Ancient Games of Daldøsa. How did an Islamic Game Travel to the North?

Editors note: this is an updated version of an article I published here nearly three years ago.

Ancient Games Go North

Here’s a study I stumbled across that combines three of my favorite things: The Arctic, the Arab world and cultural connections in the ancient world.

The question is, how could a board game that originated in central and east Africa have ended up being played by the Danes, Norwegians and even the….Sami!!  How did an Islamic ancient games come to the North Pole?

From the International Journal for the Study of Board Games, vol 4, 2001 :

There is a…category of board games that are halfway between pure war games, where the only aim is to destroy or immobilize the adversary’s men, and race games, where the pieces have to reach a fixed point before the opponent’s by running along a linear circuit – whatever shape it has – according to the values given by a random generator. These games form a group with many variations, known under various names from India to West Africa – tâb, tâba, tâb wa-dukk in the Middle-East; sîg, sik, sir, siki, sîg wa-duqqân in North Africa….

…Until recently ‘tâb’ ancient games were known from the Arab-Muslim world only. Hearing that such games were played also in Northern Europe came as a surprise. Denmark and Norway share a game, called daldøs or daldøsa, whose similarities with the ‘tâb’ group of games are so striking that one cannot expect but a link between the Scandinavian games and the Islamic ones. Moreover it appears that a close relative was also played as far north as Lappland! Apart from the construction materials and the shape of the random generators, these Nordic ancient games are extremely similar to some ancient games found in Algeria and Somalia…

Red Sea Coast. Egypt. 1024x704 Ancient Games of Daldøsa. How did an Islamic Game Travel to the North?

The closest relatives of these ancient games seem to be the tâb games from Islamic lands, southern Asia and the Red Sea coast, seen here.

Even in Norway, the ancient games of daldøsa is unique. Limited to the area of Jæren in the county of Rogaland the game is only found among a tiny portion of the population – the farmers and beach-workers along the North Sea coast near the Skagerak, across which the Danish villages of Thy and Mors also held a tradition of the game. Much further north on the Helgeland country and upwards to Tromsø the game is also known – again, only among the most coastal people. The Sami called it Sáhkku and played it all along the Arctic Coast from the North Sea to the Kola.

It was much more commonly played in the past but even among the players the name, daldøsa, is a mystery.

Daldøsa is made out of wood. This is the case for the board and the pieces as well as for the dice. From time immemorial it has been cut by dexterous people for the amusement and pastime of inhabitants on the coastal farms. The so-called flags decorating the top of the pieces had different shapes from one farm to the other. It could be a square, a circle, a heart, etc. There are several shapes to choose from.

Wooden ancient games survive only for a limited time, and therefore it is difficult to find boards that are more than two hundred years old on any farm. These homemade boards were not considered to be of any particular value and were often thrown away and replaced by new ones. Looking at the boards which have survived there are only three to four boards which the owners believe to be around 150-200 years old.

It was the Romans who, apparently, first brought board ancient games and gambling to Scandinavia. The natives took to it, immediately. On the island of Bornholm, where there is little memory of the ancient games the term daldøsa means “to live far beyond one’s means”. The Sami called it Sáhkku or “The Devils Game”.  Apparently, it really pissed off the Laestadianists who saw it as sinful, and it does sound most addictive. From Denmark:

According to H. Billeskov Jansen the game is full of excitement, surprises, victories and disappointments. The old lady, who was still a master at playing the game in 1927, demonstrated how the game is played on a visit to his home. After several victories against family members, one of the boys succeeded in keeping his losses level with that of the old lady, so that by the end of the game both had only one man left. The game ended up as a post haste chase, the men chasing each other mercilessly, the dice hitting the table with loud noises. Finally the old lady was forced to pass the boy’s man bringing her own man into peril in the middle row, and he succeeded in getting the right throw of the dice to kill her man.

Daldøs Ancient Games of Daldøsa. How did an Islamic Game Travel to the North?

Where did this game come from?

The ancient game’s connection to the sea is most fascinating and lends hints as to where it came from. In Norway’s Rogaland:

The board on which the game is played is special because of the holes in which the pieces are placed. This arrangement offers an obvious and practical solution for a dice game when it is played on the open sea, if this, in fact, was the case.

