THE KOZMIC GAME
The great kozmological themes of Rökkr mysticism were not mere abstracts for our ancestors, privy to only priests, or their modern equivalent, scientists, but instead, were vital ideas that were central to everyday living. The belief in a cyclic universe that would create and destroy itself onward into infinity was illustrated in the heavens every year, as Loki's Brand (Sirius) moved onto the Milky Way. Similarly, the idea that the axis of the world was turned by the nine giant daughters of Ran was obvious to anyone that looked up at the stars that spiralled overhead each night. Both these themes were therefore celebrated and echoed within the human world with the creation of board games.
In one of the most picturesque lines from the Voluspa, the volva sings how, in the regenerated world that arises out of the finality of Ragnarok: Once again in the grass are found, Draughtsmen all of gold, The wondrous draughtsmen the gods had owned, In the earliest days of old. The golden draughts were not the pieces of the game of draughts that we know of now, neither were they, as is often mistakenly claimed, the pieces of the Persian game of Shatranj, which was introduced to Europe as the game of chess in the 1470s. Instead, they were the playing pieces from one of the indigenous European board games, Tafl (which also appears under the names Glafs Kongs Tafl Færingstafl, Foerital, Freystafl, Worptaflespel, Tanntafl, Kotungatafl, and Hnefatafl; in Ireland as Brandul, Brandubh, Brannaib, Buanfach, and Cennchain Conchobar; and in Britain as Dawlbwrd, Tawlbort, and Tawlbwrdd).
There are many forms of Tafl, with boards measuring from grids of 7-by-7 (with 49 squares) up to 19-by-19 (with 361), though the mean is a grid of 9-by-9, with 81 squares. As the grid of squares is odd-numbered, there is a central square, which is called the Konakis or Nowl, and represents both the Pole Star, and the navel of the earth. The Lappish form of Tafl was called Tablut, and because of the nomadic life, was played using a cloth-board, with embroidered squares, while the English version (Tawlbort) was played using boards made of wood, metal, whale-bone, or walrus-ivory; the use of bone and ivory was significant in that it symbolised the wyrd and death ipplicit in the board game.
A game-piece symbolising a king is placed at the nowl, and is surrounded by eight defenders in the shape of a cross. In opposition are sixteen attacking pieces, which open the game in groups of four at the middle of each side of the board; so that the final design of pieces resembles a cross patent. The attacking side moves first, and their aim is to capture opposing pieces by bracketing them an two sides, and finally to capture the king by surrounding him an all four sides; or an three, with the nowl as the fourth. The defenders have to protect the king, and try to win the game by noting when the king's piece has a clear line to the edge of the board. When this occurs, the defending player must tell the opponent (in the same way "Check" is called in chess). When there are two clear lines, the defender calls "Raichi", and is the winner. Players move in straight lines, any number of vacant points, and only the King can occupy or cross the nowl.
The archetypes involved here are obvious. The king at the nowl is the king of kozmic order and stability, but the play of the game seeks to unseat him; making it a perfect analogy of Ragnarok. The martial symbolism of Tafl was also applied to whatever war was occupying the minds of its players. The eighteenth century Tablut, had the king and his defenders as Swedish, with the attackers as Muscovites (Russians), while an earlier version from Europe and Britain had the Goths as the defenders, attacked by the Huns (or Hunns, as the pieces were themselves calledl Hornklofi"s Raven Song states that: "They are well cared for, the warriors who move the Hunns in Harald's Court")
Just as Ragnarok symbolizes the completion of one wyrdic cycle, so wyrd was often invoked in the play of Tafl, where dice would be cast to push the hands of players. In sakko, a form of the Lappish game of Tablo (which despite the name is more like the traditional game of Fox and Geese than Tafl, with one player taking the role of the fox or wolf, who eats the pieces of the opposing player), dices were also used to determine the type of moves.
The theme of the kozmic battle has been a feature not only Tafl, but other board games. In India, the game of chess was known as planetary battle, while in 16th century Europe, it was still known as Celestial War, or Astrologer's Game. And just as the battle of Ragnarok transpired, astrally, on the death road of the Milky Way, in Chinese versions of chess, the two opposing sides of the game board were divided by the picture of the Milky Way. An association of the fate of the gods with a game of chance is found in India, where the Rig Veda says that the gods go round like ayas, the casts of the dice. The dice were called urata, meaning an organised gang, under the rulership of a king; this king was Rudra, a prototype of the destroyer god Shiva. In a similar way, yuga, the name given to the four Indian world ages, was derived from the idiom of dicing.
Just as the battle of Ragnarok is represented by the board game of Tafl, the concept of the kozmic world mill, and its nine maids, is illustrated in the board game of Nine Maid's Morris. This game appears throughout Europe, dating from as early as the Bronze Age, whilst its modern, but simplified, descendant is Noughts and Crosses. In Germany, the game was known variously as Muhle, Muhlespiel, Muhlebrettspiel, while in Flemish and Dutch it is called Molenspel, or Negensticken (Nine Sticks). In Scandinavia, the Danes call it Møllespil, the Swedes call it Kvarn or Dubbel-Kvarn, and in Iceland, it is called Mylna or Mylla. In England, aside from dialectical variations on the word mill, the game is sometimes known as The Shepherd's Mill. Other names include Nine Men's Morris, Merels, or simply Nine Holes.
The board of Nine Maids is designed as a 24 hole grid, and each player has nine playing pieces. Each player alternately places their pieces on the board until all have been placed. This done, a piece can be moved each turn, without leaping, to any empty adjacent point on a line. The object of play is to form a line of three pieces of the same colour, which is called a mill. When a mill is formed, the miller can remove one of the opponent's pieces, except for those already in a mill. A mill can be formed and broken an unlimited number of times. When a player is reduced to only two pieces, they are the looser.
Astrally, the mill appears in the three stars of the Belt of Orion, which symbolises the distaff of Hela. She travels around the sky, seated in the wagon of Ursa Minor, with one hand on the spindle of the nowl, and the other on the three stars of the distaff, weaving the fabric of space-time.