The Icelandic Woman Behind the Lewis Chessman
During a seminar at the National Museum of Scotland claims were made that the iconic Lewis Chessmen could have been made in Iceland by a priest’s wife.
These chessmen have fascinated historians and scholars since they were found in Uig in Lewis in 1831. But fresh claims challenge some long-held beliefs about the pieces.
The most commonly held view on the origin of the 93 pieces, primarily made from walrus tusks, is that they were made in Norway in the 12th or 13th century and were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland.
The new theory has been put forward by Icelandic chess fans Einar Einarsson and Gudmundur Thórarinsson, who was the chairman of the organising committee of the famous world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972.
They argue that at the time of the creation of the Lewis Chessmen – around 1150-1200 – it is likely that no nation except Iceland had connected chess with bishops or the church.
They say the word “bishop” for a chess piece is used in only two languages, Icelandic and English. In most other languages, including Norwegian, this piece is known as a “runner”.
Other pieces of evidence include the chess knights being mounted on horses that seem Icelandic in both size and head shape and the rooks resembling berserkers (an Icelandic word for a soldier wearing a shirt made of bearskin) who figure prominently in contemporary Icelandic writings but not in written works in Norway at the time.
Mr Thórarinsson says historic writings refer to Bishop Páll in Iceland sending carved gifts made from tusks. These were made by Margrét 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 Páll of Skálholt and carved by Margrét 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”.
The British Museum presently holds 82 of the chess pieces and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has the other 11.
Yesterday the Icelandic theory was not ruled out by experts.
A spokeswoman for the British Museum said: “The British Museum states that the Lewis Chessmen were probably made in Norway, but the theory that they were produced in Iceland is certainly a possibility.
“The background of the Lewis Chessmen is open to debate and the British Museum is pleased that they still generate such interest.”
Dr David Caldwell from the National Museums Scotland, added: “As the Lewis Chessmen are such remarkable and fascinating objects, there are naturally a lot of theories surrounding them.
“I am pleased that our own research and our extremely popular exhibition ‘The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked’ is reigniting debate and discussion.
“Although the origin of the chessmen can never be certain, we would support the present evidence and research that they came from Norway, as there is less evidence for an Icelandic connection.’Tagged