I don’t get it. I’m playing chess on my new Nook and getting slaughtered on the easy game setting. The queen comes screaming out of nowhere! But I can hold my own on the difficult setting. I guess “easy” means “easy defeat!” I can’t help but wonder what kind of match I’d be against Finn mac Cumhail, Ailill, or Finn Bán.
In ancient Ireland, the game was called fidchell. From its description in early literature, fidchell was a game of strategy played by moving pieces of two opposing armies on a board. Sounds like chess. Its counterpart in Wales was known as gwyddbwyll, and the set owned by the sixth-century king Gwenddolau is described as “a board of a ground of gold, and the pieces were made of silver and could play by themselves.” (Hamilton & Eddy, 2008, p. 92). The legendary hero Finn mac Cumhaill’s board was so large or so heavy that it was carried by two of his men, Gúaire and Flaithius.
We don’t know really what the fidchell board or pieces looked like, although in the Tale of Deidre the piece Naoise throws at a peeping tom is described as silver, and we don’t have any details of how the game was played. The oldest surviving examples of Gaelic chess pieces were discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Fashioned from walrus tusks, the more than 120 pieces found date back only to the mid twelfth-century. But we do know that mastery of the game was a skill highly valued by the nobility. “According to glosses and commentary on Cáin Íarraith (The Law of Fosterage) the son of a king or noble must be taught the board-games fidchell and brannuigecht, horsemanship, swimming, and marksmanship.” (Kelly, 1995, p. 87).
Being a master at the game, just as in chess, undoubtedly gave one an advantage in strategic thinking, which translated well to the battlefield. And, as is evident from ancient Irish and Welsh tales, fidchell/gwyddbwyll was imbued with divinatory properties. The belief that what happened on the board was paralleled on the field of battle is evident in The Dream of Rhonabwy. As the game was played out between King Arthur and Owain, their movements were mirrored in the battle going on around them.
In the Irish tale of Diarmuid and Grainne, the conflict between Diarmuid and Finn mac Cumhail manifests itself in a game of fidchell, translated as “chess” in the retelling by Marie Heaney. Diarmuid eloped with Grainne, who had been betrothed to Finn, and Finn pursued the two lovers mercilessly with his band of warriors. They escaped to hide high up in a rowan tree, but Finn suspected the hiding place and settled down to wait underneath. “He called for a chessboard and challenged Oisin to a game. Oisin’s supporters sat on one side of the board and Finn sat alone at the other. Finn played a skilful, crafty game until it came about that a single move would win the game….Diarmuid, who had a bird’s-eye view of the game through the branches of the tree, saw Oisin’s predicament….Diarmuid studied the board, then he picked a berry and aimed it at the chesspiece that ought to be moved. Oisin moved that piece and turned the fame against Finn.” (Heaney, 1995, p. 203).
As mentioned in my last post, the ancient Gaels viewed the kingship as a marriage between the goddess of sovereignty (embodied in the land) and the king. Hamilton and Eddy point out, “Even today, in the game of chess, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, being able to move in any direction. Her function is to protect the king and, once the king is trapped, the game is over. Perhaps there is a remnant here of the Celtic belief in the relationship between the goddess of sovereignty and her chosen king.” (2008, p.93).
Hamilton, C. & Eddy, S. (2008). Decoding the Celts: revealing the legacy of the Celtic tradition. New York: Metro Books.
Heaney, M. (1995). Over nine waves: a book of Irish legends. London: Faber and Faber.
Kelly, F. (1995). A guide to early Irish law. Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.