Hnefatafl is mentioned several times in the medieval Icelandic sagas, sometimes with tantalizing riddles, as in Hervarar saga, sometimes with references to the game itself and how it was played, as in Friðþjófs saga hins frœkna, and sometimes they offer a snapshot of game history, as in Króka-Refs saga. I have my doubts as to the specific historical accuracy here, but I will explain more about that in a moment. For now, let’s take a look at what Króka-Refs saga says about hnefatafl and chess, and in what context.
Background: Bard, a friend of King Harald of Norway, has traveled to Greenland and befriended a Greenlander named Gunnar.
Króka-Refs saga (read the full text in Icelandic), chapters 11-12, read (in part):
Eftir um sumarið bjó Bárður skip sitt til Noregs og gefur Gunnar honum gjafir. Gunnar sendir Haraldi konungi þrjá gripi. Það var hvítabjörn fulltíði og vandur ágæta vel. Annar gripur var tanntafl og gert með miklum hagleik. Þriðji gripur var rostungshaus með öllum tönnum sínum. Hann var grafinn allur og víða rennt í gulli. Tennurnar voru fastar í hausinum. Var það allt hin mesta gersemi.
Bárður lætur nú í haf og ferst vel. Kom hann í þær stöðvar sem hann mundi kjósa. Hann færði Haraldi konungi margan grænlenskan varning ágætan.
Fer Bárður fyrir konung einn dag og mælti: “Hér er eitt tafl herra er yður sendi hinn göfgasti maður af Grænlandi er Gunnar heitir og vill ekki fé fyrir hafa heldur vinfengi yðart. Var eg með honum tvo vetur og varð mér hann góður drengur. Vill hann gjarna vera vin yðar.”
Það var bæði hneftafl og skáktafl.
Konungur leit á um hríð og bað þann hafa þökk fyrir er slíkt sendi: “Skulum vér víst vináttu vora á móti leggja.”
In English (my own translation):
After the summer had passed, Bard set sail for Norway and Gunnar gave him gifts. Gunnar sent to King Harald three treasures: There was a polar bear, fully grown and very well-tempered. Another treasure was a tanntafl (game made from walrus ivory) made with great skill. The third treasure was a walrus head containing all his teeth. He was buried all around and run through with gold. The teeth were fixed in the head. It all was the greatest treasure.
Bard set sail now and fared well. He came into the harbor which he preferred. He gave King Harald many excellent Greenlandic wares.
Bard went to the king one day and said, “Here is one tafl herra* sent to you by the most honorable man in Greenland; he is called Gunnar and wishes no compensation other than your friendship. When I stayed with him for two winters he was a good fellow. He wishes eagerly to be your friend.”
It was both hnefatafl and skáktafl (chess).
The king looked it over for a while and then bade thanks for it be sent: “We shall surely take up our friendship.”
Tafl herra is difficult for me to translate, because it appears that these words, occurring together, are usually translated as “chessmaster”, but this concept does not fit the context and is probably a modern construct anyway. Tafl (in the era when this saga was written) was a generic word for board games, and herra is usually translated as Lord or Master (an honorary title). Could it be that Bard pulled out one of the chessmen, perhaps a king piece, and showed it to King Harald?
The problem I have with the historiography here is that the King Harald in this story is Haraldr Sigurðarson (also known as Harald harðráði or Harald hardrada), who lived in the 11th century. He was King of Norway from 1046 to 1066, which would place the setting of this little tale somewhere in that 20 year interval in the middle of the 11th century. I have seen evidence of chess in Norway around 1110-1120, but I have no evidence other than this story that chess (skáktafl) was known to Norwegians or Greenlanders earlier than the Norwegian Crusade (1107-1110). Though scholars continue to disagree over the means of the historical transmission of chess from the Islamic world into medieval Europe, one of the prevailing theories points to the coincidence of literary and archaeological evidence of European chess with the return of the Crusaders, indicating that chess was most likely brought into Europe by Crusaders who had learned it during their time in the Holy Lands. (Here, I am intentionally ignoring southern Europe, where chess was introduced much earlier by the Al-Andalusian Moors, because it was never carried over the Alps into central, northern and western Europe.) I also find it compelling that the introduction of chess in Scandinavia, by nearly all accounts, occurred in the first quarter of the 12th century, at the same time as the Norwegian Crusade, when King Sigurðr Magnusson (Sigurd the Crusader) took ships and men to Jerusalem to fight the Persians. I believe King Sigurd likely learned of chess while staying with King Baldwin in Jerusalem and then Sigurd and his men brought the game back to Norway in 1110. This means that chess would have been unknown to King Harald and his Greenlandic friend Gunnar, but it certainly would have been known to the 14th century saga writer who wrote Króka-Refs saga.
What I find most interesting about this story is that it demonstrates an overlap of hnefatafl and chess in Norway. Það var bæði hneftafl og skáktafl. In my research, I have been able to surmise that while chess was introduced into Scandinavia early in the 12th century, the century marked by social and military struggles to Christianize Norway and Sweden, evidence of hnefatafl also disappeared by the end of that century, except in places outside the influence of the Christianization of Scandinavia, like Ireland, Wales and Lapland. By the 13th century, hnefatafl was abandoned by its parent culture, a victim of the push to shed the old ways of Viking Age heathenism and embrace the new ways of the Christian Church and Medieval Europe. Interestingly, hnefatafl variants were still around in Wales until at least circa 1600 and Lapland until at least the 1730s. Wales had already been Christianized by the time they adopted the board game of their Danelaw neighbors, and Lapland was largely left out of the Scandinavian sphere of influence up to the 18th century (and in many ways up to the 21st century), and the push to Christianize Saami culture did not take hold until about the 1720s, just a few years before Linnaeus documented their hnefatafl variant, called tablut.