Games and entertainment in the Viking period

Dice from the Viking period.

Just like people today, the Vikings knew how to amuse themselves. Various finds testify to the fact that they set aside time for social and festive gatherings. Board games and games of dice were played. On festive occasions storytelling, skaldic poems, music and alcoholic drinks, like beer and mead, contributed to the atmosphere.

Board game.

Board games and dice

During quieter periods the Vikings played board games, which were a popular pastime at all levels of society. Preserved gaming pieces and boards show how highly the Vikings valued such activities. Attractive games boards were made of wood, featuring elaborate carvings, whilst the pieces were mainly made from stone, wood and bone. Glass, antler and amber were also used for gaming pieces, together with materials of foreign origin, such as ivory and walrus tusk.

From written sources we know that the Vikings played “hnefatafl” and “nitavl” (Nine Men’s Morris) and chess also appeared at the end of the Viking period. Hnefatafl is a war game, in which the object is to capture the king piece – a large hostile army threaten and the king’s men have to protect the king. It was played on a board with squares using black and white pieces, with moves made according to dice throws. Even if the game took place at times of relaxation, perhaps it could also teach the players how to plan attacks? 

Perhaps hnefatafl is being played on the rune stone from Ockelbo in Sweden? Photo: Berig.

There were also gambling addicts in the Viking period who were not satisfied merely to play for fun. In one saga you can read the following warning: ”There is one thing that you should avoid like the devil himself, that is drunkenness and board games, whores and bets and throws of dice for profit”.

Gaming piece of amber depicting a bearded man, perhaps the god Frey.

Winter fun

In the winter the Vikings used ice skates, both for fun and as a means of transport. These were made from cow or horse lower leg bones, which were tied to the feet with leather laces.

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