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THE ORIGINS OF FIDCHELL



"Three times fifty boys" Fergus said "are always playing [hurley] in Emain. Conchobar [mac Nessa, King of Ulster] spends one third of his royal day watching the boys, one third playing fidchell, and a third drinking ale until he falls asleep."
from 'Cuchulainn's Boyhood Deeds' in the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Ireland's equivalent of the Iliad

"What is your name?" asked Echu. "Not a famous one: Mider of Bri Leith." "What has brought you here [to Tara]?" Echu asked. "The wish to play fidchell with you," Mider replied. "Indeed, I am good at fidchell" answered Echu. "Let's see," said Mider.
from 'The Wooing of Etain' in the Yellow Book of Lecan

Aillil and Maeve [King and Queen of Connaught] played fidchell after that, and Froech began to play with one of his own people. Beautiful his fidchell set: the board was of white gold, and the edges and corners were of gold, while the pieces were of gold and silver, and a candle of precious stone provided light.
from 'The Cattle Raid of Froech'

And Arthur seated himself upon the mantle, with Owein son of Urien standing before him. "Owein" said Arthur, "wilt play gwyddbwyll?" "I will, my lord," said Owein. And the red-headed servitor brought the gwyddbwyll to Arthur and Owein: gold pieces and a board of silver. And they began to play.
from 'The Dream of Rhonabwy' in the Mabinogion

Peredur came to the castle, and the castle gate was open. And when he reached the hall the door was open, and when he went inside he saw a gaming board in the hall, and either of the two sets of pieces was playing against the other, and the one to which he gave his help began to lose the game. And the other side gave a shout, just as if they had been men. Then he grew angry and took the set of pieces on his lap and threw the board in the lake.
'The Magic Gaming Board' author unknown, Welsh 12th century




WOODEN WISDOM

The happiest way of introducing this game would be simply to say: 'Here is the lost board game of the ancient Celts, about which scholars have speculated and most enthusiasts of ancient British and Irish literature have spared at least a passing moment of curiosity. Because of the remarkable finds at Arthur's Knowe in Cumbria we now know the precise form of the game. All that remained was to construct a working set of rules around the hints buried in surviving accounts of it'.

It would be pleasant to do this and time would be saved all round, but unfortunately it would also be a complete fabrication because there has been no such find. In fact there is no sure example of an original fidchell set in existence, nor any complete and reliable description of one. However, there are quite a few direct and indirect hints and it is upon these that this reconstruction is based. Plus, it must be admitted, hefty lashings of imagination when it came to filling in the gaps in the evidence, particularly regarding the pattern of the board.

To justify what may seem a reckless claim - that this is the lost game known in the ancient British Isles as Fidchell or Gwyddbwyll and played by King Arthur and other illustrious Celts - a brief account of my reasoning follows. None of it matters for enjoyment of the game itself, which could just as easily be presented as a brand new elaboration of the ancient and almost universal Merels-type games like Nine Men's Morris. But it so happens that this game did arise from an attempt to solve the riddle of Fidchell, so some may be interested to know how it came about.

- 1 -

To begin at the beginning - my interest in the game was first sparked by its passing mention in a discussion of Celtic symbolism in Alwyn and Brinsley Rees' marvellous Celtic Heritage. What struck me was their then novel suggestion that a board game could be much more than a pastime or recreation (for an examination of which, see for example Nigel Pennick's equally fascinating Games of the Gods). I had some general knowledge of board games, though, and couldn't help wondering what kind of game the ancient Celts might have devised, given the vivid geometry in their art.

No easy answer was to be found, though there are odd tantalizing references to the game in many old tales recorded by Medieval scribes. Often, and increasingly in later versions of tales, the game is called 'chess', a lazy translation but one which nevertheless probably tells us something about the broad nature of the game (i.e. that it relied on pure tactics rather than luck, as in Ludo, Backgammon and related ancient race games). Often enough, though, it is given its true title: Fidchell in Irish and Gwyddbwyll in Welsh. The literal translation of which is generally accepted to be 'Wooden Wisdom'.

Some fairly solid facts emerge from these scattered references: that the playing of Fidchell was essentially a royal pursuit, restricted to the nobility and druids, as they often prove their noble rank by showing they can play the game. Also that the boards were sometimes, despite the game's name, made of gold or silver and set with precious stones; and that it was believed that sometimes the game could magically play by itself, as in the Mabinogion tale of Peredur quoted above.

