"ARE THE ISLE OF LEWIS CHESSMEN ICELANDIC"?, Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson skrifar

by G.G. Thorarinsson








Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson is an civil engineer and former MP of Althingi - The Icelandic Parliament and a member of Reykjavik City Council. He has served on several governmental committees and has been a member of The European Council. Thorarinsson is the former President of the Icelandic Chess Federation and was the chairman of the Organizing Committee of the historical World Chess Championship Match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972.

GGTH has written several articles about the works of Shakespeare and lectured on various subjects e.g. the origin of the Icelanders and the Icelandic Sagas and even on Jesus Christ in The New Testament. Now he has written an most interesting article on the unique chessmen found on the isle of Lewis 1830 and put forward new arguments and clues that seem to have been overlooked. His hypothesis is that these chessmen are in fact made in Iceland somewhere around the year 1200.

Reykjavík, 18 July 2010 by Einar S. Einarsson

Sometime around the year 1830 there were found on the sandy shore of the Isle of Lewis, one of the isle of Outer Hebrides, chess pieces believed to be made before year 1200.

The chessmen are mostly made of walrus tusks and most people agree that they are a great work of art. These are the oldest chessmen with the feature of modern chessmen. In the name of The British Museum there have been issued many pamphlets and DVD discs where the museum regards the chessmen among its most remarkable relics.

This year there is an exhibition in cooperation of The National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum in Edinburg and a seminar with participation of scholars where the mystery and the origin of these chessmen are the main subject. Until now the the historians seem to find it most likely that the chessmen originate from Throndheim, Norway.

In the following composition on the origin of the Lewis Chessmen, which will appear in the 2010 Yearbook of Iceland´s Society of Archaeology, G.G. Thorarinsson puts forward a new and interesting theory about this enigma and on their origin, supported be new facts and clues.

Among other notable points GGTH argues that chess is a war game. The Lewis chessmen are the first and the only pieces where the game of chess is connected with the church as one of the pieces is carved in the image of a bishop.

The word bishop for a chess piece is only used in two languages, Icelandic and English. In old Icelandic manuscripts written in the 13th and 14th century we read about bishop in chess. According to Oxford dictionaries the word bishop in chess comes into the English language around year 1470, long after the carving of the Lewis chessmen. In most other languages including Norvegian this piece was and is still called a runner.

Therefore it seems that at 1150-1200 no nation except the Icelanders had connected the game of chess with the bishops or the church. The only other language that uses bishop in chess is English but only after 1450 that is to say when their connection with Iceland was lively. The Icelanders use the term “The English Century” for the period 1400-1500.

In Iceland there was no king and the power was mostly in the hands of the bishops. It seems that their pride told them that the chessman at the side of the king should be a bishop. It is clear that the Icelandic bishops had smithies and engaged goldsmiths and craftsmen, many of which learn their skills overseas. Iceland was the center of commerce with Greenland which resulted in riches and enabled the Icelanders to write their sagas.

The manuscripts point to that the Icelanders not only wrote the Sagas but also excelled in ornament and carving as can be proven and seen at the National Museum of Iceland. http://www.natmus.is/english/permanent-exhibition/

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British Museum publications theorise that the Lewis chessmen were carved in Trondheim, Norway, where facilities and tools for such work were available and where the patterns on the pieces were most fashionable at the time. Furthermore, they conclude that the chessmen were most likely buried on the Lewis shore by a merchant who intended to retrieve them later. In 1832, a year after the pieces were first exhibited, the English archaeologist Francis Madden wrote an article, Historical Remarks on the Ancient Chessmen discovered in the Isle of Lewis, where he advances the hypothesis that the chessmen were carved in Iceland before the year 1200. This theory has met with little enthusiasm.

In his recently published comprehensive article G.G. Thórarinsson puts forward the hypothesis that the Lewis chessmen were probably carved in Iceland and presents e.g. the following circumstantial evidence in support of his new theory about their origin.

1) The word “bishop” does not seem to have been used for chessmen in Norway at any point in history. This word only occurs in Icelandic and English. Written records show that the word “bishop” was used in Iceland around 1300 and in England in the late 15th century. Records indicate that the word “alfin” fell out of use in English around 1475, after which the chess piece was exclusively known as a bishop. When the Lewis chessmen were carved, these pieces were only known as bishops in Iceland. They were probably carved in Iceland at the behest of a bishop who thought it appropriate that pieces closest to the king and queen be bishops. Should this prove correct, then the English adopted the word “bishop” for a chess piece from Icelanders. Historians points out that the timing of this change coincides with the so-called English century (1400–1500), when trade and interaction with the English was at its zenith. He then asks whether it can be ascertained where this usage was first adopted, whether it may have been in Bristol, for example, or other hometowns of companies that traded in Iceland at the time.

2) The knights are mounted on horses that seem Icelandic in both size and head shape.

3) The rooks are berserkers, who figure prominently in contemporary Icelandic writings but are not known from written works in Norway at the time. In Norway this piece was and still is called a torn (tower).

4) Decorative art and carving were highly developed in Iceland at this time. Many examples are known of Icelandic bishops’ sending or bringing fine gifts carved from walrus tusks to foreigners. Artists, goldsmiths, and master carvers were employed at the bishops’ seats, and written records state outright that walrus tusk was among their raw materials.

5) Iceland had a strong connection to Greenland at this time. Icelanders settled Greenland with a large fleet of ships, and these Greenlanders had many friends and relatives in Iceland. Records describe bishops’ ships that brought goods from Greenland at that time. This connection was severed when Icelanders lost their fleet of seaworthy ships. Icelanders thus had access to walrus tusks and other raw materials from Greenland.

6) A ship from Iceland carrying the Lewis chessmen could have been shipwrecked near the Isle of Lewis on its way to Dublin but the cargo been saved. It is telling that the men are from four chess sets, none of which are complete, which indicates that a number of pieces were lost. Perhaps more pieces remain buried there in the sand. Icelanders sold a great deal of their exports in Ireland, because in Norway they were required to pay a toll.

7) In The Saga Writing of the Oddi Clan, Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, professor at The University of Iceland, advances the hypothesis that men from the Oddi clan wrote Orkneyinga saga, the History of the Earls of Orkney. A friendship existed between Bishop Páll and the Earls of Orkney at this time, and there was considerable communication between them; there are stories of gifts’ being exchanged. From there the Outer Hebrides are not far off.

8) One might even entertain the notion that the Lewis chessmen were made at the request of Bishop Páll of Skálholt and carved by Margrét the Adroit whose carving skills were the stuff of legend. The pieces were then sent abroad for sale or as a gift, but the ship was then lost.

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The author:
Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson
e-mail: gudm.g.thorarinsson@gmail.com
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Einar S. Einarsson
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