In the twelfth century CE, a young Norwegian Kali Kolsson ventured to Orkney. Eager to prove his worth, he listed his nine skills: “I am quick at playing chess…I hardly forget runes, I am often at either a book or craftsmanship. I am able to glide on skis, I shoot and row so it makes a difference, I understand both the playing of the harp and poetry.” Kolsson’s skills share similarities with the traditional pastimes of the Viking Age (c. 793-1066 CE). As demonstrated by Kolsson, Viking games served as more than just a good time, they offered training in strategy in a volatile medieval world.
1. Medieval Board Games: Unique Viking Games
The Old Norse word tafl figures prominently in Viking lore. Tafl translates to table and often refers to table-based games or board games. Various game boards and pieces have been found throughout the Viking world. These games seem to have been strategy games, but the rules have yet to be found. Game boards seem to have been typically made of wood, but their sizes varied considerably. Vikings marked many game boards with squares like a checkers or chess board while others had round peg holes.
Analysis of game pieces found throughout the Viking world show that many were crafted from whalebone. Archaeologists theorize that whale hunting preceded the Viking Age. Vikings chased whales across the Norwegian and western European coasts. Other game pieces were made of glass, amber, clay, and stone. The materials needed to craft these pieces highlight the scale and interconnectivity of the Viking world, where strategic acumen could serve Viking movers and shakers well.
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The only thing worse than an angry Viking was a hangry Viking. Feasts serve as prominent settings in many Icelandic sagas. Feasts acted as the background of weddings, funerals, rituals, holidays, and seasonal events like harvests. A picture stone from Gotland illustrates the ceremonial nature of feasting and drinking in the Viking Age.
Archaeological excavations in Iceland revealed the faunal remains of cattle, sheep, and pigs at Viking Age farms, suggesting that the Norse relied on domesticated produce. Chemical analysis of pollen and seeds from Icelandic farmsteads showed concentrations of barley seeds, indicating that the Vikings had plenty of beer on tap for their feasts. Archaeology shows Vikings relied on wooden cups or cattle horns to hold their beer. Fancier Vikings splurged on metal vessels, glass beakers or decorated drinking horns in silver or gold.
While feasting offered a change of pace and a celebratory mood, feasts also operated as part of broader socio-political strategies. When lords invited guests to dine on their best food and drink, they created networks of hierarchy and reciprocity. Vikings consolidated power and strengthened ties by letting the food and drink flow freely.
Though they traversed the globe, the Vikings never seemed to escape the cold. By the end of the ninth century, the Vikings held York in the former Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Excavations of their York-based trading post, Jorvik, revealed evidence of numerous craft industries as well as skates. Bone skates were not limited to York. Archaeologists have recovered over 670 skates from Sweden alone. Vikings took horse leg bones, flattened and smoothed the underside of the bone, then drilled a hole at one end. Threading a leather thong through the hole in the bone, they attached the skate to the ankle and secured it with a wooden peg.
Adults and children alike likely used bone skates. Archaeologists suspect the Vikings used some sort of pole to push themselves across frozen ponds. The skates may have been practical, allowing faster travel over ice. Alternatively, skates may have offered another arena for competitive racing. Either way, Kali Kolsson suggests that ice-based sports required training and skill. Those who mastered skating may have gained respect and prestige in the Viking world.
4. Hnefatafl (Game Board)
Hnefatafl is known as the Viking game. Frequently cited in the Icelandic Sagas, it’s a two-player game, and each player represents an army. No runic rulebook has yet been recovered, but historians and archaeologists believe they have pieced the basics together. The object of the game is deceptively simple: capture the hnefi, a king or chieftain piece.
To begin, the hnefi sits guarded in the middle of the game board. His opponents stand around the edge of the board in a diamond pattern. Players move their pieces at right angles. To capture an aggressor, the players must occupy two adjacent vertical or horizontal squares around the piece. To capture the hnefi, all four surrounding squares must be occupied. If the hnefi reaches one of the four corners, he wins. The game comprised a low-stakes trial of strategy and aggression to which the Vikings were well suited.
Archaeologists have recovered Hnefatafl boards from several burials. The Gokstad ship (c. 900 CE) found in Norway contained a game board with one side devoted to Hnefatafl and the other marked for nine men’s morris (also known as merels). Game pieces have been recovered from many burials and were made of bone, teeth, amber, and glass. Though commonly associated with the Vikings, Hnefatafl and other types of tafl (table games) predate the medieval period. The Romans played a similar board game of strategy called Ludus Latrunculorum or latrones. Roman soldiers stationed near Scandinavia may have influenced regional pastimes. As archaeologists continue to grapple with why the Vikings launched themselves across the globe, hnefatafl hints at a culture entrenched by strategy, suggesting Vikings took to the sea after much thought.