Beyond this one has to dig hard to find more. Theories have emerged over the years, though all, to my knowledge, assume a basic pattern of squares for the board. There is some evidence for this, it's true, including at least one description in an old (but quite late medieval) manuscript of the fidchell board being chequered. Also, the known pattern of another Irish board game, Brandub (literally 'Black Raven'), is a seven by seven square grid and the two games appear to be related. The pattern of both boards was symbolic, that much is clear, as is the fact that both games had only one King piece whose natural place was at the centre of the board, immediately flanked by four men.

This is also a basic feature of Hnefatafl and related Scandanavian games, which has led to the common belief that Fidchell is simply a Celtic variant of the same. But this seemed to me the easy way out when I first began thinking about it, besides straining some evidence. For instance, the tafl or Tablut games naturally demand that one side has about twice as many pieces as the other whereas, among other sources, the Amra Columcille manuscript tells us: 'Crimthann Nia Nar's fidchell, a small boy could not lift it with one hand. Half its men were of yellow gold, the other half were tinned bronze.'

Brandub almost certainly was just a slight variant of the tafl games, or possibly exactly the same as the seven-squares a side version. The Acallam na Senorach tells us that there were five pieces on one side and eight on the other: 'My famed brandub is in the mountain above Leitir Bhroin, five voiceless men of white silver and eight of red gold.' The Acallam also tells us that in Fidchell, by contrast, the numbers of pieces were even. In Wales too there is a clear distinction between Gwyddbwyll and Tawlbwrdd, a known variant of Scandinavian Tablut played on an eleven by eleven board with sixteen against nine men (eight plus the King).

It has been suggested that the difference between Fidchell and Brandub was merely one of size (tafl boards varied enormously in their number of rows and columns, from seven up to nineteen and beyond) but, as mentioned earlier, when I first came upon this idea it seemed too easy an explanation.

This may have been simple prejudice or perversity on my part, but it just did not ring true. The simple squareness of the suggested board was what jarred aesthetically. Arriving at the subject by way of Celtic art, mythology and symbolism, it just seemed out of character. There are chequered patterns in Celtic art, of course, but outside of weaving they are uncommon and certainly not what first comes to mind when one thinks of Celtic art. It seemed to me that for the game to have earned the near-reverence in which it was held, its pattern should somehow reflect the natural mode of the Celtic imagination, which was essentially cyclic and swirling.

Whether right or wrong however, the interesting thing to me was that following this feeling (or wild goose) was to lead to the discovery of a strange and unusual board game that does actually work very well and is fascinating to play purely in itself, without any interest in or knowledge of its possible origins.

- 2 -

Besides being an intellectual pastime for the nobility, Fidchell had a prophetic dimension, echoes of which linger in the Mabinogion account of King Arthur's game with Owein in the midst of battle. At first to us it might seem nonsensical that two war leaders should play a board game in the midst of battle with men dying all around them, but once you accept that the players believed the game was tuned into the spiritual forces controlling events, it becomes clear that they are engaged in a magical ritual in which their struggle on the board counts for as much or maybe more than their followers' exploits on the actual field of battle.

Fidchell seems on occasion to have been used as a means of divination in Ireland and as such most likely played a major part in festivals such as the Great Assembly of Uisnech, celebrated at Beltaine on the hill which was anciently considered the navel or omphalos of the island, at which festival there was a truce and a bringing together of all warring factions to settle disputes, enact laws and bring present, past and future into harmony. At least, that was the idea. It was on Uisnech that the first fire was kindled in Ireland by Mide, chief druid of the people of Nemed, from which all other hearths were lit, and this was re-enacted at the opening of every summer.

To be used for divination, the pattern of the Fidchell board must have presented to Celtic eyes the lineaments of the world or cosmos as they perceived it. This is what bothered me about accepting the common view of Fidchell being a variant of Tablut. A glance at any range of artifacts dating from the time of Fidchell's evolution (i.e. somewhere beyond 2000 years ago) shows a dazzle of whirls, whorls, circles and spirals with barely a straight line in sight. In Western Europe their buildings, strongholds and temples were also predominantly circular. Their imagination was obviously fired much more by cyclic images than square ones so why, when it came to devising a pattern on which to project the most subtle workings of that imagination, should they have confined themselves to a simple square grid?

All board games aim to reflect some aspect of the real world on their tiny stages. They are all intended to be microcosms of particular aspects of life. But to be used for divination, Fidchell must have been seen by the ancient Celts of the British Isles as a microcosm in the fullest sense of the word, able to mirror any level of dilemma. Is it not likely, then, that the pattern of Fidchell should have a distinctly cyclic character?

