Olli Salmi

1.12.2013 [updated 14.10.2014]


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 in them. I started translating the Latin rules and dug up the copy of the rules which I had taken earlier andcheck all teh volumes of the Skytte editions..

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 paper is mainly an imaginative interpretation. In contrast Cartier’s translation looks accurate. Ashton’s 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.

Aage Nielsen's hnefatafl forum has discussion on tablut rules and this translation. It seems that the balance is very good although the two sides have a different number of pieces. This is not the case with other versions.

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 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 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”. Cartier translates “alio aliquo” as “in the procedure”.
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]’
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 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.
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.

Cartier’s interpretation that one cannot jump over the citadel and that the king cannot return to it is possible but not necessary, especially the latter. After all, what is a citadel if not a place of refuge?

If corners are used as escape points, rule 14 applies to them.

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 repetition of a situation illegal. I think in a friendly game one side would give in to avoid more repetitions.

Linnaeus says nothing about the colour of the pieces.


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.


In the Lule Saami dictionary by Olavi Korhonen (1979) I found 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 (dugu 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. 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 is quite clearly what the Saami text and the entry in Grundstöm’s dictionary do not say. 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, which has no 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.
HUM Kielet Fdaa Lap
 Saatavana, HUM Signumin kirjasto.

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.
HUM Kielet Fda Pir
 Saatavana, HUM Signumin kirjasto.

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 Tolkiens translation (s. 39 nr. 59):
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 nailed to the mast.

Links to descriptions of 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.

Useful sites:

Latin morphological analyser

Old Norse study tool

Kintel, Anders: Julevsáme-dárro báhkogirjje

Omniglot: Lule Sami