Layout for a Tafl game, possibly related to Fidchell
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Fidchell (in Irish; also spelled fidhcheall, fidceall, fitchneal or fithchill, and pronounced [ˈfɪðʲçɛlː] in Old Irish) or gwyddbwyll (in Welsh) was an ancient Celtic board game. The name in both Irish and Welsh is a compound translating to "wood sense"; the fact that the compound is identical in both languages demonstrates that the name is of extreme antiquity. The game is occasionally claimed to be a predecessor of the modern game chess. The game was played between two people who moved pieces across a board; the board shared its name with the game played upon it. The name has evolved into ficheall, the Irish word for chess; the similar gwyddbwyll is the name for chess in modern Welsh.
Fidchell is mentioned often in ancient Celtic legends and lore, but the exact form of the game is open to speculation, due to lack of detail on the rules, playing pieces, and the board. What is clear is that it was played on a board, with opposing sets of pieces in equal numbers. It should not be confused with games like tawlbwrdd or tafl (also called hnefatafl), which involved a king in the centre and pieces in a 2:1 ratio.
One text reads, "'Leth a fóirni d'ór buidi, in leth aili d'findruine,' 'Half its pieces were of yellow gold, the other half of white bronze", suggesting that fidchell was played by equal forces. The Roman board game ludus latrunculorum ("game of little soldiers") was also played with pieces of equal numbers; latrunculi is known from post-Roman Britain, and it is possible that fidchell was a descendent of latrunculi.
The legends describe fidchell as a game played by royalty, and by the gods. In legend, it was invented by Lugh, god of light and inspiration, and was played skilfully by his son, the hero Cú Chulainn. A series of fidchell games forms an important episode in Tochmarc Étaíne.
Lavish, sometimes mystical gwyddbwyll boards appear often in medieval Welsh literature. In The Dream of Rhonabwy, a prose tale associated with the Mabinogion, King Arthur and Owain mab Urien play the game with golden men on a silver board. In another prose tale, The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the character Eudaf Hen is carving men for his golden board when he is visited by the emperor Magnus Maximus. The board of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio is named as one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain in lists dating from the 15th and 16th centuries; according to the lists the board is gold and the men silver, and the pieces play against each other automatically. A magic gwyddbwyll comparable to Gwenddoleu's appears in the Arthurian romance Peredur son of Efrawg; a number of French versions of the Holy Grail story feature similar chessboards with self-moving pieces, following the Second Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail, though in these only one side moves, while the hero plays the other.
As often as fidchell is mentioned in legend and myth, we are still largely in the dark about how it was played. There are two main theories regarding the rules and board layout. One is that fidchell is a variant of the Welsh game tawlbwrdd, itself descended from the Norse tafl games. These games, along with the Irish brandub, are played on a grid, often seven squares by seven, with the king in the middle. The king has a number of defending pieces around it at the beginning of the game, and they are surrounded by twice as many attackers. The object is to make a clear path for the king to the edge of the board, while the attackers must attempt to surround, and thereby capture, the king.
This theory is supported by an artefact found in Balinderry, County Westmeath in 1932, known as the Ballinderry Game Board. This is of a wooden board with Celtic symbols on it, with a seven-by-seven grid, marked off by 49 holes. This artefact may be a tafl variant, and perhaps even a Brandub board; many commentators assume that it is the type of board upon which one would have played fidchell. Reconstructions of probable rules proceed from there.
However, there are a few difficulties with this commonly accepted view. First, the tafl variants are usually played with unequal numbers of pieces, the attackers being twice as numerous as the defenders. Fidchell seems likely to have been played with equal numbers on both sides. Secondly, some claim that the tafl games, especially tawlbwrdd, were often played with a die, made of a sheep's knucklebone, and this feature seems absent in fidchell. In Wales, a clear distinction is made between tawlbwrdd and gwyddbwyll, which, if also true of Ireland, would tend to indicate a similar distinction between fidchell and brandub.
Fidchell, as described in the legends, often has a mystical or divinatory aspect to it. Battles ebb and flow as a result of the ebb and flow of a game of fidchell, games play themselves, great events are decided on the outcome of a fidchell match. This supernatural aspect is not as clearly reflected in the tafl games.
There is clear archaeological and textual evidence that a tafl variant was played in Ireland in ancient times. What is not quite as certain is that this game was fidchell.
- Bayless, Martha. "Alea, Tæfl, and Related Games: Vocabulary and Context," in Latin Learning and English Lore. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and Andy Orchard, eds. 2 vols. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Vol. II, pp. 9–27. 2005. ISBN 0802089194.
- Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University of Wales Press. 2006. ISBN 0708313868.
- Nugent, Brian (2010). The Irish Invented Chess. ISBN 095568126X.
- Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Marboro Books. 1986. ISBN 0880290382.
- Pennick, Nigel. Secret Games of the Gods: Ancient Ritual Systems in Board Games. S. Weiser. 1989.
- Rees, Alwin and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage. Thames and Hudson. 1961.
- Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin. Little, Brown. 1985. ISBN 0316850667.
Rules and Boards
- Fidchell at BoardGameGeek
- Shire of Hartshorn-dale – Games – Fitchneal A very clear set of Fitchneal rules.
- MacGregor Historic Games A cloth Fidchell board based on the Ballinderry Game board.
- The Ballinderry Game board believed by some scholars to be a Fidchell game.
- Early Irish Board Games Information about Fitchneal and other ancient Irish games.
- Hnefatafl – A Norse Game Java applets of various Tafl games, including Fitchneal (though a different board arrangement is used)