Tag Archives: Viking History

History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

hnefatafl

Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for northern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,
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History Undusted: Eidsborg Stave Church & the Vest-Telemark Museum

Back in August of 2013, my husband and I went on a holiday/research trip (for “The Cardinal“) through parts of Norway, and we came across an amazing site:  Eidsborg Stave Church and the Vest-Telemark Museum.  We went to Eidsborg with the intention of seeing the outside of the Stavskyrkje (stave church) there on our way to the Heddal Stave Church; instead, we spent swift hours there!  It started off with a private guided tour from a local guy (“local” meaning his family has lived in the area since the 1300s), who was both understandably proud of the local history and knowledgeable, as well as enthusiastic.

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Vest-Telemark Museum, Eidsborg

The museum itself is modern, beautiful, excellently staffed and convenient, with free wireless connection, a cafe and a gift shop, but most importantly, an extensive exhibit of the history of Vest-Telemark.  The rural life from the late 1700s to 1900s is colourfully laid out, with printed information sheets at each station in Norwegian, English and German.  There’s a strong sense of pride in local culture, and you can breathe in the history of the place.  Literally.  The buildings on the property, some of which you can enter, live and breathe the lives of those who lived there; the musty smells of old leather, damp earth, mildew in the wooden and thatched walls and roofs, the smell of pine wood, the turfy aroma of the blackened pitch-coated walls of the Stave church itself, and the sight of dusty sunlight streaking in through wallboards into the barn, the smithy, a cottage, storehouse, stable, or the mill.  There was even a sauna, built around 1895 (saunas weren’t used back then as they are now; they were places to dry grains for storage or to steam out fleas and lice from fur rugs and coats).

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The Eidsborg Stave Church

The church is typical stave construction:  The staves are corner pillars used to support the edifice, and the interior of the roof uses the same skeletal structure as the Viking longboats – if it works (and those ships worked better than anything on water for centuries), why change it?  The inside of the church is rich in history:  Carvings from the 1200s, intricately painted walls from the 1600s, a statue of the patron saint of travellers (St. Nicholas of Bari) watching from the corner (as an antique replica – the original is in an Oslo museum), and the dusty light of sunlight peering through small holes near the upper beams. The latter mainly served to provide a bit of light as well as fresh air:  Candles could only be afforded for the clergy, so it would have been extremely dark without those holes; sermons went on for hours back in olden days and there were no seats until the middle ages.  Everyone in the parish was required to come, punishment or humiliation being the course of the day if they failed to appear for service, and in the tiny space allowed inside the original church, it would have been standing room only, packed in like sardines.  If someone fainted from lack of fresh air, it probably wouldn’t have been noticed until everyone filed out.  Today there are pews, and it is used weekly as the parish church through the summer and autumn; it is closed for service during the colder months as heating it would cause decay of the paintings and interior woodwork.

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Details in the gallery

Wooden-shingle clad from the ground up, it gives the building the appearance of dragon’s scales, and having been coated with thick pitch for centuries, it looks quite as if it has been charred; it smells wonderfully peaty, like a strong dark whiskey, and on a sunny day you can smell the aroma a good distance away.  The gallery along three sides of the church reveals many interesting details, from the wooden spikes used to nail the shingles to the roof to the outer curve of the stave pillars jutting out into the gallery.  It’s living, breathing history, and a pleasure to have been there.

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