Tafl game Alea Evangelii hints at 11th century go influence in Europe?

There is an ancient family of board games, often referred to as tafl games, which have Scandinavian origins and were popular many centuries ago in Northern Europe and the British Isles. They are two-player abstract strategy games with asymmetrical starting positions and unequal numbers of pieces for each player; one player controls a large attacking army, while the other player uses his/her smaller army to defend a single king piece until the king can escape [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tafl_games ]. Perhaps the most well-known game in the genre is Hnefatafl (King’s Table). The mechanics of the game are more similar to chess than go; the pieces move like rooks and there is a vital king piece which must be defended from capture. However, one ancient tafl game, Alea Evangelii, has striking similarities to go.

The pieces in Alea Evangelii are played on the intersections of a board composed of 19x19 lines, unlike other tafl games in which pieces are played inside the squares, and on smaller boards (11x11 squares or smaller). This means that a standard goban can be used to play Alea Evangelii, with the exception that a single stone must be marked or otherwise distinguished as the king. What I find particularly intriguing about this game is that it is mentioned in an 11th century Irish manuscript [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alea_evangelii ], yet the first detailed description of go in a European language did not appear until 1694, De Circumveniendi Ludo Chinensium (About the Chinese encircling game) [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Go ].

Did the game of go influence the creation of this 19x19 tafl game? Did gobans exist in 11th century Europe, even if the game of go was not played by the general European population at that time? Or, perhaps, is it just a coincidence that Alea Evangelii is played with black and white stones on the intersections of a 19x19 lined board? …What are your thoughts?

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That is really interesting.

It looks like someone in the 11th. century took a journey to asia and developed a game based on the tafl games and go.

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wow, this is cool stuff.

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Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I must have read about this in my youth, because it is detailed in R. C. Bell’s Board and Table Games of All Civilizations, which I read about 45 years ago, but I don’t remember and never connected it with Go. First let me get a few minor points out of the way. Edward Falkner’s Games Ancient and Oriental lists two earlier, European books that mention Go: Semedo’s Relacione della Grande Monachia [sic] della China (1643) and Trigantius’ De Christiana Expeditione apud Sinas (1616). Also, this game is obviously Hnefatafl, but has been given the name Alea Evangelii (Game of the Evangelists) by the manuscript’s author in keeping with his Biblical interpretation. This highlights what I find to be the most interesting aspect of this game: it is a splendid example of the Christianizing of pagan cultural elements (most conspicuously seen, perhaps, in Latin America). Wikipedia notes another example involving a tafl game associated with the Gospels as appearing in Cormac’s Glossary (900 A.D.). The CCC Ms. 122 is actually a 12th-century document (c. 1140), which is a copy of a 10th-century document. This fits very nicely with the early missionary efforts in Scandinavia, which began in the 8th century and achieved the establishment of archdioceses in the 12th century.

Now to get down to the main business. I suppose I should say from the outset that I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but I do not think this game is connected in any way to Go. Three points of putative correspondence exist: black and white stones, play on intersections, and a 19x19 board. I will discuss them in that order.

Hnefatafl pieces have actually been found. They are carved from bone (Bell, vol. 1, p. 80). Even if stones were used, however, it would be an understandable convenience for common people, or someone playing a game on the fly (e.g., soldiers in camp). Other games (e.g., mancala) also use stones. And if there are two sides, different colors are essential.

The intersections present a slightly more intriguing parallel. There are other games, including one tafl game, that use intersections: the Alquerque group, Fox and Geese (a tafl game), and Cows and Leopards (not a tafl game) to name a few. I have been unable to find any theory about the origin of intersections versus squares in games, but I offer my own speculation, which I think is plausible and even fairly obvious. I suggest that badly drawn lines are less disturbing aesthetically than badly drawn squares, and therefore are easier to make and preferable to use for the common people in ancient times. Aristocrats, on the other hand, could afford to have craftsmen make boards with neat squares. The antiquity of Go is consistent with this, and I suspect that it originated among the common people (contrary to legend). However, an even more practical explanation comes to mind for this game. A 19x19 board using substandard 1x1-inch squares would be very large, and with decent-size squares (say 1.5 inches to the side) it would be quite unwieldy. Therefore, it is far more practical to use intersections for games with large boards, as the lines can be more closely spaced. As an addendum to this, I should point out that the squares in Alea Evaneglii are subdivided with diagonals in some cases, and that many of the squares contain dots of unknown meaning (there are 10 dots in the castle squares, and six or seven in the attackers’ squares). Also, there are strokes in some squares. Therefore, the intersections may be used for the pieces because the squares are needed for these other elements.

The 19x19 board is obviously the most provocative parallel. Early Go supposedly used 17x17 (up to c. 700), but this sounds like it may be a detail about whether or not the frame was included. Similarly, at least one scholar thinks the frame in AE was not included (leaving 17x17) but the drawing seems to contradict this. The question is: why 19x19? My instinct suggests a symbolic significance. A cursory search in books on Chinese symbolism (most notably Williams’ classic Encyclopedia of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives) yielded nothing. (Perhaps our Chinese members could add something to this?) Annemarie Schimmel’s great work, The Mystery of Numbers, notes that 19 is a sacred number in Egypt and among the Baha’is. But this is all pretty vague. More intriguing is that 19 years is the number of the Metonic cycle. Or perhaps it has something to do with the 361 points being one more than the degrees of a circle (recognized among the ancient Chinese as well as among other parts of the ancient world). It is a mystery, but if the answer lies in symbolism, then the symbol could very well be coincidentally common to far-flung cultures.

