic sagas. The game is often compared to chess—they both had light and dark sets of game pieces, and they both had a king that needed to be protected or captured. Hneftafl pieces could sometimes be fairly large in size and they often were made with pegs jutting out underneath, so that the hneftafl pieces could be securely attached to the game board. The pegs must have been fairly long and sturdy, for in one grisly episode from Grettir’s Saga (c. 14th century) the peg from a hneftafl piece was used to gouge out a person’s eye.

Around the time of the crusades, hneftafl’s popularity began to wane under the weight of the skyrocketing rise of chess in Europe. As the northern Europeans converted to chess, hneftafl soon sank to the vague and incomplete shadow that we have of the game today.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Odin entertaining guests in Valhalla, by Emil Doepler (1855–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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