The Lewis Chessmen

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I love mysteries, especially ancient and medieval ones. The Lewis Chessmen are one such mystery, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to go to The Cloisters to see them and give my imagination full rein! The British Museum lent 34 of its 67 chessmen to the Cloisters branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click here for exhibit information.

The Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s chilly Outer Hebrides. There are a bunch of stories about them: they were buried by a shipwrecked sailor, who was murdered by a herdsman, or they were stolen by a boy who jumped ship who buried them and meant to come back but never did.   Carved mostly from walrus tusk, they were found in a sand dune in a small stone carrying case. Some were stained red, indicating the colors of the sides were red and white, not black and white.

How they got to that sand dune is a mystery.   Some think they arrived from Iceland, but conventional wisdom   has it that they somehow came off a merchant ship traveling a regular trade route between Norway and Ireland and that they were produced in Trondheim, a Norwegian town, between 1150 and 1200. The faces are generally stylized, but each is different enough that some scholars have speculated they might portray real people.   Some of the expressions are certainly comic.

The archbishop of Trondheim, who along with the king of Norway had jurisdiction over the Hebrides, may have been the wealthy patron behind the chessmen.   He may have had them made as gifts, based on the cost of the ivory and the quality of the carving.

But two chess aficionados from Iceland, Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson and Einar S. Einarsson, are pushing Iceland as the birthplace of the chessmen. Mr. Thorarinsson createded a website to explain his theory –

Here it is:   Icelandic is the first language to describe “Bishop” as a chess piece. The use of bishops in chess is mentioned as far back as the Icelandic sagas from the 10th and 11th centuries–predating the chessmen. The sagas even include descriptions of checkmates using bishops.

Mr. Thorarinsson says historic writings refer to Bishop Pall Jonsson (1155 – 1211) in Iceland sending carved gifts made from tusks. These were made by Margret the Adroit, his wife, so called because of her prodigious skill at carving walrus tusks.

He added: “One might even entertain the notion that the Lewis Chessmen were made at the request of Bishop Pll of Sklholt and carved by Margrt 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”.

Chess fans and mystery buffs – what’s your theory?

If you would like to purchase a replica chess set, we recommend The Regency Chess Company in Bath, England.   Their sets are produced from laser scans of the original pieces.   Learn more or order the sets here.

3 thoughts on “The Lewis Chessmen

  1. I write because you have published articles about the Lewis Chessmen. First some general remarks: The Lewis chessmen are in such a high esteem that during the years several diverging interests have made their claim. During the latter years I have to mention two in particular: The Scots and the Icelanders. I do not have to inform you about “the Scottish stand”, but as I have several Scottish corr.chess friends, they have on occasions notified me about the most common stand amongst Scots, something like “the only certain thing is that the chessmen were found at Isle of Lewis, which is Scottish land”. The problem with this position is of course that we know a lot more.
    The second position is the Icelandic one: In order to reach a conclusion Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson (which you have refered/quoted) actually had to use methods which are scholarly unacceptable.
    Both these postions are made possible by the state of knowledge about (the history of) the chessmen. There is a certain bias concerning all the material that has been published. This is probably caused by two facts: 1. The authors have been British, 2. Their scholarship have, as far as I know, either been as archaelogists or art historians. I am sorry to say so, but this means that knowledge about the rather massive body of Norse literature and the Norse history at large has been (too) scant.
    Here’s the basic fact: In 1098 King Edgar of Scotland and Magnus III “Barelegs” of Norway signed a treaty where all the western isles were recognised as Norwegian , and the islands did not become a part of Scotland’s crown until 1266. These islands were colonised by the Norwegians from 800 and onwards, a fact that for instance the place-names of Lewis give an overwhelming evidence about. The “problems” occur because of two facts: 1. The pieces and their heritage are desireable, and 2. The Isle of Lewis later became a part of Scotland. If No.2 never had taken place, no one would ever have questioned if the pieces were Norwegian. As to No.1: Auschwitz is now in Poland, yet no one tries to tell us that it was a Polish camp. It is undesireable. On the other hand we have a parallell in the ancient greek cities along the coast of Asia Minor: One hundred years ago all Greeks were either driven out/escaped or killed, and the Turks took over the whole area. Last year I had an odd experience: I took part in the ICCF Congress in Turkey as the Norwegian delegate. One day we had a break, and participated on a guided tour to several ancient ruins. To my horror the guide over and over again tried to cover up or outright deny that these ruins were ancient greek cities. Here we clearly see the consequences of the national bias when the items in question are desireable. These are some major issues that causes confusion around the recorded facts about the Lewis chessmen, too.

    Morten L

    A deeper dug into the matter can be found at:

  2. I don’t know anything about chess, but I have seen some of the Lewis Chessmen at the British Museum and they are absolutely charming. Each one is unique and seems to have its own personality. My favorites are the Berzerkers who are biting their shields with their eyes bugging out, representing the warriors who freaked out their enemies on the battlefields.

    I don’t know the true story of their origin, but wherever they are from they are very special and are a treasure of human history!

  3. It is a mystery. Norway seems more obvious than Iceland in terms of travel but they are fabulous pieces anyway. The remainder of the chessmen are in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Amazing that such a game of strategy is so old.

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