Picture a Viking warrior. Is she wearing a horned helmet? Archaeologists have never found evidence of horned helmets in excavations of the Viking world. In Sweden, archaeologists found a bronze plaque depicting a horned person, leading some to speculate that Vikings wore horns in a cultic tradition. The horned helmet trickled into archaeological literature and the public imagination. Richard Wagner latched onto the idea and Norse divas began appearing on the opera stage in ornate helmets. Music has thus been critical to the creation of the popular Viking image.
Historically, the Vikings embraced many musical instruments. A wooden lur and five rattles were recovered from the Oseberg ship. Archaeologists also have found flutes made from the bones of cows, deer, and birds. Unlike modern flutes, the Vikings played shorter instruments with three to seven-finger holes. At York, a unique set of panpipes emerged from excavations. The panpipe is made of rectangular boxwood with five holes in the side.
Music features frequently in Norse sagas and mythology. The Norse god Heimdallr had a horn called Gjallarhorn to be blown at the coming of Ragnarök. Sagas commonly reference the Old Norse singing and playing harps often with their feet. According to the Ynglinga saga, singing was brought to the Norse by the god Odin. Another saga describes a harp player who attempts to impress a king by playing songs called “Ogress-tune,” “The Dreamer,” and “Plundering-song.” This form of entertainment offered talented Vikings a way to ingratiate themselves with the powerful.
6. Story Time
Vikings were versatile raconteurs. Skalds gained renown for their poetic verses and heroic tales. Skalds traveled the Viking world performing in great halls and at the courts of kings. The stories of skalds were particularly desired at holidays and large gatherings. Skalds often paid homage to their hosts with honorary tales of valor. Kings or lords reciprocated by bestowing the skald with gifts. Gold rings were particularly valued gifts and became symbolic of the skald’s achievement. Skalds told stories that had to both entertain, be historically accurate, and keep their powerful hosts happy.
7. Rolling Dice
Archaeologists have recovered dice of antler and bone from the Viking Age. Archaeological finds show that dice were also made of expensive walrus ivory and the bones of other animals. Dice predated the Viking Age and have also been found in Iron Age Norway. Many times, dice have been discovered in burials that also contain hnefatafl boards. Dice likely formed an important part of games of strategy. They may have featured in gambling as well. Vikings brought foreign souvenirs, silver and gold coins, and other material wealth back from their travels. A good roll of the die could have enriched the lucky Viking, earning them respect and power in the local community.
Knǫttr means ball in Old Norse. Archaeologists speculate that these balls were hard, maybe made of wood or metal, but they have not been preserved well in the archaeological record. An Icelandic Saga from approximately 1300 CE describes a violent ballgame resulting in a dislocated arm, a broken foot, a broken neck, and an eye knocked out of its socket. Some games may have ended on a lighter note but playing knǫttr seems to have required strong bones. While they recovered, the Vikings could look forward to several gentler games.
Adults and children likely enjoyed and participated in various competitive sports like many other ancient cultures. Other popular Viking sports included ball games that involved some sort of stick like those used in hockey. Wrestling and other physical contests offered Vikings ways to demonstrate their physical prowess. Additional opportunities to compete included hunting and horse racing.
Crucial to their warrior culture was sword fighting, which may have been practiced competitively. The Valkyrie figurine above gives a hint of what a battle-ready warrior may have looked like. Each sport offered Vikings a way to kick back, while also demonstrating strength, agility, and power in a volatile world.
9. Chess and the End of Viking Games
Around 1831, an iconic army emerged from the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Who found them? And where? Those details remain a mystery. The Lewis Chessmen discovery included 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men, and a buckle, enough pieces for four chess sets. Carved from walrus ivory, the pieces resemble styles from Trondheim, Norway, and date to approximately 1150-1200 CE. How did the game end up in the Western Hebrides? The Isle of Lewis belonged to the kingdom of Norway in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some believe a Norwegian trader ran into some trouble on his way to the British Isles and buried the chessmen, intending to recover them later. Others find it more likely that the chess set belonged to a local leader.
Artisans carved the Lewis Chessmen from the ivory of walrus tusks and possibly whalebone. Vikings hunted walrus in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. Despite frequent travels to Greenland and Iceland, walrus would have been an expensive resource. Analysis of the Lewis Chessmen shows that the hoard contains a variety of sizes, designs, and finishes. Though the artisans who crafted the chess pieces were clearly skilled, scholars perceive a variety of skill sets and some substandard carving in the collection.
Chess’ origins have been traced to the Indian game of chaturanga. Like hnefatafl, chaturanga was a military themed game of strategy. Sometime between the 8th and 12th centuries CE, chess gained popularity throughout Europe. It has been suggested that the Lewis Chessmen represent cultural a intersection.
Some of the knight pieces appear to bite their shields. Viking berserkers were known to battle naked, unprotected, while biting their shields. Because the Lewis knights wear armor, some scholars disagree with the berserker interpretation. Others suggest that the berserkers wear chainmail because they were made by artisans in a period of cultural transition. If so, the pieces suggest that even as the Viking Age ended, memories of the Old Norse persisted. The Vikings could rest in Valhalla, knowing all their games had been well played.