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Thank you, Conrad_Melville for your comprehensive and detailed response to this topic which has had me puzzled for a couple years. It is enlightening to see this depth of research beyond the pseudo-academic Wikipedia searching that I did! If you have any interest in adding some of these details to the Wikipedia articles referenced in my original post, I’m sure that would clear up some of the confusion for other abstract strategy game enthusiasts. For example, in the article on Alea Evangelii I noticed that the first paragraph ambiguously mentions “an eleventh-century Irish manuscript,” while the caption for the illustration in CCC MS. 122 refers to a “12th century manuscript,” so I assumed they were different sources with the former being the first known reference to the game. Yet, from what you pointed out it sounds like the first known reference would be from the 10th century or earlier. (Granted, I should read more books instead of drawing conclusions from user-generated Wikipedia content.)

I hadn’t thought about the fact that playing game pieces on badly drawn intersections would be more comfortable than playing on badly drawn squares; that makes sense. I wonder if there were ancient Hnefatafl boards with only 100 squares (11x11 intersections) because of the same problem. Certainly many of these homemade boards crafted by soldiers, children, and the working class are probably lost forever.

I also concede that the use of a 19x19 board is likely a coincidence. The significance of 361 points is certainly worth investigation. When the central “pole” (king’s starting position / tengen point) is removed, it leaves 360 positions. I know that the idea of 360 degrees attributed to a circle comes from the ancient Babylonians who used a base 60 numerical system. Furthermore, the use of 360 degrees has something to do with the fact that the perimeter of a regular hexagon is exactly six times the radius of its circumscribed circle, because a regular hexagon can be broken into 6 equilateral triangles. Apparently this fact was used by the Babylonians to make some of the earliest estimations of pi. This is described in more detail in a book called “A History of Pi” by Petr Beckmann.

It is useful that 360 can be factored in many ways, including 345*6. On top of all this, several cultures around the world have used a 360-day calendar in ancient times, which is nearly the average of the solar year (365.2 days) and 12 lunar months (354.4 days). In light of this, perhaps it’s not surprising that the ancient Chinese and Europeans independently developed games rooted in this striking numerological phenomenon!

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I appreciate your sober, scholarly reaction to my comments, I was a bit afraid that I might be spoiling the fun of this mystery–which nevertheless retains much interest. I contributed to some early Wikipedia pages on science fiction (especially robots), but got frustrated with people constantly introducing incorrect punctuation and style. Maybe I’ll do as you suggest when I find the time (retirement? whenever that will be…). I didn’t bother mentioning the 11th/12th century discrepancy, because my comment was already very long. I suspect that the Wiki writer mixed up the 1100s with 11th century. By the way, I need to correct myself: Bell’s book is subtitled “From Many Civilizations,” not “of All Civilizations.” I will add a few other items that I left out since you have such a strong interest.

The original document from the 10th century is attributed to Israel the Grammarian, who was briefly in Athelstan’s court (if my memory serves). You can look him up; he has his own page on Wikipedia. He had spent time in Rome, so if there was a Go connection, it might have come from there, perhaps via a lost manuscript or from trade routes to the east. There is an online translation of Ms. 122, but I couldn’t access it from work on my lunch hour, and I didn’t bother to pursue it when I got home. Unfortunately, I didn’t save the URL. However, it pops up in a search for the manuscript. In addition, the Oxford site has good photos of the manuscript.

I’m glad you brought up the Babylonian connection. I decided to omit this because I couldn’t remember enough about the base 60 number system (I’ve also heard it called base 12, and have heard it said that it was used, as you mention, because of the ease of factoring). Subtracting the tengen point is a great observation that I didn’t think of, and it certainly strengthens the idea of a connection to 360. Thanks for mentioning the Beckman book; I have a copy, which I got for 50 cents at my local library sale about a year ago. I haven’t read it, but now I’ll move it up the waitlist.

I also omitted speculation about a connection to magic squares. Since you clearly know more math than I do, you may want to pursue this angle. The Wikipedia article on Go mentions theories that “relate go equipment to divination and flood control.” I found this intriguing because the first magic square (the Lo Shu 3x3) is Chinese and is rooted in a story about flood control. I did a little casual searching in a couple books I have to see if there is a square with some 19x19 significance, but that is a very large number, and the whole subject is really a bit beyond me.

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This discussion has such lovely detail that it deserves to be bumped.

For me a key thought would be that the most likely route for a game to travel from China to Europe is via India and the Middle East, on the Silk Road. And it would “travel” not with a single merchant going laboriously along the trade route, because that isn’t how the Silk Road worked: the game of Go would have stopped and started in taverns and inns, being slowly and gradually passed along. Yet we don’t see evidence of Go-playing along the Silk Road.

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A thread about this has been running since the start of November on L19: Alea evangelii and Go • Life In 19x19

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