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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Note to stanza

8. Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks 66 (Gestumblindi, Heiðreks gátur, 19) — Gestumblindi [Vol. 8, 430]

[All]: Heiðrekr’s response reads (Heiðr 1960, 38): þat er hnettafl; inar døkkri verja hnefann, en hvítar sœkja ‘that is hnefatafl; the darker defend the hnefi, but the white ones attack’. The H redaction reads (Heiðr 1924, 71): þat er hneftafl; tǫflur drepaz vápnalausar um hnefann ok fylgja honum enar rauðu ‘that is hneftafl; the töflur kill each other without weapons around the hnefi, and the red ones escort him’. Hnefatafl (also called hneftafl or just tafl ‘tables’, an earlier and generic word for board-games) was a game played on a square grid with an odd number of rows per side, leaving a distinct centre square on which stood the hnefi or ‘king’ piece. The hnefi was surrounded by his defenders, outnumbered by the opposing attacking pieces, which started the game on the outer squares of the board, in a 2:1 ratio. The object for the defending side was for the king to reach the outer edge of the board, while the attacking side could win by capturing the hnefi. Evidence of the playing of the game has been found throughout Scandinavia and the British Isles, with analogues in other Northern European cultures. It is mentioned in several places in Old Norse literature, often as an indicator of the players’ status, including in Vsp 8, which relates that the Æsir teflðo ‘played tafl’ in the Golden Age early in the world’s history (Vsp 61 tells that their playing-pieces will be once again discovered in the new world after Ragnarǫk), and in Rv Lv 1/1II, where the ability to play the game is listed among the íþróttir ‘skills’ of Rǫgnvaldr Kali Kolsson, jarl of Orkney. For further information see Helmfrid (2005), Bayless (2005), Murray (1913, 428-37; 1978, 58-64) and Fiske (1905).


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