Olli Salmi

1.12.2013 [updated 18.6.2015]


Translation of Linnaeus’s rules for the Saami game

Linnaeus describes the Saami board game tablut in his ‘Tour of Lapland”. His notes were published in English in 1811 (volume I and II).

The 1899 Swedish edition of Linnaeus’s notes has been online for some time. I noticed that the translation of the rules of tablut had mistakes, most importantly the rule for capturing the king. I started translating the Latin rules and dug up the copy of the rules which I had taken earlier and later checked all the volumes of the Skytte edition.

There are translations of the original Latin by John C. Ashton and Nicolas Cartier, of which I was unaware when I started this translation. Ashton’s first translation of the rules is online now, page 7-8. It’s better than the professional translation but rule 12 is correct in the latter. Ashton expands Linnaeus's text with speculations, some of which have been carried over to later translations. The Archaelogical Magazine Skalk is said to have published the earliest version based on the Latin text, but I haven't seen it.

Aage Nielsen's hnefatafl forum has discussion on tablut rules and this translation (and scans of the original rules). A tournament was played under these rules and it seems that the balance is very good although the two sides have a different number of pieces.

The Latin text below is from the Royal Skytte Society edition of Iter Lapponicum (2003).

Tablut. Dabllo
1. Arx regia. Konokis Lappon., cui nullus succedere potest. 1. The fort of the king (gånågis in Saami), which nobody can enter.
“Succedere” with dative seems to mean “enter”.  Gånågis means ‘king’. It’s unlikely that it refers to the central square. Fries: “Konokis in Saami, which [i.e. the King] nobody can replace.”
The word Lapp is not politically correct nowadays, so I use “Saami” in order not to get blame for Linnaeus's use of words. I use the Finnish spelling that Sámi giellatekno uses in English.
2 et 3. Sveci N:r 9 cum rege et eorum loca s. stationes. 2 & 3. Swedes, 9 of them with the king and their squares or positions.
Fries thinks that number 9 refers to the squares only.
4. Muscovitarum stationes omnes in prima aggressione depictæ. 4. The  positions of the Muscovites at the beginning of the attack.
0. Vacua loca1 occupare cuique licitum, etiam Regi, idem valet de locis characterisatis praeter arcem. 0. Empty squares can be occupied by any piece, also the King. This also applies to the specially marked squares except the fort.
“Praeter” means “in front of”, but it can also mean “except” (Cartier’s suggestion), which is very precise in the context. Linnaeus could have used numbers but this is shorter.

Leges Rules
1. Alla få occupera och mutare loca per lineam rectam, non vero transversam, ut a ad c non vero a ad e. 1. Any piece may occupy a square and move from one square to another in a straight line but not diagonally, as from a to c, but not from a to e.
“Alla få occupera och”, Swedish, “all can occupy and”.
2. Nulli licitum sit locum per lineam rectam alium supersalire, occupare, ut a b ad m, alio aliqvo in i constituto. 2. It is not allowed to pass over any other piece that may be in the way, or to move into its place, for instance, from b to m, in case any were stationed at i or somewhere else(?).
“Constituto” participle “placed”.  “Alio aliquo” is “anyone else”, or “any other one”, suggesteed by Ahston's professional translator.
3. Si Rex occuparet locum b et nullus in e, i et m positus esset, possit exire, nisi2 mox muscovita aliqvod ex locis nominatis occupat, et Regi exitum præcludit. 3. If the king should stand in b, and no other piece in e, i, or m, he may escape by that road, unless one of the Muscovites immediately gets possession of one of the squares in question, so as to interrupt him.
4. Si Rex tali modo exit, est praelium finitum. 4. If the king be able to accomplish this, the contest is at an end.
5. Si Rex in e collocaretur, nec ullus s. ejus s. hostis miles esset in f g sive i m, tum aditus non potest claudi. 5. If the king happens to be in e, and none of his own people or his enemies either in f or g, i or m, his exit cannot be prevented.
6. Ut Rex aditum apertum vidit, clamet Raichi, si duæ viæ apertæ sunt tuichu. 6. Whenever the king perceives that a passage is free, he must call out rájgge ‘hole’ and if there be two ways open, dujgu ‘hither and thither’.
Fries: “tuichu Luule Saami tuoiku ‘up there in front, that way forward’ (Grundstöm, s. 1255f)”. Wiklund’s Lule-Lappisches Wörterbuch has the form tuiku (dujgu in the present official orthography), which is prolative plural, ‘through those [holes]’. Perhaps best translated as ‘this way and that’.
7. Licitum est loca dissita occupare per lineam rectam, ut a c ad n, nullo intercludente. 7. It is allowable to move ever so far at once, in a right line, if the squares in the way be vacant, as from c to n.
8. Svecus et muscovita in gressibus alternant. 8. The Swedes and the Muscovites take it by turns to move.
9. Si qvis hostem 1 inter 2 sibi hostes collocare possit, est occisus et ejici debet, etiam Rex. 9. If a player can move so that the enemy is between two of his pieces, it is killed and taken off, likewise the king.
“Possit” present subjunctive, “be able to”.
Literally: “If somebody can move [so that] a piece [ends up] between two hostile pieces,…” Linnaeus had trouble finding a concise formulation of this rule. A suicide interpretation probably makes the game impossible. Fries translates literally.
10. Si Rex in arce 1 et hostes in 3bus ex N:r 2, tum abire potest per qvartum,

