Viking Games and Gambling
The Vikings, like most cultures, loved to play games. Some of these games were physical and often violent, contests of strength and speed were common as well as more organised team games that were strikingly similar to some modern sports such as Baseball or Cricket and Football or Rugby.
Of course in modern sports death or serious injury while playing is not usually a common occurrence! Games were played for leisure, but also to teach teamwork and to keep fit and strong, but when the nights grew long and cold and playing outside was no longer practical the Vikings had other, more indoor friendly pastimes too.
Dice games - roll the bones!
There is plenty of archaeological evidence that Vikings enjoyed dice games, sets of hand carved dice have been found at burial sites across Scandinavia and the British Isles, these dice were used in board games, but also on their own in a game called "Mia" or "Liar Dice." Mia was a dice game that because of its bluffing element was in some ways similar to poker.
The rules of Mia were similar to modern Yahtzee, each player attempting to roll certain numbers in sets to score points, but crucially, the players could not view each others rolls. Each player could therefore tell the truth about their roll, or bluff in the hope that the next player would believe them! If a bluff was called and the player was telling the truth, the accuser lost a life, but if they were lying the bluffing player lost a life. Each player had a set number of lives, usually 3 and the last player in the game was the winner.
Gambling would take place between the players and onlookers on the results of the games and even on individual rolls. Mia is still played in some parts of Europe today, notably in Germany and Scandinavia where it is called "Meier."
Tafl, the game of Kings
Another popular indoor Viking game was "hnefatafl" or "Tafl", which was a tactical board game similar to modern draughts or chess. The two sides in the game were not even however and the board was set up so that one side surrounded the other rather than facing each other as they do in chess.
The object of the game was either to capture the outnumbered side's king, or if playing as the outnumbered side, to escape the ring of attackers. Tafl was often played in a series with each player taking turns to play each side. As with Mia, Tafl games were often played with an audience, allowing for betting between the supporters of one player or the other and of course, a certain amount of insult trading!
In 1026 King Cnut was playing a game against Ulf one of his Jarls, the King made a mistake and Ulf captured one of his pieces. The king refused to allow the capture and demanded his piece back at which point Ulf became angry and was soon after killed on the orders of the King. Tafl was taken quite seriously by the players and disagreements could have serious results!
Betting a Island!
Vikings gambled at all levels of society. One story from the Sagas tells of a meeting between the Kings of Sweden and Norway around the year 1020AD. The two countries had been at war and a meeting was called to discuss peace terms. After several days most of the issues between the two kingdoms had been resolved, with the exception of the island of Hisingen.
Neither side could convince the other that the island rightfully belonged to them, so in the end both agreed to roll dice for it. The King of Sweden rolled first and got two sixes on his two dice, turning to the King of Norway he remarked that there was no point in him rolling since he was bound to lose, the King of Norway rolled anyway, rolling one six and the second die split in half, showing a 3 and a 4 on the two upturned halves. Thirteen beating Twelve, Norway claimed ownership of Hisingen.
...Or your head!
Even the Norse gods were keen gamblers, none more so than Loki, having mischievously cut Thor's Wife Sif's hair off while she slept, he placated Thor by telling him that he would have the dwarves make a wig of finest spun gold for Sif.
After getting the wig, Loki bet the dwarves that they couldn't surpass such a wonderful feat of crafting, it was a bet that Loki lost however as the Dwarves went on to craft Thor's famous hammer Mjolnr.
Having bet his head as his stake, Loki was reluctant to pay, but the wily god managed to argue his way out of it. He claimed that although the dwarves could have his head, they could not touch his neck, because he hadn't bet that!
Proud Viking game players
Skill at games was well regarded in the Viking era, around 1113 AD the brothers and dual Kings of Norway King Eysteinn and King Sigurd compared their accomplishments. Sigurd claimed he was stronger and a better swimmer. Eysteinn countered, "That is true, but I am more skilled and better at board games, and that is worth as much as your strength."
The Vikings had a rich history of gaming and gambling from ordinary people to Kings and even to their gods they played and bet on sports, dice and board games just as much as any other people, although the results could sometimes be a lot bloodier!
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