These are the kind of speculations that came to mind when first considering the matter, and of course it could be said that they are not so much arguments as statements of personal prejudice. After all, if the square grid of Brandub was seen as symbolic of Ireland and its rulers, with the High King at the centre flanked by the rulers of Ireland's four great provinces, why should something similar not have served for Fidchell? And I have no great rebuttal really, beyond pointing again to the distinction drawn between the two games in both Ireland and Wales. It seems greater than that it was just a matter of board size. More like the difference between draughts and chess.

Fidchell was said in Ireland to have been invented by their principal male deity Lugh, which suggests that if the game was originally borrowed from any other culture, it happened so far in the past as to have been forgotten.

These were my premises, or prejudices, when setting about trying to resurrect the lost game of Fidchell: that it was chess-like to the extent of being an abstract game of pure skill; that its pattern somehow encapsulated the ancient Celtic world-view and was not a square grid; and that a basic feature of the game was a King piece at the centre flanked by four supporters, as in the Scandanavian Tafl games, but that otherwise they were very different games.

- 3 -

In a way it would have been safest to have left it there until archaeology perhaps unearthed an intact game-board in some ancient burial mound which proved the point. But my curiosity was aroused, and continued to be tickled whenever I came across further mentions of the game. And besides, there was nothing to lose in indulging in a bit of speculation.

It occurred to me that there might be a way forward other than just sitting around waiting for some discovery to be made. Perhaps if one considered what the game was meant to represent, and worked out a pattern to fit that conception, one might arrive at the lost game by an abstract route; and that is what seemed to happen. At least, a game did emerge that is distinctly different from any other, which not only works but has proved quite addictive in trials on complete strangers who know nothing of the background, a game whose character arises largely from a board pattern derived from symbolic principles that had nothing to do with board games. Bear in mind, though, that what follows is not intended as a seriously academic argument. The whole project was undertaken purely in the spirit of adventure, and imagination had to be used to fill the gaps in the evidence. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, this is how the reasoning went.

To begin with it did not get very far. No further, in fact, than a hazy image of some board pattern based on circles with a single King piece at the centre backed by a large number of otherwise equal men whose strength would depend on their position, and an equal number of enemy pieces (excluding the King).

Then one evening in the midst of reading Nikolai Tolstoy's Quest for Merlin (and fired no doubt by his enthusiasm), an answer began to crystallize. In the middle of a passage about the ritual significance of Fidchell in the celebration of the festival of Lughnasa at the start of August, inspiration struck and with a pair of compasses I drew a pattern of seven concentric circles around a sacred Centre. Why seven? I had no clear idea at the time beyond an instinct that it should be either seven or nine, and nine looked excessive. When it came to radial divisions I was stuck until I remembered that of course there was a pattern fundamental to the western Celts' perception of the world, one that has survived to the present in the form of Celtic crosses but which predates Christianity by a long while - the quartered circle.

A clear example of the application of this archetypal pattern to the real world is the ancient division of Ireland, which was almost perfectly suited in size and shape to match the ideal. The same pattern was in fact applied to other Celtic lands but was more or less distorted by geopolitical factors.

Ireland's basic division was into four great provinces according to the pattern of the quartered circle. Then at the centre was created a fifth, smaller province which was the seat of the High King who had nominal, though circumscribed, authority over the four provincial Kings. This arrangement has survived more or less intact in Ireland's present division into the provinces of Ulster, Connaught, Munster, Leinster and Meath. Meath, the High King's portion, contained the spiritual and temporal centres of the island, the hills of Uisnech and Tara and was created by taking a portion from each of the other four provinces.

On Uisnech, which is almost the geographical as well as the spiritual centre of the island, stood the Navel Stone of Erin, described by Gerald of Wales as the Stone of Divisions. It was here that the High King would come on certain festivals to play Fidchell with his chief druid, surrounded maybe by the provincial Kings or Queens who would watch their destinies unfolding on the board (or so they would have believed).

Bearing all this in mind, it seemed likely that a fundamental division of the board should be that of the quartered circle. Combining this with the seven concentric circles produced a result reminiscent of a cyclic calendar diagram of the Celtic year I had made some time before. Although the Celtic calendar was not derived from the Roman one, and there are even suggestions that they may have operated a nine day week, there is no great problem in grafting it onto our own as in effect they also divided it into twelve months, each of which was further divided into a Light and Dark half corresponding to our fortnights. Extracting what I needed and simplifying a little produced something like this:

calendar wheel

Adding this to the concept so far produced almost the finished design. Extending the month divisions inwards to the second circle, I divided the outer ring into 24 segments to even up the solstice and equinox lines. Then for the final details I turned to Celtic numerology, mostly derived from Alwin and Brinley Rees’ Celtic Heritage.