et si ejus in 4to locum occupare potest, si ita cinctus et miles in 3 collocatur, est inter regem et militem qvi stat occisus,

si qvatuor hostes in 2, tum rex captus est.

10. If the king, being in his own square or castle, is encompassed on three sides by his enemies, one of them standing in each of three of the squares numbered 2, he may move away by the fourth.

If one of his own people happens to be in this fourth square, and one of his enemies in number 3 next to it, the soldier thus enclosed between his king and the enemy is killed.

If four of the enemy gain possession of the four squares marked 2, thus enclosing the king, he becomes their prisoner.
11. Si Rex in 2, tum hostes 3, sc. in a α et 3 erint, si capiatur.
11. If the king be in 2, with an enemy in each of the adjoining squares, a, α and 3, he is likewise taken.
12. Rege capto vel intercluso finitur bellum et victor retinet svecos, devictus muscovitas et ludus incipiatur.
12. When the king is taken or imprisoned, the war is over, and the winner takes the Swedes, the loser the Muscovites, and the play starts all over.
This rule says nothing about the case of the Swedes winning.
13. Muscovitas sine rege erint, suntque 16 in 43 phalangibus disponendis. 13. The Muscovites have no King and the 16 pieces are deployed in 4 units.
14. Arx potest intercludere, æque ac trio[tertio?], ut si miles in 2 et hostis in 3 est, occiditur4. 14. The fort can block, as a third [piece], so if there is a soldier in 2 and enemy in 3, it is killed.
Tertio is Ashton's suggestion. Fries: “Trio ‘ox’ seems to be taken from some game where the “ox” is surrounded.”

1 In the manuscript loco.
2 L. had written first si and then corrected it to ni.
3. 12 changed into 16, and 3 changed into 4 or 4 into 3.
4. Unclear., 1913 edition has occidat.

Ashton's and Cartier’s interpretation that one cannot jump over the fort and that the king cannot return to it is possible but not necessary. The former is not mentioned and is only based on analogy. The latter is based on the rule that nobody can enter the fort. However, it may be too strict an interpretation that even the king cannot enter. After all, what is a fort if not a place of refuge?

It is necessary for the fort to have the power to block because otherwise the adjacent square would be safe to all pieces, since only the King can enter the fort.

Rule 10 (“the soldier thus enclosed between his king and the enemy is killed”) says that if the King is surrounded from three sides, the fort can be used by the surrounding side to block. This is translated the same way in all translations. I do not really understand the purpose of this rule. If these are the only pieces still on the board, it's not sensible to take the soldier, because the King would move into its place and have two ways out. The game works without this rule.

Some modern rules give rules for a draw. The rule of three repetitions of the same situation is from chess. It is also possible to make the first repetition of a situation illegal. I think in a friendly game one side would give in to avoid more repetitions.

Linnaeus says nothing about who starts the game. He has drawings of the pieces but doesn't mention colours, not even blond Swedes.

The description of the game is in the chapter Lapponia Lulensis. The itinerary crosses over to Norway (Rørstad) and the game is described before he leaves the mountains on his way back. He travels with guides and has an interpreter, so it's likely that he has had the rules explained to him.


1. Translation 1811
The 1889 edition says that the translation into English was done by a young Swedish merchant, Carl Troilius, who was in London at the time (p. 3, footnote 1). However, Troilius’s Latin wasn't enough, and the editor translated those parts

2. Swedish 1889 edition

3. Iter Lapponicum = Lappländska resan, 1732. 1, Dagboken / Carl Linnæus ; utgiven efter handskriften av Algot Hellbom, Sigurd Fries, Roger Jacobsson. Umeå : Skytteanska samfundet, 2003.
The second volume is a commentary. It has translations of the Latin texts by Ingegerd Fries. The third volume is a facsimile edition.