[SNIP]

Most people who see the daldøsa game board for the first time exclaim: “It looks just like a boat!” It is obvious why this is so. Some years ago we visited the farm in Reiest (Reiestad), accompanied by the previously mentioned Ola Barkved, because we knew that the game was well known on this particular coastal farm. Martin Reiestad, who was born in 1900, told us that in his childhood a very old daldøsa board was kept in the attic, and it looked exactly like a boat. It had both bow and stern and was even painted on the sides. What we had believed to be the case for a long time was now to our surprise confirmed on this old farm.

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Fishing Village of the Baltic Sea

So it came by boat. Ok but:

At the present stage of our research, it would be hazardous to formulate any theory about the origins of sáhkku. The only statement which makes sense is that the game is definitely not a true Sámi creation. The Sámi culture is so homogeneous that, if it had been so, the game would have been known in the whole Sámi area and not be limited to the fringes of the Arctic shores.

Did daldøs(a) and sáhkku come from the Muslim world, or the other way round? Or are they independent inventions?

In this case one thing is striking: we have no trace whatsoever of any tâb-type game in Europe. So we have to suppose these games were borrowed from direct (or semidirect) contacts between a Northern – actually Scandinavian – people and the Arab- Muslim world.

The connection to the Arab world is the most obvious. As I mentioned in my book NOTES FOR THE AURORA SOCIETY, the Varangians of Finland expanded far into the south, even becoming employed as special “shock troop” guards to the Holy Roman Emperor in Constantinople. To me, this is the most likely link.

As Thierry Depaulis points out, during Viking times (roughly 900-1100AD), the Varangians struck out from Finland (Depaulis claims Sweden for the home of the Varangians – as I argued in my book Ancient Games of Daldøsa. How did an Islamic Game Travel to the North?
, I strongly disagree with that. It was Finland) east and south into the steppe, Byzantine and eventually the Islamic world. While the Swedes, Danes and Norwegians went west the Finns went east, following the Volga and Dnieper rivers they passed on to the Black Sea, eventually serving the Byzantine Emperor as the Varangian Guard (The Varangian King Rurik established the state of Rus and founded Novgorod along the way). Others went further, trading extensively with the Khazars and the Arabs. Varangians were commonly seen as far east as Baghdad where they got an addiction of sorts to the Abbasid silver coins we commonly find nowadays in Scandinavia (nearly 70,000 Arab dirhems have been found in Sweden, thousands of others have been found in Norway and Denmark). By 1100, though, the Varangian Guard was no more.

The Scandinavian presence in the Mediterranean world is commonly known but one thing we do not often consider is that the Scandinavians also went home. The tale of Hardrádi (1015-1066) being, perhaps, the best known. Clearly, it wasn’t only coins the Varangians and Vikings brought home. Having formed a significant community in the east from about 900 to 1100, we can easily make the leap that Arab ancient games were also brought home.

After that, the impressive trade routes that laced Scandinavia moved the game to the places we find it now. But big questions remain. HOW did it get around Scandinavia and end up in the very specific spots it is found today?

For about 200 years the Vikings raided from the Baltic up along the Norwegian coast to Tromsø. Did they bring daldøsa with them? If they did, why is there a 1300km long area between Jæren and Tromsø where the game is unknown? Did the people of Rogaland bring it during the Great Migration? It is thought that these folks might have been related to the Pomeranian Rügen who had known connections to Bornholm. When the Hanseatic merchants took over a lot of the fishing posts in Norway and up along the Arctic Coast they could have also brought the ancient games north.

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The Pomors of the Arctic Sea coast may have brought the ancient games up from the more populated southern areas of the Norwegian coast.

Later, there were the Pomors. How might the Pomors have moved the game around? Beginning in 1730 or so these Archangelisk merchants plied the northern coast with flour, timber and other goods seeking to trade for salted fish from the sea Samit. It is known that they came with ancient games….but which ones? If sáhkku did not come by sea then could the Kvaen have brought it to northern Norway around 1800 when they moved from the Finnmark? In Finnish the word sakko means “penalty” and sounds much like the Sami word for the game. Did the Finns bring it up from the south?

I can’t find any evidence of that.

Fun stuff.

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The ancient games.

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One Response to Ancient Games of Daldøsa. How did an Islamic Game Travel to the North?

  1. noel August 25, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    Interesting story, there are also versions of this in Asian cultures Jim

    I’m inviting you to join us for Travel Photo Mondays, the link runs all week so I hope you can join us for the next installment?

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