Here my original hunch about the number of circles seemed confirmed, along with the only real dilemma, since there was apparently some interchangeability between the symbolism of 7 and 9. Sticking with 7 for the moment, I then considered the number of intersections in the pattern, at which points I envisaged holes for the pegs or stones used in the game. I felt it should relate to one of the Celts’ holy numbers.

One that quickly presented itself was 27, being not only nearly right for the pattern so far but one of the most potent numbers in Celtic lore, being 3 multiplied by itself 3 times. Often this was rounded up to 28 for much the same reason that the four provinces of Ireland required a fifth to give them cohesion. Twenty-eight, for example, was the number of warriors in the famous Irish Fianna bands, groups of semi-nomadic adventurers whose founder was the legendary Finn MacCumhail (MacCool) who, amongst other marvels, is often credited with the simultaneous creation of the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh in Ulster by throwing a great lump of earth at a Scottish giant.

Since each quarter of the board represents a semi-autonomous region with its own identity, 27 seemed an appropriate number of holes; each 27 being completed by the board’s central hole whose unique quality of being shared by the four quarters could be marked by having a unique stone larger than the rest and equivalent, on one level, to the sacred stone on Uisnech. On another level it could represent a Celtic High King and thus fit the Medieval writers’ description of it as the ‘King’ piece.

click for a larger printable copy

To achieve the desired number of holes from the pattern so far simply required extending the solstice and equinox lines inward to the middle circle, which seemed appropriate anyway to mark both their importance in the calendar and to provide a ‘seat’ in each quadrant for the provincial ruler when the pattern is treated as a template for space rather than time.

That, basically, is how the pattern of the board evolved, a pattern equally able to represent time, space and many other dimensions of experience. Do I really believe it is the lost pattern of the Fidchell board?

In the heat of inspiration I would have bet my life on it because the pieces fell into place with that felicitous ease which all artists and inventors recognize as a sign of being on the right track. From a distance in time I would now perhaps lower the stakes somewhat. In the face of academic scepticism I have to admit to the possibility that maybe my imagination projected its own ideas onto the Fidchell mystery, choosing selectively from the scanty information available to produce something which is not a re-creation at all but a brand new invention. That is perfectly possible but in my heart I secretly still don't believe it. And if someone were to dig up an indisputable Fidchell board tomorrow with a chequered pattern, my strangled response would be: ‘Well it would have been like this if only they’d given it a bit more thought!'

Click on the board above for a larger printable
version which you can use to try out the game.
Japanese Go pieces make perfect counters.

- 4 -

Having arrived at a pattern for the board, the next question was how to play the game. Luckily we are on firmer ground here as there are more hints in the surviving literature. For instance:

‘Good,’ says Guaire, ‘Let’s play Fidchell.’ ‘How are the men slain?’ asks Cummaine. ‘Not hard, a black pair of mine about a man of yours on the same line....’ (From the tale of Mac de Cherda and Cummaine Fota.)

Also from a poem: ‘Behold his chariots, they climb the valley; behold their courses, like men in Fidchell.’ Which suggests that the creation of lines of ‘men’ could be a feature of the game.

With hints such as these in mind, the first possibility of a game was suggested by the board pattern’s resemblance to a ritual maze.

Mazes have a spiritual significance in many different cultures. The ritual of tracing a path to the centre echoes the individual’s quest through life for the truth that gives it meaning. Celtic mazes were usually open air ones, traces of which are still discernible on Glastonbury Tor and other sacred hills in the British Isles. The High King’s ascent of Uisnech in Ireland almost certainly followed a devious course prescribed by ritual. Then having reached the Navel Stone he would have been faced with another maze contained in the Fidchell board.

The first game I tried required two players with different coloured stones to try and lay down a continuous line joining the centre to the circumference and capturing each other's pieces whenever desirable by 'bracketing' them in the manner described in the manuscripts. This immediately produced an intriguing and perfectly playable game with many surprises thrown up by the geometry of the board. In fact this is the game most people tend to play, though this only became apparent later in trials. At the time it just seemed a pleasant diversion, and I assumed that as with noughts and crosses, the most basic merels type game, it would not take long to crack the secret of the first player always winning. In theory this might be right but hundreds of hours of practice by many players failed to crack it.

Possibly it was just natural perversity at work again, but it seemed to me that a more complex game was called for, something with a greater symbolic clout.

Incidentally, symbolism was another objection I felt to Fidchell being simply a variant of the Nordic Tafl games. In them the objective is for the King to escape from the board (and for the other player to prevent this). This fits the scenario of the game, which is a sea battle where the King’s fleet is initially surrounded by an enemy intent on capturing him; but it makes no real sense if the board represents the King’s realm, with the seat of power at the centre, and the contest is to take possession of it.