Available for purchase here:

Differences compared to the 1889 edition: item Regi>etiam Regi, item Rex>etiam Rex, tuicha>tuichu, miles in 2 collocatur>miles in 3 collocatur.


The Lule Saami dictionary by Olavi Korhonen (1979) has dáb'lo which means “board [Swedish tavla]; stone board; game board”. Linnaeus’s “raichi”  is probably rái'ge “hole”. For “tuichu” Wiklund’s Lule-Lappisches Wörterbuch has the form tuiku (duigu in Korhonen’s orthography). Wiklund also has a verbal stem tablu-. Linnaeus’s form tablut could be nominative plural of the noun or the infinitive of the verb, probably the latter because there's no reason for a plural form.

The orthography of Lule Saami was changed in 1983. My understanding is that in the present orthography the words would be written dábllo, rájgge and dujgu.

The name dábllo is used for other Saami games as well, so it's a generic name for board games, like tafl. One of them is described in Jåhttee saamee viessoom by Anta Pirak. Peter Michaelsen describes the game in Dablo – a Sámi game. However, he assumes diagonal lines and moves, which the Saami text and the entry in Grundstöm’s dictionary don't mention. Grundström has recorded the text of the book from dictation by Pirak and checked his text with him in person, so he should know. The dictionary has a drawing of the game board, also without diagonals.

Lapsk-svensk-tysk ordbok till Anta Pirak, Jåhttee saamee viessoom / utarbetad av H. Grundström ; översatt till tyska av W. Schlachter.
Grundström, Harald.
Uppsala : Almqvist & Wiksells, 1939.

Jåhttee saamee viessoom / Anta Pirak ; uppteckn. och försett med inledning av H. Grundström samt fonetiskt upptecknat språkprov av B. Collinder.
Pirak, Anta.
Uppsala : Almqvist & Wiksell, 1937.

Old Norse

The Old Norse terms tafl ‘board game’, tafla ‘game piece’ tafl-borð, húnn ‘bear cub, child; mast top; dice’, hnefi ‘fist, king in tavl’


In  Modern Icelandic húnn can mean ‘knob’. That’s what the pieces in archaeological finds look like.

The word húnn has also been borrowed into Fench (hune), where it means ‘top’, the platform at the upper end of each (lower) mast.

There is a riddle in Hervarar Saga, which involves húnn. Here is Christoper Tolkien’s translation (p. 39 nr. 59, footnote, Appendix D, p. 88-9):
I presume the riddle is a play with the several meanings of húnn. The riddle has three meanings and the answer is a fourth one.
1) Hvat er þat dýra er drepr fé manna [bear cub]
2) ok er járni kringt útan; [masthead]
3) horn hefir átta, en hofuð ekki, ok rennr sem han má? [a die]
4) Answer: a piece for the game of hnefatafl.
It is unlikely that the riddle could be used to support the hypothesis that dice were used in the game.
I presume that the iron that the riddle mentions are the húnspænir which are fastened to the mast with hoops or nails. No such thing has been found by archaeologists, though.

It is probably that húnn more exactly referses to a halyard sheave box. In Eastern Åland the square sails were common until the 1840s. About 50 cm below the mast head there was a thicker part called humla ‘bumble bee’ (håmblå in dialect).  It had a hole for the halyard sheave. The shrouds ended in eyes that were threaded over the mast top and rested on the thicker part. No metal. (Törnroos ‘Båtar och båtbyggeri i Ålands östra skärgård’ 1968). Modern halyard sheave boxes may have bronze fittings. The humla can be said to resemble in shape this playing piece from Orkney:

In March 2015 the Finnish Broadcasting Company showed a Danish video it had acquired in 2006, about the reconstructed Viking ship Havhingsten fra Glendalough. The programme, presented by Anja Philip, was unusually informative and showed the halyard sheave box in both the scale model and the reconstructed ship. It’s form and function was the same as in Brändö, but it was built around the mast. No metal.

Links to speculation about húnn and húnspænir:


In Old English the name of the game was tæfl. The board was bred.

Sweet: The student’s dictionary of Anglo-Saxon

The Oxford English Dictionary has tavel, tavelbred and the surname Tavelmaker, last attested in the 13th century. The same words occur in the Middle English dictionary. These can also refer to other board games. The word hnefi ‘clenched fist’ has been attested in Scotland and Northern England up to the present day. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the entry nieve (rhymes with sieve). Samuel Johnson had the form neaf, neaves.

Useful sites:

Latin morphological analyser

Old Norse study tool

Kintel, Anders: Julevsáme-dárro báhkogirjje

Omniglot: Lule Sami