Riddles about hnefatafl in Hervarar saga, and notes on reddening hnefatafl counters

Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, or simply “Hervarar saga“, tells the tales of the legendary heroine Hervör and her son, King Heiðrekr, or Heidrek. Several similar yet distinct versions of this saga exist, each representing a compilation of earlier sagas telling the legends of 4th century wars between the Geats, or Goths, and the Huns. The elder manuscript is included (along with Landnámabók and other sagas, as well as the poetic edda Völuspá) in Hauksbók, an anthology of sagas compiled by Haukr Erlendsson in the early 14th century. Younger versions include a 15th century version preserved in the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen and a 17th century version preserved in the library of the University of Uppsala, but as Hauksbók is the elder version and includes the game of riddles between King Heiðrekr and Gestumblindi (who is revealed to be the god Óðinn in disguise), I will focus here on the account given in Hauksbók.

One English translation, given by the Northvegr Foundation online, gives the following two riddles:

The king says, “You’ll ask riddles till you dry up, or else finish me off.”

Then said Gestumblindi:

“Who are those thanes
who ride to the thing, (assembly)
sixteen guys together.
Across the land
they send their men
to seek a home for themselves.
King Heidrek,
guess my riddle.”

“Good riddle, Gestumblindi–I’ve got it. That’s Itrek, who is also called Odin, and the giant Andad, sitting playing tafl.”

“It’s getting hard for me now,” says Gestumblindi, “and I don’t know what comes next.”

Then said Gestumblindi:

“What wives are they,
their weaponless lord
they smite down and slay.
All day long
the darker defend,
but the fairer ones go forward.
King Heidrek,
guess my riddle.”

“Good riddle, Gestumblindi–I’ve got it. It’s a game of hnettafl. The red pieces defend the king and the white ones attack.”

Sten Helmfrid gives a different translation of the second:

Hverjar eru þer brúðir
er um sinn dróttin
vápnalausar vega;
enar jorpu hlífa
alla daga,
en enar fegri fara?
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu!

The verse can be translated as: “Who are the maids that fight weaponless around their Lord, the brown (jarpur) ever sheltering and the fair ever attacking him? King Heiðrekr, solve this riddle!” The answer is of course the playing pieces in hnefatafl, and Hauksbók continues: “It is hnefatafl, the pieces are killed weaponless around the king, and the red ones are following him.” The younger medieval manuscript explains the answer in the following way: “It is hnefatafl, the dark ones protect the king and the white ones attack him.” The king’s pieces are referred to as reddish brown, red or dark, and the attackers as white or fair.

A third important riddle may be found in Hauksbók, Heiðreks saga, 74-5:

Gestumblindi poses the riddle:

Hvat er þat dýra

er drepr fé manna

ok er járni kringt útan;

horn hefir átta,

en hofuð ekki,

ok rennr sem han má?

Heidrek answers:

Þat er húnn í hneftafli;

hann heitir sem björn;

hann rennr, þegar honum er kastat.

In English (my own translation):

What is that beast

which kills the flocks

and is with iron girded?

He has eight horns,

but no head,

and runs as he may.

It is the “cub” in hnefatafl;

he has the name of a bear;

he runs when he is attacked.

In summary, these riddles suggest that the king has eight red-brown defenders and sixteen white attackers. Also, húnn, a word which Zoëga translates as a bear cub and which appears in some other literary references to hnefatafl, is used here in reference to the king’s red-brown defenders. These are said to be “with iron girded”, which may be interpreted to support my hypothesis that the king and his defenders may have been painted with a mix of burnt ochre (iron oxide) and linseed oil.


On reddening hnefatafl counters

Theophilus (On Divers Arts, Book I, Ch. 20: “How to Redden Doors; and Linseed Oil”) recommends reddening doors with a mixture of cinnabar (mercury sulphide) or minium (red lead) with linseed oil. In Ch. 1: “The Mixture of Pigments for Nude Bodies”, Theophilus describes these and four other red pigments: burnt ocher (red iron oxide), carmine, folium and madder. The latter three may be discounted due to the comparative rarity of carmine and the unsuitability of folium and madder for reddening the common materials used for making hnefatafl pieces (chiefly walrus ivory, reindeer antler, and whale or deer bone). For painting these, burnt ocher, red lead, and cinnabar, mixed with linseed oil may all be viable alternatives. Compare these to Falu Rödfärg (made from red mull, composed of iron ochre, silicon dioxide and zinc, mixed with linseed oil), the traditional Swedish barn paint, named for the mining town in Dalarna. Copper mining operations there date back to at least the 16th century, though some sources talk of reopening the dormant mine in the 16th century. It is possible that a similar blend of minerals and linseed oil could date back to the Viking Age for reddening barns and possibly runestones. If this was the common red paint, it stands to reason that the leftovers could have been used for reddening other things such as hnefatafl counters.

One response to “Riddles about hnefatafl in Hervarar saga, and notes on reddening hnefatafl counters

  1. Pingback: Reconstructing an early 12th century board game (chess and hnefatafl) | wilhelmszabel·

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