However, that is by the way. The symbolic problem with the first game devised is that it only represents a kind of race to achieve the same goal, which is all right in itself but didn’t quite feel right. To be capable of being used for divination it seemed to me that Fidchell should reflect some more profound conflict between sides that differ by more than whoever happens to go first. It should be able to reflect, for example, the eternal conflict between the cosmic principles of Order and Chaos; the one forever trying to establish peace and harmony in the world, the other forever trying to disrupt this. Or, depending on one’s viewpoint, the one forever trying to stifle enterprise and adventure, the other trying to liven things up a bit.

The natural champion of Order in ancient Celtic times was the High King whose circumscribed authority reflected the fact that on the whole the Celts were more easily drawn to Chaos than Order. On certain high feast days the nominally subject rulers might forget their differences and gather round the High King to reaffirm their allegiance, but usually he only wielded real power in times of national crisis. He represented an ideal of unity, of potential harmony which was forever trying to become real and forever being thwarted by the forces of disruption.

opening layout

This, it seemed to me was what the game needed to be capable of reflecting, so I assigned different roles to the two sides. The King Piece or Navel Stone remains static in the centre and White aims to forge a line between it and the outer circle (thus symbolically taking possession of the whole board). Black’s aim is to prevent this or way or another.

From this starting point the final and proper version of the game emerged after three or four years of trial and experiment. The biggest headache throughout was trying to balance the strength of the two sides because, unlike in the first game there is no natural symmetry between their objectives. This meant endless tinkering with the opening arrangement, but the final solution turned out to be as simple and natural as the others, though it took longer to reach. For experienced players there is no overall advantage in being either White or Black, though the balance of power does shift in the course of a game, making it slightly easier for one side or the other to seize the initiative at different stages of the game.

The beauty of the opening arrangement is that it not only solves the technical problem of making the game work, but neatly chimes with the board’s symbolism.

At the centre sits the King-piece or Navel Stone in a small province in the shape of a perfect quartered circle. Immediately flanking it are four White pieces representing the provincial rulers in their aspect of allegiance.

The boundaries of the four great provinces are defined by the extended arms of the central cross. Because it is on borders that disputes most often occur, Black pieces sit on their extremities. Midway between these on the outer circle are White pieces standing for the inner harmony of each province whatever their conflicts with each other. Finally at the centre of each province sits a Black piece representing the provincial rulers in their aspect of rivalry with each other and opposition to the centre.

Within this framework the contest begins, livened by an ambivalence in the nature of the King-piece which reflects the reality that although the High King was the natural champion of Order, too much of it is no better than having too much Chaos, so in certain circumstances he is liable to change sides.

- 5 -

So, having established a game that meets most of the criteria suggested by the surviving hints about Fidchell, what remains? Two things mainly - the occasional suggestion of dice being used and the accounts of magical boards which played by themselves.

Both could be ignored because the mentions of dice are unreliable and the magic boards could easily be dismissed as fantasy along with much else in the old legends. But there is a possible explanation which takes both into account - which is that dice were employed when the board was being used for divination. As with other divinatory systems such as the Tarot or I Ching, some such device would have been required to override the conscious manipulation of those seeking to read the future.

Using dice in Fidchell normally makes no more sense than using them in chess. That is to say, one could do so to determine, say, the extent of any move, but it rather defeats the object of the game. However, if they are used to dictate the placing of the pieces, a system for doing which would not be hard to devise, the result would be a game run entirely by chance (or Fate, as believers would see it). A game, in fact, that ‘plays by itself’ as the magic boards were said to do. And if every space were assigned a symbolic value, what you would be left with when all the pieces had been placed would be a kind of picture of whatever situation you were seeking to understand, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each side.

Quite possibly it was this aspect of Fidchell which caused it to fall into near oblivion. The early Celtic Church was remarkably tolerant in many ways about the preceding pagan era, especially in Ireland, which is how we know much at all beyond what archaeology can tell; but on some issues it was implacable - such as Druidism. Druids and even some of the old gods were allowed partial survival in the tales recorded by monks and scholars, but they were banished pretty firmly from every other sphere, probably taking Fidchell with them because of its inextricable (at the time) associations with Druidic practices.




BOOKS QUOTED IN THE TEXT

Celtic Heritage

Alwin & Brinley Rees, Thames and Hudson. 1961

Early Irish Myths and Sagas

trans. Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin Classics. 1981

The Quest for Merlin

Nikolai Tolstoy, Hamish Hamilton. 1985

Games of the Gods

Nigel Pennick Rider. 1988

Notes: Cornish - Goedhboell, Breton - Gwezboell

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